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The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh (St. Martin's: $21.95; 408 pp., illustrated) : Monuments & Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form by Marina Warner (Atheneum: $25; 417 pp., illustrated)

December 29, 1985|Celia Morris Eckhardt | Eckhardt is the author of "Fanny Wright: Rebel in America" (Harvard University)

Jan Marsh and Marina Warner have in common an Oxford education, a professional interest in the visual arts, and a probing suspicion of the way male artists have used women. Marsh, who lectures at the National Portrait Gallery in London, has focused her curiosity on the women attached to a small group of painters and poets who worked primarily out of London in the mid-19th Century. Warner, whose earlier work on the Virgin Mary cult and Joan of Arc foreshadowed her current fascination with the iconography of women's bodies, ranges from ancient Greece to the New York subway of our own times. Both have cautionary tales to tell.

In "The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood," Marsh writes as a partisan of the six women she takes primarily as subjects: Emma Brown, Elizabeth Siddall, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones. Unlike the artists for whom they modeled more than a century ago, she wants us to see them as resourceful, substantial and resilient, and therefore at odds with the cultural messages in Pre-Raphaelite paintings that endorse passivity in women.

For the most part, they were working-class women whom the artists saw by chance and fancied--whom they resolved, Pygmalion-like, to pluck from their humble origins and refashion in styles more acceptable to them personally and to the middle class from which they themselves derived. As they turned plain women into ideals of Victorian beauty, the artists expected to find characters equally pliable.

Marsh hastens to assure us that these women had characters already, and she is baldfaced in her delight with Annie Miller, for instance, who refused to become the "lady" Holman Hunt had her schooled to be. Annie had the good sense to see that they were all "a curious lot," and after Hunt condemned her prissily as unfit to be his proper wife, she belied his further prophecy "that she was well on the road to ruin" by marrying a viscount's cousin.

But Marsh's central dilemma is that the women left virtually no records behind, so that although we can admire their refusal to wilt under the patronizing to which they were subjected, we simply do not have enough material to understand them fully as people in their own right. This problem is compounded by the fact that three of the women loved Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose charisma decidedly does not translate across the intervening century and a quarter and whose manipulation of others was shameless. The whole circle of which he was the center appears so deeply neurotic that many more questions about its members arise than answers offered. Despite Marsh's solid explication of their meager social and economic alternatives, the women's attachment to 'Sisterhood'

Rossetti and his disciples remains troubling. At times, especially in Elizabeth Siddall's death at 32 of laudanum poisoning, the story is very terrible indeed.

Unlike Jan Marsh, Marina Warner is interested primarily in ideas rather than people, and in the beginning of "Monuments & Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form," she explains that the female body in art "does not refer to particular women, does not describe women as a group, and often does not even pressure to evoke their natures." She argues that in a form of symbolic power struggle, it has been a vehicle for conveying public messages congenial to the cultural and political authorities but often destructive to women, especially because official art by its "unassuming vitality and presence"--has affected female behavior itself.

Beginning with the Statue of Liberty, which she discusses as an emblem of moderate, rather than radical politics, Warner moves on to the 12 Victories that guard Napoleon's sarcophagus under the Domes des Invalides in Paris, and then to the caricatures of Margaret Thatcher and the rhetorical uses to which the prime minister herself puts the imagery ordinarily associated with Britain's queens. Here, as in later sections on myth and allegory, she describes the art in question and shrewdly, often brilliantly, explicates its implicit cultural messages.

Warner's thoughtful, scholarly book deserved, however, far more rigorous editing than it got. Pretentious diction mars almost every page, as she inclines, for instance, to use "oneiric" when "dream" would do, and "glabrous" rather than "smooth." Even more damaging, she displays her taste and erudition so relentlessly that too often she sacrifices clarity and buries the point she presumably intends to make. "Monuments and Maidens" is a handbook useful as a descriptive guide to the art in question and often finely suggestive, but it is far less successful as the sustained intellectual argument it sets out to be.

Each book is generously illustrated, though both authors write at length of paintings their works do not include.

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