Tag Archives: Death

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

 

 

 

Memories of Elizabeth Siddal from Georgiana Burne-Jones

memorials-burne-jonesIn her Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Georgiana Burne-Jones writes of Elizabeth Siddal fondly. Reading contemporary accounts of Lizzie is a thrill for me and I enjoy a small glimpse into these moments.

Lizzie is first mentioned, briefly, in the chapter discussing the early days of the Rossetti/Burne-Jones friendship.  This is during the happy days of their collaborating on the Oxford murals:

p.168: “Other interruptions the workers had of a more welcome kind, when Ruskin or Madox Brown came down from London to look at what they were doing.  There is a reflection of Ruskin’s visit in a letter of mine written to Miss Charlotte Salt at the beginning of November, where it says, “Edward is still at Oxford, painting away busily,” and adds that Ruskin had been down there the week before and pronounced Rossetti’s picture to be “the finest piece of colour in the world.”  Then–under seal of secrecy–I whisper that “he chooses Edward’s next to Rossetti’s.”  About ten days later another letter breathes in awe-stricken distress the fact that Miss Siddal is “ill again”.  The news had reached me through Edward, who had never even seen her, but so lived in Gabriel’s life at that time as not only to share any trouble that Gabriel had, but also to impress real sadness for it upon another.

In Mr. Price’s diary of November 14th, there is the following entry: “Rossetti unhappily called away through Miss Siddal’s illness at Matlock”; and that was the end of the Oxford companionship, for he did not return.”

lizzie-burn-jones-memorialsp. 178 The next mention of Lizzie is a brief sentence saying “It was a bad time for several of the little circle.  Miss Siddal continued wretchedly out of health, and a long illness of Mrs. Madox Brown’s was weighing heavily on her husband”.

In the next chapter, Gabriel and Lizzie marry:

p. 204: “Since the time that Rossetti was called away from Oxford, in October, 1857, by the illness of Miss Siddal, he and Edward had been less together, but there had been no decrease of affection between them, and so it was of the most vital interest to us when we learnt that Gabriel was to be married about the same time as ourselves.  He and Edward at once built up a plan for our all four meeting in Paris as soon as possible afterwards; I went home to Manchester to make my preparations, and it was decided that the fourth anniversary of our engagement, the 9th of June, should be our wedding day.”

Shortly after their wedding, Burne-Jones fell ill.  Due to the illness, the foursome had to change their plans:

p. 204-205 “It was quite clear that we must give up Paris and get to our own home as soon as the doctor gave Edward leave to travel; so ruefully enough I wrote to Gabriel and told him how things were; and his answer was a comfort to us, for he reported that they were both tired of “dragging about,” and looked forward with pleasure to sitting down again with their friends in London as soon as possible. “Lizzie and I are likely to come back with two dogs,” he continues,”a big one and a little one.  We have called the latter Punch in memory partly of a passage in Pepys’s Diary, ‘But in the street, Lord, how I did laugh to hear poor common persons call their fat child Punch, which name I do perceive to be good for all that is short and thick.’  We have got the book from Mudie’s, and meant to have yelled over it in company if you had come to Paris.  We are now reading Boswell’s Johnson, which is almost as rich in some parts.”  This reading of Boswell resulted in the water-colour drawing of “Dr. Johnson at the Mitre” which Rossetti brought back with him from Paris. ”

p.208 “Rossetti and his wife, after their return from Paris, took a lodging at Hampstead, but she was so ill at first that we never saw her till the end of July, when to our great delight a day was fixed for the deferred meeting, and Gabriel suggested that it should take place at the Zoological Gardens. “The Wombat’s Lair” was the assignation that he gave to the Madox Browns and to us.  A mention of this meeting in a letter that I wrote next day gives the impression of the actual time: “She was well enough to see us, and I find her as beautiful as imagination, poor thing.”

“I wish I could recall more details of that day — of the wombat’s reception of us, and of the other beasts we visited–but can only remember a passing call on the owls, between one of whom and Gabriel there was a feud.  The moment their eyes met they seemed to rush at each other, Gabriel rattling his stick between the cage bars furiously and the owl almost barking with rage.  Lizzie’s slender, elegant figure — tall for those days, but I never knew her actual height–comes back to me, in a graceful and simple dress, the incarnate opposite of the “tailor-made” young lady.  We went home with them to their rooms at Hampstead, and I know that I then received an impression which never wore away, of romance and tragedy between her and her husband.  I see her in the little upstairs bedroom with its lattice window, to which she carried me when we arrived, and the mass of her beautiful deep-red hair as she took off her bonnet: she wore her hair very loosely fastened up, so that it fell in soft, heavy wings.  Her complexion looked as if a rose tint lay beneath the white skin, producing a most soft and delicate pink for the darkest flesh-tone.  Her eyes were of a kind of golden brown–agate colour is the only word I can think of to describe them– and wonderfully luminous:  in all of Gabriel’s drawings of her and in the type she created in his mind this is to be seen.  The eyelids were deep, but without any languor or drowsiness, and had the peculiarity of seeming scarcely to veil the light in her eyes when she was looking down.”

