Previously posted at preraphaelitesisterhood.com:
I am surfacing. I apologize for my silence and lack of posting. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been coming to terms with the fact that my husband is going to continue to be hospitalized at least until mid-March with osteomyelitis, a bone infection. So, I’ve been adapting to life with three children while one parent is unavailable. It’s difficult, to say the least. I do hope, though, to blog on a regular basis. This site is a lifeline for me, and I am grateful for each of you who take the time to visit and post a comment!
February 11th marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Siddal. I received several lovely emails and invitations to attend the commemorative service at Highgate Cemetery and I’m heartbroken that I could not attend. However, there are some excellent posts marking the day. If I’ve missed yours, please let me know!
My dear friend Kirsty Stonell Walker outdid herself, not only visiting the grave of Lizzie Siddal, but also tracking down the grave of Pre-Raphaelite model Alexa Wilding. Read her post about it, A Tale of Two Stunners.
Verity Holloway shares her thoughts on the death of Elizabeth Siddal. “As is often the case with historical women, Lizzie Siddal has always been in danger of being overwhelmed by her own image.”
Author Robert Parry wrote a moving post about the anniversary. “There will never be a photo of an elderly Elizabeth Siddal discovered in a hidden attic.”
Valerie Meachum is a kindred spirit, we share a love and respect for Lizzie. I found her post especially poignant and I think it’s wonderful that she took the title from one of Lizzie’s own poems: And this is only earth, my dear.
Finally, what a perfect way to spend the day: SomniumDantis was present at the Highgate memorial and then visited Lizzie as Ophelia by Millais. Beautiful.
Thank you to my friend John R. Green who has given me permission to share his photos of the service at Highgate:
I have been reading Hall Caine’s Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He touches briefly on Lizzie’s exhumation to retrieve the manuscript of poems that DGR had placed in her coffin:
Rossetti had buried the only complete copy of his poems with his wife at Highgate, and for a time he had been able to put by the thought of them; but as one by one his friends, Mr. Morris, Mr. Swinburne, and others, attained to distinction as poets, he began to hanker after poetic reputation, and to reflect with pain and regret upon the hidden fruits of his best effort. Rossetti—in all love of his memory be it spoken—was after all a frail mortal; of unstable character: of variable purpose: a creature of impulse and whim, and with a plentiful lack of the backbone of volition. With less affection he would not have buried his book; with more strength of will he had not done so; or, having done so, he had never wished to undo what he had done; or having undone it, he would never have tormented himself with the memory of it as of a deed of sacrilege. But Rossetti had both affection enough to do it and weakness enough to have it undone. After an infinity of self-communions he determined to have the grave opened, and the book extracted. Endless were the preparations necessary before such a work could be begun. Mr. Home Secretary Bruce had to be consulted. At length preliminaries were complete, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave, and then the coffin was raised and opened. The body is described as perfect upon coming to light.
Whilst this painful work was being done the unhappy author of it was sitting alone and anxious, and full of self-reproaches at the house of the friend who had charge of it. He was relieved and thankful when told that all was over. The volume was not much the worse for the years it had lain in the grave. Deficiencies were filled in from memory, the manuscript was put in the press, and in 1870 the reclaimed work was issued under the simple title of Poems.
In the next paragraph, he tells us that Rossetti’s book was quite successful and that during that time, “fresh poetry and new poets arose, even as they now arise, with all the abundance and timeliness of poppies in autumn.” Am I the only one who finds it amusing that he chooses poppies as a descriptor? The opium poppy is the source of opiates, from which Laudanum is derived. Poppies, then, were at one time the source of Lizzie’s comfort during illness, eventually becoming the source of her addiction and eventual death. Rossetti painted Lizzie with open hands, waiting to receive a poppy from the dove in Beata Beatrix. I suppose Caine could have chosen the word as a conscious effort to align poppies with something positive instead of the usual negative association due to Lizzie’s addiction and overdose. Or it may have just been an oddly chosen phrase. A Freudian slip, perhaps?
