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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!




Dim Phantoms

I started twelve years ago, having spent at least a decade prior studying her. Almost my entire adult life has been in pursuit of this elusive woman.

Like most people, I first discovered her through the story of her exhumation and my reaction was “surely, this can not be true”.

When I read this fragment of one of her poems, my curiosity became something else entirely. Something deeper.

Dim phantoms of an unknown ill
Float through my tired brain;
The unformed visions of my life
Pass by in ghostly train; — taken from Elizabeth Siddal’s poem A Year and A Day

The imagery of dim phantoms, the idea of this woman’s struggle and her ‘tired brain’ reached across a century and gripped my heart. I don’t know if I had ever felt such compassion before for someone so long dead.


All these years of compiling information about her life and I am just now realizing that she has become, to use her words, my own dim phantom.

Describing the writing of her book Possession, A.S. Byatt said “I had been thinking about such a novel for at least 15 years, and it had changed a great deal in my head during that time. Unlike anything else I have written, it began with the title. I was sitting in the old round reading room in the British Museum, watching the great Coleridge scholar Kathleen Coburn pacing round and round the circular catalogue, and I realised that she had dedicated all her life to this dead man. And then I thought “Does he possess her, or does she possess him?” And then I thought there could be a novel, “Possession”, about the relations between the living and the dead. It would be a kind of daemonic tale of haunting.”

I have come to relate to Byatt’s words. There is no question that my pursuit of Lizzie Siddal happily and unequivocally possesses me. And that, in turn, led me down an endless rabbit-hole of all Pre-Raphaelite art and artists.

For that, I am grateful


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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

Did Elizabeth Siddal inspire Bram Stoker?

Originally published at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

In the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, artist Walter Deverell discovered Elizabeth Siddal working in a millinery shop.  After modeling for his painting Twelfth Night, Siddal posed for several Pre-Raphaelite painters, including William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.  It was the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was captivated by her. He drew and painted her image obsessively.   Siddal represented the ideal beauty to him as if she were an embodiment of Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice and Rossetti eagerly cast her in that role.  He tutored her in art and she began what seemed to be the beginning of a promising career.  Their relationship was tumultuous, however, and Rossetti’s flirtation with model Annie Miller and his dalliance with Fanny Cornforth wounded Siddal. They married in 1860 after a decade-long on/off romance.  A stillborn daughter plunged Siddal into a state of deep depression and she sunk further into her addiction to laudanum.  In February of 1862, she died of an overdose.  The grieving Rossetti placed his manuscript of poems in her coffin.  Seven years later he had her exhumed in order to publish them.

Elizabeth Siddal's features appear in 'Beata Beatrix', Dante Gabriel Rossetti's tribute to his wife after her death.

Elizabeth Siddal’s features appear in ‘Beata Beatrix’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s tribute to his wife after her death.

It was Charles Augustus Howell who orchestrated the exhumation. Howell has since achieved fame by being cast as a villain in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.  Howell was a notorious liar and fraud. We have him to thank for the story that when Elizabeth Siddal was exhumed, she remained in pristine condition and her famous hair had continued to grow after death.  It has become one of the most famous stories about Siddal, next to her falling ill while posing for Ophelia.  When we look at the story that her body resisted decomposition, we have two choices.  One, we can believe that this was an unusual phenomenon or, two, that Howell lied.  I choose to believe the latter.   With ample proof that Howell was almost pathologically dishonest, it is probable that Howell embellished Siddal’s appearance with this fantastic tale.  His motivations remain unclear.  Perhaps it was an ego boost to be the bearer of such an eerie anecdote.  He may have wanted to thrill or tantalize Rossetti, who was known to be inspired by the supernatural and had attempted to contact Siddal through seances.  The most likely reason was to gloss over the ugliness and to assuage Rossetti’s guilt, for if he believed Siddal remained perfect then exhuming her was not an unpleasant disturbance and she was at peace. Whatever his motive, when Howell said that Siddal had not decomposed, he constructed a legend that is now firmly attached to her name.

'Regina Cordium' was begun by Rossetti while honeymooning with Elizabeth Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal in Rossetti’s painting ‘Regina Cordium’ (Queen of Hearts) begun by the artist while on their honeymoon.

