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Celebrating Elizabeth Siddal

This post was originally published by Stephanie Graham Pina  at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

On this day in 1829, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was born (she dropped a letter L from her name when she became an artist).  I write about her frequently on this site; she’s a woman I admire immensely.  You can visit my other site, to see a timeline of her life, view her paintings, and read her poems.  I recently wrote about her powerful yet bitter poem, Love and Hate.

She wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. Although she did sell a few pieces of art and secured the patronage of critic John Ruskin, she was unable to meet her full potential.  Her poems were never published while she was alive.  As a result, she is overshadowed both by the ghostly legend that surrounds her and by the reputation of her husband. What we know about her is only in relation to him. The picture is not a full one and the gaps only add to her mystery.

Pippa Passes drawn by Elizabeth Siddal

Pippa Passes, Elizabeth Siddal

She didn’t produce a large body of work and what survives shows a raw, unfinished talent.  Her paintings and drawing are simple in execution and, at times, they show a distinct Medieval influence.  As an artist, she is often dismissed and her work is assumed to be heavily influenced by her mentor and husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Is this completely fair, though?  To be sure, they probably influenced each other a great deal.  As her tutor, Rossetti helped shape her artistic eye. Yet it doesn’t escape my notice that all too often with women artists, people can be quick to assume that their work was largely helped by some man in their life. When I see an image by, say, Joanna Boyce Wells  posted on Facebook,   I always see a comment asking “how much did her brother have to do with this?” Yet when work is posted by a male artist, no one seems to question that the work is not solely his own.

'Lady Clare', painted by Elizabeth Siddal

Lady Clare, Elizabeth Siddal

The Pre-Raphaelites are known for several depictions of the Lady of Shalott.  But did you know that one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite depictions of the Lady of Shalott was a drawing by Elizabeth Siddal?

The Lady of Shalott, Elizabeth Siddal

The Lady of Shalott, Elizabeth Siddal

lizziebooksThe story of Elizabeth Siddal is a compelling and sad one that lends itself well to fictional retellings. In 1990 Mollie Hardwick wrote The Dreaming Damozel, a mystery that has main character Doran Fairweather, an antique dealer, drawn deeper and deeper into an obsession with both Rossetti and Siddal.  Fiona Mountain inventively used Siddal’s life as the catalyst for a modern day mystery in her 2002 book Pale as the Dead, featuring her protagonist Natasha Blake as a detective with a twist.  She’s a genealogist who can solve both the mysteries of your ancestors and any crime that crosses her path (I highly recommend both Pale as the Dead and the sequel Bloodlines).  Audrey Niffenegger gave Siddal a brief cameo appearance in Her Fearful Symmetry, a tale that revolves around Highgate Cemetery, Siddal’s final resting place.  Siddal and the entire Rossetti clan get the vampire treatment in Tim Powers’ book Hide Me Among the Graves.  Author Rita Cameron recently wrote Ophelia’s Muse, a novelized version of the relationship between Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Siddal has even received the comic book treatment thanks to a particularly well-done comic story by Neil Gaiman, How They Met Themselves. The title is drawn from the Rossetti painting of the same name (pun totally intended).  My friend Ben Perkins recently blogged about Gaiman’s comic at The Talking Oak’s Popular Victoriana Compendium. 

'How They Met Themselves', Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Known as his 'bogey' drawing, this illustration of doppelgangers was begun by DGR while on his honeymoon with Lizzie.

‘How They Met Themselves’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Known as his ‘bogey’ drawing, this illustration of doppelgangers was begun by DGR while on his honeymoon with Lizzie. I’ve written about this before in Rossetti and the Supernatural and How They Met Themselves

Actress Judith Paris portrayed Siddal in Ken Russell's 'Dante's Inferno'.

Actress Judith Paris portrayed Siddal in Ken Russell’s ‘Dante’s Inferno’.

In 1967, director Ken Russell filmed Dante’s Inferno which featured Oliver Reed as Rossetti and Judith Paris as Siddal.  It’s a quirky depiction of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, very sixties and a delight to watch.

Amy Manson as Siddal in BBC's 2009 production 'Desperate Romantics'.

Amy Manson as Siddal in BBC’s 2009 production ‘Desperate Romantics’.

Amy Manson portrayed Elizabeth Siddal in Desperate Romantics, a wildly inaccurate romp of a series that has introduced the Pre-Raphaelites to a new audience.  There were many liberties taken in this production that I can not approve of, but I will say that Manson portrays Siddal with strength and spirit. And visually, the scenes of Siddal as Millais’ Ophelia are stunning.  While I have several friends that love it, I admit that I can’t help but cringe while watching it.  Perhaps I am too much of a purist.  You’ll have to watch it and decide for yourself. 

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal in Jeremy Green's play.

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal in Jeremy Green’s play.

In the theater world, playwright Jeremy Green brought Siddal to the stage in Lizzie Siddal (2013).  Author Dinah Roe has a great interview with Jeremy Green about his work on her site Pre-Raphaelites in the City.  And I’m proud to be friends with not one but two talented actresses who staged their own productions telling Siddal’s story:  Kris Lundberg brought Siddal to life in Muse.  Valerie Meachum staged Unvarnished, a one-woman show.

Fiction, movies, plays…Siddal may not have achieved recognition in her own lifetime, but she certainly has our attention now.  As Rossetti’s muse, we can see her influence on his early Pre-Raphaelite works.  She then boldly made the move from a muse to  artist and embarked on a career that was sadly short but showed great promise.  Unfortunately, many of the sad details of her life overshadow her artistic ambitions. Even so, I still think she inspires women and has become a symbol that can motivate us; she represents a woman strong enough to create her own work in a rigid, patriarchal world.

Drawing of Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Drawing of Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Jan Marsh said, “in writing about Elizabeth Siddal, women are painting collective self-portraits.” I believe that is unequivocally true.  For close to twenty years I have studied her, read about her, pondered her, attempted to excavate some sort of concrete knowledge of who she truly was.  In doing so, I have explored myself.  Perhaps Elizabeth Siddal has strangely become a conduit through which we explore our own meanings and desires.  No matter how much we learn about her and discuss her, she remains unreachable.  In that enigmatic state, I think we project our own needs onto her.  She becomes a symbol of ourselves, maybe.  The part we want to rescue.  I’ve often said that when I embrace images of Ophelia, I am reaching into the past and comforting my teenage self.  Perhaps when we champion Elizabeth Siddal, we as women are cheerleaders for our own work, our own creative endeavors. Fighting against the people that disappoint us in a way she couldn’t, fighting against addiction in a way she was ill-equipped to  do.

'Ophelia' (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

‘Ophelia’ (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

Whatever Elizabeth Siddal means to us individually and collectively, today is the anniversary of her birth.  On such a day, I see her mentioned widely on social media.  I wonder what she would think if she knew of her influence. How would she feel if she knew she has achieved an almost cult following?

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti.  Thank you. Requiescat in pace

You may also enjoy these posts:

Did Elizabeth Siddal inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula? 

Regina Cordium (Queen of Hearts)

The Blessed Damozel

The Worst Man in London (hint: who orchestrated Lizzie Siddal’s exhumation?)

What is the Pre-Raphaelite Woman?

Elizabeth Siddal:  Laying the Ghost to Rest

What shapes our perception of Elizabeth Siddal?

The Faces of Elizabeth Siddal

Show your support with this Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood T Shirt!

Show your support with this Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood T Shirt!




What shapes our perception of Elizabeth Siddal

This post also appears at  Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.


 For those of us who admire Pre-Raphaelite art, Elizabeth Siddal is a familiar face.  Her story is repeated often and frequently embellished.  When beginning to research the life of Elizabeth Siddal, readers will invariably encounter this description of her, written by poet William Allingham in his diary: “Short, sad, and strange her life; it must have seemed to her like a troubled dream.” It’s a heartbreaking and poignant epitaph that contributes to our perception of Siddal as a dreamlike waif, flitting through a troubled life– a life filtered through a laudanum haze.  It is important to remember, though, that Allingham’s statement describes her life only in hindsight.  Is it a fair and accurate assessment? Or is it influenced by the tragic mode of her death?
When we think of Elizabeth Siddal, how much do we know about the real flesh-and-blood woman and how much are we influenced by mythologized accounts of her life?
Elizabet Siddal as Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais. See Ophelia's Flowers

Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais. See Ophelia’s Flowers

Many see her as an Ophelia figure due to the story of how she fell ill while posing for Sir John Everett Millais’ painting.  While it is a famous anecdote now, it was not a widespread story at the time.   I can find no prior written accounts of it published before Millais’ death.  The tale seems to have originated with artist Arthur Hughes, who provided his account in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (transcription at This means that while the story is definitely true, it was probably not known outside the Pre-Raphaelite circle within Lizzie’s lifetime.
Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of Ophelia by Millais.

Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of Ophelia by Millais.

In addition to the Ophelia mystique, a lot of focus on Siddal has nothing to do with her life at all, but the effect her death had on Rossetti.  He was said to be haunted by her.  Attempts were made to communicate with her through seances.  Much has been written about his mental struggles in his later years and often they are partly assumed to stem from Siddal’s death and exhumation.  These are things that contribute to the perception of Lizzie as a Victorian ghost story instead of a woman that once lived, laughed, and loved.  In her lifetime, Siddal may have made the transition from model to artist but in death, she was transfigured into an amalgamation of Ophelia and The Blessed Damozel.  The genuine Elizabeth Siddal is a figure we may never know. She is overshadowed by  the overdose, the exhumation, and the myth that her hair continued to grow after death.
Apart from perfunctory newspaper mentions at the time of her death, the first serious accounts of Elizabeth Siddal began to appear after the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  These early depictions of her were written from a male perspective, mainly  William Michael Rossetti, Hall Caine, and Theodore Watts-Dunton. When we consider their words about her,  we have to consider their intentions.  Writing about Rossetti’s life was their true aim and for them, Elizabeth Siddal existed only as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s love interest.  When William Michael Rossetti wrote about her, he completely ignored the fact that during a romantic split from his brother, she attended an art school in Sheffield, an act that demonstrates that she attempted to pursue art independent of DGR. It seems that WMR was unaware of this fact and that he had no knowledge about any occurrences in her life apart from her interactions with Rossetti. When Joseph Knight wrote of  her death in his 1887 biography Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he stated that “Regina Cordium had passed forever from his life.”  It’s a creative way to write about her, but it makes her seem more of a prop than a person.
 Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Theodore Watts-Dunton mentions Siddal, almost in passing, with a cursory description of their marriage.  Rossetti, however, is described in an extremely dramatic fashion when Watts-Dunton says that on Siddal’s death Rossetti “for a time ceased to write or take any interest in his own poetry .  Like Proserpero indeed he literally buried his wand…”  Likening Rossetti to Prospero, Watts-Dunton glosses over the inclusion of DGR’s poetry in Siddal’s coffin and shifts the focus from the deceased woman to the husband left behind.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