I am grateful to Emlyn Harris for allowing me to share this podcast with you. You can download a copy here at LizzieSiddal.com or if you use iTunes, it is available there as well. The Sexton’s Tales series were originally broadcast by the BBC between 1995 and 1997. This episode, narrated by the writer Emlyn Harris, features the tragic life and death of Elizabeth Siddal. Siddal’s body was exhumed from London’s Highgate Cemetery following a request from her husband Gabriel Dante Rossetti to retrieve a book of poems buried in the coffin.
Please, if you have any trouble downloading the podcast, please email me at stephaniepina @ lizziesiddal.com
On February 11, 1862 Elizabeth Siddall Rossetti died. I felt it important to commemorate this day in some way, to write about Lizzie and her legacy. . .but I find I am unable to do so. Instead I turn to words far more eloquent than mine could ever be: Lizzie’s own.
Here I share with you “Gone” and “Early Death”. But before leaving, I just wanted to mention that I find it both fitting and, well, a bit eerie that Lizzie shares the date of her death with that of Sylvia Plath, who died on Feb. 11, 1963. Both women had short, often unhappy lives and were still able to share the beauty and poetry of their souls.
To touch the glove upon her tender hand,
To watch the jewel sparkle in her ring,
Lifted my heart into a sudden song
As when the wild birds sing.
To touch her shadow on the sunny grass,
To break her pathway through the darkened wood,
Filled all my life with trembling and tears
And silence where I stood.
I watch the shadows gather round my heart,
I live to know that she is gone
Gone gone for ever, like the tender dove
That left the Ark alone.
Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.
Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.
But true love, seek me in the throng
Of spirits floating past,
And I will take thee by the hands
And know thee mine at last.
A good photograph of Elizabeth Siddal’s grave has been on my wishlist of items I’ve desired for LizzieSiddal.com. So imagine my surprise and gratitude when I received a message from a visitor who was lucky enough to have visited her grave in 1985! Thank you, Jack Challem, for being such a kind friend to this site. I know that visitors will appreciate a close look at Lizzie’s final resting place, since that area of Highgate Cemetery is closed to visitors. If any of you have ever visited Highgate, I’d love to hear your comments in general…even if you were unable to see the Rossetti plot. UPDATE: LizzieSiddal.com started in 2004 with no photos of Lizzie’s grave and now there are several! I am so grateful to everyone who has been kind enough to share with me! This page now has a large number of photos, so if you are on a slow connection please be patient.
I am so grateful that Rhonda Parsons has shared a photo of herself at Lizzie’s grave, taken in 1995. Rhonda says that she has had an interest in Pre-Raphaelite art since she was 18 years old, and is particularly drawn to the life of Elizabeth Siddal.
Recently, another visitor to this site was able to visit Lizzie’s grave. I am so grateful that they were kind enough to share the photos of what must have been a lovely trip — I’m told that after viewing Lizzie’s grave, they visited the Tate and saw Lizzie as Ophelia, as well as the other PRB masterpieces they have there. I’ve chosen to include all of the photos on this page. I apologize if this creates a slow loading time for any of you, but I thought you might like to absorb all of these photos all at once. Highgate is a breathtaking place and I’m sad that I haven’t been able to visit in person yet. But, my day will come!
Rebecca Lubas was also kind enough to share photos from her visit in 1993. The photos below are shared using the following license. Please click the Creative Commons icon and read the terms specified before sharing or using them.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Added November 11, 2010. I am so grateful to Sam, a dedicated volunteer at Highgate Cemetery, for sending not only these beautiful photos, but for also giving the slab a good scrubbing so that we can all see these words better!
Added December 1, 2010: Author and artist Kris Waldherr recently made the pilgrimage to Lizzie’s grave and has generously shared her photos. She’s also posted a comment on this page, which I’ll share below. She is the author of Doomed Queens, The Lover’s Path and The Book of Goddesses, and creator of The Goddess Tarot. Visit her website.
I was fortunate to visit Lizzie’s grave last Friday. Her grave is in the West Cemetery, which has restricted access due to its fragile condition. Lizzie’s grave is down a hidden, isolated and ivy-strewn pathway which was slick with autumn leaves. Interestingly my guide said that she’s visited by more men than women–and the men tend to weep. One even became visibly angry and ranted about how she was abused by Rossetti. “I think the women who visit are made of sterner stuff,” my guide concluded. Was glad to see there were some flowers recently left to which I added my offering. I brought her a peach-colored rose, which reminded me of her complexion in the first Beata Beatrice oil painting by Rossetti.
