Tag Archives: Exhumation

Elizabeth Siddal: Laying the ghost to rest

Previously posted at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

It would have been a perfect plot for a 1960′s Hammer Horror film:  on the death of his wife, a poet places his manuscript of poems in her casket.  Years later he has a new muse and love, a woman who had been a friend to them both.  So he has his late wife exhumed to reclaim his final gift to her. Upon opening the casket, his wife is found to be in perfect condition, miraculously resisting decay for seven and a half years.  By some supernatural intervention, the hair that inspired him in life had continued to grow after death and has now become a huge, golden mass.  The poems are restored and published, yet the ghost of the wronged wife will now haunt him for the rest of his life.  I can just see Lizzie’s hair spilling out of the coffin in brilliant technicolor. It is the perfect ghost story.
Except it’s not a ghost story. It’s a (mostly) true tale that has been repeatedly told, each time adding more elements of the macabre until Lizzie has achieved all the makings of a Pre-Raphaelite phantom.

'Beata Beatrix' was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife's death, as a tribute.

‘Beata Beatrix’ was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife’s death, as a tribute.

 

A study for 'Beata Beatrix', circa 1854.  Elizabeth Siddal clearly posed for Beata Beatrix before her death, the project assumed a new meaning after her passing.

A study for ‘Beata Beatrix’, circa 1854. Elizabeth Siddal clearly posed for Beata Beatrix before her death, the project assumed a new meaning after her passing.

The morbid associations began early.  There were whispered rumors that Rossetti had started Beata Beatrix by sketching his dead wife as she lay in state.  Surgeon John Marshall, a friend of Rossetti’s,  claimed that “for two years he saw her ghost every night!”  It was the age of Spiritualism and surely Lizzie had something to say from beyond the grave.  Seances were held that included both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael.  An unlikely medium, Rossetti’s model/mistress/housekeeper Fanny Cornforth served as a conduit for Lizzie’s messages.

After the exhumation, Rossetti wrote to Swinburne saying “Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book upon my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave no other hand would have been needed.”  As if the exhumation had merely been the righting of a wrong and they had  appeased Lizzie’s spirit by doing what she was physically unable to do from the spiritual plane.

Everything about Lizzie is subject to exaggeration. Most people learn about her death and exhumation first and then have to work their way backwards.  They come to know her through her overdose, the speculations of a disappearing suicide note and her wraith-like appearance as she stared absentmindedly into a fire, rocking the ghost of her dead child. The exaggerations go back even further –her marriage is described as unhappy.  Gabriel is constantly adulterous, despite the fact that there is no evidence that he was unfaithful during marriage. Posing as Ophelia seems to foreshadow her death, when seen in hindsight.  Even her discovery has a fairy tale quality, thanks to Holman Hunt’s account where she is described breathlessly by Deverell as a queen. Lizzie has become a character, a trope.

Elizabeth Siddal wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. Although she did sell a few pieces of art and secured Ruskin’s patronage, she was unable to meet her full potential.  Her poems were never published while she was alive.  As a result, she is overshadowed both by the ghostly legend that surrounds her and by her husband. What we know about her is only in relation to him. The picture is not a full one and the gaps only add to her mystery.

Certainly, these gaps could have been filled had William Michael Rossetti bothered to talk to Lizzie’s mother and surviving siblings when he began to publish accounts of his brother’s life.  In fact, none of the authors who wrote about Rossetti soon after his death made an effort to talk to Lizzie’s family.  It seems that as the subject was mainly DGR, there was no reason to — Lizzie exists in these accounts as a prop. Her untimely death adds a certain romance, her exhumation shows the lengths he was prepared to travel for the sake of Poetry. I am reminded of the first line of Lizzie’s poem “The Lust of the Eyes”, ‘I care not for my Lady’s soul’.  We care not for Lizzie’s true self, she is seen as a Pre-Raphaelite figure of pathos. When Joseph Knight wrote of Lizzie’s death in his 1887 biography Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he stated that “Regina Cordium had passed forever from his life.” Again, more prop than person.

How do we lay the ghost to rest? How do we focus on Lizzie herself and set aside the macabre trappings?  Focusing on her work is a good start.  Her art, although unpolished, can be viewed as ahead of its time. Instead of viewing her as merely Rossetti’s pupil in a one-sided exchange of teacher to student, we can view their dedication to art as flowing freely between them, that they both influenced and inspired each other’s work. Indeed, her contribution to the Red House murals show that she as accepted as an artist on equal footing.

Her letters, too, offer small glimpses into the woman she was.  Funny, friendly–far from a hovering wraith of a woman. When she writes of “Mutton-chops” in her letter from Nice, we can see past Ophelia and Beatrice and see a normal woman with an entertaining sense of humor.

