It is thrilling to see Fanny Cornforth in the news this week. You may remember that recently, #WombatFriday was devoted to the mystery of Fanny Cornforth in honor of Kirsty Stonell Walker’s blog post that shed light on Fanny’s final years. For those of us that follow Pre-Raphaelite news closely, this was this first published account of where Fanny ended up and what happened to her. Kirsty followed her post with a moving visit to Fanny’s grave.
The Guardian ran a story on the discovery of Fanny’s demise, which has been picked up by several news agencies. If you are interested in Fanny, I highly recommend Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. To date, it is the only full length biography to have been published about Fanny’s life. Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
by Jan Marsh (not affiliated with this site) is another excellent read. In fact, it is the book that I first recommend when anyone asks about the women involved with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is a detailed overview and incredibly interesting.
The earliest accounts of Fanny by historians were for the most part unfavorable. She was depicted as crude, uneducated, and immoral. When we write about the women in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s life, it is easy to pit them against each other as if they were fictional characters. They are seen only in relation to Rossetti and we have to be very careful to not treat them as props we use to tell his tale. Fanny Cornforth, Elizabeth Siddal, and Jane Morris were all complex individuals that lived in a time when women rarely had their own accomplishments outside of hearth and home. And it is true that without Rossetti, we would probably never have known their names. But they are not tropes, although they are often treated as such, which is partly the inspiration for my post Lizzie Siddal, laying the ghost to rest. They each deserve to have their stories told objectively and honestly and not merely as a series of anecdotes, such as Fanny spitting nutshells in an attempt to meet Rossetti. Did it happen? Maybe. Is it the most interesting thing about her? Absolutely not.