Interview with Lucinda Hawksley

Lucinda 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 Lizzie Siddal: Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, I encourage you to do so. It is an interesting and well-researched narrative of Siddal’s life. She has also recently published a biography of Charles Dicken’s daughter, Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens’s Artist Daughter One of the reasons I started was because I was frustrated with the fact that almost everything I could find about her online only dealt with the gothic aspects of her death and exhumation. Which is why I, and so many others, are thrilled with your book. You’ve personalized her without idealizing her. You obviously knew a great deal about her before writing this book, but during the process, did you find any information that surprised you?

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

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

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

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

Lucinda Hawksley:

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

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


25 responses to “Interview with Lucinda Hawksley”

  1. Also, I’d like to add that if you are interested in Lucinda Hawksley you should visit the site below to hear a podcast of an interview WritersFM conducted with her:
    “Best-selling author Lucinda Hawksley chats about her two recently-released historical biographies — and her connections to famed 19th century author, Charles Dickens.”

    It’s a fabulous interview conducted by Karl Moore (whom I had never heard of before, but I’m quickly becoming a fan!)

    These links are unrelated to Hawksley, but I enjoyed them so I’ll pass them on:
    An interview with Karl Moore at How to Tell a Great Story

    So what did you think of the interview? Any thoughts on Lucinda Hawksley and her books? Comments?

  2. Well done Stephanie, I’m sure I speak for many in saying how much I value and appreciate your efforts to maintain Lizzie’s legacy and envy you in having the chance to discuss her with Lucinda Hawksley. Don’t be modest, and tell us what nice things she said about the website…

  3. Just to note that the LH comment about them all knowing each other echoes the subject of my recent observation by e-mail to you regarding ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.

  4. Yes, thanks Stephanie for this insightful interview. Of all the resources I have read on Lizzie, I appreciated Lucinda’s book most of all, as she finds a way to fully humanize the Lizzie/Rossetti circle from the pages of history.


  5. Victoria Avatar

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. I did not know about Hawksley’s book until I saw a link to it on this site. I ordered it from amazon and wanted to read it so bad that the wait seemed excruciating!

    Stephanie, I agreed with your comment to Ms. Hawksley that the book read more like a novel…she did such a great job personalizing both Rossetti and Elizabeth. I felt sorry for them both, which is a credit to Lucinda Hawksley. Usually when writing about a relationship, there has to be a “bad guy” and someone to sympathize with. But Hawksley was fair and balanced and painted a picture(pardon the pun)of a codependent couple who both had faults.

  6. I was excited to read that Lucinda has books planned on both Millais and Simeon Soloman! I hope you will be able to review them here or on your preraphaelite sisterhood site!

    The Millais one is what I’m really looking forward to. I’m interested to learn more about Millais and his wife Effie. Actually, I guess it’s Effie I’m mainly interested in. What really happened between her and John Ruskin? How did her affair with Millais start? And was their a public backlash when she and Ruskin divorced so that she could marry Millais?

    I’m a big fan of Hawksley’s now. I had her book Essential Pre-Raphaelites already, but it was writing style and impeccable research in Lizzie Siddal that hooked me.

  7. Ngaire - from New Zealand Avatar
    Ngaire – from New Zealand

    I was very curious as to Lizzie’s contemporaries’ attitude to her laudanum use. Do you think they understood the connection with that & her ill-health & did anyone suggest she give it up? Was it recognised as an adduction?

  8. Although laudanum was used as casually as we use aspirin, Lizzie must have known she was taking more than the average person — didn’t she have people getting it for her on the sly at times? So someone must have expressed concern at some point. Still, if withdrawal symptoms were not recognized as such, I can see where she’d feel compelled to dose her ailments with even more of the drug, especially as her tolerance for it probably increased, making it less effective. Conversely, if she was aware that those symptoms were typical of withdrawal, she may have simply lacked the strength to weather them. Rossetti probably enabled her to some extent, unwilling to see her suffer and maybe dreading the mood swings.