I certainly don’t intend to lay the blame of the mythologized versions of Siddal solely at the feet of people like William Michael Rossetti or Theodore Watts-Dunton. It is almost impossible not to romanticize her.  The memory of poet Sylvia Plath endures a similar fascination (coincidentally, Plath committed suicide in 1963 on the anniversary of Siddal’s death). Nor do I judge anyone who relishes stories of Lizzie Siddal in a bathtub or her tresses filling her coffin.  These things are unavoidable and firmly embedded in Pre-Raphaelite lore. And it cannot escape our notice that there are not very many opportunities to balance these dramatic anecdotes with Siddal’s own account of her life. Since very few of her letters survived, it is not through her own voice that we  hear her story. This leaves us with gaping holes where a life should be.  So we can not help but continue to see her only in relation to Rossetti because without him, we would know nothing of her.  We can attempt to fill these holes, as many do, by reading her own poetry as autobiographical. Is this fair, though?  A great deal of Victorian poetry is just as melancholy yet we are often able to separate the poet from their subject.
Among the male accounts of Elizabeth Siddal, the lone voice of Georgiana Burne-Jones shines through.  The wife of artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Georgiana wrote about Siddal several times in The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones.  Here Siddal is remembered fondly and discussed not as Rossetti’s lofty muse, but as a dear friend that was greatly missed.  Where William Michael Rossetti may have been interested in writing about a carefully honed version of Siddal, Georgiana was only concerned with preserving the memories of a woman who had been a friend to her in the early days of her marriage.  While she certainly mentions Elizabeth Siddal’s ill health and melancholy, she also shares happy memories such as this account of Siddal and their friend Algernon Charles Swinburne:
“Dear Lizzie Rossetti laughed to find that she and Swinburne had such locks of the same coloured hair, and one night when we went in our thousands to see “Colleen Bawn”, she declared that as she sat at one end of the row we filled and he at another, a boy who was selling books of the play looked at Swinburne and took fright, and then, when he came round to where she was, started again with terror, muttering to himself “There’s another of ’em!”
Mrs. Burne-Jones also shares a treasured note received from Siddal:

“I never had but one note from Lizzie, and I kept it for love of her even then.  Let it stand here in its whole short length as a memento of the Blackfriars evenings, and in the hope that some one beside myself may feel the pathos of its tender playfulness:

“My Dear Little Georgie,

I hope you intend coming over with Ned tomorrow evening like a sweetmeat, it seems so long since I saw you dear.  Janey will be here I hope to meet you.

“With a willow-pattern dish full of love to you and Ned,


I certainly wish more letters such as this had survived.  The few that still exist give us a glimpse of an Elizabeth Siddal that is so much more than an Ophelia trope.

'The Lady of Shalott', Elizabeth Siddal

‘The Lady of Shalott’, Elizabeth Siddal

I will end this post with two of Lizzie’s letters to Rossetti. The first is a portion of a letter written while she was traveling in Nice.  In the second, she writes about her summer holiday in Clevedon, where donkey rides were an attraction. Note that she writes in satire and makes fun of the boy’s speech. Reading this, it is easy to picture the boy and his enthusiasm. In these accounts, we can see a version of Elizabeth Siddal that is not the ill, melancholy figure we often assume her to be.  I suggest that on this day, the anniversary of her death, we view these letters as an antidote to the fact that the laudanum-addicted version of Elizabeth Siddal is the version we hear the most about.  Sometimes we can take a break from telling the tales of her sadness and focus on the happy little tales, scant though they may be.  There were probably millions of happy moments in her life, forever forgotten.  But today, I leave you with these:

[NICE, Christmas-time 1855]On your leaving the boat, your passport is taken from you to the Police Station, and there taken charge of till you leave Nice. If a letter is sent to you containing money, the letter is detained at the Post Office, and another written to you by the postmaster ordering you to present yourself and passport for his inspection. You have then to go to the Police Station and beg the loan of your passport for half-an-hour, and are again looked upon as a felon of the first order before passport is returned to you. Looking very much like a transport, you make your way to the Post Office, and there present yourself before a grating, which makes the man behind it look like an overdone mutton-chop sticking to a gridiron. On asking for a letter containing money, Mutton-chop sees at once that you are a murderer, and makes up its mind not to let you off alive; and, treating you as Cain and Alice Gray in one, demands your passport. After glaring at this and your face (which by this time becomes scarlet, and is taken at once as a token of guilt), a book is pushed through the bars of gridiron, and you are expected to sign your death-warrant by writing something which does not answer to the writing on the passport. Meanwhile Mutton-chop has been looking as much like doom as overdone mutton can look, fizzing in French, not one word of which is understood by Alice Gray. But now comes the reward of merit. Mutton sees at once that no two people living and at large could write so badly as the writing on the passport and that in the book; so takes me for Alice, but gives me the money, and wonders whether I shall be let off from hard labour the next time I am taken, on account of my thinness. When you enter the Police Station to return the passport. You are glared at through wooden bars with marked surprise at not returning in company of two cocked-hats, and your fainting look is put down to your having been found out in something. They are forced, however, to content themselves by expecting to have a job in a day or so. This is really what one has to put up with, and its not at all comic when one is ill. I will write again when boil is better, or tell you about lodgings if we are able to get any.There was an English dinner here on Christmas Day, ending with plum-pudding, which was really very good indeed, and an honour to the country. I dined up in my room, where I have dined for the last three weeks on account of bores. First class, one can get to the end of the world; but one can never be let alone or left at rest.But believe me
Yours most affectionately,Lizzy


[1855]  The donkey-boy opened a conversation by asking if there was any lions in the parts she comed from. Hearing no, he seemed disappointed, and asked her if she had ever ridden on an elephant there. He had last year when the beastesses was here, and on mounting the elephant for a penny, he felt so joyful that he was obliged to give the man his other two-pence, so he couldn’t see the rest of the fair. He wished to know whether boys had to work for a living there, and said that a gentleman had told him that in his country the boys were so wicked that they had to be shut up in large prisons. He never knew hisself no boy what stole anything, but he supposed in that country there was nothing but fruit-trees. He pulled a little
blue flower growing out of a rock, and said he liked to let flowers grow in the fields, but he liked to catch one when it grew there and take it away, because it looked like such a poor little thing. He had a project for leading
donkeys without beating, which consisted of holding a grass within an inch of their noses, and inducing them to follow it. Being asked whether that would not be the crueler plan of the two, he said he had noticed that donkeys would always eat even when they were full, so he had only to fill the donkey first. All that could be got in an explanation of why he thought Lizzie some outlandish native was that he was sure that she comed very far, much farther than he could see.

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

You might also enjoy:
Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal
Elizabeth Siddal: Laying the Ghost to Rest
Did Elizabeth Siddal inspire Bram Stoker

Elizabeth Siddal: Laying the ghost to rest

Previously posted at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

It would have been a perfect plot for a 1960’s Hammer Horror film:  on the death of his wife, a poet places his manuscript of poems in her casket.  Years later he has a new muse and love, a woman who had been a friend to them both.  So he has his late wife exhumed to reclaim his final gift to her. Upon opening the casket, his wife is found to be in perfect condition, miraculously resisting decay for seven and a half years.  By some supernatural intervention, the hair that inspired him in life had continued to grow after death and has now become a huge, golden mass.  The poems are restored and published, yet the ghost of the wronged wife will now haunt him for the rest of his life.  I can just see Lizzie’s hair spilling out of the coffin in brilliant technicolor. It is the perfect ghost story.
Except it’s not a ghost story. It’s a (mostly) true tale that has been repeatedly told, each time adding more elements of the macabre until Lizzie has achieved all the makings of a Pre-Raphaelite phantom.

'Beata Beatrix' was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife's death, as a tribute.

‘Beata Beatrix’ was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife’s death, as a tribute.


A study for 'Beata Beatrix', circa 1854.  Elizabeth Siddal clearly posed for Beata Beatrix before her death, the project assumed a new meaning after her passing.

A study for ‘Beata Beatrix’, circa 1854. Elizabeth Siddal clearly posed for Beata Beatrix before her death, the project assumed a new meaning after her passing.

The morbid associations began early.  There were whispered rumors that Rossetti had started Beata Beatrix by sketching his dead wife as she lay in state.  Surgeon John Marshall, a friend of Rossetti’s,  claimed that “for two years he saw her ghost every night!”  It was the age of Spiritualism and surely Lizzie had something to say from beyond the grave.  Seances were held that included both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael.  An unlikely medium, Rossetti’s model/mistress/housekeeper Fanny Cornforth served as a conduit for Lizzie’s messages.

After the exhumation, Rossetti wrote to Swinburne saying “Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book upon my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave no other hand would have been needed.”  As if the exhumation had merely been the righting of a wrong and they had  appeased Lizzie’s spirit by doing what she was physically unable to do from the spiritual plane.

Everything about Lizzie is subject to exaggeration. Most people learn about her death and exhumation first and then have to work their way backwards.  They come to know her through her overdose, the speculations of a disappearing suicide note and her wraith-like appearance as she stared absentmindedly into a fire, rocking the ghost of her dead child. The exaggerations go back even further –her marriage is described as unhappy.  Gabriel is constantly adulterous, despite the fact that there is no evidence that he was unfaithful during marriage. Posing as Ophelia seems to foreshadow her death, when seen in hindsight.  Even her discovery has a fairy tale quality, thanks to Holman Hunt’s account where she is described breathlessly by Deverell as a queen. Lizzie has become a character, a trope.

Elizabeth Siddal wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. Although she did sell a few pieces of art and secured Ruskin’s patronage, she was unable to meet her full potential.  Her poems were never published while she was alive.  As a result, she is overshadowed both by the ghostly legend that surrounds her and by her husband. What we know about her is only in relation to him. The picture is not a full one and the gaps only add to her mystery.