“Whilst we were in her room she shewed me a design she had just made, called “The Woeful Victory” –then the vision passes.”

swinburne-burne-jones-memorialsp. 216: “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!”  Gabriel commemorated one view of her appearance in his rhyme beginning “There is a poor creature named Lizzie, Whose aspect is meagre and frizzy,” and there, so far as I remember, his muse halted; but he completed another verse on her to her great satisfaction, thus:

“There is a poor creature named Lizzie

Whose  pictures are dear at a tizzy;

And of this great proof

Is that all stand aloof

From paying that sum unto Lizzie”

p. 218:  “Morris was a pleased man when he found that his wife could embroider any design that he made, and did not allow her talent to remain idle.  With Mrs. Rossetti it was a different matter, for I think she had original power, but with her, too, art was a plant that grew in the garden of love, and strong personal feeling was at the root of it; one sees in her black-and-white designs and beautiful little water-colours Gabriel always looking over her shoulder, and sometimes taking pencil or brush from her hand to complete the thing she had begun.

“The question of her long years of ill-health has often puzzled me; as to how it was possible for her to suffer so much without ever developing a specific disease; and after putting together what I knew of her and what I have learnt in passing through life, it seems to me that Dr. Acland’s diagnosis of her condition in 1855 must have been shrewed, sympathetic, and true.  He is reported by Gabriel as saying, after careful examination and many professional visits, that her lungs, if at all affected, were only slightly so, and that he thought the leading cause of her illness lay in “mental power long pent up and lately overtaxed”; which words seem to me a clue to the whole matter.  This delicately organized creature, who had spent the first sixteen years of her life in circumstances that practically forbade the unfolding of her powers, had been suddenly brought into the warmth and light of Gabriel’s genius and love, under which her whole inner nature had quickened and expanded until her bodily strength gave way; but Rossetti himself did not realize this so as to spare her the forcing influence, or restrict his demands upon her imagination and sympathy.  It is a tragic enough thought that, but one is driven to believe that if such a simple remedy as what is now called a “rest-cure” had been known of and sought for her then, her life might have been preserved.  However, let us follow what we know.”

“Gabriel dreaded bringing her to live in  London, where she was so often ill, but after vainly seeking for a house that would suit them at Hampstead or Highgate they resolved, as she seemed to have gained a little strength since her marriage, to try the experiment of wintering at Blackfriars.  The landlord of Chatham Place offered them the second floor of the next house in addition to the one that Rossetti already had, and by making a communication between the two houses they gained an excellent set of rooms.  All seemed to promise well, and for a brief time I think it was so.  We received a note from Gabriel telling us they had “hung up their Japanese brooms,” — a kind of yard-long whisk of peacock’s feathers–and made a home for themselves.  He was happy and proud in putting his wife’s drawings round one of the rooms, and in a letter to Allingham says: “Her last designs would I am sure surprise and delight you, and I hope she is going to do better now–if she can only add a little more of the precision in carrying out which it so much needs health and strength to attain, she will, I am sure, paint such pictures as no woman has painted yet.”

“We used to go and see them occasionally in the evenings, when the two men would spend much of the time in Gabriel’s studio, and Lizzie and I began to make friends.  She did not talk happily when we were alone, but was excited and melancholy, though with much humour and tenderness as well; and Gabriel’s presence seemed needed to set her jarring nerves straight, for her whole manner changed when he came into the room.  I see them now as he took his place by her on the sofa and her excitement sank back into peace.”

siddal2-burne-jones“One evening our errand to Chatham Place was to borrow a lay-figure, and we gaily carried it off without any wrapper in a four-wheeled cab, whose driver soon drew up a a brilliantly lighted public-house, saying that he could go no further, and under the glare of the gas lamps we had to decant our strange companion into a fresh cab.”