Because it’s dead interesting. (ba-dum-bum)
Listen to The Sexton’s Tales podcasts.
From their website:
It’s ten years since The Sexton’s Tales series ended its run on BBC Radio and I receive regular emails asking if the original episodes are still available (which they are not – long story). I decided to re-record the first episode ‘The Exhumation of Ophelia’, as a Halloween treat and, if you’ve heard the podcast, I hope you enjoyed it.
In the coming weeks this page will be updated with info and news about The Sexton’s Tales. If you liked the podcast and want to hear more episodes, let me know your favourite story on the tales.co.uk website. Whichever story gets the most votes will be the next Sexton’s Tales podcast.
Visit now to listen to the tale of our favorite Pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddal and her exhumation (it’s available as a free download in their i-tunes store).
Also, there is a brief article about The Sexton’s Tales podcasts in The West Briton Newspaper.
And visit this page http://www.deadinteresting.com/emlyn.html for a behind the scenes look at the Sexton’s Tales and Highgate Cemetery.
A new visitor to this site (Welcome Hope!) has posted some interesting and thought provoking questions about Lizzie’s death in the comments section of another post. I felt compelled to create a new post to try to answer her questions in a concise manner. And, as always, I am hoping that others will join in the discussion! Comment! Comment! Comment!
Now, Hope has asked a lot of questions about Lizzie’s death and the possibility of murder. I have only picked the main questions/comments to include here to keep this post easy to read. But, if you would like to read all of the comments in their entirety, please read the post What Do You Think of Lizzie’s Inquest? or just jump to the original comments.
Now for the questions:
After reading a few different accounts of Lizzie’s death, I have a question. Since she was in such good spirits the night of her death (according to the account by Georgiana Burne-Jones on this web site) and actually seemed to be doing quite well, considering her illness, is there ANY chance she could have been murdered? Is there anybody who might have wanted her dead? A mistress of Rossetti’s perhaps? Did he have a mistress at that time? Or any woman interested in him in his life at that time? A model perhaps? Would any of Rossetti’s models have had access to the house or Lizzie’s medicine? Someone who wouldn’t want to see them happily having a child perhaps? Someone who would have been distressed that she seemed to be coming out of her depression? I find the circumstances of her death to be suspicious, even though she was known to be depressed previously.
No, I don’t think Rossetti killed her, lest anyone suspect that. I entertained that notion briefly, but I think he really did love her and wouldn’t do such a thing. I’ve read enough on this web site alone to be convinced of that.
I know this is a rather off-the-wall question I’m asking, but this woman is being judged very harshly (even on this site) for committing suicide. What if she didn’t commit suicide at all? What if there is more of a mystery here than people have acknowledged? How much do we really know about the suicide note? Where did that rumor originate? Could the rumor have been planted by someone wanting people to believe it was suicide?
Let me repeat the account of the night of her death that gives me cause for concern:
“The evening before she was in good health (for her) and very good spirits “ she dined with her husband and Swinburne and made very merry with them”
Could it be that she was happy because she was going to have another baby? She was said to have been very joyous when she learned she was pregnant the first time. And post partum depression would not necessarily have lasted more than a year – her spirits that night are not indicative of a depressed person, who generally wouldn’t be able to hide their emotions (I know this from personal experience). And just looking at her sad pictures, I don’t think this woman could be joyous one moment and kill herself the next, I don’t think she could fake it quite honestly.
Something here just doesn’t add up, and I find it distressing. You all have studied dear Lizzie much longer than I have (and I must say I find this woman to be very endearing, as I’m sure you do too). What are your thoughts? Has this ever crossed your mind? And if it was even remotely possible, who might have done it? Could she be fooled into taking a higher dose (I don’t know how laudenum was delivered.) Could someone have forced her into taking it that night? I would like to hear a respectful, intelligent discussion of the possibilities, based on what you know of the circumstances. Are we all jumping to conclusions about the suicide? Any other evidence of her spirits leading up to that particular night?