Certainly, these gaps could have been filled had William Michael Rossetti bothered to talk to Lizzie’s mother and surviving siblings when he began to publish accounts of his brother’s life.  In fact, none of the authors who wrote about Rossetti soon after his death made an effort to talk to Lizzie’s family.  It seems that as the subject was mainly DGR, there was no reason to — Lizzie exists in these accounts as a prop. Her untimely death adds a certain romance, her exhumation shows the lengths he was prepared to travel for the sake of Poetry. I am reminded of the first line of Lizzie’s poem “The Lust of the Eyes”, ‘I care not for my Lady’s soul’.  We care not for Lizzie’s true self, she is seen as a Pre-Raphaelite figure of pathos. When Joseph Knight wrote of Lizzie’s death in his 1887 biography Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he stated that “Regina Cordium had passed forever from his life.” Again, more prop than person.

How do we lay the ghost to rest? How do we focus on Lizzie herself and set aside the macabre trappings?  Focusing on her work is a good start.  Her art, although unpolished, can be viewed as ahead of its time. Instead of viewing her as merely Rossetti’s pupil in a one-sided exchange of teacher to student, we can view their dedication to art as flowing freely between them, that they both influenced and inspired each other’s work. Indeed, her contribution to the Red House murals show that she as accepted as an artist on equal footing.

Her letters, too, offer small glimpses into the woman she was.  Funny, friendly–far from a hovering wraith of a woman. When she writes of “Mutton-chops” in her letter from Nice, we can see past Ophelia and Beatrice and see a normal woman with an entertaining sense of humor.

To pursue knowledge of her, that is the key to seeing past the myth.  The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh is the first book I recommend to those interested in the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle.  Marsh explores Lizzie’s life and the lives of her contemporaries while highlighting issues of gender, work and love.  Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley is a captivating account of Lizzie’s life.  In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Jan Marsh expands her work in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, focusing on the evolution of how we view Lizzie and how scholarship of her life has been approached in different eras.

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal

Emma West as the titular character Lizzie Siddal in the recent jeremy Green play


Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal in Desperate Romantics

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal in Desperate Romantics

As I write this post, I realize that we have made progress. Lizzie has received renewed attention in the play Lizzie Siddal by Jeremy Green. And even though I was not completely impressed with the BBC series Desperate Romantics, I have to admit that Amy Manson portrayed Lizzie admirably. Lizzie Siddal emerges from the spectral fog and begins to shed her ghostly stigma.

We have image after image of Lizzie appearing languid and reclining.  but we also have images of her hard at work, sitting at easels and determined to hone her craft.  For the anniversary of her death tomorrow, I prefer to focus on these.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by  Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal




Guest Post from Kirsty Stonell Walker: The Tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal

Kirsty Stonell Walker is the author of Stunner, the Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. (Available at
or  Kirsty originally shared this post on her blog The Kissed Mouth and I am extremely grateful that she granted me permission to post it here as well.


You will probably be aware by now that there will be a play on in London from the end of this month all about the tragic life of Elizabeth Siddal.  The life of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ has been shown on screen before, but this is apparently the first time she has appeared on stage.  Maybe they have found a theatre with a door big enough to fit a bath through.

Emma West as Lizzie and Tom Bateman as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in rehearsals for Lizzie Siddal

Emma West as Lizzie and Tom Bateman as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in rehearsals for Lizzie Siddal

I wish them well and hope this will encourage more interest in Pre-Raphaelite art but it reminded me of an old niggle I have.  Elizabeth Siddal’s name is synonymous with two things: baths and tragedy.  Is it fair or are we participating in her tragedy by reducing her to this?

You know me, I loathe assumption.  Most of the ten years it took me to writeStunner was spent saying ‘No, she wasn’t a cockney,’ and ‘No, she wasn’t an illiterate prostitute!  She could read!’  However, when you are reading about someone for the first time you have to wade through the conclusions of others before you can afford to make your own.  For example, think about a short summary of Siddal’s life.  It’s bound to involve a bath-tub and an early death, these are unavoidable points in her life.  Possibly your summary involves painting, poetry, possibly infidelity and sadness.  Does it involve her laughing and chasing around the Red House?  Does it involve being sponsored by the leading art critic of the day?  Does it involve her finding out her artworks will appear in America?  How many of those later points appear in the ‘fictional’ depictions of her?

Gug in a Tub from Desperate Romantics

Gug in a Tub from Desperate Romantics

So, we have poor Gug, as Rossetti called her, packing quite a bit into her 32 years.  She loved poetry, after apparently discovering a poem by Tennyson wrapped around a pat of butter as a child.  See, less young ‘uns these days would long to go on X-Factor if we printed poems on butter wrappers.  They would all want to be Pam Ayres, and rightly so.  She longed to paint, possibly a by-product of being thrust into the art world by her stint of modelling.  Her engagements before Ophelia seem inconsequential, even though they were for Deverell, who discovered her.  Ophelia is the moment she begins to exist for us as an icon.

Yes, yes, very nice...

Yes, yes, very nice…

I have just been reading about the many and varied theories about what followed.  Standard story is that the candles went out, she got cold, got ill and that affected her for the rest of her life.  Add to this that she may have already been taking laudanum, she may have been anorexic, she may have been a hypochondriac, she may have been taking other preparations that were slowly poisoning her, her parents may have been on the make.  Goodness, how complicated.  I wonder if the whole palaver around her near-drowning makes Ophelia remain such a prominent image of the age.  Certainly the popularity of the painting seems to have sealed Siddal’s fate to be ever the dying dame, much in the same way as certain actors can never be seen as other than their most popular role.  It is much to Millais’ credit that it is almost impossible to imagine the fictional character of Ophelia as being anything other than the perishing Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth Siddal Painting at an Easel (1850s) D G Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal Painting at an Easel (1850s) D G Rossetti

Why do we not think of her like this, at an easel?  She painted for around a decade and wrote for possibly longer.  Her poems explored melancholic themes but her art works were as varied as others in her circle.  In his drawings of her at work, Rossetti shows a woman who is busy and well.  I do not look at the above image and think ‘Poor Lizzie’ because there is no need.  I pity her no more than any other woman artist of the age, and she achieved a great deal.

Elizabeth Siddal, D G Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal, D G Rossetti

Something I have talked about before is the shortening of names.  I know I have discussed this with people in various contexts but I am always intrigued by the way that we shorten or change the names of famous people, notably women.  Elizabeth Rossetti becomes Lizzie Siddal but does this tell us anything else?  People shorten the names of others for many reasons; a sense of familiarity with a person, a sense of possession, an empathy or identification.  Undoubtedly Elizabeth was known as ‘Lizzie’ by her friends but is that a good enough reason for us to call her that?  I am variously known as ‘Kiz’, ‘Moo’, ‘Nelly’ and far worse, but none of those should be used by my future and no doubt plentiful biographers.  Why not use my full name under which I work?  I would think it a terrible presumption if someone I did not know referred to me as ‘Kirst’ (lawks, it sounds like ‘cursed’).  By shortening a name you are assuming the role of acquaintance of the person, but also it stops the person being at a distance, up on a pedestal, which they might be if you admired them.  It’s hard to think of Alfred Lord Tennyson as being ‘Alfie’ or ‘Fred’ but presumably he must have had a nickname.  A nickname humanizes a subject, but is that helpful?  I would add that it seems common in newspapers to shorten names of victims to involve the reader with their plight, for sad example would you think of Madeleine McCann or Maddie?

Regina Cordium, D G Rossetti

Regina Cordium, D G Rossetti

Now, there is nothing wrong with seeing a person in the past as a human being, if fact I would like more such understanding shown to Rossetti who seemingly is either held on a pedestal or seen as a devil devoid of feeling.  However, a byproduct of seeing a person as ‘human’ is that naturally we see their all-too-human foibles and failings.  It was alright for me; writing about Fanny could only reveal better things than were already said about her, but when the woman is revered then the revelations can only be detrimental in order to be ‘revelations’.  Also it seems to me that we don’t like uncertainty, we don’t like the unexplained in life stories.  Therefore, more often than not Elizabeth Siddal ‘killed herself’ rather than ‘took an accidental overdose’ because it has a definite point rather than raise more questions.

To say Rossetti painted this from her corpse is far more interesting than saying he used existing sketches

To say Rossetti painted this from her corpse is
far more interesting than saying he used existing sketches

So where is all my rambling leading?  Well, firstly to make a general point:  Sometimes I fear that biography of successful women reinforces prejudice in a perverse way.  Speaking as a biographer, it’s a hard balancing act, showing a woman in all her glory without backing up the views of the society they lived in because they lived in that society and were subject to it.  Elizabeth undoubtedly found life as an artist far more difficult than her erstwhile lover because any woman attempting to achieve success in such an elitist world is bound to find it difficult.  Goodness, there are scores of men who found it damn near impossible too, but we don’t find them so pitiful as poor, tragic Lizzie.  Not even Walter Deverell gets labelled as ‘tragic’ as often as Mrs Rossetti.  It somehow seems a little improper to bring up the private life of men, or to lend it equal weight, when writing biography as if we are trying to excuse them or lessen their impact. Many men of Elizabeth’s circle could be labelled as tragic – look at Swinburne!  Maybe we linger on women’s private lives because they played such a huge part in their lives, their ‘proper sphere’ was the domestic, the private, and so obviously that would have a massive impact in who they were and what they did.  It held women back, it filled their time, it even killed a few of them (in childbirth), it was seen by society as being their ‘job’ so any attempts on their part to participate in a ‘male’ occupation has to be seen in the context of what they weren’t doing or trying to balance.

Rossetti discovers his perfect model, as seen in Look and Learn

Rossetti discovers his perfect model, as seen in Look and Learn

So why is Lizzie special?  A combination of things seem to affect Miss Siddal.  Firstly, she’s a woman, therefore biography tells us about her private life.  We know she was led a merry dance by Rossetti, but then Georgiana Burne-Jones had a hard marriage and Jane Morris’ was troubled.  There has to be more to the relationship than unending misery, and there are tales of laughter and joy.  She didn’t almost die during every modelling assignment, but then possibly none of the other pictures were as astonishing as Ophelia.  Mind you, we don’t assume Millais had a tragic life because he created the image.  It is a brilliant image of death but all the credit, emphasis, and blame is placed on the model.  That’s ridiculous.  That’s like saying the tiny robin in the corner had a tragic life because he appeared in Ophelia.  Yes, she had an accident while modelling but I wonder if she had been posing for a more positive subject when she had the accident, would we see her in a different light?

Elizabeth Siddal (photo)

Elizabeth Siddal (photo)

I don’t think it helps that a great deal of Pre-Raphaelite-ness is the melancholic, the tragic, the doomed, the sinister.  As a person in a movement, of course Elizabeth would look the part.  I love the photo of her in her ‘melancholic swoon’ but I don’t think she was like that any more than any of the various pictures of me give you a full idea of what I am like as a person.  I would be very interested to find out what someone who has met me after following the blog thought I would be like.  Lawks, can you imagine…?

