Reviews of Rosalind

Rosalind: Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine – Transgender Triumph

‘Few authors simultaneously capture the zeitgeist of the moment and confront the universal wish for immortality. But, taking a fictional character – Shakespeare’s “mercurial, mischievous” heroine, Rosalind – as her beguiling subject, Angela Thirlwell, in her latest biography, achieves this.’ The Jewish Chronicle, May 20th 2016

‘Thirlwell has always been inventive…this is rather more than a biography. The character of Rosalind remains at the book’s centre, but Thirlwell’s horizons expand into an ambitious exploration of Elizabethan England, sexual politics and the history of theatre, art and film.
Her passion for the topic is clear from the rich detail she weaves into every page.
…A chapter on Rosalind’s cross-dressing is (a) highlight, with delightful glimpses into Elizabethan life.
…Most entertaining of all are the many anecdotes about actors and directors who have taken on As You Like It…With injections of playfulness, there is little risk of the book veering towards academic impenetrability.
…Thirlwell uses Rosalind as a lens to train upon her wider interests, and lowers it completely when she feels like it. After all, innovative biography is what Thirlwell does best.’  Daily Telegraph, 23rd April 2016

‘[H]ighly ingenious…strength and originality of Thirlwell’s book…she has read adventurously…’ Times Literary Supplement, 22nd April 2016


Reviews of Into the Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown

The Victorian Art of Love

Frances Spalding, The Independent, 26 February 2010

‘This beautifully written, emotionally intelligent and finely detailed account of Ford Madox Brown and the four women who shaped and gave meaning to his life…Angela Thirlwell has already published a life of William Rossetti and his wife, Lucy, Brown’s daughter. She is thoroughly at home in the second half of the 19th century and, in particular, with the web of complicated feelings that bound the Brown and Rossetti families together…what impresses is how richly informative is this history of individual lives, about the period as a whole, its culture and material existence.’

Private Passions
Frances Wilson, The Sunday Times, February 14, 2010

An affectionate look at the love life of the hopelessly romantic Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown

The title of this book makes Ford Madox Brown sound racier than he actually was: two of his four loves were his wives and two were unconsummated crushes. Unlike other Pre-Raphaelite painters who traded their exhausted models and mistresses like stamps, Madox Brown valued imagination and independence in a woman above a good head of hair. In matters of love, Angela Thirlwell demonstrates, he was romantic, unconventional and repeatedly disappointed. He also showed remarkably good taste.

He was 19 when he married Elisabeth Bromley, in 1841. Elisabeth was also his cousin, and Thirlwell suggests that she took on the roles of his mother and sister as well (both had just died of consumption). It was, Thirlwell says, “a marriage of true partners and contemporaries”. Elisabeth was pious and Madox Brown was not, but he leant on her, listened to her, and painted her, until she, too, died of consumption five years later.

After two years of grieving, “a girl as loves me came in and disturbed me”, Madox Brown wrote in his diary. This was Emma Hill, a working-class “stunner” the opposite of Elisabeth in every way. Robust, fun-loving and unconventional, she bore him a daughter before they married in 1853. With Emma, “the most beautiful duck in existence”, Madox Brown embraced the life of the bohemian artist. She, however, hit the bottle: a housekeeping ledger of the 1860s and 1870s shows that her bill for wine and spirits was three times greater than any bill paid to the butcher or baker.

While we know a little about Elisabeth from a notebook that contains her religious thoughts and some poems, we have nothing left of Emma, apart from the alcohol consumption and her face. She modelled for the emigrating wife in The Last of England, Madox Brown’s greatest picture, and it is Emma standing with their daughter in The Pretty Baa-Lambs. With little material to go on, Thirlwell paints her own striking portrait of Emma, who comes across as an unusual and unhappy woman.
Twenty years into his second marriage, Madox Brown fell for Marie Spartali, a cultured Anglo-Greek heiress who came to him for lessons. A gifted and ambitious artist, she was as much of a reaction to Emma as Emma had been to Elisabeth. Six feet tall, cerebral, and as lovely as a lily, even in her seventies Marie would rise, George Bernard Shaw later said, “like a delicate spire above a skyline of city chimney pots”. Madox Brown, who was 5ft 7in, liked an intelligent woman, and he expressed his secret love for Marie in a series of sonnets with titles such as Mute Worship. When she married a bore called James Stillman — “a toothless commonplace everyday nonentity” — Madox Brown went into decline. The marriage between “the Lankies”, as Rossetti called the couple, was not a success because, Thirlwell says, “Stillman had no emotional understanding of what a mutual marriage could be.” He belittled Marie’s art and patronised her views, things Madox Brown would never do.
The exit of Marie in 1871 heralds the entry of the unstoppable Mathilde Blind, at which point Madox Brown’s life, and the book, change gear. Mathilde was raised in Germany by an overbearing revolutionary stepfather who knew Karl Marx; her brother shot himself after failing to assassinate Bismark. In her own first attempt at revolt, Mathilde was expelled from school for atheism. A feminist, journalist, critic, poet, translator, novelist and biographer, she was a fabulously beautiful wild card (and most likely a lesbian) who shared with Madox Brown an interest in radical politics. She lived as a friend with the artist and his wife on and off for 20 years, until Emma’s death in 1890. Because none of their letters survives we cannot know the true nature of the relationship between Mathilde and Madox Brown; Thirlwell concludes that it “was probably not physical in the full sense”, but contained “a special erotic charge”. But had Mathilde felt any physical passion for Madox Brown, she seems the type to have expressed it.

