Thursday, August 27, 2009

Desperate Romantics: A Post-Finale Review

In the last episode of the Desperate Romantics miniseries (episode 6), one of the first scenes features the Brotherhood all gathered together in Millais' elegantly decorated new living room. At one point, his sweet and loving wife Effie suggests something, and he agrees with her, calling her a sweet pet name. The name? Wombat.

"Use my nickname, will you, Millais?"

It is a small that would probably be glossed over by most viewers. But to me it is emblematic of the strange series that was Desperate Romantics. "Wait, what?" I thought to myself. "Wombat? That was Rossetti's pet...and if anyone should be saying it it's Rossetti, to William Morris, after whom he named his pet." Like many other details in Desperate Romantics, it isn't that things absolutely could never have happened that way, just more that it causes a minor headscratching confusion, and a question of "why?" The show in some ways seems to bob along...kind of like the South Park episode in which manatees take idea balls and randomly select them to create an episode of Family Guy.

Key words: Wombat, Effie, Ruskin, prostitute, sex, Rossetti, sex, Laudanum, Lizzie Siddal, sex, poetry, drinking, sex, and oh yes...we almost forgot...Art.

For this reason, many of us who are obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites and are in the habit of writing about them have absolutely lambasted the series, and I personally know several people who gave up on it alltogether. After all, many of the details that were changed in the series seem to have been changed for absolutely random reasons. Why, for example, was it so much better for Rossetti to meet Jane Morris as a waitress in a coffee shop (and have her selling flowers at the theater where she met William Morris, instead of attending the play itself)? Why did they have Morris and Edward Burne-Jones endear themselves to Rossetti by saving a mural he painted without an undercoat on a church wall, instead of having them all working together on the Oxford hall like really happened? Why have everything happen so speedily, instead of flashing forward in time as they could have easily done? (For instance, Rossetti retrieves his poems...thrown in on top of Lizzie's coffin instead of inside...seemingly the night after she's buried, when the reality of years passing would have added to the drama of the moment.)

The reality of the Pre-Raphaelties' lives were so astounding, why this need for the changes when they are so absolutely unnecessary, and sometimes actually seem less astounding than the real stories? Not to mention the two biggest flaws I found in the program myself...the shoving under the carpet of all implications of pedophilia with Ruskin (Rossetti accuses him of these proclivities in the last episode, and Ruskin instead comes off like a hero in his resulting speech, even though he never outright denies his leanings), and the absolute oafishness with which William Morris is portrayed (truly...he and Burne-Jones could be extras in a Three Stooges episode, and Topsy himself is given a speech impediment that makes him as much comic relief as Elmer Fudd). The latter was by far my biggest disappointment in the series.

However, and this is a big however, I have to admit something: I liked Desperate Romantics. Yes, you heard me...I liked it. Despite its flaws, and they are many, it takes the Pre-Raphaelites and makes their frivolity, their radical thinking, and their fondness for each other despite many hurts and hardships, and updates it for a modern audience to understand. No, Rossetti never squatted in a greenhouse room in someone else's house, and Lizzie never walked around wearing clothes more suited for the 1920s. And there was no such character as Fred, but the painful story arc he undergoes...both loving and admiring Rossetti, and hating him for taking what he most one that plays over and over again among the Brotherhood. William Morris himself I'm sure struggled with such contrary emotions toward Rossetti.

And so, I want to propose two cardinal ways in which the viewer educated in P.R.B. history can acknowledge the radical changes in the tale, and still approach the miniseries with enjoyment as I have.

#1: Desperate Romantics is a three-dimensional retelling of the caricatures the Pre-Raphaelites made of each other, and those made of them by contemporary publications like Punch Magazine. It is not a documentary.

Each character in D.R. is a bit more like their cartoon counterparts, instead of the reality. William Morris was drawn big and bumbling in Rossetti and Burne-Jones' drawings of him, so these are the characteristics that are emphasized in the show. Rossetti was teased for his acumen with the women, so this is what they focus on. Rossetti is the sexy flirty one, Millais is the innocent, "Maniac" Holman-Hunt struggles to reconcile his religious leanings with his lusts. Which brings me to...

#2: Each character in Desperate Romantics is their art.

