The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of authors in the later 1840s through the close of the 1890s who espoused a distinctive artistic philosophy. In form, Pre-Raphaelite short stories exhibit a highly finished style that refl ects and embodies the aesthetic programs of their authors. Such works characteristically make use of themes and imagery drawn from ghost stories, fairy tales, medieval romances, and the lives of saints and painters.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is an 1849 oil on canvas painting by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement came in 1848, when a band of young British artists chose the title “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” thus signaling their break from what they regarded as the artificiality of painting styles that prevailed in the studios of London’s Royal Academy of Art. At the head of the group stood Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82), a painter-poet who, inspired by the examples of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), William Blake (1757–1827), and John Keats (1795–1821), strove to realize a strikingly original inner vision in a variety of visual media and writing genres. Throughout the breadth of his work, Rossetti shows himself to be concerned primarily with dramatizing the artist’s struggle to achieve an intermingling of spiritual ideal with material form. His prose fiction—largely untouched by criticism, unlike his paintings—evidences several of his most important explorations of this theme. Indeed, Rossetti’s tales “Hand and Soul” (1849) and “St. Agnes of Intercession” (1850) may be read as aesthetic allegories in which the artist works to discover the limits of his art. “Hand and Soul” first appeared in the short-lived Pre- Raphaelite magazine, the Germ (1850). The story uses its pseudohistorical trappings to relate the lifelegend of an apocryphal 13th-century painter, Chiaro dell’Erma. Chiaro undertakes a hard pilgrimage toward artistic and spiritual enlightenment, passing from an art based on a kind of naive naturalism to devotional works increasingly abstract and moral in their presentation. The climactic moment in the tale comes during a great religious festival in Pisa. Warring factions among the Pisan families come to blows beneath Chiaro’s newly hung artwork in the Church of San Petronio: “the whole archway was dazzling with the light of confused swords . . . and there was so much blood cast up the walls on a sudden, that it ran in long streams down Chiaro’s paintings.” Witnessing this incident, the painter despairs at the ineffectiveness of his art and falls into a feverish swoon. The image of his own soul then appears to him, taking the shape of a beautiful woman who instructs him to “Set thine hand and thy soul to serve man with God.” Rossetti’s “St. Agnes of Intercession” owes something to the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49). This unfinished story tells how an artist working in 19th-century London discovers uncanny doubles for himself and his fiancée in portraits painted by a 15th-century Florentine artist.

Rossetti’s taste for the supernatural, his love of things medieval and mystic, and his highly wrought prose style greatly influenced the short fiction written by the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, a stellar group of younger artists and writers that included the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909); the designer, poet, and social critic William Morris (1834–96); and the painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98). Swinburne’s short stories merit special attention because of the sheer variety of their forms. His Triameron (1861) is a series of interlocked prose tales modeled on the works of Boccaccio; tales such as “Dead Love,” “The Portrait,” and “The Chronicle of Tebaldeo Tebaldei” demonstrate his confidence in employing a pastiche of earlier styles and conventions. Swinburne’s parodic reviews are literary hoaxes in which imaginary reviewers critique imaginary publications, and these faux reviews should be read as consummate works of short fiction. Morris’s early Pre-Raphaelite prose tales—such as “The Story of the Unknown Church” (1856), “The Hollow Land” (1856), and “Golden Wings” (1856)—take up the aesthetic concerns first announced by Rossetti, granting especial attention to the problematic relationship of past and present. Morris’s later prose romances, such as The Wood beyond the World (1894) and The Sundering Flood (1898), draw heavily on his studies of Icelandic sagas and medieval romance. Swinburne, Morris, and Burne-Jones all published their early short fiction in the pages of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856). This important avant-garde periodical helped pass on the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite prose tale to writers of the aesthetic movement, such as Walter Pater (1839– 94), Oscar Wilde, William Sharp (“Fiona Macleod”; 1855–1905), and Vernon Lee.

Analysis of Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel

Lang, Cecil Y. The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1968.Morris, William. News from Nowhere: and Other Writings. Edited by Clive Wilmer. London: Penguin, 1993.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Collected Poetry and Prose. Edited by Jerome McGann. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Edited by Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.
Weeks, John. The Dream-Weavers: Short Stories. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Woodbridge, 1980.

Categories: Art Theory, British Literature, Literary Terms and Techniques, Literature, Short Story

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