“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,

“Lizzie”

p. 222:  ‘Hostages to Fortune: 1861-1862′  ”This was a year of wonders quite different from those of 1856, for all its marvels were visible to others beside ourselves.  Let who will smile, but to most people the sight of a first child is one of the miracles of life, and it is noteworthy that Morris, Rossetti, and Edward now went through this experience within a few months of each other.  First came the owner of the little garment that was being fashioned for her when we were at Red House the summer before, and then, just as we were taking it for granted that all would go as well in one household as another, there was illness and anxiety and suspense at Chatham Place, and poor Lizzie was only given back to us with empty arms.  This was not a light thing to Gabriel, and though he wrote about it, “She herself is so far the most important that I can feel nothing but thankfulness,” the dead child certainly lived in its father’s heart. “I ought to have had a little girl older than she is,” he once said wistfully as he looked at a friend’s young daughter of seven years.”

“When we went to see Lizzie for the first time after her recovery, we found her sitting in a low chair with the child-less cradle on the floor beside her, and she looked like Gabriel’s “Ophelia” when she cried with a kind of soft wildness as we came in, “Hush, Ned, you’ll waken it!”  How often it seemed to us that if the little baby had lived she, too, might have done so, and Gabriel’s terrible melancholy would never have mastered him.”

“Lizzie’s nurse was a delightful old country woman, whose words and ways we quoted for years afterwards; her native wit and simple wisdom endeared her to both Gabriel and Lizzie, and were the best possible medicine for their over-strained feelings.  Naturally, after meeting her at Blackfriars, we invited her to come to us.”

p. 228: [Rossetti sends GBJ a note after the birth of her child]  ”To these early days in Great Russell Street belongs a note I received from Gabriel, one part of which I can never read unmoved:  ”By the bye, Lizzie has been talking to me of parting with a certain small wardrobe to you.  But don’t let her, please.  It looks such a bad omen for us.”  Seldom did I come so near the real Gabriel as this.

p. 231: [Together, Lizzie and Jane Morris visit GBJ and her new baby] “To this time belongs a clear recollection of the appearance of Janey and Lizzie as they sat side by side one day when in a good hour it had occurred to them to come together to see the mother and child.  They were as unlike as possible and quite perfect as a contrast to each other; also, at the moment neither of them was under the cloud of ill-health, so that, as an Oriental might say, the purpose of the Creator was manifest in them.  The difference between the two women may be typified broadly as that between sculpture and painting, Mrs. Morris being the statue and Mrs. Rossetti the picture:  the grave nobility and colourless perfection of feature in the one was made human by kindness that looked from “her great eyes standing far apart,” while a wistfulness that often accompanied the brilliant loveliness and grace of the other gave an unearthly character to her beauty. “Was there ever two such ladies!” said dame Wheeler, with a distinct sense of ownership in one of them, as soon as they were gone.” [Wheeler had been Lizzie's nurse]

p. 237:  [Death of Elizabeth Siddal] “One morning in February — a dark and cold one — Edward had settled as usual to such work as the light permitted, when there came a tap at the door, and to our surprise Red Lion Mary entered.  How she told her tale I do not know, but first we heard the words “Mrs. Rossetti”, and then we found that she had come to bring us the dreadful news that our poor, lovely Lizzie was dead, from an overdose of Laudanum.  There was nothing we could do–all was over–so, begging Edward not to risk going out on such a day, I hastened to Blackfriars to bring him any word I could learn about the unhappy Gabriel.”

“The story can never lose its sadness.  To try to tell it afresh now, with a knowledge of its disastrous effect upon one of the greatest of men, would be for me impossible.  I will simply transcribe something I wrote about it the next day to one of my sisters: “I am sure you will feel for Gabriel and all of us when I tell you poor Lizzie died yesterday morning.  I scarcely believe the words as I write them, but yesterday I saw her dead.  The evening before she was in good health (for her) and very good spirits–she dined with her husband and Swinburne and made very merry with them–Gabriel took her home, saw her prepare for bed, went out to the Working Men’s College, and on his return found her insensible from the effects of an overdose of laudanum which she was used to take medicinally.  She never knew him or anyone else for a second–four physicians and a surgeon did everything human skill could devise, but in spite of them all she died, poor darling, soon after seven in the morning.  The shock was so great and sudden that we are only beginning to believe it today–I wonder at myself for writing about it so coolly.  I went down directly I heard it and saw her poor body laid in the very bed where I have seen her lie and laugh in the midst of illness, but even though I did this I keep thinking it is all a dreadful dream,  Brown was with Gabriel and is exactly the man to see to all the sad business arrangements, for of course under such circumstances an inquest has to be held.  Of course I did not see Gabriel.  Edward is greatly troubled as you will believe, and all the men.  I leave you to imagine the awful feeling there is upon us all.  Pray God to Comfort Gabriel.”