  9. […] This interview linked here is quite interesting, and is a good start to getting to know Lizzie Siddal more. […]

  10. Elaine Williams Avatar
    Elaine Williams

    Hi Stephanie

    In response to the question on the relationship between Christina Rossetti and Lizzie and Christina’s jealousy – Christina was definitely under the shadow of Maria who had a very forceful and dominating personality. The relationship between Lizzie and Christina may have been better under different circumstances; they did move in similar circles and had friends in common; Barbara Bodichon for instance.

  11. just a note — dgr’s family called him Gabriel, not Dante.

  12. Yes, most visitors here are aware of that (or at least I would assume). Gabriel was actually his first name. He later changed the order of his names so that he would be associated with his idol, Dante.

  13. I have the impression that Christina probably liked Lizzie, but was distant towards her. And DGR and Christina were close. I’m close to my own brother and don’t think his girlfriend is good for him, although I do like her. Perhaps the Rossetti siblings were the same?

  14. I just finished the book and it was wonderful! I have a new perspective on Lizzie now and enjoyed Ms. Hawksley’s book very much! I did not know about the book until I visited this site, so I’m thinking it’s marketed more in the UK than the US?

    You’re right Stephanie, Lucinda has a knack for telling a tale, making a biography interesting. Her narrative is captivating. I am looking forward to her next book.

  15. Good site, thank you. I really love it!

  16. Lisa Knighton Avatar
    Lisa Knighton

    Thanks for the printing of this interview. Lizzie is of great interest to me, as is Janey Burden. I plan to read Hawksley’s book.

  17. Natalie Heath Avatar
    Natalie Heath

    Thank you for posting the interview on your website, and for the interesting website contents. I have just finished reading Ms Hawksley’s book and could have cried at the end. As Ms Hawksley herself said, it felt as though you were friends with the characters of that time. The book is so beautifully written, it draws you in and paints such an intimate picture of the time. I will definitely be checking up on Amazon for any further books from the author and PRB

    1. If you haven’t read Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh, I highly recommend it!

  18. Rob Blackman Avatar
    Rob Blackman

    I Stumbled on Lizzie rather late but better late than never.The Said book is an incredible read and i have not put it down since.Lizzie really was an incredible Woman and i just hunger for so much more info about this incredible Woman of great Beauty and talents.

    Lizzie Siddal,


  19. Martin Fisher Avatar
    Martin Fisher

    It was said by my grandmother that Elizabeth Siddal was a
    relative of ours, but I never really took any interest.
    Now after seeing this site and reading about her life I would like to know if this is really true. I intend to go on an ancestry site to see if I can prove this. She also passed down to me a lock of faded red hair in an old piece of paper which is surposed to be from Elizabeth Siddal.

  20. Hi!
    Thank you for the info and all. But I’ve got a question in fact. Not being English I can’t figure out the meaning of this nickname “Guggums”. No dictionary is of help! Pray, what possibly could it mean back then? Or nothing at all, I wonder? Was the word Rossetti’s creation then?
    It seems now the word is used for teddy bears or pets. But back then?
    I’d be greatly thankful in advance for any explanation.

  21. Lacey Trowbridge Avatar
    Lacey Trowbridge

    Is this book available on Kindle books?

    1. I had posted a link several months ago to the Amazon page where you could purchase the Kindle version, but I just checked Amazon and could no longer find it. I’ll keep checking though. I know that it is available for Nook through Barnes and Noble. There’s a free software called Calibre ( that converts ebooks to different formats. I’m not sure if it works for converting nook versions to kindle, but it might. I’d suggest you look through their help page before spending money on the Nook version, though.

  22. […] interviews author Lucinda HawksleyOct 9, 2007 … Lucinda Hawksley: Absolutely, I like to call it the Marilyn Monroe syndrome. With both Marilyn and Lizzie I think women wish that they could … […]

  23. Thanks for reposting this Stephanie!

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