Mathilde is not only the most interesting of Madox Brown’s loves, she was also probably the most interesting woman in London at that time. Thirlwell has ­written a moving and absorbing book about Victorian marriage, ambition and unrequited love, but the “wayward” Mathilde pushes the other three women out of the frame.


Serena Davies, Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2010

‘Humane and intelligent book… an up-close, colourfully detailed study of the interweaving lives and passions of a small group of sophisticated Victorians’


Trevor Royle, Herald

‘Angela Thirlwell is entirely comfortable in the world inhabited by the Pre-Raphaelites, and her earlier study of William Rossetti deserved the plaudits heaped on it. Now she has turned to Ford Madox Brown and once again has proved to be an able scholar who turns meticulous research into a seamless narrative…. An excellent account, lovingly narrated and wise in its judgements.’


Life Beyond the Canvas
The Spectator, 27 February 2010

The description of the swirling, febrile emotional temperature surrounding the ménage consisting of Brown and Emma, and their close friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, . . . is drawn concisely and yet with great feeling.

When Thirlwell engages with Brown’s work, too, there are many pleasures; her history of his masterpiece, ‘The Last of England’, is a fine interweaving of biography and art history.


The Economist, 11 March 2010

‘Angela Thirlwell’s “Into the Frame”, a carefully researched and sympathetic biography of Brown and the four women he loved [makes] a valuable contribution to the growing literature about women who have figured in the lives of prominent men. Not that these women were in anyone’s shade….A heroic stoicism emerges from these lives….Ms Thirlwell weaves the stories of Marie and Mathilde…each carrying a huge emotional and intellectual charge…Ms Thirlwell writes with great thoughtfulness and insight.’


David Waller, History Today

‘David Starkey once declared that, if you are writing the history of Europe before ‘the past five minutes’, you are inevitably going to focus on ‘dead white males’. Thus he ruled out more than half of humanity as a fitting subject for serious historical inquiry…As Angela Thirlwell demonstrates in Into the Frame, her engaging study of the four loves of the Victorian artist Ford Madox Brown, there is a more subtle approach, which is to examine the forgotten lives of women who lived adjacent to indisputably great men. As her title suggests, her aim is to place such women into the frame of history, when hitherto they have been hidden in the shadows…Into the Frame sheds light on the life of Madox Brown and the domestic inspiration for some of the great public images of the 19th century. It also provides a rich and rewarding perspective on more than a century of social and cultural history as refracted through the lives of four fascinating women.’


Henrietta Garnett, Literary Review, August 2010

‘There are many ways of writing biography and Angela Thirlwell has chosen an interesting approach. Into the Frame tells the stories of four very different women whose only point in common was their predilection for the Victorian painter, Ford Madox Brown…Thirlwell is so gifted at spinning a yarn [that she delivers] an absorbing account…the ménage à trois in Manchester – Brown painting the murals for the Town Hall, Emma prostrate in bed where she secreted her empty gin bottles, and Mathilde [Blind] ruling the roost – makes moving and unexpectedly comic reading. Into the Frame is an engaging book and a valuable contribution to Pre-Raphaelite studies.’


Frances Wilson, Sunday Times / Pick of the Paperbacks, February 13, 2011

‘The Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown was romantic and unconventional. He was 19 when he married Elisabeth Bromley in 1841. After her death, he married a working-class “stunner” Emma, who modelled for the wife in his painting The Last of Enlgand, and it is Emma, holding their daughter in The Pretty Baa Lambs. Twenty years into this union, Madox Brown fell for Marie Spartali, a cultured heiress who, in turn, was followed by Mathilde Blinde, a beautiful radical. Thirlwell has written an absorbing book about Victorian marriage, ambition and unrequited love.’


