The Diaries of William Allingham

If you’re interested in studying the Victorian era seriously, then diaries and letters are important.  At times I feel like a 21st-century snoop, devouring personal journals and private correspondence whenever I get the chance.  Through contemporary accounts, the past may not always come alive but it shines through the mist more clearly.  The diaries of Irish poet William Allingham are a perfect example of such a conjuring trick.  A lover of the written word, he pursued friendships with many of the most creative people of the 19th-century and through his diary he gives us a unique glimpse into members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and more.  Spanning the years between 1824 and 1889, his contemporary account is both fascinating and useful. His lengthy passages are compelling, but quite often there are entries that are poignant in their brevity: “28 October:  Evening.  Moonlight.  Moliere.”

William Allingham reading. Painted by his wife, artist Helen Allingham. Visit the Helen Allingham Society for more information.

Allingham was an avid reader, like myself and most of you who read this blog.  The frequent mentions of books throughout his diaries are of particular interest to me so I’ve added a list of those books to the end of this post.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I first became interested in Allingham’s diaries roughly fifteen years ago before I started, a website devoted to Pre-Raphaelite model and painter Elizabeth Siddal.  Siddal was one the earliest faces of the Pre-Raphaelites, famous as Millais’ drowned Ophelia and muse to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom she later married.  In some accounts of Siddal’s discovery by the Brotherhood, it was Allingham who introduced her to the young group of artists after he, smitten by one of Siddal’s co-workers, mentioned her to Walter Deverell when he was looking for an appropriate model for his painting Twelfth Night.  In other accounts, including William Holman Hunt’s memoir Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Deverell discovered her himself while visiting the millinery shop with his mother.

I sought out Allingham’s diary for confirmation, only to be disappointed.  He mentions both Siddal and Rossetti, but never alludes to being the one who introduced them.  Does this mean the story was untrue?  While I can not confirm it, neither can I rule it out.  It’s unsubstantiated, but then he never mentions meeting and courting his own wife in the diary either.  Helen Allingham, an artist in her own right, suddenly materializes in the diaries after they are married.  Apparently, both accounts of Siddal’s discovery come to us through hearsay.  The Allingham version can be traced to the 1932 publication of Wife of Rossetti by Violet Hunt, who, according to Jan Marsh’s book Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, heard the tale from Allingham’s widow after the poet was dead.  The Deverell version is related in Holman Hunt’s memoir.  Probably some merged version of both are true.  (I can’t move on without saying that Violet Hunt’s biography is not reliable, gossipy in nature, and shares many unconfirmed anecdotes and flights of fancy. If you are only ever going to read one book about Siddal, don’t let it be that one.)

See The Marriage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal
See The Marriage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal

I didn’t find the answer to my original question in Allingham’s diaries, but I found much more.  I’ve dipped into it piecemeal over the years and re-read it in its entirety a few weeks ago.  He observes with a keen eye, noting down to the smallest detail the men of letters he so admired.  He doesn’t just describe the literati, though, he also shares instances of the less fortunate — a girl convicted of stealing a purse who received a sentence of seven  years’ transportation. “She is removed shrieking violently. It seems a severe sentence.” He records a visit to a poor-house where he meets Tom Read a “crazy man with small sharp black eyes; sometimes keeps a piece of iron on his head to do his brain good; plays on a fiddle, the first and second strings only packthread.” Allingham promises to bring him proper violin strings.

What he chose to write about in his diary reflects his deep love for literature and his admiration and respect for writers.  I get the impression that he didn’t painstakingly record every conversation, but the ones that meant something to him and that he wanted to remember.  Even when he didn’t agree, he shared his friend’s opposing viewpoint with respect.  I find that admirable.  His physical descriptions, too, are interesting.  “Ouida (Louise de la Ramee) in green silk, sinister clever face, hair down, small hands and feet, voice like a carving knife.”  Or  Nathaniel Hawthorne, “features elegant though American”.

Left: Drawing of Coventry Patmore, 1855, by John Brett. Right: Patmore was no stranger to the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1850-1, Millais painted The Woodsman's Daughter, based on Patmore's poem
Left: Drawing of Coventry Patmore, 1855, by John Brett. Right: Patmore was no stranger to the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1850-1, Millais painted The Woodsman’s Daughter, based on Patmore’s poem

In 1849, the year after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed, Allingham made the acquaintance of Coventry Patmore.  Visiting Patmore’s home, Allingham spied a cast of a statuette by Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. It’s interesting to note how detailed Allingham’s description is, not only about the sculpture but about every facet of his visit.  Throughout the journals Allingham captures great writers in their  surroundings, describing their homes and remembering the discussions he has with them and even books he spots on their tables.  It’s this minutia that is captivating.

