The Wayward Muse
With these words, the scandalous, wildly talented painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti changes seventeen-year-old Jane Burden's life forever. Jane's gaunt, awkward figure and grave expression have cemented her reputation as the ugliest girl in Oxford. Raised by a stableman on Holywell Street -- the town's most sordid and despicable slum -- Jane is nearly resigned to marry in-kind. But when she meets Rossetti at the theater, he sees beyond her worn, ill-fitting dress and unruly hair and is stirred by her unconventional beauty. The charismatic painter whisks Jane into Oxford's exclusive art scene as his muse, and during the long and intimate hours of modeling -- draping and tilting, gazing and posing -- Jane finds herself falling in love.
When Rossetti abruptly leaves Oxford with no plans to return, brokenhearted Jane settles for a stable, if passionless, marriage to his soft-spoken protégé, William Morris -- the man who would go on to become the father of the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Jane resigns herself to life as a respectable wife and mother, exchanging the slop bucket for intricate needlepoint, willing away the memories of Rossetti and what could have been.
But Rossetti and Jane are inextricably bound together by tragedy, art, and desire, and no amount of time or distance can separate them. Ultimately this complicated arrangement with which Jane, Morris, and Rossetti must learn to live threatens to undo them all. Richly textured and deftly portrayed, Elizabeth Hickey's latest is a compelling portrait of the ever-changing notions of both love and beauty.
Reading Group Guide
Jane Burden is a plain girl, with unremarkable looks and a destitute upbringing. She lives in a run-down house next to the public toilets in the slums of Oxford, England, a daily reminder her that her existence is nothing more than waste and filth. Jane's abusive mother rules the house with an iron fist, and her father and brother spend all of their time and the little money they earn at the local pub. But when a band of carousing artists arrive in town to paint the interior of the Oxford Debating Hall, they discover in Jane a beauty she never knew she possessed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leader of the group, is so taken with Jane's gray, somber eyes, her slender frame, and her dark hair, that he falls immediately in love with her and insists that she sit as the model for his painting of Guinevere. Jane, swept up by Rossetti's attentions and affections, falls for him in turn, and they commence a secretive and passionate affair. When Rossetti disappears without explanation, however, Jane is crushed. In his absence, Rossetti's friend, William Morris, remains in Oxford, and asks Jane to continue modeling for him. Though his talent and passion cannot compare to Rossetti's, Morris is a polite and thoughtful man, and he gradually wins Jane over by his steadfastness. But Jane hangs on to the memory of Rossetti, and when at last the artists and the lovers are reunited, old flames and frien see more