Ophelia’s Muse by Rita Cameron

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*** ARC from San Francisco Book Review for honest review ***

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal is working in a milliner’s shop to help support her struggling family when she catches the eye one of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) artists. Convinced to sit for him as an artist’s model, Lizzie quickly becomes the darling of the PRB movement and especially that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the charming and charismatic co-founder of the PRB. Throughout their tumultuous affair, Lizzie struggles with depression, drug addiction, and Rossetti’s infidelity to find her own identity.

Rita Cameron weaves a heart-wrenchingly tragic love story full of rich detail and texture. Through the use of existing paintings, poetry, and letters Ophelia’s Muse imagines the intricate details of lives of several renowned artists of the PRB movement. This is a luxuriously written historical fiction that draws heavily from history as well as the author’s imagination. I both loved and disliked this book for it is a real love story, full of ecstasy and heartbreak.

Lizzie did not fit the mold of the ideal Victorian woman. Her height, slight figure, and pale complexion were not within the fashion of the times. She was also well-read, a bit of a day dreamer, and reserved in her manner. She is concerned for her reputation and the propriety of being an artist’s model as they did not have the best of reputations. However, she is convinced by her employer that sitting for gentlemen painters might introduce her to more polite society and open her prospects for marriage. This might have been true had she not met Rossetti and been drawn into his life.

As a young artist Rossetti imagined himself to be chivalrous and imbued with the ideals of courtly love. His fascination with Dante Alighieri, and Alighieri’s muse Beatrice, bordered on obsession. Upon discovering Lizzie, Rossetti transfers that obsession to her imagining her to be his own Beatrice. He pulls her into his social circle and life to the detriment of Lizzie’s standing in polite society and her mental well-being. Emotionally manipulative, Rossetti strings Lizzie along for years, jealously guarding his artistic muse while exploring his own artistic proclivities elsewhere. “He wanted to savor what they had, and was in no rush to change it. He desired the Lizzie who walked among other women like a goddess, who fed upon nothing more than love and poetry, and demanded nothing more, or less, than worship.”

Lizzie finds herself in a precarious situation. Her unorthodox relationship with Rossetti results in her family disowning her and she is forced to rely on Rossetti, regardless of his resistance to marrying her. She spends years trying to make sense of his feelings for her. “How could she have pinned her hopes on a man who seemed to create his reality to meet his needs as easily, and often, as he created new worlds in his paintings? She would never be sure where she stood with him, what version of her he wanted at any moment-whether he wanted the woman or the muse; the collaborator in his art or merely the silent beauty in his paintings?” It is only when she appears to be upon her deathbed that Rossetti finally marries her.

Reading this book from the perspective of 2015, it is easy to see that Lizzie suffers from depression and drug addiction. Rita Cameron does a wonderful job of not spelling this out for the reader. She describes the emotional rollercoaster Lizzie rides through her entire relationship with Rossetti – her hopes, her dreams, her disappointment – In a way that draws on the reader’s empathy, allowing the reader to make their own judgment and determination. Cameron provides Rossetti’s perspective as well and it is easy to imagine him as a modern-day rock star telling Lizzie, ‘I have to be free to be me, babe.’

I am by no means an art connoisseur and my knowledge of art is limited to the art appreciation class I took in college. I found myself on many occasions finding pictures of the paintings on the internet while reading Ophelia’s Muse – being able to see the art and to imagine the artist’s perspective while reading added so much to the experience of the book. I don’t recommend doing this if you are not already familiar with the particulars of Rossetti and Lizzie’s lives – it will give the story away.

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