Monday, October 8, 2012

Fanny the Stunning Stunner

First a caveat on this entry: Kirsty Walker is an amazing lady.  And she's also a dear friend.  So know that this book review is, by its nature, biased by these facts.  However, the reason why Kirsty and I met in the first place was because of her passionate enthusiasm for the Pre-Raphaelites, and her dynamite wit and writing ability.


Author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Walker recently released a second edition to her book, Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth.  Fanny, one of the great female influences and inspriations in artist Rossetti's life, has often been marginalized in biographies and studies of him.  Dismissed as a sassy harlot or a greedy groper, poor Fanny's story was never really properly researched until Kirsty came along and wondered what the truth was behind all the legends and stories. 

I've read both the first and second editions of this book, and while I greatly enjoyed the first edition, it's truly fascinating to see the new research and information presented in the second edition.  Also Kirsty includes a few extra visuals that add punch to the text, including the beautiful new cover.

But the real gem of this biography is Kirsty's unique authorial voice.  She has a wonderful blog in which she explores art analysis in general and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, and she often adds her delightfully mischievous wit to her posts.  The charm behind that wit is evident in Stunner, as she takes the reader along on a journey to discover Fanny's background, her motivations, her ultimate fate.  Kirsty never sacrifices research integrity for her own personal bias toward her subject.  Even when she has to write about behavior in Fanny Cornforth that may be admittedly a poor reflection on her, she does so with honesty.  She explains possible reasons in Fanny's character and/or upbringing that might have led her to what she has done.  In the end, we see Fanny as a Stunner whose largest "fault" in the eyes of Rossetti's contemporaries, and by extension his later biographers, was that she was more real and down-to-earth than Rossetti's other enigmatic ivory tower muses. 

My favorite part of the book, and also the most heartwrenching, was Kirsty's description of Rossetti's passing.  No matter what you may think of Fanny...whether you side with the early biographers who portray her as a greedy gus, or with Kirsty who sees her as ultimately well-intentioned and a survivor, you have to admit that she was a huge part of Rossetti's life.  The way she was treated upon his passing is truly a tragedy.

I highly recommend this book, in case you can't tell, and thought it was the best thing a biographer's work can ever be: a fascinating and emotional journey through the exploration of a remarkable woman's life.

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