Catherine Pope, Victorianist and Small Publisher

The arrival of [Mathilde] Blind in the story brings with it a superb evocation of the political turmoil of 1840s Europe, and a deliciously acerbic portrait of Karl Marx.

Ford Madox Brown emerges from this study as a complex and beguiling man. Thirlwell’s oblique approach of exploring him through the women in his life is both refreshing and accomplished. Madox Brown’s relationships with these four figures were complicated and turbulent, but he treated them all with kindness and loyalty. The historical context is impeccable, providing a succinct but satisfying sense of contemporary events. As a art specialist, Thirlwell is particularly captivating when describing Madox Brown’s work, leaving me with a desperate urge to view his paintings (now dispersed among various galleries).
Into the Frame is an enchanting blend of art history and biography, set against an expertly-drawn backdrop of nineteenth-century struggles – struggles that were also played out in Madox Brown’s own life.

Reviews of William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis

Front Row and Mail on Sunday, December 2004

On BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, 8 December 2004, Kathryn Hughes recommended William and Lucy as one of her favourite biographies of 2004. She said the author ‘goes right into the story from the very beginning – it’s brilliant’. She also chose it as one of her two best biographies for Christmas reading in The Mail on Sunday, 12 December 2004, praising its experimental structure as ‘a delicious slice of social and cultural life in the second half of the 19th century’.


Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, 3 January 2004

Keepers of the Flame‘What makes Angela Thirlwell’s book so exceptionally interesting is the way it challenges the orthodox – and by now rather worn – biographical template…Thirlwell offers instead a series of soundings or, to use her phrase, “spots of experience” in William’s and Lucy’s lives. Thus there are discrete sections on William as a Victorian salary man; Lucy’s edgy relationship with her saintly sister-in-law Christina; William as art critic; Lucy as dying swan.

It is a testament to Thirlwell’s skill as a planner and grace as a writer that the narrative pulse of The Other Rossettis never weakens. Indeed, by side-stepping the requirement to plod day-by-day through her subjects’ lives, she manages to avoid much of that quotidian detail that can make reading biography such a slog. As a result, what might have been a so-what story about two Victorians with famous relatives becomes a wonderfully illuminating study of a whole slice of 19th-century cultural, social and intellectual life.’


A Pre-Raphaelite Pairing
Frances Wilson, Sunday Telegraph, 19 October 2003

This study of William and Lucy Rossetti shows that biographies need not begin at the beginning…

‘Angela Thirlwell’s splendid Life of William and Lucy breaks the mould of biography. While traditional biography leans on the 19th-century novel for the narrative shape it gives to the lives of its subjects (the birth of the hero, his steady rise to greatness, his death and its aftermath), Angela Thirlwell has … arrang[ed] her dual portrait in themes…

This structure…”is intended to build up an impression of both lives by increments, rather than subscribing to the biographic fallacy that a Life, or in this case, two Lives, with all their fragmentary atoms of experience, can be artificially re-created as a fiction-like narrative, with significant structure, major turning-points and recurring patterns.”

Various other biographers, notably Richard Ellmann in Yeats: The Man and the Mask, have done something similar, but none with quite the success of Thirlwell.

…With photographs and paintings reproduced on nearly every page (the book takes us) into an absorbing visual realm of Victorian photography and Pre-Raphaelite painting.

One of the tensions between Lucy and William Rossetti was that while he believed in the importance of art criticism as a means of understanding the historical and the literary life, “words for her could not explain the mystery of art”. Thirlwell, like William, sees pictures as telling a story and interprets much of their marriage, indeed much of their lives, through her selection of pictures.

Thirlwell is a biographer who has thought about her art; she is particularly strong on the tangle of unconscious identifications and tensions between biographer and biographee. William and Lucy each wrote biographies, William of – among others – Shelley, and Lucy of the poet’s novelist wife, Mary. While “Shelley was an aristocrat who thought like a radical; William was a sober civil servant who thought like an anarchist”.

William and Lucy’s own biographer has now made of their lives a challenging, unusual, and beautifully produced book.’


The Forgotten Force Behind the Pre-Raphaelites

Lucasta Miller, Daily Telegraph, 18 October 2003

‘Like the Brontës and the Bloomsbury group, the Rossettis are one of those creative constellations which exert an irresistible magnetism. Until now, studies of the family have focused on Christina, the pious, contemplative poet, and the bohemian artist Dante Gabriel…As this new book proves, [William] … was quite as extraordinary a character.

