I became interested in reading this book after the BBC TV series of the same name several years ago (no, I don’t only chose my books by TV and films, however much it may have seemed that way recently). I admit I know very little about art, and was more interested in it for the history perspective. Moyle set herself quite some challenge when she decided to try and write a book that would encompass the lives of so many different people, and sometimes it became quite confused and disjointed because of this. However, I see the value of looking at their lives together because of the impact they had on the course of each other’s lives, and can’t really think of a way to make this work without some flaws in the design. This made for an interesting read, but if you want a more in-depth knowledge of any of the characters I would recommend reading a book specifically about them, and perhaps using this one for some context, or indeed as a starting point to get you interested.
The story itself is complex and passionate, one of those times when reality is more sensational than fiction. The artists and their models led lives of scandal, betrayal, and often, it seems, madness. Reading this sometimes read like reading what’s going to happen in the next few episodes of EastEnders, or similar (though I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism of Moyle’s writing, which was in fact descriptive, informative, and entertaining). Most of the main players in this book had tumultuous lives, often ending in tragedy. The women often seemed to get a rough deal, but that’s not to say they were entirely innocent. Some seemed victims of the bohemian lifestyle, combined with having to live in the more constrained world of Victorian England in general, others come across as almost sly, and cunning; they knew what they wanted, and how to use their situation to the best result. It also became clear that many of the women who feature in the lives of the pre-Raphaelites suffered being ostracised, and became victims of many harmful beliefs in high society. It was not just the women that suffered this, of course, the artists themselves had many ups and downs in their careers due to lifestyle choices, as well as controversial styles of painting.
I learnt not just about their lives, but also about what society was like, what expectations were like. It never ceases to amuse me how different certain career choices were seen, then compared to now. To be a model, or an actress, was seen as almost on the same level as being a prostitute, or at least, the association was there, whereas nowadays these careers are held in such high esteem. A fact which interested me, which I didn’t know before reading this is that in the nineteenth century brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law were not allowed to marry, even if the original spouse had passed away, as this was considered incestuous, despite there being no actual blood relation. Is this still the case I wonder, I assume not but I wouldn’t know. I also felt I learnt a fair amount about art, and symbolism throughout. If you actually know about such things I’m sure it would seem negligible, but to someone with very little knowledge of it I appreciated the highly unpretentious approach to it, and also the references to how pre-Raphaelite work influenced literature of the time.