Elizabeth Siddal’s name is now surrounded by the aura of tragedy.  The lines of fact and fiction have become blurred due to sad events of her life and the fact that many works she posed for have an uncanny aspect to them.  There’s a sense of life imitating art in the lives of both Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Rossetti often incorporated elements of death in works like The Blessed Damozel and the study for Bonifazio’s Mistress.  The Blessed Damozel, written before he met Siddal, tells the story of lovers separated by death.  Siddal was not the inspiration for the work yet due to her untimely death, it is easy for us to see her as the departed lover in heaven.  Rossetti’s doppelganger painting How The Met Themselves also lends a ghostly air to the way we view their relationship.  Elizabeth Siddal’s surviving poems have a melancholy tone, which adds even more sadness to her story if we read them as autobiographical (I don’t encourage that, by the way). She is also strongly associated with the character of Ophelia; she appears in Millais’ famous painting of the drowned Shakespearean maiden.  Viewed only through their collective works, it appears as if an atmosphere of death surrounded the couple, foreshadowing what was to come.  Yet Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal was not a phantasm, neither was she Ophelia.  None of these images are a reflection of her true self, but they create an ersatz form to which we attach meaning.

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Rossetti

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Rossetti

Since there is a tendency to focus on the supernatural elements associated with Siddal, she is commonly viewed as a ghostly figure more than a real woman. As this sort of shadow figure, it becomes easy to project rumor and myth onto her and accept them as true.  One of the ideas that persist is that she was the inspiration for the character of Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Some even take it so far as to claim that Stoker was present at Siddal’s exhumation, an impossibility since when the deed took place Stoker was twenty-two and still a student living in Dublin.

So the notion that Stoker was at the exhumation is easily debunked. He wasn’t  in London at the time.  But what about the claim that Siddal was an inspiration for the character of Lucy Westenra?

Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost, left) and Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) in the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost, left) and Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) in the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I think it is possible.  In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident so we can not definitively say that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal.  However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary.  Stoker dedicated Dracula to Hall Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).

The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold.  The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life.  Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death.  The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.

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 and The lure of water-women.

Perhaps the most famous painting featuring Elizabeth Siddal is Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, based on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.  Ophelia is the ultimate tragic dead maiden.  Is it mere happenstance that Stoker included a mention of Ophelia in Dracula?  In chapter eleven, this line appears in Lucy’s diary: “Well, here I am to-night, hoping for sleep, and lying like Ophelia in the play, with ‘virgin crants and maiden strewments’.  I never liked garlic before, but tonight it is delightful! There is peace in its smell…’  The virgin crants/maiden strewments comes from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1 where  Ophelia’s brother Laertes asks a cleric what funeral rites would be provided for the deceased Ophelia.  His answer is that if it were not royal command, Ophelia would be buried in unholy ground, where “Shards, flints, and pebbles, should be thrown on her;/Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,/Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home of bell and burial.”

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

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

Hair that grows even in death.  Beautiful women who wasted away and died. Allusions to Ophelia.  It is easy to understand how connections between Elizabeth Siddal and Lucy Westenra are made.  Charles Augustus Howell inadvertently created Elizabeth Siddal as the undead and his lie still carries weight.  Siddal has ceased to be herself where popular culture is concerned. In life, she was Dante’s Beatrice. In death, she is a creation similar to Poe’s Ligeia. She is Ophelia or Lucy Westenra.  She is never just herself.

Bram Stoker’s famous book is not the only vampiric connection that can be made when looking at Elizabeth Siddal. If searching for vampires, we need look no further than her husband’s family tree.   Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the nephew of Dr. John Polidori, author of The Vampyre (1819).  This family connection was used creatively by Tim Powers in his novel Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), where the entire Rossetti clan fights off their late uncle Polidori, the vampire that plagues their family.  Powers uses the exhumation as a plot device. Rossetti’s choice to exhume his late wife was such an unsettling thing to do that even over a century later, that act is still inspiring fictional works.

Rossetti’s sister, poet Christina Rossetti, wrote the poem In An Artist’s Studio that is assumed to be about Elizabeth Siddal.

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 same one meaning, neither more or 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.

The language Christina Rossetti uses is evocative.  He feeds upon her face by day and night.  The poem emphasizes the woman’s passivity while serving as the artist’s muse.  The poem was composed in 1856, although not published until after the poet’s death.  Since it was written well before the death and exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal, the similarity of the artist feeding upon his muse as a vampire feeds upon his victim is unintentional. Yet it is an excellent example of how the language used to describe Siddal helped to create this impression we have of her as a wraith-like figure.  After Ford Madox Brown called upon Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal one evening, he recorded in his diary, “Saw Miss Siddal, looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever; a real artist, a woman without parallel for many a long year. ”  She’s talked about as if she is an interstitial figure, always hovering somewhere between life and death.