Anyway, back to Lizzie.  For some reason we are stuck with the epithet ‘tragic’ when describing her life but that lessens her because it makes her appear helpless.  The majority of her life was not tinged with tragedy, in fact proportionately more of her life was spent in victory than in sorrow.  She spent one afternoon in a bath tub but this dominates our vision of her.  I wonder if the tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal is that we can’t let her be happy.

LIZZIE-SIDDAL-London-11-20Lizzie Siddal is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8, from 20 November – 21 December 2013.








Continued Updates

I’ve created a new page, Georgiana Burne-Jones:  Memories of Elizabeth Siddal.  This contains all portions of The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones that mention Elizabeth Siddal. I consider the these crucial to gaining perspective on Elizabeth Siddal.  GBJ shares her impressions, describes Lizzie physically and gives us insight on Lizzie and DGR as a married couple.  She also discusses the tragedy of their stillborn daughter and Lizzie’s death.


Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Lovers: Rossetti and Siddal

I recently happened upon a 14 volume set of Little Journeys at a local second-hand bookshop.  I was practically giddy with excitement to find these, especially the volume that includes Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal.  I’ve scanned the book and transcribed the text.  Other volumes include Christina Rossetti, William Morris, and John Ruskin.  I plan on transcribing these as well.

Little Journeys was a series written by Elbert Hubbard.  I was not familiar with him prior to purchasing his works, but I was interested to see on his wikipedia entry that he founded an Arts and Crafts community in Aurora, New York and that his printing press was inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

I know that  reading a large chunk of text online is a different experience than reading a book.  It can seem tedious.  But I felt it would be an important addition to this website to be able to offer the transcribed text for anyone who would care to read it.  And, as always, I look forward to reading your comments should you choose to post one!

Scans of the book, transcription below the images:

Little Journeys, Elbert Hubbard

Little Journeys frontispiece

Little Journeys, Rossetti intro



Some ladies love the jewels in Love’s zone,
And gold-tipped darts he hath for painless play
In idle, scornful hours he flings away;
And some that listen to his lute’s soft tone
Do love to vaunt the silver praise their own;
Some prize his blindfold sight; and there be they
Who kissed the wings which brought him yesterday
And thank his wings today that he is flown.

My lady only loves the heart of Love:
Therefore Love’s heart, my lady, hath for thee
His bower of unimagined flower and tree.
There kneels he now, and all a-hungered of
Thine eyes gray-lit in shadowing hair above,
Seals with thy mouth his immortality.

–Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When an ambitious young man from the “provinces” signified his intention
to Colonel Ingersoll of coming to Peoria and earning an honest
livelihood, he was encouraged by the Bishop of Agnosticism with the
assurance that he would find no competition.

Personally, speaking for my single self, I should say that no man is in
so dangerous a position as he who has no competition in well-doing.
Competition is not only the life of trade, but of everything else. There
have been times when I have thought that I had no competition in
truth-telling, and then to prevent complacency I entered into
competition with myself and endeavored to outdo my record.

The natural concentration of business concerns in one line, in one
locality, suggests the many advantages that accrue from attrition and
propinquity. Everybody is stirred to increased endeavor; everybody knows
the scheme which will not work, for elimination is a great factor in
success; the knowledge that one has is the acquirement of all. Strong
men must match themselves against strong men: good wrestlers will need
only good wrestlers. And so in a match of wit rivals outclassed go
unnoticed, and there is always an effort to go the adversary one better.

Our socialist comrades tell us that “emulation” is the better word, and
that “competition” will have to go. The fact is that the thing itself
will ever remain the same–what you call it matters little. We have,
however, shifted the battle from the purely physical to the mental and
psychic plane. But it is competition still, and the reason competition
will remain is because it is beautiful, beneficent and right. It is the
desire to excel. Lovers are always in competition with each other to see
who can love most.

The best results are obtained where competition is the most free and
most severe–read history. The orator speaks and the man who rises to
reply had better have something to say. If your studio is next door to
that of a great painter, you had better get you to your easel, and
quickly, too.

The alternating current gives power: only an obstructed current gives
either heat or light; all good things require difficulty. The Mutual
Admiration Society is largely given up to criticism.

Wit is progressive. Cheap jokes go with cheap people; but when you are
with those of subtle insight, who make close mental distinctions, you
should muzzle your mood, if perchance you are a bumpkin.

Conversation with good people is progressive, and progressive inversely,
usually, where only one sex is present. Excellent people feel the
necessity of saying something better than has been said, otherwise
silence is more becoming. He who launches a commonplace where high
thoughts prevail is quickly labeled as one who is with the yesterdays
that lighted fools adown their way to dusty death.

Genius has always come in groups, because groups produce the friction
that generates light. Competition with fools is not bad–fools teach the
imbecility of repeating their performances. A man learns from this one,
and that; he lops off absurdity, strengthens here and bolsters there,
until in his soul there grows up an ideal, which he materializes in
stone or bronze, on canvas, by spoken word, or with the twenty-odd
little symbols of Cadmus.

Greece had her group when the wit of Aristophanes sought to overtop the
stately lines of AEschylus; Praxiteles outdid Ictinus; and wayside words
uttered by Socrates were to outlast them all.

Rome had her group when all the arts sought to rival the silver speech
of Cicero. One art never flourishes alone–they go together, each man
doing the thing he can do best. All the arts are really one, and this
one art is simply Expression–the expression of Mind speaking through
its highest instrument, Man.

Happy is the child who is born into a family where there is a
competition of ideas, and where the recurring theme is truth. This
problem of education is not so very much of a problem after all.
Educated people have educated children, and the best recipe for
educating your child is this: Educate yourself.


The Rossettis were educated people: each was educated by all and all by

Individuality was never ironed out, for no two were alike, and between
them all were constantly little skirmishes of wit, and any one who
tacked a thesis on the door had to fight for it. Luther Burbank rightly
says that children should not be taught religious dogma. The souls of
the Rossettis were not water-logged by religious belief formulated by
men with less insight and faith than they.

In this way they were free. And so we find the father and the mother,
blessed by exile in the cause of liberty, living hard, plain lives, in
clean yet dingy poverty, with never an endeavor to “shine” in society or
to pass for anything different than what they were, and never in debt a
penny to the haberdasher, the dressmaker, the milliner or the grocer.
When they had no money to buy a thing they wanted, they went without it.

Just the religion of paying your way and being kind would be a pretty
good sort of religion–don’t you think so?

So now, behold this little Republic of Letters, father and mother and
four children: Maria, Christina, Dante Gabriel and William Michael.

The father was a poet, musician and teacher. The mother was a
housekeeper, adviser and critic, and supplied the necessary ballast of
commonsense, without which the domestic dory would surely have turned

Once we hear this good mother saying, “I always had a passion for
intellect, and my desire was that my husband and my children might be
distinguished for intellect; but now I wish they had a little less
intellect, so as to allow for a little more commonsense.”

This not only proves that this mother of four very extraordinary and
superior children had wit, but it also seems to show that even intellect
has to be bought with a price.

I have read about all that has been written concerning Rossetti and the
Preraphaelite Brotherhood by those with right and license to speak. And
among all those who have set themselves down and dipped pen in ink, no
one that I have found has emphasized the very patent truth that it was a
woman who evolved the “Preraphaelite Idea,” and first exemplified it in
her life and housekeeping.

It was Frances Polidora Rossetti who supplied Emerson that fine phrase,
“Plain living and high thinking.” Of course, it might have been original
also with Emerson, but probably it reached him via the Ruskin and
Carlyle route.

Emerson also said, “A few plain rules suffice,” but Mrs. Rossetti ten
years before put it this way, “A few plain things suffice.” She had a
horror of debt which her husband did not fully share. She preferred
cleanly poverty and honest sparsity to luxury on credit. In her
household she had her way. Possibly it was making a virtue of
necessity, but she did it so sincerely and gracefully that prenatally
her children accepted the simplicity of their Preraphaelite home as its
chief charm.

Without the Rossettis the Preraphaelite Brotherhood would never have
existed. It will be remembered that the first protest of the Brotherhood
was directed against “Wilton carpets, gaudy hangings, and ornate,
strange and peculiar furniture.”

Christina Rossetti once told William Morris that when she was but seven
years old her mother and she congratulated themselves on the fact that
all the furniture they had was built on straight and simple lines, that
it might be easily cleaned with a damp cloth. They had no carpets, but
they possessed one fine rug in the “other room” which was daily brought
out to air and admire. The floors were finished in hard oil, and on the
walls were simply the few pictures that they themselves produced, and
the mother usually insisted on having only “one picture in a room at a
time, so as to have time to study it.”

So here we get the very quintessence of the entire philosophy of William
Morris: a philosophy which, it has well been said, has tinted the entire
housekeeping world.

In his magazine, called, somewhat ironically, “Good Words,” Dickens
ridiculed, reviled and berated the Preraphaelite Idea. Of course,
Dickens didn’t understand what the Rossettis were trying to express.

He called it pagan, anti-Christian, and the glorification of pauperism.
Dickens was born in a debtor’s prison–constructively–and he leaped
from squalor into fussy opulence. He wrote for the rabble, and he who
writes for the rabble has a ticket to Limbus one way. The Rossettis made
their appeal to the Elect Few. Dickens was sired by Wilkins Micawber and
dammed by Mrs. Nickleby. He wallowed in the cheap and tawdry, and the
gospel of sterling simplicity was absolutely outside his orbit. Dickens
knew no more about art than did the prosperous beefeater, who, being
partial to the hard sound of the letter, asked Rossetti for a copy of
“The Gurm,” and thus supplied the Preraphaelites a title they
thenceforth gleefully used.

But the abuse of Dickens had its advantages–it called the attention of
Ruskin to the little group. Ruskin came, he saw, and was conquered. He
sent forth such a ringing defense of the truths for which they stood
that the thinking people of London stopped and listened. And this caused
Holman Hunt to say, “Alas! I fear me we are getting respectable.”

Ruskin’s unstinted praise of this little band of artists was so great
that he convinced even his wife of the truth of his view; and as we
know, she fell in love with Millais, “the prize-taking cub,” and they
were married and lived happily ever after.

Ruskin and Morris were both born into rich families, where every luxury
that wealth could buy was provided. Having much, they knew the
worthlessness of things: they realized what Walter Pater has called “the
poverty of riches.” Dickens had only taken an imaginary correspondence
course in luxury, and so Wilton carpets and marble mantels gave him a
peace which religion could not lend. A Wilton carpet was to him a
Christian prayer-rug.