…in his spare time, [William] was the driving force behind, and chronicler of, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood … one of those amazing, energetic Victorians who found time to run several careers in parallel…

In addition to his civil service day job, William continued to exercise his talent for drawing – a stunning pencil sketch of Christina, both delicate and monumental, is among the illustrations here. In literature, he produced an avant-garde “realist” narrative poem about a real-life murder case which was much admired by Swinburne. Later, he wrote a life of Shelley, ahead of its time in its openness about sexual irregularities, and a translation of Dante’s Inferno, remarkable for its direct simplicity. But it was as the country’s foremost art critic that he developed most reputation…

William was uncompromisingly unconventional in outlook. His lack of religious belief marked him out from society and from the female members of his family. Interestingly, this agnosticism was shared by his wife Lucy, the joint subject of this biography, and a significant character in her own right. The daughter of the painter Ford Madox Brown, Lucy had been brought up in an artistic mileu and grew up an abrasive, intellectual character. As a young woman, she made an alluring impression, decked out in floppy aesthetic frocks, ethnic jewellery and – shockingly – make-up. Trained in her father’s studio, she was a serious painter who produced a number of pictures on literary themes in the medieval Pre-Raphaelite style, good enough to be exhibited alongside those of better-known artists… Motherhood and illness – she battled for years with the tuberculosis that eventually killed her – prevented her from truly fulfilling her promise, but it is a testimony to William’s feminism that he explicitly regretted this. If the stress of Lucy’s illness took its toll on their marriage – in later years she sublimated her need for uncomplicated devotion in an obsessional friendship with a young gay poet – it is hardly surprising.

One of the joys of this biography, which is based on original research, is to be found in its illustrations. Photographs – from a gorgeous Julia Margaret Cameron portrait of William in aesthetic mode, to an intriguing image of Christina lounging in a polka-dotted dress – offer fascinating glimpses into past lives. But it is equally intriguing to see Lucy’s artistic oeuvre, previously unacknowledged except by a few scholars…[which] show her negotiating her subjects from a specifically female perspective – a study from The Tempest, for example, puts Miranda very much in the dominant role in her chess game with Ferdinand.

Angela Thirlwell is admirably sensitive to the theoretical problems involved in writing biography…[her] account of William and Lucy manages to convince as a human portrait.’


Dream Reading
SG, The Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Autumn 2003

“Angela Thirlwell’s account of [William’s] passionate marriage to the painter Lucy Madox Brown…provides a new perspective on an enlightened and politically radical Victorian couple. Thirlwell’s unusual biography… prove[s] that these ‘other Rossettis’ were both ‘of their times and ahead of them’.”


Rupert Christiansen, The Literary Review, November 2003

‘…her study of these two vivid and engaging people is meticulously researched and magnificently illustrated…the picture which gradually and unemphatically emerges from its quiet, lucid pages is evocatively detailed and absorbing.

William and Lucy were ‘both sharply illuminating alternative spirits of their age…as Thirlwell’s excellent book makes clear…’


The Friday Book – Victorians with a Modern Dimension
Frances Spalding, The Independent, 7 November 2003

‘Angela Thirlwell, in this original and engaging study, uncovers William’s story…

“Victorians with a modern dimension”, Thirlwell describes them. Her portrait of Lucy is as intense and delicately inflected as a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Thirlwell presents these lives in an unusual way. She focuses on “spots of experience”, on particular relationships or areas of activity….

Thirlwell’s book…is a remarkable achievement, impeccably researched. What makes it additionally attractive are the illustrations which infiltrate the text. These include Lucy’s little-known work and many hitherto unpublished drawings and photographs.”


Debra N. Mancoff, The National Art Collections Fund Quarterly, Winter 2003

‘In William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis, Angela Thirlwell employs meticulous assembly and sensitive analysis of archival sources to transcend the now banal genre of the Pre-Raphaelite marriage tale. In recounting the long-neglected ‘alliance of two major Pre-Raphaelite families, the Madox Browns and the Rossettis’, Thirlwell offers fresh insight into life within the Pre-Raphaelite circle. As the brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William is best remembered as the Pre-Raphaelite scribe. Thirlwell presents a lively portrait of an innovative critic, an early champion of women painters and Japanese art, who served on the jury of the first Venice Biennale (1895), all the while rising through the ranks of the Inland Revenue. She devotes similar attention to Lucy’s life as a working artist, far beyond the powerful influence of her father Ford. But it is the seemingly mundane details of the lives of these ‘atypical Victorians’ – as well as those of friends and family – that offer enlightenment. Drawing upon an extensive array of primary sources, Thirlwell constructs a vivid and vital world….the book provides such a wealth of insight and ideas – as well as a superb and surprising collection of illustrations – that the reader’s reward is a genuine acquaintance with these two fascinating people and their equally fascinating family and friends.’