I mentioned this once before in passing. Pre-Raphaelite art was full of symbolism. In this way, each character in Desperate Romantics is more a symbol of himself than an exact reenactment. The series seems to take a little of each character's personality from historic fact, and a large portion of it from the art they created.

Rossetti created sensual portraits of women (this is not all he painted, but this is what he's best known for), and therefore combining this with the stories of his affairs with Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth, they created the Rossetti character for the miniseries. Millais created exact, intricately detailed and stunningly realistic art, and later moved on to more saccharine shlock art like Bubbles. Therefore the Millais of Desperate Romantics is prim, detail-oriented and tidy, and after his marriage, quite saccharine. (In the end of the series, however, he is clearly the only one who gets a happily ever observation I've also made about the real Millais, and well-shown in the series) Holman-Hunt's two most famous artworks were about Christ and prostitution, respectively, and therefore combining those artworks with the story of his trips to the Holy Land, a character struggling against holy and lustful thoughts was created. Each character is a combination of not only his real life personality, but his art, and in that regard, the critics who say that Desperate Romantics is 97% sex and only 3% art can be at least partially refuted, as each of the Brotherhood in the miniseries is an embodiment of their canvases as well as their historic characters.

So, overall, I have to remind you...if you see Desperate Romantics as a flawed piece of history, you will be discontent with it. Absolutely, the show gets the facts wrong time and time again. But if you see it as a hazy mirror held up to the Brotherhood, and attempting to recreate the mood of these famous Victorian artists, it can be much better enjoyed on its own merit. And hopefully the young admirers of Ophelia, Bocca Baciata, and other such artworks will dig further into the stories behind these remarkable men, and will come across resources detailing their true history as well. Who knows...they might even find it here.

Click all pictures to see larger.
Poor Ned and Topsy, so misrepresented in the miniseries.

William Morris seems to catch Rossetti and Jane in mischief, but in fact only wants to rearrange the furniture. Oh that silly William Morris!

Rose La Touche tells Rossetti exactly what she thinks of him.

Rossetti hard at work on a portrait of Jane Morris

Lizzie, heartbroken both by Rossetti, and by Ruskin's abandonment of her art, steps into the Laudanum bottle more frequently.

Annie Miller pays Holman-Hunt a visit with a proposition, but not the one he is hoping for.

Lizzie and Rossetti's heartbreaking final argument in the streets of London.

He arrives home to find her dead.

And begins to paint her memoriam.

Lizzie, her hair spread out in her coffin.

A really horrendous artist's rendition of Beata Beatrix (whoever did the artwork for the miniseries, I mean, not the original)

A beautiful moment when Rossetti steps back to gaze on the finished Beata Beatrix, and feels Lizzie is there with him.

Rossetti throws his poems in with Lizzie's casket

And apparently Ned and Topsy help him retrieve them later that same night.

The series was supposedly about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but it is truly the Sisterhood who shine brightest. Specifically, the break-out star of the series is by far Lizzie Siddal, portrayed absolutely beautifully and with amazing nuance. A five star performance.

The members of the Sisterhood...

Lizzie SiddalAnnie MillerJane Morris...sadly quite two-dimensional in the series. Why doesn't she ever get her due?

and Fanny Cornforth


Hermes said...

Sorry Grace I hated it. Perhaps if the BBC had made it clear it was a fantasy. They did the same with the even more inaccurate 'Tudors'. Most people will think this is the truth.

Gothic Bohemian said...

I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog a while ago; as usual, it’s a cracking read and has provided much food for thought!

In relation to Desperate Romantics think, in all honestly, the BBC covered their backs at the start of each episode with this statement;

'In the mid- nineteenth century, a group of young men challenged the art establishment of the day.

The ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ were inspired by the real world around them, yet took imaginative license in their art.

This story, based on their lives and loves, follows in that inventive spirit'

Like you there were huge anomalies that irritated me no end – most definitely the relegation of William Morris to that of a bumbling stuttering idiot; the ridiculous country bumpkin accent attributed to the insipid Jane Burden which would have been better suited to someone born in the West Country rather than Oxford, or indeed the distinct lack of accent attributed to Burne Jones, who after all, spent the formative years of his life growing up in Birmingham. Oh yes, and Lizzie’s dodgy wig irritated me beyond measure!