The joy of discovery was Ruskin’s: he found the Rossettis and gave them
to the world. Ruskin was a professor at Oxford, and in his classes were
two inseparables, William Morris and Burne-Jones. They became infected
with the simplicity virus; and when Burne-Jones went up to London, which
is down from Oxford, he sought out the man who had painted “The Girlhood
of the Virgin,” the picture Charles Dickens had advertised by declaring
it to be “blasphemously idolatrous.”

Burne-Jones was so delighted with Rossetti’s work that he insisted upon
Rossetti giving him lessons; and then he wrote such a glowing account of
the Rossettis to his chum, William Morris, that Morris came up to see
for himself whether these things were true.

Morris met the Rossettis, spent the evening at their home, and went back
to Oxford filled with the idea of Utopia, and that the old world would
not find rest until it accepted the dictum of Mrs. Rossetti, “A few
plain things suffice.”

It was a woman who brought about the Epoch.


The year Eighteen Hundred Fifty was certainly rich in gifts for Gabriel
Rossetti. He was twenty-two, gifted, handsome, intellectual, the adored
pet and pride of his mother and two sisters, and also the hero of the
little art group to which he belonged. I am not sure but that the lavish
love his friends had for him made him a bit smug and self-satisfied, for
we hear of Ruskin saying, “Thank God he is young,” which remark means
all that you can read into it.

At this time Rossetti had written many poems, and at least one great
one, “The Blessed Damozel.” He had also painted at least one great
picture, “The Girlhood of the Virgin,” a canvas he vainly tried to sell
for forty pounds, and which later was to be bought by the nation for the
tidy sum of eight hundred guineas, and now can not be bought for any
price–but which, nevertheless, may be seen by all, on the walls of the
National Gallery.

But four numbers of “The Germ” had been printed, and then the venture
had sunk into the realm of things that were, weighted with a debt of one
hundred twenty pounds. Of the fifty-one contributions to “The Germ”
twenty-six had been by the Rossettis. Dante Gabriel, always a bit
superstitious, felt sure that the gods were trying to turn him from
literature to art, but Christina felt no comfort in the failure.

Then came the championship of Ruskin, and this gave much courage to the
little group. Doubtless none knew they stood for so much until they had
themselves explained to themselves by Ruskin.

Then best of all came Burne-Jones and Morris, adding their faith to the
common fund and proving by cash purchases that their admiration was

Rossetti’s poem, “The Blessed Damozel,” was without doubt inspired by
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” but with this difference, that while
Rossetti carried the sorrow clear to Paradise, Poe was content to leave
his sorrow on earth.

Being a painter of pictures as well as picturing things by means of
words, Rossetti had constantly in his mind some one who might pose for
the Damozel. She must be stately, sober, serious, tall, and possess “a
wondrous length of limb.” Her features must be strong, individual, and
she must have personality rather than beauty.

A pretty woman would, of course, never, never do. Where was such a model
woman to be found?

Christina wrote a beautiful sonnet about this Ideal Woman. Here it is:

One face looks out from all his canvases;
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest Summer-greens,
A saint, an angel–every canvas means
The one same meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true, kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Dante Gabriel was becoming moody, dreamy and melancholy; but not quite
so melancholy as he thought he was, since the divine joy was his of
expressing his melancholy in art. People submerged in melancholy are not

Rossetti was quite sure that Nature had never made as lovely a woman as
he could imagine, and his drawings almost proved it. But being a man he
never gave up the quest.

One day, Walter Deverell, one of the Brotherhood, came into Rossetti’s
studio and proceeded to stand on his head and then jump over the
furniture. After being reprimanded, and then interrogated as to reasons,
he told what he was dying to tell–that is, “I have found her!” Her name
was Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, and she was an assistant to a milliner and
dressmaker in Oxford Street. She was seventeen years old, five feet
eight inches high, and weighed one hundred twenty pounds. Her hair was
of a marvelous, coppery, low tone, and her features were those of
Sappho. None of the assembled Brotherhood had ever seen Sappho, but they
had their ideas about her. Whether the dressmaker’s wonderful assistant
had intellect and soul did not trouble the young man. Dante Gabriel, the
Nestor of the group, twenty-two and wise, was not to be swept off his
feet by the young and impressible enthusiasm of Deverell, aged nineteen.

He sneezed and calmly continued his work at the easel, merely making
inward note of the location of the shop where the “find” was located.

Two hours later, Rossetti, perceiving himself alone, laid aside his
brushes and palette, put on his hat, and walked rapidly toward Oxford
Street. He located the shop, straggled past it, first on one side of the
street, then on the other, and finally boldly entered on a fictitious

Miss Siddal was there. He stared at her; she looked at him in
half-disdain. Suddenly his knees grew weak: he turned and fled.

Deverell boldly stalked the quarry the next day in company with his
mother, who was a customer of the shop. He failed to get an interview. A
little later, the mother went back alone, and put the matter before Miss
Siddal in a purely business light.

Elizabeth Eleanor was from a very poor family.

Her father was an auctioneer who had lost his voice, and she was glad to
increase the meager pay she was receiving by posing for the artists. She
was already a model, setting off bonnets and gowns, and her first idea
was that they wanted her for fashion-plates. Mrs. Deverell did not
disabuse her of this idea.

And so she posed for the class at Rossetti’s studio, duly gowned as
angels are supposed to be draped and dressed in Paradise.

Mrs. Deverell was present to give assurance, and all went well. The
young woman was dignified, proud, with a fine but untrained mind. As to
her knowledge of literature, she explained that she had read Tennyson’s
poems because she had found them on some sheets of paper that were
wrapped around a pat of butter she had bought to take home to her

Her general mood was one of silent good-nature, flavored with a dash of
pride, and an innocent curiosity to know how the picture was getting
along. It has been said that people who talk but little are quiet either
because they are too full for utterance, or because they have nothing to
utter. Miss Siddal was reserved, because she realized that she could
never talk as picturesquely as she could look. People who know their
limitations are in the line of evolution. The girl was eager and anxious
to learn, and Rossetti set about to educate her. In the operation he
found himself loving her with a mad devotion.

The other members of the Brotherhood respected this very frank devotion
and did not enter into competition with it, as they surely would have
done had it been merely admiration. They did not even make gentle fun
of it–it was too serious a matter with Rossetti: it was to him a
religion, and was to remain so to the day of his death. Within a week
after their meeting, “The House of Life” began to find form. He wrote to
her and for her, and always and forever she was his model. The color of
her hair got into his brush, and her features were enshrined in his

He called her “Guggums” or “Gug.” Occasionally, he showed impatience if
any one by even the lifting of an eyebrow seemed to doubt the divinity
of the Guggums.

There was no time for ardent wooing on his part, no vacillation nor
coyness on hers. He loved her with an absorbing passion–loved her for
her wonderful physical beauty, and what she may have lacked in mind he
was able to make good.

And she accepted his love as if it were her due, and as if it had always
been hers. She was not agitated under the burning impetus; no, she just
calmly and placidly accepted it as a matter of course.

It will hardly do to say that she was indifferent, but Burne-Jones was
led by Miss Siddal’s beautiful calm to say, “Love is never mutual–one
loves and the other consents to be loved.”

The family of Rossetti, his mother and sisters, must have known how much
of the ideal was in his passion. Mentally, Miss Siddal was not on their
plane; but the joy of Dante Gabriel was their joy, and so they never
opposed the inevitable. He, however, acknowledged Christina’s mental
superiority by somewhat imperiously demanding that Christina should
converse with Miss Siddal on “great themes.”

Ruskin has added his endorsement to Miss Siddal’s worth by calling her
“a glorious creature.”

Dante Gabriel’s own descriptions of Elizabeth Eleanor are too much
retouched to be accurate; but William Rossetti, who viewed her with a
critical eye, describes her as “tall, finely formed, with lofty neck;
regular, yet uncommon, features; greenish-blue, unsparkling eyes; large,
perfect eyelids; brilliant complexion, and a lavish wealth of dark
molten-gold hair.”

In the diary of Madox Brown for October Sixth, Eighteen Hundred
Fifty-four, is this: “Called on Dante Rossetti. Saw Miss Siddal, looking
thinner and more death-like, and more beautiful and more ragged than
ever; a real artist, a woman without parallel for many a long year.
Gabriel as usual diffuse and inconsequent in his work. Drawing wonderful
and lovely Guggums one after another, each one a fresh charm, each one
stamped with immortality, and his picture never advancing. However, he
is at the wall and I am to get him a white calf and a cart to paint
here; would he but study the Golden One a little more. Poor Gabriello!”

In Elizabeth Eleanor’s manner there was a morbid languor and dreaminess,
put on, some said, for her lover like a Greek gown, and surely
encouraged by him and pictured in his Dantesque creations.

Always and forever for him she was the Beata Beatrix. His days were
consumed in writing poems to her or painting her, and if they were
separated for a single day he wrote her a letter, and demanded that she
should write one in return, to which we once hear of her gently
demurring. She, however, took lessons in drawing, and often while posing
would work with her pencil and paper.

Ruskin was so pleased with her work that he offered to buy everything
she did, and finally a bargain was struck and he paid her one hundred
pounds a year and took everything she drew.

Possibly this does not so much prove the worth of her work as the
generosity of Ruskin. The dressmaker’s shop had been able to get along
without its lovely model, and art had been the gainer. At one time a
slight cloud appeared on the horizon: another “find” had been located.
Rossetti saw her at the theater, ascertained her name and called on her
the next day and asked for sittings. Her name was Miss Burden. She was
very much like Miss Siddal, only her face was pale and her hair wavy and
black. She was statuesque, picturesque, of good family, and had a
wondrous poise. Rossetti straightway sent for William Morris to come and
admire her. William Morris came, and married her in what Rossetti
resentfully called “an unbecoming and insufficiently short space of

For some months there was a marked coldness between Morris and
Rossetti, but if Miss Siddal was ever disturbed by the advent of Miss
Burden we do not know it. Whistler has said that it was Mrs. Morris who
gave immortality to the Preraphaelites by supplying them stained-glass
attitudes. She posed as Saint Michael, Gabriel, and Saint John the
Beloved, and did service for the types that required a little more
sturdiness than Miss Siddal could supply.

