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Portrait of the Artist in Love

`Pre-Raphaelites in Love', by Gaye Daly. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 418 pp. $24.95. ``Pre-Raphaelites in Love'' isn't the first book to chronicle the lives and loves of the extraordinary English Victorian artists Dante Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris. The traumas and dramas of their tussles with convention has proved as intriguing to us as their art. Although American author Gay Daly came to the Pre-Raphaelites through their art, her book is no more than marginally about that art as such. But it is about the women in these artists' lives, and they, as lovers, wives, and models, were central ingredients of their art, the idealized beauties of their dreams on the one hand, and necessary tools of the artist's trade on the other.

What Daly has produced is a compellingly readable book that tries to imagine what life must have been like for these women. Both the men and the women (except for the illiterate ones) were inexhaustible letter-writers. Daly has pieced together convincing portraits of women who were sometimes as remarkable as the artists themselves and almost always more sympathetic to the modern reader as characters. And even if some were shallow or crude types, Daly has at least contrived to make them convincingly three-dimensional.

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The result is an indictment of the motives, egoism, and, perhaps above all, the plain confusion in the minds of the highly ambitious Victorian men in these women's lives. The women were in the main much clearer about what they wanted - society then didn't allow them many options. They wanted marriage. They wanted it for security, convention, and love. Some of them had to put up with an astonishing amount of waiting or disappointment, as the men were variously hesitant, indifferent, or faithless.

One of the most interesting, Rossetti's love Elizabeth Siddal, only managed to persuade him to marry her when he was certain she was dying. This wildly irresponsible artist-poet, at turns callous or profoundly affectionate, idealized her as an object of his fantasy, and used her as the raw material of his art. But his horror of family life, his self-absorption, and his relish for the sexual liberty that Victorian values allowed him (but not her) made him reluctant to commit himself to her.

Yet this same Rossetti, in spite of his own money troubles, had eagerly brought her the leisure to develop herself, to escape the drudgery of a barely genteel poverty, because he vigorously believed in and fostered her own ability as a poet and artist.

Daly is, on the whole, fair to the men: She never fails to applaud their flashes of generosity, their capacity (usually when cornered) to be bluntly honest, to be caring, or to give in to the stringent requirements of convention.

When the women got the marriage they had wanted, it wasn't necessarily what they had hoped for at all. Here Daly's modern viewpoint means a frank analysis of the sexual predicaments of Victorian women that cuts through their own often frustrating euphemisms or ignorance. At times she may therefore unwit-tingly distort the way they probably thought about themselves. But she presents fascinating insights all the same.

Daly, in her book's prologue, suggests that some of the romance, some of the tactics of delay, that Victorians practiced as they moved reluctantly or eagerly towards marriage, are still ``embedded in our consciousness'' today, however free from ``the baggage of the Victorian world'' we may consider ourselves. She also feels that this is not a bad thing for us to acknowledge and appreciate. All the same, it's difficult to imagine anyone actually wanting to suffer the agonies and frustrations that the Pre-Raphaelites and their loves so intensely underwent.

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