Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Curl of Copper and Pearl - Kirsty Stonell Walker

Kirsty Stonell Walker (who I will refer to as Kirsty for the rest of this post because it's shorter and friendlier than Stonell Walker) blogs at The Kissed Mouth and I really should have asked her for some sort of biographical blurb to go with this book when I accepted the offer of a copy. Her day job is a historian of the Victorian specialising in the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle, she has also written the first proper biography of one of the brotherhood's more notorious models - Fanny Cornforth.

'A Curl of Copper and Pearl' is a fictionalised account of another Pre - Raphaelite model - Alexa Wilding. Alexa modelled almost exclusively for Rossetti, she features in his finished work more than any of his other models (I'm getting my information mostly from Wikipedia so I'm taking it on trust a bit) and yet there doesn't seem to be a lot of concrete information about her - she clearly avoided the scandals that some of her Pre- Raphaelite sisters managed to embroil themselves in. I dug out a couple of Jan Marsh's books about the Pre-Raphaelite women to see if there was anything about her in there - nothing apart from a quote from Rossetti being unpleasantly dismissive of Alexa. It seems she was valued for the blankness of her expression(and her red hair)

The combination of the familiarity of Alexa's face and the relative mystery of her life make her ideal for fictionalising though I find it curious that I enjoyed this book so much whilst having so many niggles with Jonathan Smith's 'Wilfred and Eileen' . It might help that there's nothing you can really make up about the Pre Raphaelites in general and Rossetti in particular which is stranger or less feasible than the actual truth about their lives and affairs.

Rossetti apparently first saw Alexa (then Alice) Wilding walking down a street, he was so struck with her that he asked her to come and model for him. She agreed but didn't turn up, some weeks later he saw her walking again and this time he persuaded her to come home with him, offering to pay her a weekly retainer for her services.

Kirsty's Alexa is a seamstress living with her butcher uncle and a grandmother in the shadow of St Paul's cathedral and Newgate prison. One thing I really enjoy about a book with an actual artists at it's heart (see also War Paint) is that you can have the images in front of you whilst you read, Kirsty takes it a step further, Alexa's life as a seamstress gives her an intimate knowledge of fabric - she can't help but notice and describe it. I'm one of those people who can't help but touch things - stroke fabrics, pick objects up, smell flowers, taste wines, and curiously this book works along much the same lines as wine tasting does; first you look, then you smell, and finally you taste (she talks about food a lot as well). Because of this I'm right there with her when she's describing a velvet or a silk, there too when she talks about the smell of the butchers that hangs about Alexa, along with the blood ground into her skin from helping out at home, and appreciative of all the loving descriptions of food.

The text has something of the quality of a William Morris pattern about it - lots of colour and detail and that feels appropriate. Alexa emerges as a figure determined to take control of her own life once an opportunity emerges to escape from her origins. Her ambitions are ordinary enough - she's looking for love and security, but the people she's found herself amongst are far from ordinary so she finds herself witnessing infidelity, madness, forgery, lust, theft, and death (as the back blurb has it). There's also that infamous bit of grave robbing and Rossetti's chloral addiction. Throughout it all though she remains something of an outsider, observing the inner circle but not entirely part of it.

For any fans of the Pre Raphaelites or Victorian melodrama in general this should be a must read book. It's also worth remembering that all of the more sensational plot developments are basically based on fact, and there are plenty of colourful details that don't get a mention (including a pet wombat). Generally speaking it's an excellent page turner from someone who really knows their period, and better yet someone who doesn't feel the need to explain how much period detail they know at you (which is a pet hate). Finally, it's a silly thing but every time I see a book cover which uses a Pre Raphaelite image on the cover (and there are plenty of them, especially on older Virago books) I always want the story inside to be about the woman on the cover - maybe because it's so often Jane Morris whose story is reasonably well known anyway - and of course it never is. It's rather a treat to see Alexa on the cover and read about her within, it also seems a fitting testament to her that she's once again sitting as a model for us to weave a story around.

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