I am thrilled and honored that Lucinda Hawksley, author of Lizzie Siddal: Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, took the time to answer a few questions. Hawksley is a best-selling author, speaker, and the great-great-great- granddaughter of Charles Dickens. If you have not yet read her biography of Elizabeth Siddal, I encourage you to do so. It is an interesting and well-researched narrative of Siddal’s life. She has also recently published a biography of Charles Dicken’s daughter, Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens’s Artist Daughter
LizzieSiddal.com: One of the reasons I started LizzieSiddal.com was because I was frustrated with the fact that almost everything I could find about her online only dealt with the gothic aspects of her death and exhumation. Which is why I, and so many others, are thrilled with your book. You’ve personalized her without idealizing her. You obviously knew a great deal about her before writing this book, but during the process, did you find any information that surprised you?
I was surprised by the discovery that it was she who seems to have started the rumour that she lived in a slum, when actually she didn’t. I was also very fascinated by researching the areas in which she grew up (through the Holborn and Southwark local studies libraries) and finding out about the people she lived near and the buildings that were there then, in particular what a beautifully green area Southwark was at the time!
The thing that surprised me most was how much sympathy I had for Rossetti, after realising how difficult Lizzie must have been to live with and seeing the extent to which she managed to emotionally manipulate him (seen in the letters he sent to other people, unconscious of what they must have been able to read between the lines).
I loved the fact that she finally got fed up of Rossetti’s infidelities and left him – and that when she did so she decided to prove to herself that she was a good artist and went off to Sheffield to art school. I really admired that in a woman of her era and with her addiction problems. I was also impressed that she gave up her money from Ruskin, though I wish she hadn’t and had continued to paint! I would love to have been able to find out exactly what transpired between her and Ruskin, I wondered if he became too controlling and she chose to break free. If so, I really admire that too.
I was very happy to read some good opinions of her, instead of the usual William Rossetti version of everything. I particularly liked the discovery that her employer Mrs Tozer allowed her to work part-time in the hat shop, when she was first modelling. Part-time work was not common then, so Mrs Tozer must have thought really highly of her.
LizzieSiddal.com: Some descriptions of both Lizzie and Rossetti lead me to believe that they may have been manic depressive or bipolar. Do you have any thoughts on this? You mention in the book that both were “prone to wild mood swings, ranging from the elevated to the depressed.”
They were both depressives, I have suspicions that they were possibly bipolar, but it is not possible to know for certain without a patient there in front of you. I spoke to quite a few doctors, including psychiatrists, when researching the Lizzie and Katey books and they all said the same thing – it’s very difficult to make real diagnoses based only on historic events.
LizzieSiddal.com:How would you characterize the relationship between Lizzie and Christina Rossetti? I know that they were far from close, but Christina’s poem ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ shows her sympathy with the fact that Rossetti saw Lizzie more as his artistic muse than a real, flesh and blood woman.
My theory is that Christina was quite obsessed with Lizzie. She obviously didn’t like her – making that apparent – and disapproved of her on moral grounds, but I think deep down she would have liked to be like her. Christina was obviously largely motivated in her dislike of Lizzie by her older sister Maria’s disapproval and by Christina’s own jealousy that Lizzie had taken Dante’s affections away from her.
LizzieSiddal.com: In your research, did you find any information that gave you insight into Lizzie’s relationship with Jane Morris? Do you think Lizzie knew of her husband’s attraction to Jane?
I think Lizzie did know. I think she suspected it before they were married when Rossetti was writing letters to her from Oxford. Not long after the group met Janey, Rossetti suddenly had to rush off because Lizzie wrote to him that she was ill.I felt so very sorry for Lizzie where Janey was concerned. She was a younger, beautiful woman whose husband’s wealth gave her a much easier life than Lizzie’s. The hardest thing must have been the ease with which Janey got pregnant and had healthy children. When I was researching into the time Rossetti sent Lizzie off to stay with the Morrises after Lizzie had her stillborn baby – when Janey not only had a healthy child but was pregnant again – it made me so sad.
LizzieSiddal.com: A visitor to my site recently posted a comment questioning whether or not Lizzie’s relationship with Algernon Charles Swinburne might have been more than platonic. Any thoughts?