Nineteenth-century art – Personalities with principles
Charlotte Gere, The Art Newspaper, No.143, January 2004 Book Review

‘[William fully repays the attention paid to him, a man with ideas and traits of character that are quite distinct from his siblings.

The term pre-Raphaelite is much abused, often attached to artists with no claims to it at all; but William Michael was actually a founding member of the Brotherhood…Lucy Madox Brown, William’s wife, was a daughter of the close associate of the pre-Raphaelite Brothers, Dante Gabriel’s intimate friend, Ford Madox Brown. Much of the real story of those brief pre-Raphaelite days emerges from this interesting book. Lucy herself was a painter with a reasonably promising career at the time of her marriage aged 30 – one great bonus of this volume is to have all her surviving works rounded up and reproduced in colour…However, the focus is on the marriage of William and Lucy, and the detail is reserved for their deeply touching relationship, a contrast with Gabriel’s marital shenanigans. The author has chosen an unconventional approach, inspired, as she points out by Lytton Strachey: the image of the biographer lowering a “little bucket” into the narrative depths of the subject’s experience is his. This is a serious and substantial work, drawing on wide-ranging archival sources for its previously unpublished information…The book ranges through conventional biography, social, cultural and medical history…there is no question that this double biography fills a gap – many gaps – in the story of the Rossetti family and the artistic environment in which their achievements flourished.’


Judith Bronkhurst, The Burlington Magazine

‘One of the great strengths of this double biography of William Michael Rossetti and his artist wife, Lucy, daughter of Ford Madox Brown, is the amount of hitherto unpublished images the author has tracked down, of and by her protagonists, as well as by their family and friends. For example, the first chapter – which explores the characters of William and Lucy through over thirty portraits ranging from about 1840 to 1913 – reproduces sketches of William by Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes, Millais and Christina Rossetti, together with an important plaster bas-relief of 1869 by John Lucas Tupper.

In 1994 the National Portrait Gallery’s centenary exhibition on Christina Rossetti reunited the portraits made on 12th April 1853 by the Pre-Raphaelites for their fellow PRB Thomas Woolner. No drawing by William Michael was included: indeed, he has long been regarded as the one non-artistic member of the Brotherhood. However, his brother Dante Gabriel recorded than on that occasion, ‘William did the whole lot of us in his own striking style’. One of William’s sheets, a double-sided portrait of Millais and Holman Hunt, survives in an Australian private collection, and is reproduced here. Thirlwell also illustrates nineteen of his other drawings, ranging from portraits and caricatures to meticulous studies that demonstrate William’s strong commitment to the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of truth to nature. And in a sense he remained a Pre-Raphaelite, committed to this principle in his biographical writings.

The most immediately striking and novel aspect of Thirlwell’s book is its thematic structure, which ‘is intended to build up an impression of both lives by increments’, since biography ‘cannot reanimate dead subjects exactly as they once lived’ (p.1.). The author is as interested in the personalities of William and Lucy as in their achievements, and has been able to present an intimate portrait of their lives and marriage by skilfully marshalling her sources, quoting extensively from the enormous amount of manuscript material which survives thanks to William’s indefatigable record keeping.

William successfully pursued a career at the Board of Inland Revenue. He had joined the Civil Service at the age of fifteen, and the work, which he never found congenial, enabled him to support the entire Rossetti family. While he has long been seen as an enabler, Thirlwell expands our knowledge of this cosmopolitan with radical views, whose prolific output as an art critic and man of letters she relates to his lack of belief in an afterlife…

Lucy is one of the few Victorian women artists to have been accorded an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. In 1889, as a signatory to a declaration in favour of women’s suffrage, she described herself as a ‘historical painter’. This defines most of her exhibited work, but after her marriage in 1874 her short career was submerged by her fierce commitment to the upbringing and education of her five children. She did not give up painting entirely, however, as is demonstrated by the previously unpublished watercolours of Broadstairs and Charmouth, which Thirlwell illustrates in colour.

In 1890 Lucy contributed an article on her father to the Magazine of Art, which defined art as ‘the noble inspirations of genius…that is only handed from artist to artist’. This is revealing in terms of her own artistic output, which has always been seen as deeply indebted to her teacher-father’s example. Thirlwell illustrates a charming copy Lucy made in 1870 of her father’s Jacopo Foscari in Prison…Lucy certainly had an individual voice: two of her exhibited works, the highly accomplished Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess(1871) and Margaret Roper rescuing the head of her father, Sir Thomas More from London Bridge (1873), in their depictions of dominant women, can be seen as feminist statements.’

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