I say all of this out of no disrespect to Lizzie Siddall or Dante Gabriele Rossetti. Indeed it is with the utmost of respect for these people that I ask you to consider this prospect. I’m not convinced this woman intended to kill herself that night. I think her life was beginning anew, others saw it, and somebody could have put a stop to it. But who? And how? Is it possible?
Answers from LizzieSiddal.com :
First of all, I don’t think I have ever judged her harshly on this site. I have quoted others and asked questions, but I’ve always kept my opinion to myself about what happened that night. Mainly because I don’t believe it can ever be known if Lizzie intended to commit suicide or not. I have a very definite opinion on what I think happened that night, but I have never voiced it here because I want visitors to this site to form their own conclusions. It could have been an accidental overdose or a cry for help. She may have thought Rossetti could have saved her. But keep in mind that by this stage in her life, Lizzie was an addict. And addicts behave, well, like addicts. And when I use the term addict, it is not in a judgmental way at all. Not much was known about addiction in the Victorian era. People knew that laudanum ( a mixture of opiates and alcohol) was addictive, and yet it was regularly given to babies, expectant mothers, etc.
It seems as if you base most of your suspicions on the fact that Lizzie was in a good mood that night at dinner. According to Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, by Jan Marsh who is an authority on Siddal and the Pre-Raphaelites, this “merriment” can be attributed to Laudanum:
p. 216: “Between six and seven in the evening they went to join Swinburne for dinner at the Sablonniere hotel restaurant in Leicester Square, ‘but before we started out she appeared drowsy and when we got halfway in the cab I proposed going home again.’ Lizzie wished to go on, however, and while they has their meal as planned ‘she seemed somewhat between flightiness and drowsiness, a little excited.’ This alternation sounds like the effects of opium, and was evidently Lizzie’s normal condition, for Swinburne told the coroner that he saw ‘nothing particular in the deceased except she appeared a little weaker than on usual’
Marsh mentions later that “Like alcohol, the opiates first act as a stimulant and then as a sedative, so it was possible for Lizzie to take a small dose to make herself cheerful during supper and then a larger dose to make her sleep when she was ready for bed. There was always the danger of an overdose, given the lack of standardization and the addict’s uncertain judgement.”
At the time of her death, there were no rumors of suicide. Nor were there any rumors that Rossetti was with Fanny Cornforth. Both of these tales can be traced back to Violet Hunt’s account in The Wife of Rossetti, which is a gossipy and highly imaginative account of Lizzie’s life.
And yes, Georgiana Burne-Jones did write that Lizzie was in good spirits that night. But since she did not see Lizzie, we must assume that she knows this because Rossetti told her. Therefore, it’s simply hearsay.
Here are some more questions. And here I want to say first that I mean absolutely no disrespect to Fanny Cornforth or any other potential mistress in DGR’s life at the time either. I’m simply conducting an investigation similar to what might be done today if a woman was found dead, no disrespect to anyone.
First, is there any evidence that they examined the formulation of Lizzie’s medicine at the time of death? Was it confirmed to still be laudanum? Did they do a chemical analysis using the science of the day?
Second, was her death itself consistent with a laundanum overdose? It sounds like she was conscious in the morning but not lucid. Was there any other substance commonly available at the time that would have produced these symptoms?
There does not appear to be any sign of a struggle in her bedroom the night of her death, just in case someone forced her to take an overdose. She was very frail, it would have been fairly easy to force her to take it if someone was much stronger than her. Even a strong woman could have done it. Was Lizzie alone in the house? Were servants present that night? Could she have taken a normal dose and someone quietly dribble more into her mouth after she was sleeping, with no struggle at all?
Answers from LizzieSiddal.com:
The doctor who attended Lizzie and washed out her stomache stated that her stomach contents “smelt overpoweringly of laudanum.”
She was attended by several doctors that night. After Rossetti found her, he sent for a doctor. When he couldn’t save her, Rossetti sent for another. And then another. And, finally, another. A total of four doctors treated Lizzie for a laudanum overdose and there is no record of any of them disagreeing with the circumstances of her death. I do not believe that there was any laudanum left to test, or if there would have been means to test it.
