WILLOWWOOD by Elizabeth Savage
Kirkus Star


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This spare, stylish novelization of romantic entanglements in the Pre-Raphaelite Circle--the Rossettis, the Morrises, etc.--fends off the aroma of literary mothballs as long as it stays close to Elizabeth Siddal: ""The Sid,"" the shopgirl ""Blessed Damozel"" who entranced painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti with the massy red-gold of her hair and her Madonna-like visage. Lizzie begins as Gabriel's model but soon is the virgin queen of his scruffy salon--modeling for Millais, enchanting impotent John Ruskin with her own watercolors, and holding out for marriage even though Gabriel's sister Christina objects (Lizzie's no lady) and Gabriel himself objects (he's more carnally attracted to less ethereal types like walnut-cracking Fanny Cornforth and William Morris' dark wife Jane). Lizzie finally gets her way by making herself dangeously ill through starvation and laudanum, but the marriage is a misery of suspicions and recriminations; she is dead of a laudanum overdose within two years, buried together with a manuscript (later disinterred and published) of Gabriel's poems. Savage shrewdly maintains a tone that is slightly ironic, slightly mysterious--no historical-romantic gushing, praise be--but she is ultimately somewhat undone by her need to put everyone in his or her English Lit pigeonhole. Ruskin's domestic disasters mix in nicely, but Swinburne and others seem to be making guest-lecturer appearances. And after Lizzie dies, the book's center drops out, leaving haunted widower Gabriel and faithful doxy Fanny to live out something akin to clichÉ. Still, this is for the most part wise fictionalizing of a very high order, dotted with excerpted verse, colored with unprettified period detail, quickened by Savage's well-informed blend of passion and irreverence.

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 1978
Publisher: Little, Brown