I have just finished watching the 2009 BBC 2 series Desperate Romantics, which is streaming for free on Pluto these days. Ten years down the line, I imagine the statute of limitations on spoilers is probably passed, but if you haven’t watched this yet, I’m letting you know that I’m going to talk about plot points from the end of the series.
Desperate Romantics is a fun (it is customary to say “racy”) modern-paced, boy band version of art history. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the swaggering front man of the band. He gets all the attention and the women. John Everett Millais is “the cute one.” He’s the guy who can play six instruments well, can learn any instrument he picks up, he writes the tunes that bring the band to the attention of the hot critic of the moment. (Also he wears a fantastic purple coat.) William Holman Hunt is the drummer. They call him “Maniac.” Finally there is Fred. He’s the guy who loves music and musicians, and decides to be the manager.
As in any good VH-1 Behind the Music, we follow the band from its beginning as a brotherhood of struggling artists. Then life experiences and varying levels of success pulls them apart. At the end Millais is trying to get the band back together again but it seems the reunion tour is just not going to come together.
All three of the artists have amorous adventures with women that came into their lives as model/muses. Poor, loyal, Fred–the only one who is not paired up in the series– is the first to spot the aesthetically perfect milliner Lizzie Siddal. All of the artists fight for the chance to paint her, and Millais has the first success. But she is drawn to the bad boy Rossetti, who promises to bring her into the world of artists by teaching her to paint.
The drama centers more on love making than the art making. The only painting that is really dwelt upon is Millais’ Ophelia. It is used as a foreshadowing device, and Lizzie Siddal by the end of the tale, becomes Ophelia, driven mad by love of an inconstant man. This Ophelia drowns herself in laudanum.
Each episode begins with a disclaimer that historical liberties have been taken. Not knowing a great deal about the historical figures, my commentary will focus on how they were interpreted as television characters.
Millais is the marrying kind. He is serious and stable and blissful in his family life. Hunt is driven by an internal conflict between a religious desire to renounce the flesh and his lust for a woman of low birth. Rossetti is a selfish womanizer whose brief marriage to his co-muse is depicted as disastrous. The a-historical Fred is mostly there to narrate it all.
The passionate relationship between Rossetti and Siddal gets the most screen time and attention. Siddal is drawn to Rossetti because of his talent and because he can usher her into a new world. She has artistic ambitions of her own, and he helps her to realize them, in spite of his own occasional jealousy at her success as he struggles.
She worries that he will never marry her and give her security. His inability to commit is chalked up to his enjoying the chase and only wanting what he can’t have. Yet, after Siddal almost dies from an overdose, Rossetti reluctantly marries his great love. Rather than being happy ever after, it is the beginning of the end. For Siddal’s artistic mentor John Ruskin stops giving her financial support and tutoring after she is a married woman, and Rossetti is already flirting with his next model at the wedding. The distraught Siddal takes her own life.
Rossetti is crushed and vows to change his ways. He throws a book of poems that he wrote into her grave. In the last scene, however, he digs the grave up in order to retrieve them.
Thus the problem is cast as Rossetti, and by extension, Hunt, valuing art over relationships. The drama seems to come down firmly on the side of relationships over art. These men could not really love, and that is a tragedy.
In our culture, we tend to attribute characters’ actions to innate personality and character and we give much less weight to societal and external factors. Was Rossetti broken emotionally and Millais healthy or could there be another explanation for the successes and failures of their relationships?
All of the members of the brotherhood prioritized creating art. Rossetti had less commercial success. To prioritize art, for him, meant financial struggle and irregular income. (He is squatting in someone’s atrium for most of the story.) Millais had early, and continuing, commercial success. This allowed him to prioritize art while making the kind of comfortable living that would allow him to raise 13 children with the help of various servants. If Millais were squatting and only getting the occasional commission he might be as reluctant to marry as Rossetti. If Rossetti were rich he might have bought a palace for his muse, and even if he did have affairs, it might not have threatened her entire sense of safety.
It strikes me that while we do tend to chalk male character’s actions up to “character” we make more allowance for the effect of social forces on female characters. We’re quite ready to see female characters as being acted upon, in spite of their best efforts. Although Lizzie Siddal is a strong character, with talent and ambition in her own right, she is thwarted time and again by social forces. When she marries she becomes, in society’s eyes, a wife, and loses her external financial support for her art. Yet, she is not married to a man who can give her the traditional role of wife. He is reluctant to have children. He is powerless to support her career. He is not even able to stay focused on her when he finds a new muse model.
After her death the brotherhood sits with Rossetti and discusses the tragedy of his character, his inability to love what he can have. We’re not invited to question Siddal’s love for Rossetti. Does she also prioritize art over love? Is she attracted to Rossetti because she believes the only way to realize her art is to attach herself to this man?
Whether Siddal actually took her own life, or whether it was a tragic accident, has been much debated. The official report was accident, but Siddal as Ophelia is a much better story.
Watching this series got me to musing on what artistic period we’re living in today, and that will be the subject of a future post.