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

We can be dismissive of vampire tales and supernatural accounts of Siddal’s hair because logically we know these things are untrue.  Yet it isn’t that simple.  Elizabeth Siddal, the true Elizabeth Siddal, is lost in all the drama.  Fictional accounts of her, such as the 2009 BBC production  Desperate Romantics, miss the mark.  Can we justify weak characterizations of Siddal simply because they might introduce more fans to Pre-Raphaelite art?  Should Elizabeth Siddal be overlooked because the myths we have projected onto her are more provocative?

These fantastic stories have become so attached to her name that in order to deconstruct them, we have to acknowledge and understand them. We have to root them out to their source and ponder how they came to be and what they mean. In order to focus on her life and work in a straightforward way, we have to dive in head first and slay the myths.  In doing so, we stand a chance of understanding the difference between Elizabeth Siddal the construct and Elizabeth Siddal the real woman.  That’s a project worth undertaking.

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Self-portrait of Elizabeth Siddal


Love and Hate, a poem by Elizabeth Siddal

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.


Book Review: Ophelia’s Muse

This review was previously posted at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.
The romance of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal lends itself well to fiction. It’s a story that has it all: beauty, pathos, and the synergy of artistic creation that flowed between them. Author Rita Cameron’s new book Ophelia’s Muse tells the story of Elizabeth Siddal’s discovery by the Pre-Raphaelite circle and how it led to an increasingly rocky relationship with Rossetti.
Twelfth Night, Walter Howell Deverell. Lizzie on the left. Dante Gabriel Rossetti posed as the jester on the right.

Twelfth Night, Walter Howell Deverell. Lizzie on the left. Dante Gabriel Rossetti posed as the jester on the right.

Their relationship has Dantesque tones, not surprising since Rossetti grew up in a family that was steeped in Dante scholarship. He placed Lizzie on a pedestal, casting her as his Beatrice. Life as a muse isn’t easy, and a pedestal isn’t a comfortable place for any human to live. Inevitably, their relationship falters. Cameron focuses on the difficulties in their relationship. Much attention is given to Lizzie’s insecurities regarding Rossetti, especially where his roving eye is concerned.
Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Self-portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Purists may have some issues with a few things in the book. Rossetti never exhibited in the Royal Academy, yet he does in Ophelia’s Muse and it’s a pretty big plot point. Also, he is only ever referred to as Dante when we know from contemporary sources that family and close friends consistently called him Gabriel. So if dramatic license in Pre-Raphaelite inspired fiction is a sore spot for you, this may be a hindrance to your enjoyment of the book.
Pre-Raphaelite fiction always holds the possibility of bringing new fans to this rich artistic movement. I feel confident that Ophelia’s Muse will do the same and I’m thrilled that Cameron’s readers may begin their own pursuits, embarking on the search for the artists, their works, and their models. Speaking from personal experience, the Pre-Raphaelite circle pulls you in like the rabbit hole that led Alice to Wonderland. It is a never ending delight.
You can visit Rita Cameron’s website, follow her on Twitter as @OpheliasMuse, and follow her author page on Facebook.

Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Hastings (New Photos!)

On the 23rd of May in 1860, Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were wed.  Their vows were exchanged in St Clement’s Church (there is a panoramic virtual tour here).  I am so grateful to Lynda Smith for allowing me to share her photos of the church (originally posted to her twitter account, @mouse_11) All photos copyright Lynda Smith, used with permission.

Exterior of St Clement's Church. Photo Copyright Lynda Smith.

Exterior of St Clement’s Church. Photo Copyright Lynda Smith.

Interior of St Clement's Church. Photo Copyright Lynda Smith.

Interior of St Clement’s Church. Photo Copyright Lynda Smith.

One of the places in Hastings that Lizzie stayed in, just up the hill from the church. Rossetti drew her there 1854. Photo Copyright Lynda Smith.

One of the places in Hastings that Lizzie stayed in, just up the hill from the church. Rossetti drew her there 1854. Photo Copyright Lynda Smith.


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




The Worst Man in London

This post originally appeared at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.comlizziesiddaldotcom

Seven years after her death, the coffin of Elizabeth Siddal was exhumed so that her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, could publish the poetry he had buried with her. It happened in secret, yet eventually the deed came to be known and has added a macabre tinge to the tale of Elizabeth Siddal.  Rossetti was not present when his wife’s final rest was disturbed.  So, just how was such an event orchestrated?  To paraphrase a somewhat ghastly quote from a letter Rossetti wrote telling his brother about the exhumation, “the truth must ooze out in time.”

