Questions and Topics for Discussions
1. Early in the book, Lizzie is described as being tall and thin, with “unlucky” red hair. Her looks are described as odd or striking, but never pretty in the conventional sense. The young artists who paint her, however, see her quite differently – as a great beauty. What do you think it was about Lizzie’s looks that made her an attractive model to the Pre-Raphaelites? How did Lizzie’s own perception of her beauty change, and how did this change affect her personality? What about later in the book, after her illness?
2. At the beginning of the book, Lizzie is accosted by a drunkman on Blackfriars’ Bridge, before Rossetti chases him away. How does this scene foreshadow other parts of the novel, such as her relationship with Rossetti, and her illness from sitting in a cold bath when she models for John Millais? How does Lizzie’s character and social position make her vulnerable in these situations?
3. Many people point out the differences in Lizzie and Rossetti’s social standing – she is a working class shop girl, while he is an art student at the Royal Academy from a literary family. But in many ways their positions aren’t so different – both must work for their living, and both came from families where education is valued but money was tight. Do you think that these similarities helped or hurt their chances for success as a couple?
4. In many respects, Rossetti lives a bohemian life. He rejects the conventions of the Royal Academy, lives and works out of a studio in a dingy part of London, and is happy to associate with both high and low society. But in other respects he can be much more conventional in his views. What problems does this cause in his relationship with Lizzie? What forces act on him to bring out his more conservative tendencies?
5. When Rossetti first sees Lizzie, he thinks of Beatrice, the muse of the poet Dante Alighieri. Rossetti often paints Lizzie as Beatrice, and he comes to identify Lizzie very heavily with the saintly, silent Beatrice, who embodied virtue and died young. How does Rossetti’s idolization of Lizzie as a muse threaten their romance? In what ways does Lizzie try to live up Rossetti’s ideals?
6. Although Rossetti seems to love Lizzie, he often puts his work as an artist first. How does Rossetti use his art to rationalize his mistreatment of Lizzie? Do you think that great artists are ever justified in using or mistreating the people around them in pursuit of the greater purpose of making art?
7. Why do you think Lizzie agrees to sit for Rossetti without a chaperone, and to engage in other behaviors that put her reputation at risk? How does she justify her behavior to herself, and to the people around her who are concerned?
8. Lizzie first becomes ill after sitting too long in a cold tub while modeling for John Millais’s portrait of Ophelia, but as her illness drags on, her doctors begin to think that many of her symptoms could be caused by stress, not eating, and the use of laudanum. To what extent do you think Lizzie’s ill health is caused by her relationship with Rossetti, and how does she use her illness to manipulate him?
9. Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti’s friend and fellow artist, wrote in his diary about Lizzie and Rossetti: “She is a stunner and no mistake. Rossetti once me that, when he first saw her, he felt his destiny was defined. Why does he not marry her?” Why do you think Rossetti puts off his marriage to Lizzie until it is almost too late?
10. John Ruskin is convinced that if Lizzie and Rossetti marry and settle down to a more regular life, they will be able to produce more and better art. Do you agree? If Lizzie and Rossetti’s baby had lived, do you think it could have saved their marriage, and Lizzie’s life?