The Rossettis in Wonderland

I have just written a review of The Rossettis in Wonderland: A Victorian Family History by Dinah Roe (Haus Publishing, 2011). I won’t write too much here as I don’t want to pre-empt my review (which will appear in the Autumn issue of The Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society) but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and thought I would mention it on my blog. I am pretty familiar with the Rossetti family, having completed my Ph.D. on Christina Rossetti’s poetry (soon to appear in book form – watch this space!) However, Roe’s book offers a different kind of biography – one which draws on a wide range of sources and thus tells even the reader familiar with the subject some new things. I don’t even know where her information about what Uncle John Polidori said in a seance came from, for example, but I’m pleased to find out! (He was ‘not exactly’ enjoying the afterlife, as I recall). There is also a wealth of contextual information, which makes the book more informative and enjoyable.

Roe writes engagingly, with an eye for the kind of details, tragic, entertaining and everyday, which make biography an enjoyable art form. For example:

‘Things at Tudor House were taking a decidedly Gothic turn. Animals in Gabriel’s menagerie were turning sinister, like something out of his sister’s Goblin Market. The raven bit the head off the barn owl; the deerhound ripped up a servant’s dog; cats ate the rabbit … When the hedgehog turned up dead, Gabriel suspected foul play by the servants.’ (p. 244)

Without jumping to conclusions, as some other biographers have done (particularly about Christina’s love life), Roe presents us with the facts, combined with contextual detail and also sympathetically drawing on the painting and writing of the Rossetti siblings, including the frequently-neglected William and Maria. If you’re interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, whatever your knowledge of them, this is the book to read.

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