According to the inquest, Ellen Macintire was downstairs in the house that night. Rossetti called her up when he couldn’t wake his wife. She was with Lizzie at about half past 8, I assume before Lizzie went to bed. I think that a struggle would have been heard. I do not know the layout of the house, so I can’t say whether or not someone could have come in without the others in the house knowing (the housekeeper Mrs. Birrell was also at home).
And next, has anyone ever investigated how Fanny Cornforth’s husband died? I read on another web site that he died right around the time Lizzie died. How did he die? When exactly did he die? Was it before or after Lizzie? I know there are accounts of Fanny being a noble character in the remaining life of DGR, and I’m not saying that wasn’t true, but police today would investigate her, no doubt about that and would consider that she might have had motive, especially given that DGR’s blatant affair with her ended when Lizzie returned and they were married and Fanny is said to have been very upset at the time, according to something I read on another web site. What if Fanny heard about Lizzie’s second pregnancy, and she finally was driven over the edge in her desire to fully restore her relationship with DGR? Yes, yes, much speculation and once again, these are just honest questions, absolutely no disrespect to anyone long gone intended.
I don’t think that Fanny’s husband died close to the time of Lizzie’s death. According to what I’ve read, he did not die, but Fanny left him soon after Lizzie’s death. Yes, police today would have been suspicious. But wouldn’t they have also taken into account that the deceased was a longtime abuser of the drug that killed her?
And back to Lizzie’s apparent merriment the night of her death…One could consider her exceptionally high spirits at dinner were due to the fact she had made up her mind to go and that finally gave her a sort of happiness. She was just counting the minutes until she could carry it out, one might say, although I honestly find this to be SO inconsistent with her character. I think she would have been morose and as a Christian terrified of committing suicide if it could mean instant residency in hell (I’m not sure about her Christian beliefs. Was she an Anglican? What do they believe about the souls of people who commit suicide?) I honestly think Lizzie would have been afraid to boldly kill herself on a night she seemed so fully present at dinner, just because of her religious faith alone.
I believe her merriment was due to laudanum. And to consider her religious faith is a huge leap. Remember she lived with Rossetti out of wedlock for a time, which would be out of context for someone religious, no?
OK, back to what I’m thinking about this morning. The question that now comes to mind is whether Lizzie would also make merry on the night that she was about to kill her unborn child.
But you’re assuming that suicide was premeditated. What if she didn’t intend to kill herself and it was an accident? What if it was spur of the moment and she only decided to kill herself when Rossetti left her home alone after dinner? We just can’t hang so much on her behavior at dinner. Something could have happened after dinner that we don’t know about. They could have quarreled before he left. Or, it could have been an accident.She may have gone to sleep, only to wake up later and decided to take more laudanum perhaps forgetting how much she had taken before. I take the liberty of quoting Jan Marsh again: “Even a note, however, does not prove that Lizzie meant to die, for she must have known that Gabriel was due back in a couple of hours, and she may well have trusted him to save her; suicide attempts are often an expression of despair. It seems to me that her behavior fits more into the pattern of sever addiction: chronic, increasing and careless drug-taking is indicative of a self-destructive urge and it is often only a matter of time before death occurs, since the individual has lost the will, or the desire, to live.”
Lizzie was addicted to laudanum before their marriage. Her laudanum addiction probably led to the death of her stillborn child. Then she suffers grief, post-partum depression, in the midst of this addiction. She was not mentally healthy at the time, nor had she been for a great while.
And back to the murder theory again. The movie “Fatal Attraction” keeps coming to mind. If DGR was still having an clandestine affair with Fanny at the time, Fanny might not have appreciated the potential domestic tranquility returning to the household of Lizzie and DGR. There is a scene in “Fatal Attraction” that I’m reminded of, where the woman who is “scorned” observes the domestic tranquility of the family of her lover with disgust and envy. And yes, in that movie, she does go on to attempt the murder of the wife of her lover, but this isn’t a movie we’re talking about here, so let’s not get TOO distracted. I’m just saying there is a very real plausibility factor.