I don’t think it was more than platonic, partly because Lizzie seems to have been a one-man woman and partly because Rossetti trusted them together implicitly. When one considers how jealous Rossetti was of Lizzie sitting to any other artist than him, it seems he must have had very good reasons for not being jealous of Swinburne. After meeting Rossetti, Lizzie really doesn’t seem to have wanted any other man except him. There’s no suggestion of her ever being unfaithful or even flirting – even when she knew Rossetti was cheating on her and her art teacher in Sheffield was infatuated with her.
LizzieSiddal.com: In describing Lizzie’s childhood, you mentioned that her social class was not so far removed from Rossetti’s as most people believe. Do you think this fabrication originated from Lizzie or Rossetti?
Apparently it originated from her. I think to make herself more romantic and appeal to Rossetti’s (and the general Pre-Raphaelite) desire to be a chivalrous knight saving a damsel in distress! It is very odd that Lizzie should have made her social origins more humble than they actually were. It’s something I could never quite work out the sense of.
LizzieSiddal.com: Ophelia is perhaps the most famous image of Lizzie. Did you find any indication of how she felt about the painting? Obviously, posing for it was physically trying for her. I wonder how she felt about the finished project.
There’s no recorded impression from her, but I think she must have been proud of it. She visited Ophelia on display in Paris in 1855 when she was travelling through to the South of France. William Rossetti later said that it was the best of all portraits of her, the most like her, and Millais was already very famous by the time Lizzie died. Incidentally, if any of your readers are coming to London before 13 Jan 2008 they should try and visit the wonderful new Millais exhibition at the tate Britain. Ophelia is on display there, newly cleaned and looking beautiful. (It’s the MOST amazing exhibition – worth making a special trip for!)
LizzieSiddal.com: Does it appear as if anyone around her was concerned with her frequent use of laudanum? Did anyone try to help or reduce her usage?
It is implied that both her parents and Rossetti tried to help her reduce her usage but there are no concrete records about how they felt. Laudanum then really was used like we might use paracetamol or aspirin, so it was quite normal for people – especially women – to use it in large quantities.
LizzieSiddal.com: Is there any record of how Lizzie’s family felt about Rossetti having her exhumed? They must have been aware of it after the fact, and no doubt shocked.
I don’t know that they would have been aware of it – if they had done they would I am sure have been furious. Rossetti’s own mother who was the legal owner of the grave and should have been consulted was amazingly kept in ignorance of it. It seems they managed to keep it a secret for many years. It was something Rossetti was deeply ashamed of and something that I believe contributed to him going insane.
LizzieSiddal.com: Have you ever visited Lizzie’s grave? I believe that it is in an area of Highgate that is rarely accessible to visitors. But I know that I, along with many visitors to my site, would love to be able to visit. So if you’ve been, perhaps we can enjoy a visit vicariously through you.
I have visited it, but several years ago. It is in an area of the cemetery that is susbsiding (apparently) so it’s not usually deemed suitable for groups of visitors to see it. The last time I went there had been a lot of rain and they weren’t allowing anyone into that part of the graveyard. She is buried in the Rossetti family grave, which is a pretty plot, but in comparison to some of the incredibly opulent graves at Highgate it is really quite insignificant, I’m sorry to say. If any of your readers are coming to London, it really is worth visiting Highgate, even though they probably won’t get to see Lizzie’s grave, as it is the most fascinating place.
LizzieSiddal.com: Perhaps it is because I’m an American, but I did not discover Lizzie or Pre-Raphaelite art until my early twenties. Are they well known to most people in Britain? Is Siddal someone you always knew about? Or can you remember when you first became interested in the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites? I have to say, they are an interesting bunch of characters.
The Pre-Raphaelites are extremely well known here and their paintings are still used a great deal for things such as advertising and book jackets. In the 1980s and early 1990s there was a very popular chain of poster shops called Athena, one of their best-selling posters was Millais’s ‘Ophelia’. I became interested in the Pre-Raphaelites through the poetry of Christina Rossetti, which I loved from the age of about 13 onwards. At around that age I was in an art gallery and saw the name “Dante Rossetti” and thought ‘I wonder if he’s a relation…’ So I actually discovered the artists through literature. From the first time I read about their lives I was hooked. They are such a fascinating group of people. In fact the London art world (very closely tied to the worlds of literature and music) all through the 19th and early 20th centuries fascinates me – not least because the main characters all knew one another and their lives became so intertwined. You meet the same people again and again when researching art history from that period; I love it, it’s like meeting old friends!
