Image: 1928 Edition of Reflections on Rossetti by Hall Caine, published by Cassell.
Something slightly different for tonight. I recently finished this beautiful book, of course titled Reflections on Rossetti published by his close friend and longtime admirer, Hall Caine. I finished this book on Monday and there’s still many aspects of it and Rossetti’s life that have been playing on my mind. So, I thought I’d try and not necessarily put together a traditional review post but more of a combination of my thoughts and, well, musings on this perfectly poignant memoir. I’m reluctant to call it a review purely because I feel as if I can’t quite put into words the nature of this beautiful book, but I definitely figure I should give it a go!
Hall Caine begins his story with an Author’s note stipulating that – “on the recent occasion of Rossetti’s centenary, many evil things were published about him and about the friends of his later years. I am, and have been, the last of Rossetti’s friends surviving, all others claiming that name being no more than friendly acquaintances.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti found the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 alongside William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Now, I’ve longtime been fascinated and intrigued (one might even say low-key obsessed!) with The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and so I was completely excited to have stumbled across this beautiful book recently at an Antique Bookstore in town a couple of weeks ago. I would finally be able to learn about the brilliant man that was Dante Gabriel Rossetti!
Now, I used to read quite a large amount of Non Fiction, some great but some really not. I’ve often thought that some non fiction can be completely overwhelming to read, with the Author or Contributor potentially not putting too much into how they’re presenting the story, whereas some that I’ve read has been nothing short of spectacular, making one feel as if they’re having an intimate chat with the Author over a cup of tea (or coffee!) as they regale one through their story!
Consequently, I found Hall Caine’s memoir of his dearest friend to most definitely fall into the category of the latter. For me, it was near impossible not to be instantly moved by the rich, evocative tone which the Writer speaks of Rossetti and how grateful one another were for the others friendship too. After informing the reader that nasty things were spread about Rossetti and his Contemporaries, Hall Caine details how he felt compelled to put right everything that had been said, obliged to his dearly departed friend to do so. I feel like that just speaks volumes in itself of Caine’s adoration for his friend and given that he mentions the poet dies in his arms, so you know you’re in for an utter tear jerker of a story…
I’ll continue by saying that Hall Caine met Rossetti in the latter’s later life, so he wasn’t exactly the fresh faced Artist and Poet that perhaps the majority of us will instantly think of when we picture the Founder of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood! However, regardless of how late Hall Caine and Dante Gabriel Rossetti found themselves crossing paths, firstly by the exchange of letters and then with Caine becoming Rossetti’s housemate, their instant fondness for one another being clear cut from their first exchange of letters.
Hall Caine doesn’t write with any bias towards his friend and hero though, I found. Nor does he provide an immaculate recount of Dante Gabriel’s life before they came to know one another. However, Caine doesn’t shy away from holding back about the grief that struck Rossetti after he lost is beloved Lizzie Siddal, who became increasingly reliant on laudanum (she’d had a history of illnesses and had often been sickly and frail, but her health was naturally even more compromised by the drug she used so much, coupled with the depression she felt after giving birth to her and Dante Gabriel’s stillborn daughter!).
For me, it’s completely felt throughout the utter devastation and grief that Rossetti felt throughout his life, having lost his beautiful, brilliant wife and Muse (yes, I know Dante Gabriel had many a muse aside from lovely Lizzie, but I dare you to find one that held more of an emotional significance than Lizzie Siddal, who he’d penned many a poem for, devoted his words to this woman who he shared a whirlwind romance with, who he grieved so heavily for).
In Recollections of Rossetti, Caine recalls a perfectly heartbreaking scene of Lizzie’s funeral, detailing how his friend (though again, this was before they’d met!), wandered over to his late wife’s coffin and whispered to her some poetry that he created for her, choosing to bury with her a collection of bound poems that he’d penned for her (Rossetti was quoted to have said: “I have often been writing at these poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go”). After reading the recollection about Dante Gabriel’s heart wrenching gesture, I was pivoted into a slight state of sadness, finding myself being unable to stop thinking about their relationship and Lizzie’s tragic death and Rossetti’s misery that followed.
Misery that was completely reawakened and despair found anew when after originally declining the idea of having Lizzie’s coffin exhumed to unearth the poetry manuscripts he so lovingly composed for her. Through Hall Caine detailing his friends grief for Lizzie, I found myself thinking more about their relationship and how Lizzie’s death affected Rossetti’s life and own death, with Dante Gabriel being reliant on choral hydrate due to an increasing morbid mental state that he was in!
Walking readers through the darker turns in Rossetti’s life, Hall Caine doesn’t use an inch of loyal, friendly bias when talking about his friend. He does however write with such a wonderful emotion throughout, so I was definitely moved at most points throughout this book. Often when I’m reading a book that I’m really enjoying for the first time, I’ll completely procrastinate finishing it because nothing is quite like reading a book for the very first time, right? Given the eloquence and absolute fondness that Hall Caine wrote his Recollections of Rossetti with
What did strike me as surprising though was learning that close figures of Rossetti’s younger years weren’t always close to the Artist and Poet in his later life! I was slightly saddened and definitely shocked to read this, because I always thought of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a figure who would’ve been celebrated by his adoring friends (and often in his bright eyed and bushy tailed days, he absolutely was, it’s just unfortunate that this wasn’t always the case, I guess). However, Hall Caine does fondly detail the relationship and closeness of Dante Gabriel and his beloved brother William and I could completely picture the cosy, intimate scenes where Caine would write about Rossetti reciting poetry that William would’ve heard many a time over, but chose to still listen out of fondness, loyalty and love for his brother.
This was just such a wonderfully poignant and often tug at your heartstrings tale of friendship and filled with anecdotes of his life living with Rossetti, chronicling the Poet and Artist’s final days, with dwindling health and darker demons often wearing Caine’s friend thin. Reading Hall Caine’s perceptions of Rossetti’s friends and family was quite interesting too. After reading this book I really did think Hall Caine was one who knew Rossetti best from their lovely friendship that they had. Something which also struck me as interesting (and I’ve had a really interesting chat with a friend of mine who runs an Instagram account Here devoted to Rossetti and Pre Raphaelite Art) about how Rossetti wasn’t to be buried alongside Lizzie Siddal, who haunted Rossetti so much throughout his later life too.
I feel very fortunate to have discovered this absolute precious gem of a book and really am excited to read more books relating to not only Dante Gabriel Rossetti and The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, but also learning more about Lizzie Siddal too. I’ve found myself pondering her life and the tragedy that it was, with her losing her baby (twice, tragically) and just thinking about her and Rossetti quite a lot lately, so I’m excited to immerse myself more in their art! I completely recommend Pre Raphaelite Art and Rossetti enthusiasts seek out this beautiful book!