It seems like whenever I begin to imagine that I have unique, individual, interests and tastes, I am at once brought crashingly down to earth with the discovery that my likes and dislikes are downright predictable. It’s like those lists on Amazon.com “other readers also bought:”, where I’m always irked that I actually AM interested in the books they recommend. But however much I’d love to be one of those independent thinkers with wildly unpredictable tastes, it seems the more wildly different my tastes seem to be, the more they are somehow interconnected.
Take, for example, my interest in Evelyn Waugh. I’ve loved his witty novels for some time, but I only recently discovered that he had a passionate interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. I really was sort of surprised. I would have thought the Pre-Raphaelites far too modern for Waugh, but it seems I was mistaken. In fact, Waugh’s first book was actually a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, entitled Rossetti: His Life and Works.
The book has all the wit of Waugh’s novels and is a delightfully gossip-filled take on Rossetti’s life. Through numerous anecdotes, Waugh paints a portrait of Rossetti as an extremely talented, self-absorbed individual with a great appreciation for beauty, but an even greater capacity for self-pity. I found one aspect of Rossetti’s story particularly telling: all of the writing about Rossetti make it clear that he was an animal lover who amassed great collection of exotic pets. What I did NOT know previously was that most of the creatures Rossetti kept in his menagerie perished almost as soon as they were brought home.
It does not appear that Rossetti lavished any personal affection upon his various pets, except perhaps upon the first of the wombats; he met their frequent deaths and disappearances with fortitude; some indeed died or disappeared almost the moment they were acquired…(Waugh, 117-118).
True to Waugh’s usual form, the female characters in Rossetti’s life get little attention compared to the males that populate his story. Nevertheless, I got the distinct impression that part of the reason they get such short shrift in Rossetti’s biography is that they were genuinely not all that important in his life–more ornamental and muse-like than anything else. In fact, it seems that most of Rossetti’s lovers were not treated much better than his pet wombats. Lizzie Siddal fared particularly badly, having been discovered by Rossetti when she was young and beautiful, only ot be gradually neglected over time.
Of course, despite neglecting Lizzie during her lifetime, Rossetti was inconsolable after Siddal’s death from consumption. During a fit of remorse, be famously interred his poetry with her in her coffin, only to have her dug up again so that he could rescue his writings when his grief had run its course and he had bills to pay.
Never one to miss a chance to judge historical actors, Waugh concludes his little book with a chapter entitled “What is Wrong with Rossetti?” In which he decides that Rossetti’s “problem” was his incurable romanticism.
In Rossetti’s own day, no doubt, not a little of the adulation he aroused came from this romance of decay–a sort of spiritual coprophily characteristic of the age. Even now we are inclined to think of him with melancholy tolerance and to say, “If he had not been improvident and lethargic, how great an artist he might have been,” as we say of the war poets, “If they had not been killed…” But it seems to me that there we have the root cause of Rossetti’s failure. It is not so much that as a man he was a bad man–mere lawless wickedness has frequently been a concomitant of the highest genius–but there was fatally lacking in him that essential rectitude that underlies the serenity of all really great art. The sort of unhappiness that beset him was not the sort of unhappiness that does beset a great artist; all his brooding about magic and suicide are symptomatic not so much of genius as of mediocrity. There is a spiritual inadequacy, a sense of ill-organisation about all that he did.
But if he were merely a psychopathic case and nothing more, there would be no problem and no need for a book about him. The problem is that here and there in his life he seems, without ever feeling it, to have transcended this inadequacy in a fashion that admits no glib explanation. Just as the broken arch at Glastonbury Abbey is, in its ruin, so much more moving that it can ever have been when it stood whole and part of a great building, so Rossetti’s art, at fitful moments, flames into the exquisite beauty of Beata Beatrix. It is the sort of problem that modern aesthetics does not seem capable of coping with. It has been the object of this book to state, though, alas! not to solve, this problem. (Waugh, 226-227)
I really enjoyed this book, which is hardly surprising, since I’m a fan of both Waugh and the Pre-Raphaelites. But I think almost anyone with an interest in Rossetti would really enjoy reading all of the letters and anecdotes that Waugh gathered together. And, while my review focuses on the more depressing aspects of Rossetti’s life, there were many bright points worth mentioning as well. I’ll have to mention those another day!
Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.