Off topic as usual but this book sample in the Guardian by Kathryn Hughes was interesting. I especially liked the discussion of Rossetti and Fanny Cornforth’s mouth. It was the way she spoke and the food she “ett” rather than her looks that were her downfall. Class bigotry, like racism, performed some form of societal control and dis-empowerment of which this is only one example.
Cornforth was not simply Rossetti’s favourite model of the early 1860s. She was also his on-off domestic partner for a quarter of a century. Her mouth – not so much its shape but what she did with it – marks her distance and difference from the other two, far more celebrated, mistress/models in Rossetti’s life. These were Siddal (to whom Rossetti was briefly married) and Jane Morris (the wife of his friend and business partner William Morris). Like Siddal and Morris, Cornforth came from a working-class background. Unlike them, though, she never bothered to change the way she spoke in order to fit with the pre-Raphaelites’ middle class mores (the young men may have been bohemians but that didn’t stop them being snobs). So while Siddal and Morris worked hard to eradicate their original dialects (London and Oxford respectively) and struck observers as remarkably uncommunicative, garrulous Cornforth chattered 19 to the dozen in her rural mid-Sussex burr. “I know I don’t say it right,” she shrugged when Rossetti’s friends sniggered at her tendency to mangle aspirates, past participles and even plurals.
Then there was the question of food, or rather appetite. Siddal and Morris kept themselves rigorously thin, to the point where they might today be described as anorexic. Disciplining your flesh was necessary to have a hope of fitting into the “aesthetic” dress that the PRB preferred their women to wear – loose, floating gowns with minimal underpinnings that looked as though they belonged in a medieval fresco. Cornforth, by contrast, loved food, preferred the cheerful vulgarity of contemporary fashion and relied on a corset and cage crinoline to squeeze herself into the required shape. A rare photograph taken when she was not yet 30 shows her with her chest puffed out, waist bitten in, and a huge sticking-out skirt that resembles a galleon in full sail. By this time Rossetti was regularly referring to her in her hearing as “the Lumpses”. She was also his “Elephant” – a play on both her name (EleFANt) and her bulky shape.
While Rossetti’s friends registered Cornforth’s “sumptuous” beauty, that didn’t mean they were willing to acknowledge this vulgar woman with her unruly mouth as a significant part of the artist’s life. The moment he died in 1882, at the age of 53, Cornforth was cast out of what remained of the pre-Raphaelite circle and all but excised from its biographical records. She ended her days in the county asylum in her native Sussex, where the medical casebook records that, now an old lady, she is “incoherent & talks incessantly”, but also loves her food. And as for the mouth that was once described as “so awfully lovely” yet perversely indecent too, the asylum authorities say that it is now devoid of teeth apart from a few decaying stumps over which upper and lower dentures are insecurely hooked. What’s more, the authorities note in a final terse observation before rearing back in disgust, Cornforth’s tongue is furred and her breath foul. Sad perhaps, but irrelevant surely not. For it is here, in the smells, blots and gurgles of the body’s physical life that some of the most revealing biographical stories about the Victorians turn out to reside.