“The Chatham Place days were ended now, and Rossetti in his sorrow turned to his mother, whose grave tenderness must have been a refuge for his wounded heart, and went for a time to live in Albany Street with her and his sisters and brother.  Poor Lizzie’s bullfinch went there too, and sang as sweetly and looked as sleek and cheerful as ever.”

p.281:  “When Gabriel heard that Mrs. Wheeler was in Great Russell Street, he wrote asking me to tell her that she would soon receive from him a photograph of his wife which he had long intended her to have.  Naturally I enquired at once what photograph he meant, for I did not know there were any and was eager to have one; but he answered, “The photographs of Lizzie are only from two of my sketches.  On several occasions when attempts were made to photograph her from life, they were all so bad that none have been retained.” He said also that he would send them both for me to see and choose whichever I preferred.  The one I kept was from a drawing made shortly after their marriage, when Lizzie was ill, but it is extremely like her and gives the peculiar lustre of her downcast eyes.”

p. 292: [This is the final mention of Lizzie. GBJ writes of a party given by Rossetti at Cheyne Walk] “No Thames Embankment had reached Chelsea then, and only a narrow road lay between the tall iron gates of the forecourt of 16, Cheyne Walk, and the wide river which was lit up that evening by a full moon.  Gabriel had hung Lizzie’s beautiful pen-and-ink and water-colour designs in the long drawing-room with its seven windows looking south, where if ever a ghost returned to earth hers must have come to seek him: but we did not sit in that room, the studio was the centre of the house.”

Georgiana_Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones

Answering Questions: Lizzie’s Death

A new visitor to this site (Welcome Hope!) has posted some interesting and thought provoking questions about Lizzie’s death in the comments section of another post. I felt compelled to create a new post to try to answer her questions in a concise manner. And, as always, I am hoping that others will join in the discussion.

Hope has asked a lot of questions about Lizzie’s death and the possibility of murder.

 

After reading a few different accounts of Lizzie’s death, I have a question. Since she was in such good spirits the night of her death (according to the account by Georgiana Burne-Jones on this web site) and actually seemed to be doing quite well, considering her illness, is there ANY chance she could have been murdered? Is there anybody who might have wanted her dead? A mistress of Rossetti’s perhaps? Did he have a mistress at that time? Or any woman interested in him in his life at that time? A model perhaps? Would any of Rossetti’s models have had access to the house or Lizzie’s medicine? Someone who wouldn’t want to see them happily having a child perhaps? Someone who would have been distressed that she seemed to be coming out of her depression? I find the circumstances of her death to be suspicious, even though she was known to be depressed previously.

 

 

No, I don’t think Rossetti killed her, lest anyone suspect that. I entertained that notion briefly, but I think he really did love her and wouldn’t do such a thing. I’ve read enough on this web site alone to be convinced of that.

I know this is a rather off-the-wall question I’m asking, but this woman is being judged very harshly (even on this site) for committing suicide. What if she didn’t commit suicide at all? What if there is more of a mystery here than people have acknowledged? How much do we really know about the suicide note? Where did that rumor originate? Could the rumor have been planted by someone wanting people to believe it was suicide?

Let me repeat the account of the night of her death that gives me cause for concern:

“The evening before she was in good health (for her) and very good spirits “ she dined with her husband and Swinburne and made very merry with them”

Could it be that she was happy because she was going to have another baby? She was said to have been very joyous when she learned she was pregnant the first time. And post partum depression would not necessarily have lasted more than a year – her spirits that night are not indicative of a depressed person, who generally wouldn’t be able to hide their emotions (I know this from personal experience). And just looking at her sad pictures, I don’t think this woman could be joyous one moment and kill herself the next, I don’t think she could fake it quite honestly.

Something here just doesn’t add up, and I find it distressing. You all have studied dear Lizzie much longer than I have (and I must say I find this woman to be very endearing, as I’m sure you do too). What are your thoughts? Has this ever crossed your mind? And if it was even remotely possible, who might have done it? Could she be fooled into taking a higher dose (I don’t know how laudenum was delivered.) Could someone have forced her into taking it that night? I would like to hear a respectful, intelligent discussion of the possibilities, based on what you know of the circumstances. Are we all jumping to conclusions about the suicide? Any other evidence of her spirits leading up to that particular night?

I say all of this out of no disrespect to Lizzie Siddall or Dante Gabriele Rossetti. Indeed it is with the utmost of respect for these people that I ask you to consider this prospect. I’m not convinced this woman intended to kill herself that night. I think her life was beginning anew, others saw it, and somebody could have put a stop to it. But who? And how? Is it possible?

Kind regards,
Hope

Answers from LizzieSiddal.com :

First of all, I don’t think I have ever judged her harshly on this site. I have quoted others and asked questions, but I’ve always kept my opinion to myself about what happened that night. Mainly because I don’t believe it can ever be known if Lizzie intended to commit suicide or not. It could have been an accidental overdose or a cry for help. She may have thought Rossetti could have saved her. But keep in mind that by this stage in her life, Lizzie was an addict. And addicts behave, well, like addicts. And when I use the term addict, it is not in a judgmental way at all. Not much was known about addiction in the Victorian era. People knew that laudanum ( a mixture of opiates and alcohol) was addictive, and yet it was regularly given to babies, expectant mothers, etc.

It seems as if you base most of your suspicions on the fact that Lizzie was in a good mood that night at dinner. According to Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, by Jan Marsh who is an authority on Siddal and the Pre-Raphaelites, this “merriment” can be attributed to Laudanum:

p. 216: “Between six and seven in the evening they went to join Swinburne for dinner at the Sablonniere hotel restaurant in Leicester Square, ‘but before we started out she appeared drowsy and when we got halfway in the cab I proposed going home again.’ Lizzie wished to go on, however, and while they has their meal as planned ‘she seemed somewhat between flightiness and drowsiness, a little excited.’ This alternation sounds like the effects of opium, and was evidently Lizzie’s normal condition, for Swinburne told the coroner that he saw ‘nothing particular in the deceased except she appeared a little weaker than on usual’

Marsh mentions later that “Like alcohol, the opiates first act as a stimulant and then as a sedative, so it was possible for Lizzie to take a small dose to make herself cheerful during supper and then a larger dose to make her sleep when she was ready for bed. There was always the danger of an overdose, given the lack of standardization and the addict’s uncertain judgement.

At the time of her death, there were no rumors of suicide. Nor were there any rumors that Rossetti was with Fanny Cornforth. Both of these tales can be traced back to Violet Hunt’s account in The Wife of Rossetti, which is a gossipy and highly imaginative account of Lizzie’s life.

And yes, Georgiana Burne-Jones did write that Lizzie was in good spirits that night. But since she did not see Lizzie, we must assume that she knows this because Rossetti told her. Therefore, it’s simply hearsay.

More Questions:

Here are some more questions. And here I want to say first that I mean absolutely no disrespect to Fanny Cornforth or any other potential mistress in DGR’s life at the time either. I’m simply conducting an investigation similar to what might be done today if a woman was found dead, no disrespect to anyone.

First, is there any evidence that they examined the formulation of Lizzie’s medicine at the time of death? Was it confirmed to still be laudanum? Did they do a chemical analysis using the science of the day?

Second, was her death itself consistent with a laundanum overdose? It sounds like she was conscious in the morning but not lucid. Was there any other substance commonly available at the time that would have produced these symptoms?

There does not appear to be any sign of a struggle in her bedroom the night of her death, just in case someone forced her to take an overdose. She was very frail, it would have been fairly easy to force her to take it if someone was much stronger than her. Even a strong woman could have done it. Was Lizzie alone in the house? Were servants present that night? Could she have taken a normal dose and someone quietly dribble more into her mouth after she was sleeping, with no struggle at all?

 

The doctor who attended Lizzie and washed out her stomache stated that her stomach contents “smelt overpoweringly of laudanum.”

She was attended by several doctors that night. After Rossetti found her, he sent for a doctor. When he couldn’t save her, Rossetti sent for another. And then another. And, finally, another. A total of four doctors treated Lizzie for a laudanum overdose and there is no record of any of them disagreeing with the circumstances of her death. I do not believe that there was any laudanum left to test, or if there would have been means to test it.

According to the inquest, Ellen Macintire was downstairs in the house that night. Rossetti called her up when he couldn’t wake his wife. She was with Lizzie at about half past 8, I assume before Lizzie went to bed. I think that a struggle would have been heard. I do not know the layout of the house, so I can’t say whether or not someone could have come in without the others in the house knowing (the housekeeper Mrs. Birrell was also at home).

More Questions:

And next, has anyone ever investigated how Fanny Cornforth’s husband died? I read on another web site that he died right around the time Lizzie died. How did he die? When exactly did he die? Was it before or after Lizzie? I know there are accounts of Fanny being a noble character in the remaining life of DGR, and I’m not saying that wasn’t true, but police today would investigate her, no doubt about that and would consider that she might have had motive, especially given that DGR’s blatant affair with her ended when Lizzie returned and they were married and Fanny is said to have been very upset at the time, according to something I read on another web site. What if Fanny heard about Lizzie’s second pregnancy, and she finally was driven over the edge in her desire to fully restore her relationship with DGR? Yes, yes, much speculation and once again, these are just honest questions, absolutely no disrespect to anyone long gone intended.