Two small sitting-rooms with folding door between: front room has engraved portraits of Wordsworth and Faraday over the mantelpiece (‘the two greatest men of our time’), a round table with ten or a dozen books, and plaster cast of statuette of Puck — just alighted on a mushroom and about to push with his toe a bewildered frog  which a snake is on the point of snapping up. You can see that he saves the frog out of fun mostly, and to tease the snake.  He is a sturdy elf, plainly, yet not humanly, masculine.  A very original bit of work, by ‘a young artist named Woolner’. In the back room P’s writing-table at the window, with a few bookshelves beside it.  I notice Coleridge’s ‘Table Talk‘ and ‘Aids to Reflection’, and  Keats’s ‘Remains’. Them we started on a walk northward. Patmore thoroughly agrees with me that artistic form is necessary to poetry.

Puck 1845-7 Thomas Woolner 1825-1892 Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1991
Puck 1845-7 Thomas Woolner 1825-1892 Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1991

Allingham must have written his thoughts about Puck after leaving Patmore’s home, which makes his description even more interesting as it must have been written strictly from memory.

Fanny Cornforth
Fanny Cornforth

A visit to Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1864 gives us a now famous account of model Fanny Cornforth; her dialect makes her a figure of fun and no doubt this embarrassed her. By the way, don’t forget to check out this fundraising effort to provide Fanny’s grave with a memorial.

“Down to Chelsea and find D.G. Rossetti painting Venus Verticorida.  I stay for dinner and we talk about the old P.R.Bs.  Enter Fanny, who says something about W.B. Scott which amuses us.  Scott was a dark hairy man, but after an illness has reappeared quite bald.  Fanny exclaimed, “O my, Mr Scott is changed!  He ain’t got a hye-brow or a hye-lash — not a ‘air on his ‘ead!’  Rossetti laughed immoderately at this, so that poor Fanny, good-humoured as she is, pouted at last–“Well, I know I don’t say it right,” and I hushed him up.”

'Venus Verticordia', Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This is the painting DGR was working on during Allingham's visit. The model for this piece was Alexa Wilding, who appears in may Rossetti works, including The Blessed Damozel.
‘Venus Verticordia’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This is the painting DGR was working on during Allingham’s visit. The model for this piece was Alexa Wilding, who appears in may Rossetti works, including The Blessed Damozel.


Burne-Jones and William Morris (photograph by Frederick Hollyer)
Burne-Jones and William Morris (photograph by Frederick Hollyer)

He  visits the Red House to see William Morris and “his queenly wife crowned with her own black hair”.   He describes William Morris fondly, “I like Morris very much. He is plain-spoken and emphatic, often boisterously, without an atom of irritating manner.” On a visit to Burne-Jones’ studio, Allingham gives us a glimpse of works-in-progress. “Saturday, 28 October.  41 Kensington Square – two studios. ‘Zephyr carrying Psyche’–delightful–precipice, green valley, Love’s curly little castle below. Designs of ‘St. George and Dragon’. Drawings of Heads. Circe (a-doing), she stretching her arm across.”


'Zephyr and Psyche', Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1865)
‘Zephyr and Psyche’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1865)

Two accounts of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron are humorous.  Tennyson is obviously teasing her in the first, and in the second we get a glimpse of how the great poet felt about JMC’s photograph of him and her exasperation at the people who do not want to be photographed.

(November 1865)  Tea:  enter Mrs Cameron (in funny red open-work shawl) with two of her boys. T. appears, and Mrs C. shows a small firework toy called ‘Pharaoh’s Serpents’, a kind of pastile, which, when lighted, twists about in a worm-like shape.  Mrs C. said the were poisonous and forbad us all to touch. T. in defiance put out his hand.

‘Don’t touch ’em!’ shrieked Mrs C ‘You shan’t, Alfred!’ But Alfred did.  ‘Wash your hands then!’  But Alfred wouldn’t, and rubbed his moustache instead, enjoying Mrs C.’s agonies.  Then she said to him: ‘Will you come tomorrow and be photographed?’  He, very emphatically, ‘No.’

Left: Alfred, Lord Tennyson photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. Right: Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron
Left: Alfred, Lord Tennyson photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron.
Right: Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron

(June 1867) Down train comes in Mrs Cameron, queenly in a carriage by herself surrounded by photographs.  We go to Lymington together, she talking all the time, ‘I want to do a large phtograph of Tennyson, and he objects!  Says I make bags under his eyes — and Carlyle refuses to give me a sitting, he says it’s a kind of Inferno!  The greatest men of the age’ (whith strong emphasis), ‘Sir John Herschel, Henry Taylor, Watts, say I have immortalized them — and these other men object!!  What is one to do — Hm?