LizzieSiddal.com: Growing up as the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens is an awesome pedigree. Did you always want to be a writer? And did you view your ancestry as a help or a hindrance?
I have wanted to be a writer for as far back as I can remember – though I have two sisters and many cousins and they don’t feel the same way, so it may or may not have been because of Dickens. I have always known about the connection, it would be hard not to when Dickens is such an incredibly important part of British culture, history etc. If I am honest it has been both a help and a hindrance, though usually more of a help, because people are so interested. I’m a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum in London (www.dickensmuseum.com) and it is such a privilege. It’s amazing to stand in the home your ancestors once lived in and see people who are thrilled and inspired by the exhibits. There will always be people who want to pick apart anything I write and say “it’s not as good as Dickens”, but then that’s part of the world of being a writer! There will always be critics.
LizzieSiddal.com: Do you feel close or emotionally invested in the people you research? I’m interested in the dynamics — and did researching Kate Perugini feel different than researching Siddal because of the family aspect?
Researching both Lizzie and Katey were very different journeys. Both were women I had admired for many years, so it was wonderful to have the chance to really get to know them. I have missed both of them since I stopped writing their stories, though I give regular talks about them, which is great fun. I especially love the questions at the end from people who are equally keen to find out more about them. I do feel very emotionally close to both of them. On both occasions, when I completed the manuscript, I felt a sense of bereavement. When I was writing about Katey I discovered what seemed to be bigamy on the part of her second husband – though, very excitingly!, turned out to have been an earlier secret marriage to her. I felt physically sick as I tried to find the marriage certificate to see who he had married and the sense of relief and happiness when I discovered Katey’s name on the certificate was enormous. I had felt outraged on her behalf. Likewise when I was writing Lizzie’s story I got to the point when I couldn’t stand Annie Miller for the bitchy delight she took in trying to take Rossetti away from Lizzie (by contrast, I grew very fond of Fanny Cornforth and really felt sad for her that Rossetti had left her to get back with and then marry Lizzie). The family aspect of researching Katey made it a necessarily more emotional journey as I was discovering personalities who were so like people I have in my life today. It was also so fascinating to uncover almost forgotten family stories.
LizzieSiddal.com: I enjoy reading biographies, but I have to say that reading your biography of Elizabeth Siddal was a refreshing change. It reads almost more like a novel than a dry biography. You have a knack for telling a tale. Have you ever considered writing fiction?
Thank you! Yes I have considered writing fiction and have a half-finished children’s novel in my desk – which maybe one day I will find the chance to finish. I hope so. I find people’s lives so incredibly interesting and am always astonished when I read a biography that can make a vibrant, dynamic person seem dull. Truth really is so much more interesting than most fiction. If Lizzie hadn’t existed and I had made up her life story it would have probably been criticised for being too far fetched.
LizzieSiddal.com: Are you planning any more books on people in the Pre-Raphaelite circle?
Yes, I am hoping to do one on Millais and Simeon Solomon – and more work on the group and movement in general. It’s all in the early stages at the moment.
LizzieSiddal.com: One thing I have noticed from all the emails I get about my site is that people who are interested in Lizzie almost seem protective towards her. Their interest is intense and their curiosity about her is deep. And since her story has also captivated me, it is a great pleasure to discuss her with others who are also interested. Do you have a similar experience at book signings and lectures when you meet your readers?
Absolutely, I like to call it the Marilyn Monroe syndrome. With both Marilyn and Lizzie I think women wish that they could have been friends with her as their friendship might have “saved” her. Men always find both the women intriguing because they remained young and beautiful, never seen as old or unattractive. It tends to happen in general with people who died young – from Lord Byron to James Dean. They retain that allure about them – like a mystery novel that doesn’t have an ending. People always want to find out more. Lizzie’s constant popularity is amazing to me, I love that she is as much of a celebrity in some circles as the people who appear on the cover of those [annoying!] celebrity magazines we have in the UK.
I am grateful that Lucinda Hawksley took the time to chat with me! It was truly an honor. Visit her website, LucindaHawksley.com for information on speaking engagements and book tours.