I also agree that the series perhaps tried to cover too much ground in haste; as a result most of the characters lacked any real sense of depth but seemed mere caricatures of themselves, whilst the final episode in particular, felt as though it were rushing to its inevitable – if somewhat warped – conclusion.

All such irritations aside though, I confess I enjoyed Desperate Romantics. If taken in the spirit intended it was a sumptuous feast for the eyes with some wonderful comedic moments thrown in for good measure. I like the way attention was paid to detail, in particular the lighting, which, to my mind, ‘mirrored’ certain aspects of the body of work produced by the Brotherhood. I even adored the bohemian nature of the greenhouse which I’m guessing was a nod towards the garden studio Rossetti shared with Walter Deverell in 1851 from which Lizzie had to be smuggled in and out of?

As for the copious amounts of sex – it was Deverell himself who, somewhat tongue in cheek, put forward the notion that the initials PRB stood for ‘Penis Rather Better.’ If nothing else, it suggests there was a healthy degree of ribaldry taking place if only in thought rather than action!

Stephanie Pina said...

Brilliant review Grace!
I have never had the unique experience of enjoying a show while I hated it. And even as I wrote the previous sentence, I'm conscience of how wishy washy it may seem to be of two minds about the whole thing.
Your suggestion of seeing the program as caricatures actually helped me a great deal and it is a good way to explain it to people who have perhaps only discovered the Pre-Raphaelites through the program.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh Grace, wow. Your knowledge is impressive and I haven't even had a chance to catch up with the series. I am glad however, that you have found some things to salvage from this production, and your intense knowledge certainly helps you be a bit more objective than most. You rock!!!! Come on over to see my silly, amateur theatre production....most definitely not real theatre, but what the heck, I'm amusing myself! Miss you terribly by the way! Anita

Anne said...

I think you're being perhaps more kind to the creators of the miniseries than it deserves (not that that's necessarily a bad thing), since I suspect that a combination of laziness and contempt for the audience played a large part in how the script turned out. On the other hand, I'm excessively cynical, and there were parts of it that I did enjoy.

Where did you find the last two episodes? I haven't been able to find them.

I thought both your ways for watching it were interesting, especially the second one. Did you think the idea of each character being their art worked for Lizzie as well?

Grace said...


To be honest, I don't think they really explored Lizzie's character in that degree. They definitely made it a focus that she did art, but they never really showed much of her work in the program itself. Which is too bad I think :/

Anne said...

That really is too bad, since I think it's fascinating how Gabriel's and Lizzie's artwork seemed to influence each other.

Margaret said...

Lol, I think the toughest thing to stomach about the series were the recreations of Rosetti's work. Honestly, could anything have been worse than that dreadful version of Beata Beatrix? They would have been better off using posters!

Anyway, I actually agree with you, Grace. The story was complete fantasy, and a lot of it was very poorly done, but it was still entertaining, if you could get past all of the inaccuracies (even my husband was a little horrified by their portrayal of Morris and Burne-Jones--honestly, whose idea was that?). Anyway, I just hope that the show inspired people to find out more about the PRB, because it's just sad to think how much misinformation the show spread!

Grace said...

Margaret, sooo true about the reproductions! It's strange too, because the Millais ones were just fine, as were the Hunt, but Rossetti's artworks looked like they were painted by a bunch of (talentless) fifth graders!

Anonymous said...

loved the series, and it was clearly drama and not factual! Hopefully it will inspire people to check out the real prb.

Martin said...

A great blog. I've been a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites for years and, after reading many books about their lives as well as their art, I always thought what a great TV dramatisation or film their sroty would make.

I was therefore delighted to hear about Desperate Romantics but at the end of the series also felt some disappointment that the story hadn't been told correctly. As you say, their lives were interesting enough - they didn't need to make things up.

But like you, I did also enjoy the series. It was great to see the PRB getting some recognition and hopefully it will have made them some new fans. I still think that the real story, such as that told in Gay Daly's Pre-Rephaelites In Love, would make a great film with all the gloss and glamour that Desperate Romantics had.

Grace said...

Thanks, Martin! I totally agree that the series had more potential to be greater than it was. But I'll take what I can get! :D

Jenna garnett said...

Thank you for the blog. I enjoyed reading it. I'm content with the portrayals being caricatures of the art. I think it's appropriate. I enjoyed the series very much.