Charles Augustus Howell

Charles Augustus Howell

The plan of retrieving Rossetti’s poems began with  Charles Augustus Howell.  Don’t miss Kirsty Stonell Walker’s post about Howell: Who’s Been a Naughty Boy? A flamboyant character who had worked his way into the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Howell claimed to be Portuguese aristocracy and even wore a brilliant red sash to bolster his claim. (The red ribbon of the Portuguese Order of Christ.  Howell’s claim was that it was an inherited family order). Secretary to John Ruskin,  Howell had also become Rossetti’s agent.  It was Fanny Cornforth’s cockney dialect that led to Howell’s nickname of ‘Owl’.  Rossetti was well aware of Howell’s tendency to manipulate and lie, but Howell’s wit and charm seem to have secured him a favored spot in Rossetti’s life. Even years after Rossetti was convinced that Howell was selling forgeries of his work, he still delighted in how entertaining Howell could be. Despite Howell’s appeal, his unscrupulous nature could not be hidden.  He quite likely embezzled funds from Ruskin, made shady side deals while acting as an agent for both Rossetti and Burne-Jones, had his mistress forge paintings and was a compulsive liar.

Rossetti was not the only one to fall under Howell’s spell.  He developed a strong friendship with Edward Burne-Jones.  Years later, Georgiana Burne-Jones would describe him as someone who had “come amongst us in friend’s clothing, but inwardly he was a stranger to all that our life meant.” According to Whistler, Howell manipulated Georgiana Burne-Jones into having tea with her husband’s mistress, Maria Zambaco.  Despite the uncomfortable situation, both ladies had tea with proper Victorian decorum until Burne-Jones walked in and fainted at the site of them.  I do not know if Whistler’s account is true as I can not find another source, but it illustrates how devious Howell was and it hints that he derived pleasure from preying on the weaknesses of his friends. If it is true, he played both Georgiana and Maria like pawns for his own amusement.   Recently, Raine Szramski included Howell in the exploit’s of ‘Ned’s Angels’, one of her Pre-Raphaelite Sketchbook Cartoons:

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Back to the exhumation.  It had been a decade or so since Rossetti last published. Since the death of his wife, painting had been his sole focus. And it was becoming obvious that Rossetti was not doing well physically or mentally. There was an unrest about him, a sense of anxiety.  After abstaining from alcohol most of his adult life, he began to drink around 1866.  This was certainly not helped by Howell, who provided him with crates of Madeira.  Rossetti’s physical complaints –his hydrocele, growing worries about his eyesight– led to hypochondria and paranoia, an omen of things to come.  Standing on a rocky ledge while on a visit to Penkill with William Bell Scott, Rossetti made mention of suicide.  Later, Scott suggested to Rossetti that he return to poetry.

Rossetti also found himself falling in love with Jane Morris. The slippery Howell was helpful in this regard too, delivering secret letters to Jane on Rossetti’s behalf.  Rossetti’s relationship with Jane invigorated his return to poetry, he began his sonnet sequence The House of Life. As he grew closer and closer to publication, he wanted to include previous poems.  The poems that had been buried with his wife as a final, loving gesture. The poems written while he was married to Lizzie would now be published along with the sonnets inspired by Jane.

It was Howell who offered to have them exhumed. Rossetti resisted, but did not rule it out and wrote to Howell that he would ‘reflect on it’.  Instead, Rossetti reached out to friends in an attempt to find who he might have given a manuscript of Jenny.  Finally, he relented.

As Howell began to determine what steps were necessary to begin the process of exhumation, Rossetti again left for Penkill with Bell Scott.  Here his mental state seemed even more precarious. While walking with Scott, a chaffinch landed on Rossetti’s hand. He was convinced that Lizzie’s spirit had migrated into the bird.

On his return to London, a wombat was added to his menagerie, giving him a bit of cuddly joy in this troubled time. Rossetti’s continued collecting of animals is more than a funny anecdote, I believe that it was a symptom that mentally all was not well. I hold Rossetti completely responsible for desecrating his wife’s grave, but it is obvious that he was struggling. Howell was skilled at manipulation. Without his push, would Rossetti have gone through with it?

Despite the fact that Rossetti’s mother was the legal owner of the grave, Howell was able to complete the formalities and permission  was granted.  Neither Mrs. Rossetti or her other children knew of the affair.  Rossetti did not attend, preferring to wait with Howell’s wife Kitty. Henry Vertue Tebbs accompanied, acting in a legal capacity to witness what items were taken from the coffin. Also present was a doctor, Dr. Llewellyn Williams, who performed the act of disinfecting the book.  It was Howell who started the story that Lizzie remained perfectly preserved and that her hair had ‘filled the coffin’.