The Burne-Jones dream-women are very largely composite studies of Miss
Siddal and Mrs. Morris; as for Rossetti, he painted their portraits
before he saw them, and loved them on sight because they looked like his


After Dante Gabriel and Elizabeth Eleanor had been engaged for more than
five years–that is, in the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five–Madox
Brown asked Rossetti this very obvious question: “Why do you not marry
her?” One reason was that Rossetti was afraid if he married her he would
lose her. He doted on her, fed on her, still wrote sonnets just for her,
and counted the hours when they parted until he could see her again.
Miss Siddal was not quite firm enough in moral and mental fiber to cut
out her own career. She deferred constantly to her lover, adopted his
likes and dislikes, and went partners with him even in his prejudices.
They dwelt in Bohemia, which is a good place to camp, but a very poor
place in which to settle down.

The precarious ways of Bohemia do not make for length of days. Miss
Siddal seemed to fall into a decline, her spirits lost their buoyancy,
she grew nervous when required to pose for several hours at a time.
Rossetti scraped together all his funds and sent her on a trip alone
through France. She fell sick there, and we hear of Rossetti working
like mad on a canvas, so as to sell the picture and send her money.

When she returned, a good deal of her old-time beauty seemed to have
vanished: the fine disdain, that noble touch of scorn, was gone–and
Rossetti wrote a sonnet declaring her more beautiful than ever. Ruskin
thought he saw the hectic flush of death upon her cheek.

Sorrow, love, ill-health, poverty, tamed her spirit, and Swinburne
telling of her, years after, speaks of “her matchless loveliness,
courage, endurance, humor and sweetness–too dear and sacred to be
profaned by any attempt at expression.”

Rossetti writing to Allingham says: “It seems to me when I look at her
working, or too ill to work, and think of how many without one tithe of
her genius or greatness of spirit have granted them abundant health and
opportunity to labor through the little they can or will do, while
perhaps her soul is never to bloom, nor her bright hair to fade; but
after hardly escaping from degradation and corruption, all she might
have been must sink again unprofitably in that dark house where she was
born. How truly she may say, ‘No man cared for my soul.’ I do not mean
to make myself an exception, for how long have I known her, and not
thought of this till so late–perhaps too late.”

In Rossetti’s love for this beautiful human lily there was something
very selfish, the selfishness of the artist who sacrifices everything
and everybody, even himself, to get the work done.

Rossetti’s love for Miss Siddal was sincere in its insincerity. The art
impulse was supreme in him and love was secondary. The nine years’
engagement, with the uncertain, vacillating, forgetful, absent-minded
habits of erratic genius to deal with, wore out the life of this
beautiful creature.

The mother-instinct in her had been denied: Nature had been set at
naught, and art enthroned. When the physician told Rossetti that the
lovely lily was to fade and die, he straightway abruptly married her,
swearing he would nurse her back to life. He then gave her the “home”
they had so long talked of; three little rooms, one all hung with her
own drawings and none other. He petted her, invited in the folks she
liked best, gave little entertainments, and both declared that never
were they so happy.

She suffered much from neuralgia, and the laudanum taken to relieve the
pain had grown into a necessity.

On the Tenth of February, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-two, she dined with her
husband and Mr. Swinburne at a nearby hotel. Rossetti then accompanied
her to their home, and leaving her there went alone to give his weekly
lecture at the Working Men’s College. When he returned in two hours, he
found her unconscious from an overdose of laudanum. She never regained
consciousness, breathing her last but a few short hours later.


The grief of Rossetti on the death of his wife was pitiable. His friends
feared for his sanity, and had he not been closely watched it is quite
possible that one grave would have held the lovers. He reproached
himself for neglecting her. He cursed art and literature for having
seduced him away from her, and thus allowed her to grope her way alone.
He prophesied what she might have been had he only devoted himself to
her as a teacher, and by encouragement allowed her soul to bloom and
blossom. “I should have worked through her hand and brain,” he cried.

He gathered all the poems he had written to her, including “The House of
Life,” and tying them up with one of the ribbons she had worn, placed
the precious package by stealth in her coffin, close to the cold heart
that had forever stopped pulsing. And so the poems were buried with the
woman who had inspired them.

Was it vanity that prompted Rossetti after seven years to have the body
exhumed and recover the poems that they might be given to the world? I
do not think so, else all men who print the things they write are
inspired by vanity. Rossetti was simply unfortunate in being placed
before the public in a moment of spiritual undress. Everybody is
ridiculous and preposterous every day, only the public does not see it,
and therefore the acts are not ridiculous and preposterous. The conduct
of the lovers is always absurd to the onlooker, but the onlooker has no
business to look on–he is a false note in a beautiful symphony, and
should be eliminated.

Rossetti in the transport of his grief, filled with bitter regret, and
with a welling heart for one who had done so much for him, gave into her
keeping, as if she were just going on a journey, the finest of his
possessions. It was no sacrifice–the poems were hers.

At such a time do you think a man is revolving in his mind business
arrangements with Barabbas?

The years passed, and Rossetti again began to write–for God is good.

The grief that can express itself is well diluted; in fact, grief often
is a beneficent stimulus of the ganglionic cells. The sorrow that is
dumb before men, and which, if it ever cries aloud, seeks first the
sanctity of solitude, is the only sorrow to which Christ in pity turns
his eye or lends his ear.

The paroxysms of grief had given way to calm reflection. The river of
his love was just as deep, but the current was not so turbulent.
Expression came bringing balm and myrrh. And so on the advice of his
friends, endorsed by his own promptings, the grave was opened and the
package of poems recovered.

It was an act that does not bear the close scrutiny of the unknowing
mob. And I do not wonder at the fierce hate that sprang up in the breast
of Rossetti when a hounding penny-a-liner in London sought to picture
the stealthy, ghoul-like digging in a grave at midnight, and the
recovery of what he called “a literary bauble.” As if the man’s vanity
had gotten the better of his love, or as if he had changed his mind! Men
who know, know that Rossetti had not changed his mind–he had only
changed his mood.

The suggestion that gentlemen poets about to deposit poems in the
coffins of their lady-loves should have copies of the originals
carefully made before so doing, was scandalous. However, when this was
followed up with the idea that Rossetti should, after exhuming the
poems, have copies made and place these back in the coffin, and that the
performance of midnight digging was nothing less than petit larceny from
a dead woman, witnessed by the Blessed Damozel leaning over the bar of
Heaven–in all this we get an offense in literature and good taste which
in Kentucky or Arizona would surely have cost the penny-a-liner his

If these poems had not been recovered, the world would have lost “The
House of Life,” a sonnet series second not even to the “Sonnets From the
Portuguese,” and the immortal sonnets of Shakespeare.

The way Rossetti kept the clothing and all the little nothings that had
once belonged to his wife revealed the depths of love–or the
foolishness of it, all depending upon your point of view. Mrs. Millais
tells of calling at Rossetti’s house in Cheyne Walk in Eighteen Hundred
Seventy, nearly ten years after the death of Elizabeth Eleanor, and
having occasion to hang her wraps in a wardrobe, perceived the dresses
that had once belonged to Mrs. Rossetti hanging there on the same hooks
with Rossetti’s raiment. Rossetti made apology for the seeming confusion
and said, “You see, if I did not find traces of her all over the house I
should surely die.”

A year after the death of his wife Rossetti painted the wonderful “Beata
Beatrix,” a portrait of Beatrice sitting in a balcony overlooking
Florence. The beautiful eyes filled with ache, dream and expectation are
closed as if in a transport of calm delight. An hourglass is at hand and
a dove is just dropping a poppy, the flower of sleep and death, into her
open hands. Of course the picture is a portrait of the dear, dead wife,
and so in all the pictures thereafter painted by Dante Gabriel for the
twenty years that he lived, you perceive that while he had various
models, in them all he traced resemblances to this first, last and only
passion of his life.


In William Sharp’s fine little book, “A Record and a Study,” I find

As to the personality of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a great deal has
been written since his death, and it is now widely known that he was
a man who exercised an almost irresistible charm over those with
whom he was brought in contact. His manner could be peculiarly
winning, especially with those much younger than himself, and his
voice was alike notable for its sonorous beauty and for the magnetic
quality that made the ear alert when the speaker was engaged in
conversation, recitation or reading. I have heard him read, some of
them over and over again, all the poems in the “Ballads and
Sonnets,” and especially in such productions as “The Cloud Confines”
was his voice as stirring as a trumpet-note; but where he excelled
was in some of the pathetic portions of “The Vita Nuova” or the
terrible and sonorous passages of “L’Inferno,” when the music of the
Italian language found full expression indeed. His conversational
powers I am unable adequately to describe, for during the four or
five years of my intimacy with him he suffered too much to be a
brilliant talker, but again and again I have seen instances of that
marvelous gift that made him at one time a Sydney Smith in wit and a
Coleridge in eloquence.

In appearance he was, if anything, rather above middle height, and,
especially latterly, somewhat stout; his forehead was of splendid
proportions, recalling instantaneously the Stratford bust of
Shakespeare; and his gray-blue eyes were clear and piercing, and
characterized by that rapid, penetrative gaze so noticeable in

He seemed always to me an unmistakable Englishman, yet the Italian
element frequently was recognizable; as far as his own opinion was
concerned, he was wholly English. Possessing a thorough knowledge of
French and Italian, he was the fortunate appreciator of many great
works in their native tongue, and his sympathies in religion, as in
literature, were truly catholic. To meet him even once was to be the
better for it ever after; those who obtained his friendship can not
well say all it meant and means to them; but they know they are not
again in the least likely to meet with such another as Dante Gabriel

In Walter Hamilton’s book, “AEsthetic England,” is this bit of most vivid

Naturally the sale of Rossetti’s effects attracted a large number of
persons to the gloomy, old-fashioned residence in Cheyne Walk,
Chelsea, and many of the articles sold went for prices very far in
excess of their intrinsic value, the total sum realized being over
three thousand pounds. But during the sale of the books, on that
fine July afternoon, in the dingy study hung round with the lovely
but melancholy faces of Proserpine and Pandora, despite the noise of
the throng and the witticisms of the auctioneer, a sad feeling of
desecration must have crept over many of those who were present at
the dispersion of the household goods and gods of that man who so
hated the vulgar crowd. Gazing through the open windows they could
see the tall trees waving their heads in a sorrowful sort of way in
the summer breeze, throwing their shifty shadows over the neglected
grass-grown paths, once the haunt of the stately peacocks, whose
medieval beauty had such a strange fascination for Rossetti, and
whose feathers are now the accepted favors of his apostles and
admirers. And so their gaze would wander back again to that
mysterious face upon the wall, that face as some say the grandest in
the world, a lovely one in truth, with its wistful, woeful,
passionate eyes, its sweet, sad mouth with the full red lips; a face
that seemed to say the sad old lines:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all.

