I promised you wombats. That was long enough ago that I can’t quite remember how I stumbled over the whole Rossetti wombat business. At first I thought it was just a silly, inexplicable in-joke among Rossetti scholars. But there really were Rossetti wombats, two of them.
Rossetti was reportedly mad about wombats, and the rest of his crowd was swept up in his wombat excitement. His assistant Val Prinsep said, “Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were ‘stunners’ with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.” Edward Burne-Jones did a sketch of a wombat zipping across the Egyptian desert. Something like a wombat “prowled obtuse and furry” through Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and this alarming little animal in Max Beerbohm’s Rossetti and His Circle may be supposed to be a wombat.
A long-time devotee of the Wombat’s Lair at the zoo, Rossetti was beside himself to get a wombat of his very own. His first and most famous wombat was named Top, after William “Topsy” Morris, husband of model Jane Morris. (You’d probably recognize her from Proserpine.) Rossetti declared of Top, “The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.”
Here’s an angelic Jane leading fubsy Top, with matching halo, on a leash.
What a juicy mess that Rossetti-Jane-William situation was. After his wife Lizzie Siddal killed herself (some say over Rossetti’s affair with yet another pre-Raphaelite model), Rossetti threw his only copy of the love poems he’d written to her into her coffin. A few years later, he had her dug up so that he could retrieve the poems and publish them with a dedication to the new object of his obsession, Jane Morris. And whom do you think he hit up for a flattering review of those poems? William Morris.
Top may have been all kinds of magnificent, at least as far as Rossetti was concerned, but he wasn’t all that sturdy. It was only a few weeks before poor Top got some sort of mange and died, inspiring Rossetti’s “Death of a Wombat”. The lines below read:
I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!
I looked up the poem Lalla Rookh that those lines are parodying. It is rough going. “No poetical reader of the present day is the poorer for knowing absolutely nothing of Lalla Rookh,” wrote William Rossetti, and I see no reason to disagree with him now.
Reportedly, upon his death, Top the wombat was stuffed and displayed in the entry hall. But at some point, the famous wombat disappeared. Perhaps he was removed to spare the feelings of the next wombat. I haven’t come across much written about this Wombat #2. This sweet pencil sketch has been thought to be a portrait of him, but Rossetti wombatologist Angus Trumble has a point: it does have a very woodchucky sort of look. Apparently those pre-Raphaelites were always getting the woodchucks and the wombats mixed up. Too busy having love affairs and sliding naked down the banisters to learn the finer points of woodchuck-wombat distinction, I guess.
If I were running a role-playing game based on some imagined occultism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or writing a pastiche of Charlie Stross’s Laundry novels, I am sure there would be a role for a wombat.