[This story was published on January 7 in the Chichester Observer, Shoreham Herald and Steyning Herald. Read the original story at shorehamherald.co.uk/news/local/novel-published-after-artist-muse-mystery-solved-1-7143439#ixzz3wY89xrIT and chichester.co.uk/news/local/novel-published-after-muse-mystery-solved-1-7143442]
[Fanny Cornforth was the model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata.]
FOLLOWING her discovery of the answer to the century-old mystery of a Steyning-born Pre-Raphaelite model, author Kirsty Stonell Walker has published a new book which fictionalises the art world in Hampshire during the nineteenth century.
In 2015, Kirsty discovered the story of the last days and final resting place of Fanny Cornforth, who is widely regarded as the face of the Pre-Raphaelite style, in the archives of Chichester’s West Sussex Record Office.
Fanny was born in Steyning as the daughter of a blacksmith. After her life as a model and muse, she entered Chichester’s Graylingwell Hospital in 1907 and died in 1909 at the age of 74. She was buried in Chichester Cemetery.
Since making this discovery, Kirsty has continued researching art circles in the local area, and has written We Are Villains All, a novel telling the story of a Hampshire based poet ,Maxwell Wainwright, and his friend, photographer Brough Fawley. To prepare for writing this fictional book, Kirsty went to Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight, where famous Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron lived and worked.
In the 1860s, which is one of the time periods in which the novel is set, photography was an emerging art form. While researching at Dimbola Lodge, Kirsty learned the process of wet plate photography, which she has incorporated into We Are Villains All.
[Image: The Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1864.]
What can you tell us about the process of writing your book?
“I often get an idea of a character or a scene and then see if I can follow that into a story. Funnily enough, it seems to come to me when I’m driving to work, as I have a dull and often dark commute first thing in the morning. I’ll be on the M27 and suddenly I’ll see my characters and I’ll wonder what they are doing or what they are thinking about. With We are Villains All I pictured my hero, the Victorian poet Max Wainwright, the very model of a proper and reserved gentleman. If he wrote beautiful poems about love, he was bound to become the object of desire for his female audience. What if something happened to break down those social barriers?
“I have to sketch out my story roughly from start to finish so I know where I am heading, but then I am free in where I start, stop or pick up and regularly write the middle bits before the start and the end. With We Are Villains All, I knew I wanted a storyline that covered two distinct time periods: the 1860s when Max was a young man and the 1890s when he has made his mark and has a position in society which he wishes to protect. I had lots of bits of paper with all the events written on them and shuffled them into the order they appeared in the story, weaving together strands from the past and the present until the connection between the two parts of the tale became a dramatic finale.
“My previous novel, A Curl of Copper and Pearl, was far easier to write in many ways as it followed a chronological narrative. I enjoyed the challenge of combining two time periods and certainly loved writing about such a romantic hero and heroine!”
What kind of research did you do in preparation for writing this book?
“If people know me, they probably know my work on Pre-Raphaelite art and the models, and may know my work on the model Fanny Cornforth, who I wrote about last March after I found records of her death at Graylingwell Asylum, featured in The Guardian. My specialism is 19th century society and the arts, and so I have spent the last 20 years researching different aspects of that period which gave me plenty to draw on for the story! As part of that I studied a great amount of poetry, especially the works of Tennyson. It was his poetry that inspired me to create Max Wainwright as a poet; previously my hero had been a painter, but it’s always a pleasure to spend more time with Tennyson.
“Even though the title of my book is We Are Villains All, certainly some of my characters are more villainous than others! Brough Fawley, our hero’s friend and photographer, was tremendous fun to write and in order to understand the process of early photography I attended a day course on wet plate photography. I have to admit that it was bliss taking photographs in Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight, and I treasure my wet collodion glass plates I brought home. It gave me a great insight into the process which I brought to writing the character, not least the smell the whole business has!”
What are you hoping to work on next?
“I am currently working on a non-fiction book which I hope to bring out over the next year. It is a biography of Julia Margaret Cameron’s maid, Mary Hillier, her life and her image. I always enjoy finding out about the models behind the beautiful pictures of the Victorian era and so I am thoroughly enjoying researching her life in front of and behind the lens. At least with Mary I know she didn’t die in an asylum, unlike poor Fanny Cornforth, however one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s other maids did! I never seem to be far from the mad house, which is slightly worrying.”
“My next novel which will come out probably in 2018 is proving to be a real challenge and I’m glad I have the extra time to research and write it. All I can say at the moment is that it concerns a novelist who receives a terrible review criticising his appallingly bad female characters. He decides upon a rather unorthodox and possibly dangerous path to improve his writing.”