So the charming but unscrupulous Howell now holds a place in literary history due to his involvement in Lizzie Siddal’s exhumation.  This isn’t his only place in literary history, however, thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Howell will now forever be known as the inspiration behind The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, an evil blackmailer who tortured his prey unrelentingly. Sherlock Holmes described him as the worst man in London.  Holmes makes his feelings about the repugnant Milverton clear as he and Watson await the blackmailer’s arrival:

Hum! He’s about due. Do you feel a creeping sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow. And yet I can’t get out of doing business with him –indeed, he is here at my invitation. (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Much like the people involved with Howell, Holmes sees Milverton exactly for what he is, yet at this point, is still unable to cut ties with him.

Watson, Holmes and Milverton

Watson, Holmes and Milverton

Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton. With s smiling face and a heart of marble he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.  (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Some of Sherlock’s actions in the story have readers crying foul, especially when Holmes becomes involved with Milverton’s maid.  This has recently been revisited in the new modern Sherlock series.  In His Last Vow, Milverton’s name is changed to Magnussen.  The story may have changed, yet he is still the same slithering fellow.  Holmes bends the rules in this story as well, to the delight of some fans and the horror of others.  The implication being that men like Howell and his fictional counterpart Milverton/Magnussen can push you over the edge.

Watson, Magnussen, Holmes

Watson, Magnussen, Holmes

Did Howell meet a different end than Sherlock’s Milverton?  It’s hard to say.  Howell had been known to fake his death and when he actually did die, many did not believe the news. Most probably he died quietly of tuberculosis.  Yet there is another lingering story of him being murdered and found with his throat slashed, his body lying outside a Chelsea pub.  His death was much like his life, you don’t know which version to believe.




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.








Lizzie Siddal: A New Play by Jeremy Green


Emma West as Lizzie Siddal. Photo Credit Rebecca Pitt

Copperhead Productions and Peter Huntley Productions present



from Wednesday 20 November – Saturday 21 December 2013

The Victorian art world.

‘To yearn for something – doesn’t that make life more intense?’

Lizzie Siddal, a new play about the woman who was ‘Ophelia’ in Millais’ famous painting, will open at the Arcola Theatre on Wednesday 20 November 2013 (press night Friday 22 November) it was announced today.

London, 1849. Lizzie is plucked from the obscurity of a bonnet shop to model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – an intoxicating group of young painters bent on revolutionising the Victorian art world.  Inspired by their passion, Lizzie throws herself headlong into their lives and their art. She nearly dies in the creation of ‘Ophelia’, but the painting is a triumph. Lizzie wants more and dares to dream of being an artist in her own right. Falling in love with the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she becomes his muse, and finally fulfils her dream of being an independent artist. But independence isn’t always what it seems, love can be fickle and all art is a kind of deception. Lizzie is betrayed, and her response sparks a devastating denouement that still stirs debate to this day.

An enigmatic cult figure, Lizzie’s life continues to inspire books, blogs and articles. Lizzie Siddal charts her true and dazzling trajectory from model to lover to artist, to a tragic figure in her own right, bringing her story to life on stage for the very first time.

‘Ophelia’, by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, is one of the world’s most popular and recognisable paintings. Currently on display in Tate Britain’s permanent collection, it depicts the tragic drowning of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It has an estimated market value of around £30 million.

Jeremy Green’s plays include Snakes at the Young Vic Theatre; The Wolfgang Chase for BBC radio (described by The Times as “something quite remarkable, done with extraordinary delicacy”) and Fairy Tale at the Pleasance Theatre.

Lizzie Siddal will be directed by Lotte Wakeham, currently Associate Director of Matilda in the West End and on Broadway. Recent credits include The Other School for NYMT at St James Theatre, The Kissing-Dance at Jermyn Street Theatre (for which she was nominated for Best Director at the Off West-End Awards) and comedy show Before They Were Famous for BBC Radio 4.

The role of Lizzie Siddal will be played by Emma West, with full casting to be announced. Emma’s recent stage credits include Improbable Fiction at Buxton Opera House and UK Tour, TwoThousandAndSex at Drill Hall, Recipe for a Perfect Wife at King’s Head Theatre and She Stoops to Conquer at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre and UK Tour.  Film credits include The Other Boleyn Girl.

Lizzie Siddal is written by Jeremy Green and directed by Lotte Wakeham with design by David Woodhead and lighting design by Howard Hudson. It is produced by Copperhead Productions and Peter Huntley Productions.

For further press information please contact Mark Senior on 07446 169 997


24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL
Performances: Monday – Saturday 7:30pm, Saturdays 2:30pm
Tickets: £19, £15 previews/concessions
Pay What You Can: Every Tuesday (except 17 December 2013)
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 |