Some historical moments have a soap opera’s ongoing appeal and, as Henrietta Garnett remarks in Wives & Stunners, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group have become ‘modern mythologies’. Each has an interrelated, interacting cast-list, whose tales are told and re-told, in narrative, fictional and filmic form, with embellishments, interpretations and inventions. They attract scholars and bloggers and followers of a ‘Strictly’ kind, who adopt favourites.
With regular bulletins on her wardrobe, the longest section draws on Millais family papers now loaned to Tate Archive to chronicle Effie’s marriage to and escape from Ruskin. The much-debated question of Lizzie’s pre-marital relations with Rossetti ‘can never be established for certain’ and ‘just because family anecdotes are repeated doesn’t make them necessarily true’. Indeed. Henrietta, whose own Bloomsbury ancestry informs her understanding of modern mythology, offers prime acknowledgement to her late uncle Quentin Bell who published A New and Noble School in 1982.
The inimitable footnotes, ranging from a protest that custard powder failed to ignite revolution to conversations with Diana Holman Hunt about the famous PRB coffee-pot being thrown out with rubbish, add sparkle to this latest version of the ever-popular legend.