And then would come the monotonous cry of the auctioneer to disturb
the reverie, and call one back to the matter-of-fact world which
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter and poet, has left


I made a few slap-dash notes while reading Little Journeys for the first time:

-I’ve always assumed that C. Rossetti’s poem In An Artist’s Studio is about Lizzie, and I still believe this, so I was a bit surprised that Hubbard wrote about it as if it was about a generic “Ideal Woman”.

-According to Hubbard’s account of Lizzie’s discovery, Gabriel made his way to the shop where Lizzie worked after Deverell told him of her–I love how Hubbard dramatizes this with Lizzie looking at Gabriel in “half-disdain” and Gabriel going weak in the knees.

-Hubbard states Lizzie’s father was an auctioneer who had lost his voice?

-But I loved this sentence.  I don’t know why, it just made me chuckle. “They dwelt in Bohemia, which is a good place to camp, but a very poor place in which to settle down.”

-Hmm.  States that Rossetti scraped together funds to send Lizzie to France when it was in fact Ruskin.  But he is correct that Rossetti hurried to finish a picture while she was away in order to send her more money.  The picture was Paolo and Francesca de Rimini.

-No mention of their stillborn child.

-I’d like to find the two books mentioned at the end:  William Sharp’s A Record and a Study, and Walter Hamilton’s Aesthetic England.

Letter Gabriel wrote to his mother announcing his marriage to Lizzie

12 East Parade, Hastings.
Friday [13 April 1860].
My Dear Mother,

I write you this word to say that Lizzy and I are going to be married at last, in as few days as possible. I may be in town again first, but am not certain. If so, I shall be sure to see you; but write this as I should be sorry that new news should reach you first from any other quarter.

Like all the important things I ever meant to do—to fulfil duty or secure happiness—this one has been deferred almost beyond possibility. I have hardly deserved that Lizzy should still consent to it, but she has done so, and I trust I may still have time to prove my thankfulness to her. The constantly failing state of her health is a terrible anxiety indeed; but I must still hope for the best, and am at any rate at this moment in a better position to take the step, as regards money prospects, than I have ever been before. I shall either see you or write again soon, and meanwhile and ever am
Your most affectionate Son,
D. G. Rossetti.

Handwriting Analysis of Lizzie Siddal & Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Author Jack  Challem, who was kind enough to share his photo of Lizzie’s grave, has also been gracious enough to mail me an article he co-wrote for The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies in 1987. This is an analysis of the handwriting of both Elizabeth Siddal and her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Thank you Jack.

It is in a pdf file and studies the personalities of Siddal and Rossetti through their handwriting. It includes the methods they used, emotional make-up of Rossetti and Siddal, thinking processes, potential for achievement, sources of anxiety, social conduct, personal integrity, special aptitudes, etc.


Click here to read the handwriting analysis of Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (PDF)

(you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader and depending on the speed of your connection and your computer, the article may take a while to load.)

Timeline of Elizabeth Siddal’s Life

timelineJuly 25, 1829 – Birth of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (born at Charles Street, Hatton Garden)

1831 – Siddall family moves from Hatton Garden to Southwark (in South London)

1833 – Lizzie’s father, Charles, runs a business from his home at 8 Kent Place. This is the home they rented from James Greenacre, who would later commit murder.

1849 – Lizzie works at Mrs. Tozer’s hat shop and is “discovered” by Walter Deverell, who paints her as Viola in his painting Twelfth Night. Lizzie is propelled into the world of Pre-Raphaelite art.

1849-50 – DGR’s portrait Rossovestita (possibly of Lizzie) is exhibited.

1852 – Lizzie models for Millais’ Ophelia. Also in this year, her brother Charles dies. Lizzie models for Holman Hunt again (for the hair of Jesus in The Light of the World). It also seems that it is some time time this year that DGR decides that he does not want Lizzie to model for any other artist. Lizzie officially stops working for Mrs. Tozer.  1852 is the first recorded mention of Lizzie’s ill health.

Nov. 1852 – DGR moves to 14 Chatham Place in Blackfriars, London and takes Lizzie on as a pupil.

March 28, 1854 – DGR introduces Lizzie to his sister Christina. By this time, according to Lucinda Hawksley’s book, their friends had recognized them as a couple for two years.

1854 –  Lizzie’s poem Fragment of a Ballad possibly written (Lucinda Hawksley’s biography is my source for this date. I have never seen dates for Lizzie’s poems in any other source). Deverell dies in 1854. Anna Mary Howitt and her sister persuade Lizzie to see a doctor (Dr. Wilkinson) for her health. Also that year, Lizzie travels to Hastings for her health (encouraged by Barbara Leigh Smith). DGR’s father dies. Instead of staying with his family, he joins Lizzie in Hastings as soon as the funeral is over. Also this year, Lizzie starts her illustration of Clerk Saunders.

1854 continued – After returning to Chatham Place, Lizzie starts an illustration for DGR’s poem Sister Helen. She continues in her studies as DGR’s pupil, as well as being his muse.

1855 – Art critic John Ruskin purchases all of Lizzie’s works. DGR wrote about it in a letter to William Allingham:

About a week ago, Ruskin saw and bought on the spot every scrap of designs hitherto produced by Miss Siddal. He declared that they were far better than mine, or almost anyone’s, and seemed quite wild with delight at getting them. . . .

Ruskin later becomes her patron. Also in 1855, Lizzie finally meets DGR’s mother. Ruskin sends Lizzie to see Dr. Henry Wentworth Ackland in Oxford on May 21, 1855. Ruskin also finances a trip to France for Lizzie’s health. While in Paris, DGR joins her there against Ruskin’s wishes. DGR introduced her to Robert Browning. who was also in Paris, but the meeting did not go well, perhaps due to Lizzie’s use of Laudanum. Lizzie then travels to Nice, but had spent all of her money. She wrote to DGR, who had returned home. He quickly painted his triptych, Paolo and Francesca de Rimini, and sold it to Ruskin in order to bring Lizzie the money. It is during Lizzie’s travels that DGR, left home alone, met William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Also this year, Lizzie exhibited her work in Charlotte Street.

1856 – Sept. 8, 1856 Ford Madox Brown records in his diary that Rossetti has given up Annie Miller and is committed to Lizzie and “he and Guggum seem on the best of terms now.” Rossetti and Siddal are named as godparents to Madox Brown’s new baby Arthur Gabriel. In November DGR announces plans to marry Lizzie, but later changes his mind. A furious Lizzie leaves DGR, fleeing to Bath with her sister Clara. She refuses to see DGR, but he joins her there in December and they are reconciled.

1857 – Several of Lizzie’s paintings and illustrations appear in the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition in Fitzroy Square, Marylebone. Lizzie was the only female artist. An American from Massachusetts purchased Lizzie’s painting Clerk Saunders.

Lizzie stops taking her allowance from Ruskin.

Lizzie travels to Matlock, Derbyshire and later travels to Sheffield. She attends the Sheffield School of Art. During this time DGR is in Oxford, along with William Morris , Edward Burne-Jones and others painting murals for the Oxford Union.

1857-58 (?) – DGR rushes to Matlock when he hears she is seriously ill. He continues to travel back and forth for several months.

1860 – Lizzie is extremely ill; DGR is convinced she will die soon. On May 23, 1860 Lizzie was well enough to make it to the church and she and Rossetti are married (in Hastings). They honeymoon in France.

Lizzie is pregnant. (date unknown)

October 1860 they move into Chatham Place permanently. Lizzie writes the poem “At Last” during her pregnancy.(According to Lucinda Hawksley bio. I am still trying to find other sources to validate the poem dates.)

May 2, 1861 – Lizzie delivers a stillborn daughter. Lizzie continues to suffer with laudanum addiction and now postpartum depression.

Sometime toward the end of 1861, Lizzie is pregnant again.

February 1862 – Lizzie goes out to dinner with DGR and Algernon Charles Swinburne, returning home around 8:00. DGR leaves for the Working Men’s College. He returns home at 11:30 and cannot revive Lizzie. Help is summoned. DGR, unwilling to believe that she can not be saved, has four different doctors summoned. Each of them try and fail to revive her.

Lizzie dies at 7:20 in the morning, February 11, 1862. Her funeral is held on February 17th.

You can read the transcript of the inquest here.
1869 – Rossetti has Lizzie’s grave exhumed in order to retrieve the manuscript of poems that he had buried with her. interviews author Lucinda Hawksley

I am thrilled and honored that Lucinda Hawksley, author of Lizzie Siddal: Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, took the time to answer a few questions. Hawksley is a best-selling author, speaker, and the great-great-great- granddaughter of Charles Dickens. If you have not yet read her biography of Elizabeth Siddal, I encourage you to do so. It is an interesting and well-researched narrative of Siddal’s life. She has also recently published a biography of Charles Dicken’s daughter, Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens’s Artist Daughter One of the reasons I started was because I was frustrated with the fact that almost everything I could find about her online only dealt with the gothic aspects of her death and exhumation. Which is why I, and so many others, are thrilled with your book. You’ve personalized her without idealizing her. You obviously knew a great deal about her before writing this book, but during the process, did you find any information that surprised you?

Lucinda Hawksley:

I was surprised by the discovery that it was she who seems to have started the rumour that she lived in a slum, when actually she didn’t. I was also very fascinated by researching the areas in which she grew up (through the Holborn and Southwark local studies libraries) and finding out about the people she lived near and the buildings that were there then, in particular what a beautifully green area Southwark was at the time!

The thing that surprised me most was how much sympathy I had for Rossetti, after realising how difficult Lizzie must have been to live with and seeing the extent to which she managed to emotionally manipulate him (seen in the letters he sent to other people, unconscious of what they must have been able to read between the lines).

I loved the fact that she finally got fed up of Rossetti’s infidelities and left him – and that when she did so she decided to prove to herself that she was a good artist and went off to Sheffield to art school. I really admired that in a woman of her era and with her addiction problems. I was also impressed that she gave up her money from Ruskin, though I wish she hadn’t and had continued to paint! I would love to have been able to find out exactly what transpired between her and Ruskin, I wondered if he became too controlling and she chose to break free. If so, I really admire that too.

