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Yeah, I know. And it's not even like George Robert Graves wrote anything. But here's the connection: Robert Graves was Caroline Graves's first husband (and again, I can hear you: "Now who?" Stay with the story), and Caroline Graves was Wilkie Collins's (ahhhhh, now you get it) first...untraditional lady friend.

Wilkie and Caroline met in the spring of 1856. There is a tradition that she was the model for Anne Catherick in The Woman in White. The painter John Millais* tells a story--


Oh, but wait. I have to tell you this first: Collins was 32 years old in 1856 and still living with his mother, Harriet. In fact, he didn't even have his own bank account. All the earnings from his writing went into his mom's account, and he'd ask her for spending money.


Anyway, with that in mind, back to John Millais's story (and, p.s., John Millais had his own untraditional arrangement with the critic John Ruskin's wife Effie. Effie ends up leaving Ruskin for Millais in no small part due to the fact that Ruskin was terrified of Effie's pubic hair. If I haven't recommended Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, I am now. It's like the US Weekly of Victorian marriages):


Wilkie and his brother Charles are walking Millais back home after a dinner party at Harriet's. It's late, it's summer, all are still a little tipsy, and, according to Millais, they hear a woman's scream. Presently followed the woman, dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight, and running from the direction of one of the neighborhood villas. She stops short, in front of the three men, looks panicked and horrified, screams once more, and runs off. Millais remembers that she was a "lovely woman" and Collins ran off after her, in order to offer her assistance.


The men don't see him for several days.


When he finally returns, he shares that he finally caught up with her, and recounted her story: she was being held prisoner by a mad mesmerist who kept her in captivity under threat of death.


The connection to Caroline is made by Kate Dickens -- Charles Dickens's daughter who married Charles Collins (they lived in Italy for awhile and performed as buskers for money; that's a whole other story) -- who later said that Wilkie Collins kept a mistress named Caroline, and that she was the original of the Woman in White.


Now -- there's no proof that any of the above happened. I can buy that John, Wilkie, and Charles saw a woman in distress (it's the Victorian era for the love of toast -- I'm sure almost all women were in some kind of distress). It gets a little tougher with the addition of the mad mesmerist (though that is pretty ridiculously awesome). But there's even less indication that the woman in white seen by the men is Caroline Graves. For one thing, Caroline and her first husband Robert had a daughter together who never recalled a period in her early childhood where mom went missing for an extended period of time.


Still, what I love about the story is how Collins takes it and runs with it in the telling. He's a marvelous story-teller.


We do know that Collins and Caroline met in 1856. We also know that, shortly afterwards, Collins finally moves out of his mom's basement (speaking figuratively about the basement here -- but he does move out) and in with Caroline. They both seem fairly content with the non-traditional arrangement -- at least until Caroline leaves Collins and marries this other guy, Joseph Clow, in 1868. (The marriage only lasts two years, and then she's back again. The marriage itself may have been prompted by Collins's new addition to the unlikely love affair: another woman named Martha Rudd, who bore Collins three children.)

No doubt I'll share this sentiment many times over: The Victorian era, for all it's supposed and attempted morality and prudery, has a fair share of freaky-naughty shenanigans. And it's this tension between society and art that produces what I think are a magnificent crop of novels.



* Millais brought us this, and this, and this. Oh, and one of my favorites, this. But then, finally, also, this. And a warning: that last one will either give you, or aggravate your, diabetes.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 31st, 2009 01:35 am (UTC)
Of all the times I have been urged to read Parallel Lives, I think your parenthetical will be the one that finally gets me to read it.
Jan. 31st, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
I seriously cannot recommend it too much. It's awesome.
Jan. 31st, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
Truly...totally enjoyed reading this (the hubby did too) -and learned something...
Fear of pubic hair? Really?
Jan. 31st, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Fascinating...
One of the theories is that Ruskin was only familiar with the "down there" parts of women from statues -- and those generally leave the furry bits off the lady-parts. So, on the wedding night, there's poor Effie, no access to a Brazilian, and there's Ruskin: horrified.
Jan. 31st, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
its your Indian food loving, right of center, "she who has offered something but been refused" friend (newly married). xo
Nov. 7th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
Woman In White - Louisa Nottidge
Collins met Louisa Nottidge, who had just escaped from a lunatic asylum in North London - previously imprisoned in her brother-in-law's villa near Regents Park.

Commissioner for Lunacy Bryan Procter wrote a report which freed Louisa, then Collins dedicated his novel "The Woman In White" to the same Bryan Procter.

The characters of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are clearly based on episodes in the life of Louisa Nottidge at The Agapemone.

James Miller
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )