The Wayward Muse

Written by Elizabeth Hickey
Review by Ellen Keith

In every era, artists have naturally banded together—the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s, the Rat Pack in the 1960s, and even the Brat Pack in the 1980s. The Wayward Muse looks at the Pre-Raphaelites of the Victorian era and takes a different angle, seeing it through the eyes of one of their wives. She was Jane Burden, and although she fell in love with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she had to settle for marrying his friend William Morris. Born into a poor Oxford family, Jane was discovered by Rossetti at a play, and he appealed to her venal mother by paying Jane to pose for him in a mural he and his friends Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were painting.

Hickey meticulously recreates this community of artists, down to their pecking order: Rossetti is king of the roost, while poor Morris is teased and called Topsy. Still, Morris wins the girl because Rossetti is engaged to frail Elizabeth Siddal. And yet, it is inevitable that Jane and Rossetti should be drawn to each other again. What follows is the story of their love affair, with Morris an unhappy yet complicit bystander. He even removes himself to Iceland so Jane and Rossetti may keep house together for a summer.

The interaction between the Pre-Raphaelites—their work together, their relationships as friends and fellow artists—is much more interesting than the relationship between Jane and Rossetti. The inevitability of that affair means that there is no tension: Morris was always second best.