What if Fanny missed her life of comparable luxury with DGR and thought it could be restored somehow? Even if Fanny’s husband died of natural causes (and again, I have no idea if his death preceded Lizzie’s), maybe that would have left Fanny in total squalor, making life restored with DGR even more potentially attractive.
Answers from LizzieSiddal.com:
Not being an authority on Fanny, I can’t say whether she would stoop to murder or not. On the whole, I doubt it.
Any other thoughts or opinions? Lizzie’s death is a fascinating subject, so I’d love for other visitors to comment and share!
Editing to Add: Since posting this, here are a few more questions that have been asked:
One more little question….this suicide note that was supposedly pinned to her dress (yes, I just read about that too), was the handwriting analyzed? I’m sure it was destroyed long ago under the circumstances, if it existed. I really wonder what it said. Could it have been written under duress? Or could the handwriting have been not quite right (and assumed reasonably normal by those who discovered it due to her assumed distress/incapacity at the time)? Could it have been cleverly and carefully forged by someone with access to letters in the home already in her handwriting, although not exact, close enough to fool DGR perhaps in what would have been HIS very real distress and haste to get rid of the note quickly. And if she was out of it at all, as she would have had to be to commit suicide I believe, perhaps halfway to overdosing already to actually go through with it, how easy would it have been for Lizzie to pin it to her dress (any woman knows that can be potentially tricky to do if you are in a daze, depending on the type of pin)?
If there was a suicide not, IF, then no it was never seen by anyone other than Rossetti (or possibly Ford Madox Brown, if you believe that account). So, no it was not examined or analyzed. I personally don’t believe that there was a note.
Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Join in!
When I changed LizzieSiddal.com to blog format, I had hoped (and still do!) for more interaction with visitors. Based on the number of emails that I received on a daily basis, I felt sure that these people who were so willing to email me to discuss Lizzie would surely post comments on the site once they were able to. I love each and every email I receive, but I wanted a way for people to share their stories and opinions with the site, not just me. Because this site is not just for me. It’s for those of us who are fascinated with Lizzie and those who have just discovered her. Or perhaps it is for her. Either way, I do not want these pages to be static. I want interaction with others who are just as interested in this enigmatic muse.
The funny thing is, I’ve received even more email now than I did before the format change! Thank you, I love your emails even though I find it very difficult to answer them all. Please, try and post a comment instead of emailing me. Having read so many emails a day, I know that the majority of them are thoughtful and insightful comments and other visitors to this site would benefit from reading them.
So, I’m inviting comments now on LizzieSiddal.com’s previous post, the transcript of Lizzie’s inquest. Post your thoughts! I transcribed it verbatim in an effort to stay true to the original procedure. But the lack of punctuation makes it a bit difficult to read, don’t you agree? Perhaps I should also post an edited version, to make it easier to consume.
What struck you as you read the inquest? The main thing that stood out to me was the doctor who delivered Lizzie’s stillborn child and who was called in on the night of her death, mentioned that he had not seen her since the delivery, but that a week or so before her death he saw her in the street.
Stop and take that in for a moment.
What must that have been like for Lizzie? In an age with no counseling, or knowledge of post partum depression? To endure such a traumatic ordeal and then be expected to quickly recover and resume life as it was? And to make matters worse, many of the women in Lizzie’s life were also expecting at that time. She was surrounded by pregnancy and early motherhood. She was surrounded by the very thing she was denied.
To suddenly see her doctor, THE doctor, in the street must have jarred her. On a very personal note, and I have never been personal on this site, I have a son who was born with Spina Bifida. That was ten years ago. I have never again seen the doctor who gave me the news. But his face, his voice, his words are embedded in my memory. Even ten years later, I would recognize him on the street if I saw him. But I would not enjoy it. For me, he belongs in the past. He is part of a moment that changed my life in a way that I never expected. But unlike Lizzie, my painful moment became a beautiful beginning. Looking back on it, I would not change a thing.
Poor Lizzie. Was it an unfortunate accident? Fate? Or did she fear that her current pregnancy would end in similar misfortune?
Post a comment, I want to know what your impressions of the inquest were and if you have an opinion on her death.