 

I don’t think that Fanny’s husband died close to the time of Lizzie’s death. According to what I’ve read, he did not die, but Fanny left him soon after Lizzie’s death. Yes, police today might have been suspicious. But wouldn’t they have also taken into account that the deceased was a longtime abuser of the drug that killed her?

 

And back to Lizzie’s apparent merriment the night of her death…One could consider her exceptionally high spirits at dinner were due to the fact she had made up her mind to go and that finally gave her a sort of happiness. She was just counting the minutes until she could carry it out, one might say, although I honestly find this to be SO inconsistent with her character. I think she would have been morose and as a Christian terrified of committing suicide if it could mean instant residency in hell (I’m not sure about her Christian beliefs. Was she an Anglican? What do they believe about the souls of people who commit suicide?) I honestly think Lizzie would have been afraid to boldly kill herself on a night she seemed so fully present at dinner, just because of her religious faith alone.

 

I believe her merriment was due to laudanum. I do not know the extent of her religious faith.

Question:

OK, back to what I’m thinking about this morning. The question that now comes to mind is whether Lizzie would also make merry on the night that she was about to kill her unborn child.

 

That is assuming that suicide was premeditated. What if she didn’t intend to kill herself and it was an accident? What if it was spur of the moment and she only decided to kill herself when Rossetti left her home alone after dinner? We just can’t hang so much on her behavior at dinner. Something could have happened after dinner that we don’t know about. They could have quarreled before he left. Or, it could have been an accident.She may have gone to sleep, only to wake up later and decided to take more laudanum perhaps forgetting how much she had taken before. I take the liberty of quoting Jan Marsh again: “Even a note, however, does not prove that Lizzie meant to die, for she must have known that Gabriel was due back in a couple of hours, and she may well have trusted him to save her; suicide attempts are often an expression of despair. It seems to me that her behavior fits more into the pattern of sever addiction: chronic, increasing and careless drug-taking is indicative of a self-destructive urge and it is often only a matter of time before death occurs, since the individual has lost the will, or the desire, to live.”

Lizzie was addicted to laudanum before their marriage. Her laudanum addiction probably led to the death of her stillborn child. Then she suffers grief, post-partum depression, in the midst of this addiction. She was not mentally healthy at the time, nor had she been for a great while.

Questions:

 

And back to the murder theory again. The movie “Fatal Attraction” keeps coming to mind. If DGR was still having an clandestine affair with Fanny at the time, Fanny might not have appreciated the potential domestic tranquility returning to the household of Lizzie and DGR. There is a scene in “Fatal Attraction” that I’m reminded of, where the woman who is “scorned” observes the domestic tranquility of the family of her lover with disgust and envy. And yes, in that movie, she does go on to attempt the murder of the wife of her lover, but this isn’t a movie we’re talking about here, so let’s not get TOO distracted. I’m just saying there is a very real plausibility factor.

What if Fanny missed her life of comparable luxury with DGR and thought it could be restored somehow? Even if Fanny’s husband died of natural causes (and again, I have no idea if his death preceded Lizzie’s), maybe that would have left Fanny in total squalor, making life restored with DGR even more potentially attractive.

 

Not being an authority on Fanny, I can’t say whether she would stoop to murder or not. On the whole, I doubt it.

Any other thoughts or opinions? Lizzie’s death is a fascinating subject, so I’d love for other visitors to comment and share

Editing to Add: Since posting this, here are a few more questions that have been asked:

One more little question….this suicide note that was supposedly pinned to her dress (yes, I just read about that too), was the handwriting analyzed? I’m sure it was destroyed long ago under the circumstances, if it existed. I really wonder what it said. Could it have been written under duress? Or could the handwriting have been not quite right (and assumed reasonably normal by those who discovered it due to her assumed distress/incapacity at the time)? Could it have been cleverly and carefully forged by someone with access to letters in the home already in her handwriting, although not exact, close enough to fool DGR perhaps in what would have been HIS very real distress and haste to get rid of the note quickly. And if she was out of it at all, as she would have had to be to commit suicide I believe, perhaps halfway to overdosing already to actually go through with it, how easy would it have been for Lizzie to pin it to her dress (any woman knows that can be potentially tricky to do if you are in a daze, depending on the type of pin)?


If there was a suicide not, IF, then no it was never seen by anyone other than Rossetti (or possibly Ford Madox Brown, if you believe that account). So, no it was not examined or analyzed. I personally don’t believe that there was a note.

 


Transcript of Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti’s Inquest

Appendix IV, Wife of Rossetti by Violet Hunt

Note that her age was recorded as 29 instead of her actual age, 32.

An Inquisition indented taken for our Sovereign Lady the Queen st the precinct of Bridewell in London on the twelfth day of February in the Twenty-fifth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lady Victoria by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen Defender of the Faith before William Payne Sergeant at Law CORONER of our said Lady the Queen for the City of London and the Borough of Southwark in the County of Surrey on view of the body of Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti now here lying dead within the jurisdiction of the said Coroner upon oaths of the undersigned Jurors good and lawful men of the said City who being now here duly chosen sworn and charged to enquire for our said Lady the Queen when where and in what manner the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti came to her death say upon their Oaths that the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti being a female of the age of twenty-nine years and the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti an artist on the tenth day of February at Chatham Place in the said Precinct and City Accidentally took an overdose of Laudanum by means whereof she the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti then and there became mortally sick and distempered in her Body of which said mortal sickness and distemper and of the Laudanum aforesaid so by her accidentally taken as aforesaid she the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti on the Eleventh day of February in the year aforesaid at Chatham Place aforesaid did die And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their Oaths aforesaid do say that the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti in the manner and by the means aforesaid Accidentally and casually and by misfortune came to her death

IN TESTIMONY whereof as well the said CORONER as the said Jurors have to this Inquisition set their Hands and Seals the day year and place first above written,

Wm Payne Coroner Hy. Watts George Rider

T.S. Capel H.J. Andrew

James Spicer Charles Coulson

He. Miller Wm. Tuff

John Hart Thomas Martin

Charles James Thicke J.T. Teasdale

To the Beadles and Constables of the Precinct of Constables of teh Precinct of Bridewell of London.

By virtue of my Office of Coroner of our Sovereign Lady the Queen , for the City of London and the Borough of Southwark in the County of Surrey, These are, in Her Majesty’s Name, to charge and command you that in sight hereof, you summon and warn Twenty-four good and sufficient Men of your Precinct personally to appear before me on Wednesday the twelfth day of February one thousand eight hundred and sixty two at 1/2 past 1 of o clock in the afternoon precise time, at Bridewell Hospital in the said Precinct and City then and there to do and execute all such things as shall be given them in charge, and to enquire on behalf of our Sovereign Lady the Queen, touching the death of Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti now lying dead within my jurisdiction, and for your so doing this shall be your Warrant; and that you attend at the time and place above mentioned, to make a Return of the Names of those you have so summoned, and further to do and execute such other matters as shall be then and there enjoined you; and have you then and there this Warrant, Given under my Hand and Seal this eleventh day of February 1862. –Wm. Payne Coroner.

The Execution of this Warrant appears by the Panel hereunto annexed. The answer of the Oxford Beadle.

LIST OF NAMES FOR THE CORONER

Mr. John Hart

Mr. John Campbell Jun

Mr. John Sheppard

Mr. James Spicer

Mr. John Rider

Mr. Thomas Spencer Capel Foreman.

Mr. Ishmael Fisher

Mr. Charles James Thicke

Mr. John Walpole

Mr. Henry James Andrew

Mr. Henry Watts

Mr. William Horsford

Mr. Henry Miller

Mr. Ralph Charles Price

Mr. Charles Coulson

Mr. John Thomas Teasdale

Mr. William Tuff

Mr. Thomas Martin

Mr. Henry Benthall

Mr. Thomas MacNally

Mrs Sarah Birrell, housekeeper

Catherine Birrell, daughter

Ellen McIntyre, niece

Clara Siddall, sister to Mrs. Rossetti

Mr. Swinburne, friend to Mrs. Rossetti

14 Chatham Place witnesses.

Sarah Birrill 14 Chatham Place Blackfriars says I am Housekeeper says I knew the deceased Mrs Rossetti. I have known her 9 years, she has lived there about 2 years. This happened on Monday night after she was in bed. I saw her about 4 in the afternoon. She was quite cheerful then. At 11 she was asleep. I was called up about 1/2 past 11 by her husband. I saw her then in bed. She looked very blank (?black) in the face. A Doctor was sent for he came directly. And he attended to her. She died at 20 minutes past 7 on Tuesday morning. She used to take laudanum occasionally to produce sleep for the last twelve-months I saw a Phial of it was under her pillow. I knew of no hurt to her nor dont suspect any. Her husband and herself lived very comfortable together.

Clara Siddall No. 8 Kent Place Old Kent Road says the deceased was my sister her name was a Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti. Her age 29 last birthday. I saw her on Saturday evening last she seemed in tolerably good spirits then. I have heard of her taking laudanum to produce sleep. I was sent for and saw her about 3 on Tuesday morning. She was then alive but quite unconscious. I know of know of no harm to her. I dont suspect any. I heard she had taken a few drops pf laudanum in brandy and water before she went to bed. She had no family alive.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti of No. 14 Chatham Place Artist says the deceased was my wife & her name was Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti. On Monday afternoon she was perfectly well, at about 6 or 7 we went out to dinner, but before we started she appeared drowsy and when we got half way in the cab I proposed going home again. She wished to go on and we dined at the ———— in Leicester Square with a friend. She seemed somewhat between flightiness and drowsiness, a little excited. We left there at 8 and came straight home. I went out again after 9 leaving her just going to bed. She seemed as right as before. She was in the habit of taking large doses of laudanum. I know that she has taken a 100 drops. I thought that she had the laudanum in brandy. I returned home again at 1/2 past 11 and then she was in bed and snoring. I found her utterly without consciousness. I found a Phial on a small table by her bedside, it was empty. The Doctor was sent for and he attended her she had not spoken of wishing to die. She had contemplated going out of town in a day or two and had bought a new mantle the day before. She was very nervous & had I believe a diseased heart. My impression is that she did not do it to injure herself but to quiet her nerves. She could not have lived without laudanum. She could not sleep at times nor take food.

Francis Hutchinson of Bridge Street M.D. says I knew the deceased and attended her in her confinement in April or May last. The child was born dead and had been dead for a fortnight before it was born. I have only seen her about once since then, that was about a month ago in the street. I was sent for on Monday night about 1/2 past 11. She was in a Comatose state- we tried to rouse her, but without any avail. She could not swallow anything. I used the stomach pump but it had no effect. I then injected several quarts of water into the stomach and washed the stomach out. The smell of laudanum was very distinct, 100 drops is a large dose. I stayed with her till 6 in the morning. I left her in the care of Mr. ? Mable a medical friend of hers I believe that she died from the effects of laudanum which must have been a very large dose. The Phial found in the room was about a 2 oz. Phial. It was labeled “Laudanum Poison”. She was in a very nervous condition when I saw her. Her husband appeared very much attached to her.

Catherine Birrill says I had not bought any laudanum for the deceased for 6 months. I bought a shillingsworth. The Phial was about half full. The Phial found was the one she generally used. I never saw her take any. I know of no hurt to her. I waited upon her and they lived very happily together.

Algernon Swinburne 16 Grafton St. Fitzroy Square at present says I have known the deceased and her husband. They dined with me on Monday, I saw nothing paarticular in the deceased except that she appeared a little weaker than usual.

Ellen Macintire says I live at 14 Chatham Place says I was with the deceased on Monday evening about 1/2 past 8. She seemed cheerful the. I did not see her again till Mr. Rossetti called me up at 1/2 past 11. She told me once that she had taken quarts of laudanum in her time. I have seen the Phial with laudanum in it.

Taken on oath before me } Wm. Payne. Coroner.


Elizabeth Siddal’s Death, Described by William Bell Scott

Published in Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott (New York, Harper & Brothers 1892)

The auguries of happiness from his marriage, entertained some of Rossetti’s friends, were frightfully dispelled. For myself, knowing Gabriel better that his brother did, though from the outside, I knew marriage was not a tie he had become able to bear. His former bachelor habit of working till 9 P.M., then rushing out to dine at a restaurant, was continued; Mrs Siddal Rossetti, little accustomed to the cares and habits of domestic life, willingly conforming. She had become a genius in art, imitating her husband’s inventions in water-colours in a way I clearly saw to be damaging to the peculiarities of his own works, though her uneducated performances were at once praised by him immoderately. After her death we heard nothing from Gabriel or from any of his family, till he wanted me to be again his banker to enable him to leave Chatham Place, where he had not slept since the sad event. He then after a temporary abode in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, took the Chelsea house, 16 Cheyne Walk, where he remained and began a professional success which increased through all the rest of his career.

The return for a moment to the great trial of his life. In ignorance of the main circumstances, and in obedience to a desire to comfort him, on receipt of his letter about leaving Blackfriars I ventured to tell him I never thought him fitted for a Benedict; but even to this he replied nothing, thought long after his mental prostration had subsided, and his MS. Book of poems was buried with her, I had to listen, alas, too much to the painful narrative. On the eventful night they had dined as usual at a cafe-restaurant; he had returned home with her, advised her to go to bed, and unheedingly taken himself out again. On his next and final home-coming he had to grope about for a light, and called to her without receiving a reply. What was said or done at the inquest I know not.

Contributed by Gary Attlesey. Thank you Gary.
LizzieSiddal.com recommends: Poems, by William Bell Scott