This is a kind of interrogative interjection she often uses, but seldom waits for a reply.”

Burne-Jones and William Morris (photograph by Frederick Hollyer)
Burne-Jones and William Morris (photograph by Frederick Hollyer)

In 1866, cholera was on the rise.  Allingham invited Burne-Jones and his wife to stay with him in Lymington in the hopes that this would help keep them safe.  Their time together seems idyllic and I enjoy the mentions of both Burne-Jones’ and William Morris’ work:

“Saturday, 18 August.  Ned sketches.  I read aloud Robin Hood and the Monk… Ned does not paint down here (It’s his holiday), and only makes a few pencil sketches.  He occupies himself, when in the mood, with designs for the Big Book of Stories in Verse by Morris, and has done several from Cupid and Psyche; also pilgrims going to Rome and others.  He founds his style in these on old Woodcuts, especially those in Hypnerotomachia, of which he has a fine copy.  His work in general, and that of Morris too, might perhaps be called a kind of New Renaissance. “

Rossetti wrote to Allingham in 1847 saying he wanted to come visit and the artist eventually settled upon procuring his own rooms.  Allingham made a memo in the diary telling himself to “Use him nobly while your guest” and reminds himself to read Rossetti’s Early Italian Poets.  At one point during his stay, Allingham says DGR didn’t make an effort to leave the sofa once all day, he was so engrossed in reading The Mill on the Floss.  I love that Allingham describes him so vividly, sharing both his physical nature and his artistic tastes.

“R. walks very characteristically, with a peculiar lounging gait, often trailing the point of his umbrella on the ground, but still obstinately pushing on and making way, he humming the while with closed teeth, in the intervals of talk, not a tune or anything like one but what sounds like a sotto voce note of defiance to the Universe. Then suddenly he will fling himself down somewhere and refuse to stir an inch further.  His favourite attitude–on his back, one knee raised, hands behind his head.  On a sofa he often, too, curls himself up like a cat.

He very seldom takes particular notice of anything as he goes, and cares nothing about natural history, or science in any form or degree.  It is plain that the the simple, the natural, the naive are merely insipid in his mouth; he must have strong savours, in art, in literature and in life.  Colours, forms, sensations are required to be pungent, mordant.  In poetry he desires spasmodic passion, and emphatic, partly archaic, diction.  He cannot endure Wordsworth.  He sees nothing in Lovelace’s “Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind”.  In foreign poetry, he is drawn to Dante by inheritance (Milton, by the way, he dislikes); in France he is interested by Villon and some others of the old lyric writers, in Germany by nobody.  To Greek literature he seems to owe nothing, nor to Greek art, directly.  In Latin poetry he has turned to one or two things of Catullus for sake of the subjects.  English imaginative literature — Poems and Tales, here lies his pabulum:  Shakespeare, the old Ballads, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Browning, Mrs Browning, Tennyson, Poe being first favourites, and now Swinburne.  Wuthering Heights is a Koh-i-noor among novels, Sidonia the Sorceress ‘a stunner’.  Any writing  that with the least competency assumes an imaginative form, or any criticism on the like, attracts his attention more or less; and he has discovered in obscurity, and in some cases helped to rescue from it, at least in his own circle, various unlucky books; those, for example, of Ebenezer Jones (Studies of Sensation and Event) and Wells, author of Joseph and His Brethren and Stories of Nature.  About these and other matters Rossetti is chivalrously bold in announcing and defending his opinions, and he has the valuable quality of knowing what he likes and sticking to it.  In Painting the Early Italians with their quaintness and strong rich colouring have magnetised him.  In Sculpture he only cares for picturesque and grotesque qualities, and of Architecture as such takes, I think, no notice at all.”