To pursue knowledge of her, that is the key to seeing past the myth.  The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh is the first book I recommend to those interested in the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle.  Marsh explores Lizzie’s life and the lives of her contemporaries while highlighting issues of gender, work and love.  Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley is a captivating account of Lizzie’s life.  In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Jan Marsh expands her work in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, focusing on the evolution of how we view Lizzie and how scholarship of her life has been approached in different eras.

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal

Emma West as the titular character Lizzie Siddal in the recent jeremy Green play

 

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal in Desperate Romantics

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal in Desperate Romantics

As I write this post, I realize that we have made progress. Lizzie has received renewed attention in the play Lizzie Siddal by Jeremy Green. And even though I was not completely impressed with the BBC series Desperate Romantics, I have to admit that Amy Manson portrayed Lizzie admirably. Lizzie Siddal emerges from the spectral fog and begins to shed her ghostly stigma.

We have image after image of Lizzie appearing languid and reclining.  but we also have images of her hard at work, sitting at easels and determined to hone her craft.  For the anniversary of her death tomorrow, I prefer to focus on these.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by  Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

 

 

 

The Worst Man in London

This post originally appeared at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.comlizziesiddaldotcom

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

Charles Augustus Howell

Charles Augustus Howell

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

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

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

Copyright Raine Szramski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watson, Holmes and Milverton

Watson, Holmes and Milverton

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

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

Watson, Magnussen, Holmes

Watson, Magnussen, Holmes

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

 

 

 

Hall Caine on Elizabeth Siddal’s Exhumation

Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine

Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine

I have been reading Hall Caine’s Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He touches briefly on Lizzie’s exhumation to retrieve the manuscript of poems that DGR had placed in her coffin:

Rossetti had buried the only complete copy of his poems with his wife at Highgate, and for a time he had been able to put by the thought of them; but as one by one his friends, Mr. Morris, Mr. Swinburne, and others, attained to distinction as poets, he began to hanker after poetic reputation, and to reflect with pain and regret upon the hidden fruits of his best effort. Rossetti—in all love of his memory be it spoken—was after all a frail mortal; of unstable character: of variable purpose: a creature of impulse and whim, and with a plentiful lack of the backbone of volition. With less affection he would not have buried his book; with more strength of will he had not done so; or, having done so, he had never wished to undo what he had done; or having undone it, he would never have tormented himself with the memory of it as of a deed of sacrilege. But Rossetti had both affection enough to do it and weakness enough to have it undone. After an infinity of self-communions he determined to have the grave opened, and the book extracted. Endless were the preparations necessary before such a work could be begun. Mr. Home Secretary Bruce had to be consulted. At length preliminaries were complete, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave, and then the coffin was raised and opened. The body is described as perfect upon coming to light.

Whilst this painful work was being done the unhappy author of it was sitting alone and anxious, and full of self-reproaches at the house of the friend who had charge of it. He was relieved and thankful when told that all was over. The volume was not much the worse for the years it had lain in the grave. Deficiencies were filled in from memory, the manuscript was put in the press, and in 1870 the reclaimed work was issued under the simple title of Poems.

In the next paragraph, he tells us that Rossetti’s book was quite successful and that during that time, “fresh poetry and new poets arose, even as they now arise, with all the abundance and timeliness of poppies in autumn.” I find it amusing that he chose poppies as a descriptor. The opium poppy ( Papaver somniferum) is the source of opiates, from which Laudanum is derived.  Poppies, then, were at one time the source of Lizzie’s comfort during illness, eventually becoming the source of her addiction and eventual death.  Rossetti painted Lizzie with open hands, waiting to receive a poppy from the dove in Beata Beatrix.   I suppose  Caine could have chosen the word as a conscious effort to align poppies with something positive instead of the usual negative association due to Lizzie’s addiction and overdose.  Or it may have just been an oddly chosen phrase.

The Sexton’s Tales: The Exhumation of Ophelia

I am grateful to Emlyn Harris for allowing me to share this podcast with you. You can download a copy here at LizzieSiddal.com or if you use iTunes, it is available there as well. The Sexton’s Tales series were originally broadcast by the BBC between 1995 and 1997. This episode, narrated by the writer Emlyn Harris, features the tragic life and death of Elizabeth Siddal. Siddal’s body was exhumed from London’s Highgate Cemetery following a request from her husband Gabriel Dante Rossetti to retrieve a book of poems buried in the coffin.

Please, if you have any trouble downloading the podcast, please email me at stephaniepina @ lizziesiddal.com