Young PRB: A Novel of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Written by Elisabeth M. Lee
Review by Steve Donoghue

The wave of revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848 had a mirroring social movement in England when a group of young art students at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Art banded together against what they saw as the staid visual conventions of the day. These young men – William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – form the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and set about revolutionizing the 19th century art world, all the while helping each other through crises of family and finance, facing the confusion and outright opposition of the art critics and intelligentsia of the day. On its face it seems unlikely seed-grounds for a dramatic historical novel, but through sharp pacing and some extremely sensitive character study, Lee pulls it off. Her awkward, immensely talented young artists are all dramatically drawn and expertly differentiated, and her midcentury London is so vividly drawn that readers will feel like they’re seeing and hearing the chaotic world in which these men strive and laugh and seek to establish their careers. Lee’s book also brings alive the famous Pre-Raphaelite works Hunt et al created; her readers will never look at those works the same way again. Highly recommended.