On the surface, Allingham’s experience and my own could not be more different.  But when he shares his innermost passion for the written word, I find unmistakable common ground.  Not necessarily because we agree or disagree about a certain work, but because I instantly relate to that passion and in it, recognize my own. I think most of you will relate to that. In 1858, he shared these thoughts on the work of Robert Browning:

“Too often want a solid basis for R.B.’s brilliant and astounding cleverness.  A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon is solid. How try to account for B.’s twists and turns?  I cannot. He has been and still is very dear to me.  But I can no longer commit myself to his hands in faith and trust.  Neither can I allow the faintest shadow of a suspicion to dwell in my mind that his genius may have a leaven of quackery. Yet, alas! he is not solid–which is a very different thing from prosaic.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as solid as anything in literature; has imaginative coherency and consistency in perfection.  Looking at forms of poetic expression, there is not a single utterance in Shakespeare, or of Dante as far as I know, enigmatic in the same sense as so many of Browning’s are.  If you suspect, and sometimes find out, that riddles presented to you with Sphinxian solemnity have no answers that really fit them, your curiosity is apt to fall towards freezing point, if not below it.  Yet I always end by striking my breast in penitential mood and crying out, ‘O rich mind! wonderful Poet! strange great man!’

One of Allingham’s most consistent friendships was with Thomas Carlyle.  He’s mentioned throughout the diaries repeatedly.  They frequently discussed literature

In 1871:

“8 November, 1871: With Carlyle.  Old Saints.  Shakespeare: C. said with emphasis, “The longer I live, the higher I rate that much-belauded man.” He thought that Shakespeare was much impressed with Christianity; to which I demurred.  He repeated ‘The cloud-capt Towers’, etc., dwelling once more on We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and out little life, is rounded with a sleep.’–He quoted Richter–‘These words created whole volumes within me,” and mused, saying the words again to himself, ‘such stuff as dreams are made of’.
To my mind, I confess this fine dramatic passage seems of no very particular value when separated from its context.
We agree about Scott as a poet, and, on the whole, about Byron–Moore, too.
Spoke of Gray–the Elegy, Letters from the Lakes, and passed to Goldsmith.  At no time did C. show himself so happy and harmonious as when talking on some great literary subject with nothing in it to raise his pugnacity.  The books and writers who charmed his youth–to return to these was to sail into sheltered waters.
C. said ‘Writing is an art.  After I had been at it some time I began to perceive more and more clearly that it is an art.’ “


“Of Browning’s Balaustion, C. said ‘I read it all twice through, and found out the meaning of it.  Browning most ingeniously twists up the English language into riddles–“There! there is some meaning in this–can you make it out?” I wish he had taken to prose.  Browning has far more ideas than Tennyson, but is not so truthful.  Tennyson means what he says, poor fellow! Browning has a meaning in his twisted sentences, but he does not  really go into anything, or believe much about it.  He accepts conventional values.  “

While reading the diary, I made note of books mentioned by Allingham in order to compile a reading list:
The Waverley Novels
He records which Waverley novels impressed him at the time: Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, The Talisman, then goes on to say in scenes in The Fortunes of Nigel, Quentin Durward, The Fair Maid of Perth, The Pirate, and The Monastery “as vivid as any real experience”.
The Lady of the Lake and Marmion, both by Sir Walter Scott
Laurie Todd, or the Settlers in the Wood John Galt
Brambletye House: Or Cavaliers and Roundheads by Horace Smith
The Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb
Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, Charles Lamb
Johnson’s ‘Poets’
Hierarchy of Blessed Angels, Thomas Heywood
Table Talk and Aids to Reflection, both by Coleridge
Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats
Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, Thoreau
The Raven, Poe
Footnote by Allingham’s wife says that in 1850-53 he read Homer, Plato, Plutarch, Meredith’s Poems, Coleridge, Emerson, Gibbon, Dante, Swedenborg, Byron, Barnes, Bacon’s Essays, she notes, “he read and walked every evening.”
Mr Sludge, “The Medium”, Browning
Newman’s Apologia
Ursula Mirouet, Honore de Balzac
Tennyson’s Maud
Robin Hood and the Monk
Folio of Virgil w/plates (read with Burne-Jones during his stay with W.A.)
Raleigh’s History of the World (also looked at with Burne-Jones)
As You Like It, Shakespeare (Diary entry: “4 May 1867 Sit under Big Oak reading As You Like It– and this might be Jacque’s very brook in Arden.”)
Life and Death of Jason, William Morris (W.A. described it as ‘admirable’.)
May-Day and Other Pieces, given to W.A. from the author,  Emerson
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
The Ring and the Book, Browning
Frederick the Great, written by his friend Thomas Carlyle. (W.A. referred to it as the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ of Carlyleism and said “open it where you, the page is alive.”)
Works of Francis Bacon, edited by Spedding
Jane Eyre
Vanity Fair

1 thought on “The Diaries of William Allingham”

  1. Thanks so much for a wonderful post, so many insights and interesting descriptions. I love the thought of Rossetti curled up on the couch all day like a cat, completely engrossed in “The mill on the floss”!


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