I was very happy to read some good opinions of her, instead of the usual William Rossetti version of everything. I particularly liked the discovery that her employer Mrs Tozer allowed her to work part-time in the hat shop, when she was first modelling. Part-time work was not common then, so Mrs Tozer must have thought really highly of her. Some descriptions of both Lizzie and Rossetti lead me to believe that they may have been manic depressive or bipolar. Do you have any thoughts on this? You mention in the book that both were “prone to wild mood swings, ranging from the elevated to the depressed.”
Lucinda Hawksley:

They were both depressives, I have suspicions that they were possibly bipolar, but it is not possible to know for certain without a patient there in front of you. I spoke to quite a few doctors, including psychiatrists, when researching the Lizzie and Katey books and they all said the same thing – it’s very difficult to make real diagnoses based only on historic events. would you characterize the relationship between Lizzie and Christina Rossetti? I know that they were far from close, but Christina’s poem ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ shows her sympathy with the fact that Rossetti saw Lizzie more as his artistic muse than a real, flesh and blood woman.
Lucinda Hawksley:

My theory is that Christina was quite obsessed with Lizzie. She obviously didn’t like her – making that apparent – and disapproved of her on moral grounds, but I think deep down she would have liked to be like her. Christina was obviously largely motivated in her dislike of Lizzie by her older sister Maria’s disapproval and by Christina’s own jealousy that Lizzie had taken Dante’s affections away from her. In your research, did you find any information that gave you insight into Lizzie’s relationship with Jane Morris? Do you think Lizzie knew of her husband’s attraction to Jane?
Lucinda Hawksley:

I think Lizzie did know. I think she suspected it before they were married when Rossetti was writing letters to her from Oxford. Not long after the group met Janey, Rossetti suddenly had to rush off because Lizzie wrote to him that she was ill.I felt so very sorry for Lizzie where Janey was concerned. She was a younger, beautiful woman whose husband’s wealth gave her a much easier life than Lizzie’s. The hardest thing must have been the ease with which Janey got pregnant and had healthy children. When I was researching into the time Rossetti sent Lizzie off to stay with the Morrises after Lizzie had her stillborn baby – when Janey not only had a healthy child but was pregnant again – it made me so sad. A visitor to my site recently posted a comment questioning whether or not Lizzie’s relationship with Algernon Charles Swinburne might have been more than platonic. Any thoughts?
Lucinda Hawksley:

I don’t think it was more than platonic, partly because Lizzie seems to have been a one-man woman and partly because Rossetti trusted them together implicitly. When one considers how jealous Rossetti was of Lizzie sitting to any other artist than him, it seems he must have had very good reasons for not being jealous of Swinburne. After meeting Rossetti, Lizzie really doesn’t seem to have wanted any other man except him. There’s no suggestion of her ever being unfaithful or even flirting – even when she knew Rossetti was cheating on her and her art teacher in Sheffield was infatuated with her. In describing Lizzie’s childhood, you mentioned that her social class was not so far removed from Rossetti’s as most people believe. Do you think this fabrication originated from Lizzie or Rossetti?
Lucinda Hawksley:

Apparently it originated from her. I think to make herself more romantic and appeal to Rossetti’s (and the general Pre-Raphaelite) desire to be a chivalrous knight saving a damsel in distress! It is very odd that Lizzie should have made her social origins more humble than they actually were. It’s something I could never quite work out the sense of. Ophelia is perhaps the most famous image of Lizzie. Did you find any indication of how she felt about the painting? Obviously, posing for it was physically trying for her. I wonder how she felt about the finished project.
Lucinda Hawksley:

There’s no recorded impression from her, but I think she must have been proud of it. She visited Ophelia on display in Paris in 1855 when she was travelling through to the South of France. William Rossetti later said that it was the best of all portraits of her, the most like her, and Millais was already very famous by the time Lizzie died. Incidentally, if any of your readers are coming to London before 13 Jan 2008 they should try and visit the wonderful new Millais exhibition at the tate Britain. Ophelia is on display there, newly cleaned and looking beautiful. (It’s the MOST amazing exhibition – worth making a special trip for!) Does it appear as if anyone around her was concerned with her frequent use of laudanum? Did anyone try to help or reduce her usage?
Lucinda Hawksley:

It is implied that both her parents and Rossetti tried to help her reduce her usage but there are no concrete records about how they felt. Laudanum then really was used like we might use paracetamol or aspirin, so it was quite normal for people – especially women – to use it in large quantities. Is there any record of how Lizzie’s family felt about Rossetti having her exhumed? They must have been aware of it after the fact, and no doubt shocked.
Lucinda Hawksley:

I don’t know that they would have been aware of it – if they had done they would I am sure have been furious. Rossetti’s own mother who was the legal owner of the grave and should have been consulted was amazingly kept in ignorance of it. It seems they managed to keep it a secret for many years. It was something Rossetti was deeply ashamed of and something that I believe contributed to him going insane. Have you ever visited Lizzie’s grave? I believe that it is in an area of Highgate that is rarely accessible to visitors. But I know that I, along with many visitors to my site, would love to be able to visit. So if you’ve been, perhaps we can enjoy a visit vicariously through you.
Lucinda Hawksley:

I have visited it, but several years ago. It is in an area of the cemetery that is susbsiding (apparently) so it’s not usually deemed suitable for groups of visitors to see it. The last time I went there had been a lot of rain and they weren’t allowing anyone into that part of the graveyard. She is buried in the Rossetti family grave, which is a pretty plot, but in comparison to some of the incredibly opulent graves at Highgate it is really quite insignificant, I’m sorry to say. If any of your readers are coming to London, it really is worth visiting Highgate, even though they probably won’t get to see Lizzie’s grave, as it is the most fascinating place. Perhaps it is because I’m an American, but I did not discover Lizzie or Pre-Raphaelite art until my early twenties. Are they well known to most people in Britain? Is Siddal someone you always knew about? Or can you remember when you first became interested in the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites? I have to say, they are an interesting bunch of characters.
Lucinda Hawksley:

The Pre-Raphaelites are extremely well known here and their paintings are still used a great deal for things such as advertising and book jackets. In the 1980s and early 1990s there was a very popular chain of poster shops called Athena, one of their best-selling posters was Millais’s ‘Ophelia’. I became interested in the Pre-Raphaelites through the poetry of Christina Rossetti, which I loved from the age of about 13 onwards. At around that age I was in an art gallery and saw the name “Dante Rossetti” and thought ‘I wonder if he’s a relation…’ So I actually discovered the artists through literature. From the first time I read about their lives I was hooked. They are such a fascinating group of people. In fact the London art world (very closely tied to the worlds of literature and music) all through the 19th and early 20th centuries fascinates me – not least because the main characters all knew one another and their lives became so intertwined. You meet the same people again and again when researching art history from that period; I love it, it’s like meeting old friends! Growing up as the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens is an awesome pedigree. Did you always want to be a writer? And did you view your ancestry as a help or a hindrance?
Lucinda Hawksley:

I have wanted to be a writer for as far back as I can remember – though I have two sisters and many cousins and they don’t feel the same way, so it may or may not have been because of Dickens. I have always known about the connection, it would be hard not to when Dickens is such an incredibly important part of British culture, history etc. If I am honest it has been both a help and a hindrance, though usually more of a help, because people are so interested. I’m a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum in London ( and it is such a privilege. It’s amazing to stand in the home your ancestors once lived in and see people who are thrilled and inspired by the exhibits. There will always be people who want to pick apart anything I write and say “it’s not as good as Dickens”, but then that’s part of the world of being a writer! There will always be critics. Do you feel close or emotionally invested in the people you research? I’m interested in the dynamics — and did researching Kate Perugini feel different than researching Siddal because of the family aspect?
Lucinda Hawksley:

Researching both Lizzie and Katey were very different journeys. Both were women I had admired for many years, so it was wonderful to have the chance to really get to know them. I have missed both of them since I stopped writing their stories, though I give regular talks about them, which is great fun. I especially love the questions at the end from people who are equally keen to find out more about them. I do feel very emotionally close to both of them. On both occasions, when I completed the manuscript, I felt a sense of bereavement. When I was writing about Katey I discovered what seemed to be bigamy on the part of her second husband – though, very excitingly!, turned out to have been an earlier secret marriage to her. I felt physically sick as I tried to find the marriage certificate to see who he had married and the sense of relief and happiness when I discovered Katey’s name on the certificate was enormous. I had felt outraged on her behalf. Likewise when I was writing Lizzie’s story I got to the point when I couldn’t stand Annie Miller for the bitchy delight she took in trying to take Rossetti away from Lizzie (by contrast, I grew very fond of Fanny Cornforth and really felt sad for her that Rossetti had left her to get back with and then marry Lizzie). The family aspect of researching Katey made it a necessarily more emotional journey as I was discovering personalities who were so like people I have in my life today. It was also so fascinating to uncover almost forgotten family stories. I enjoy reading biographies, but I have to say that reading your biography of Elizabeth Siddal was a refreshing change. It reads almost more like a novel than a dry biography. You have a knack for telling a tale. Have you ever considered writing fiction?
Lucinda Hawksley:

Thank you! Yes I have considered writing fiction and have a half-finished children’s novel in my desk – which maybe one day I will find the chance to finish. I hope so. I find people’s lives so incredibly interesting and am always astonished when I read a biography that can make a vibrant, dynamic person seem dull. Truth really is so much more interesting than most fiction. If Lizzie hadn’t existed and I had made up her life story it would have probably been criticised for being too far fetched. Are you planning any more books on people in the Pre-Raphaelite circle?
Lucinda Hawksley:

Yes, I am hoping to do one on Millais and Simeon Solomon – and more work on the group and movement in general. It’s all in the early stages at the moment. One thing I have noticed from all the emails I get about my site is that people who are interested in Lizzie almost seem protective towards her. Their interest is intense and their curiosity about her is deep. And since her story has also captivated me, it is a great pleasure to discuss her with others who are also interested. Do you have a similar experience at book signings and lectures when you meet your readers?
Lucinda Hawksley:

Absolutely, I like to call it the Marilyn Monroe syndrome. With both Marilyn and Lizzie I think women wish that they could have been friends with her as their friendship might have “saved” her. Men always find both the women intriguing because they remained young and beautiful, never seen as old or unattractive. It tends to happen in general with people who died young – from Lord Byron to James Dean. They retain that allure about them – like a mystery novel that doesn’t have an ending. People always want to find out more. Lizzie’s constant popularity is amazing to me, I love that she is as much of a celebrity in some circles as the people who appear on the cover of those [annoying!] celebrity magazines we have in the UK.

I am grateful that Lucinda Hawksley took the time to chat with me! It was truly an honor. Visit her website, for information on speaking engagements and book tours.