Re-blogged from my monthly contribution to the Authors Electric blog
My maternal grandfather was a civil servant at the Treasury, but his hobbies (possibly ‘real self’) were Astronomy and Pottery. Evidence suggests he was rather good at both — but here we’re concerned with pottery, taking place at Putney School of Art, around World War 1. Here he made friends with a number of artists, one of whom was the elderly William Shakespeare Burton, who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style and occasionally had paintings displayed at the Royal Academy. My mother’s sister was named Violet Christina, after one of Burton’s daughters, and rumour added that the latter’s godmother had been Christina Rossetti…
This, and another piece of family history (wait for that one), drew my eye to Sarah Moss’s novel Bodies of Light, featuring fictional artist and designer Alfred Moberly, working in the mid-19th century, and influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
The novel opens to the world of industrial Manchester in the 1870s. Alfred Moberly is about to marry Elizabeth Sanderson. What draws these two young people together? Alfred Moberly, artist and designer of elegant wallpaper and furniture, and Elizabeth Sanderson, committed to the rescue of poor and abused women? Contrast the male artists’ world with what we could call ‘the real world’ of women — poverty, hard work, and short, bitter lives. Particularly those left without income and forced into prostitution — not only the mothers but the teenage daughters. Alfred’s painting featuring his fiancée sets the scene: he considers the idea of using Elizabeth as the model for an Annunciation, but this then morphs into a portrait, as the angel Gabriel is removed.
Whatever basis this marriage has, it produces two children: the older daughter destined for a miserable childhood, victim of her mother’s feelings of loss of self and purpose on producing a child. Clearly this is postnatal depression, which, contextualised into a Victorian set of moral values combined with a fear of moral weakness, sets Elizabeth on a path of self-pity, blaming “baby” for her plight, and as far as possible ignoring the child’s needs. As she pushes the pram obsessively around the streets of Manchester, ignoring the crying of the baby, a ragged woman, obviously a victim of domestic abuse, looks inside and exclaims, “Poor baby!”
It is a sad encounter: “Nobody says, poor Elizabeth, tired and thirsty and bored beyond despair,” thinks Elizabeth. Mired in exhaustion and depression, she cannot act Lady Bountiful, her accustomed presentation of self, giving her the only power she can have.
Later in the book there’s a brilliant description of Alfred changing and dressing the ignored baby. Followed closely by his (supposed) adultery, contrasted with Elizabeth bringing home fifteen-year-old Jenny, forced into prostitution and abused, apparently to be cared for and to remain as their ‘maid of all work’. Elizabeth shows kindness of a sort, day in day out, dutifully, but without compassion. If inspired by a belief in God and religious duty, then respectability and ‘knowing your place’ has sadly prevailed over inclusiveness, compassion, and acceptance — which indeed it has. A home is a house, not a home.
From this conflict of mid-Victorian values — the public practice of politeness, self-restraint and middle-class elegance, dependent on exploitation of the industrial poor — Sarah Moss has constructed a captivating book. She often chooses fashions in dress or furnishings, or little incidents, to highlight the contrasts, giving a believable picture of life in mid to late Victorian England, with its empire and successful, growing industrialisation supporting the newly well-off and comfortable middle class, who embrace “consumerism” and respectability. While conveniently ignoring those who have moved to the cities through necessity and whose support is necessary for their lifestyle. And as Alfred employs his creative talents on Pre-Raphaelite inspired waterlily —or intertwined roses — wallpaper, his two daughters attend an early girls’ school, delightfully described. Here the “poor baby” — Alethea, known as Ally — discovers how she might please her mother. She acquiesces in her mother’s ambition, and having been introduced at an early age to the suffering of ‘rescued’ women, and indeed women in general, she applies her considerable intellect and application to a prestigious career, aiming to qualify in a new area for women and become a doctor.
We follow Ally into medical studies in London, where she lodges with her Aunt Mary (Elizabeth’s sister) and begins at last to find the unbelievable: a happy, supportive home, and friends. The “poor baby” begins to learn that self-respect, and the love of others, is normal. Through various encounters with patients, we see a capable young woman, putting behind her the wounds inflicted by her mother’s tongue and regime.
Where her father was — despite the rule of patriarchy at the time — is significant: there’s far more in the book than space to tell here, but Alfred continues with art and design, and with his inability to mitigate his wife’s treatment of their older daughter. This uselessness speaks volumes about the Pre-Raphaelite mentality — those pale knights and even paler, emaciated, red-haired ladies with the pouting lips: decadence, dalliance, dilatoriness. Indeed, faerie, or fey. It would take the power of determined, intelligent women to break it… We see the very first stirrings, perhaps, in some of Ally’s supporters in her studies — women like Miss Johnson, her head teacher at school, Mrs Lewis, married to one of the academic doctors, Dr. Garrett Anderson (a real person), who combined her career with raising a family. Even Aunt Mary, and Ally’s fellow student Annie’s mother, at least unshocked by their boisterous children.
Back to family history, book-ended by Pre-Raphaelite connections. As a child I knew my father’s father was half Greek. What I didn’t know was that his mother, Maria Sakilariou, had been, before her marriage, lady’s maid to Euphrosyne Cassavetti, the wealthy widow of Greek/Italian merchant Dimitrius Cassavetti, and mother of artist Maria Zambaco. Maria Z, back home after fleeing a broken marriage, was introduced by her mother to Edward Burne-Jones, one of many artists who attended her salons. He and Zambaco, who was both his model and his pupil, began a passionate affair. This was just around the time my great-grandmother was employed by the Cassavettis: she must have been privy to the whole thing. Euphrosyne obviously kept up with her ex-personal maid, for daughter Maria and son Alexander were witnesses at my great-grandparents’ wedding. Their three children, Dimitrius, Alexander (my grandfather) and Euphrosyne (my Great Aunt “Effie”), were all named after various Cassavettis, and baptised Greek Orthodox. Several Cassavettis were Godparents, along with Euphrosyne Spartali (mother of another Pre-Raphaelite artist, Maria Spartali Stillman, who with Maria Zambaco was one of a group known as the ‘Three Graces’).
How interesting… I wonder if my two grandfathers knew or discussed all this? Alexander and Euphrosyne must’ve known the Cassavettis quite well, and heard stories of those salons, and the visiting painters, from their mother.
How much I’d love to know more. And how I admired the gaudy, sentimental, Pre-Raphaelite paintings as a child, and look so differently at them today. There is something very Pre-Raphaelite about that novel.
*Photos, Victorian studio studies, from my own family collection. ‘Woman’s fashion’ modelled by Ellen Reeve Barnett, another Great-Grandmother.
Wallpaper, 20th century reproduction, from May Morris, 1883