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Dim Phantoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that, I am grateful

 

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What shapes our perception of Elizabeth Siddal

This post also appears at  Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

 

 For those of us who admire Pre-Raphaelite art, Elizabeth Siddal is a familiar face.  Her story is repeated often and frequently embellished.  When beginning to research the life of Elizabeth Siddal, readers will invariably encounter this description of her, written by poet William Allingham in his diary: “Short, sad, and strange her life; it must have seemed to her like a troubled dream.” It’s a heartbreaking and poignant epitaph that contributes to our perception of Siddal as a dreamlike waif, flitting through a troubled life– a life filtered through a laudanum haze.  It is important to remember, though, that Allingham’s statement describes her life only in hindsight.  Is it a fair and accurate assessment? Or is it influenced by the tragic mode of her death?
When we think of Elizabeth Siddal, how much do we know about the real flesh-and-blood woman and how much are we influenced by mythologized accounts of her life?
Elizabet Siddal as Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais. See Ophelia's Flowers

Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais. See Ophelia’s Flowers

Many see her as an Ophelia figure due to the story of how she fell ill while posing for Sir John Everett Millais’ painting.  While it is a famous anecdote now, it was not a widespread story at the time.   I can find no prior written accounts of it published before Millais’ death.  The tale seems to have originated with artist Arthur Hughes, who provided his account in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (transcription at LizzieSiddal.com). This means that while the story is definitely true, it was probably not known outside the Pre-Raphaelite circle within Lizzie’s lifetime.
Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of Ophelia by Millais.

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

In addition to the Ophelia mystique, a lot of focus on Siddal has nothing to do with her life at all, but the effect her death had on Rossetti.  He was said to be haunted by her.  Attempts were made to communicate with her through seances.  Much has been written about his mental struggles in his later years and often they are partly assumed to stem from Siddal’s death and exhumation.  These are things that contribute to the perception of Lizzie as a Victorian ghost story instead of a woman that once lived, laughed, and loved.  In her lifetime, Siddal may have made the transition from model to artist but in death, she was transfigured into an amalgamation of Ophelia and The Blessed Damozel.  The genuine Elizabeth Siddal is a figure we may never know. She is overshadowed by  the overdose, the exhumation, and the myth that her hair continued to grow after death.
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Apart from perfunctory newspaper mentions at the time of her death, the first serious accounts of Elizabeth Siddal began to appear after the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  These early depictions of her were written from a male perspective, mainly  William Michael Rossetti, Hall Caine, and Theodore Watts-Dunton. When we consider their words about her,  we have to consider their intentions.  Writing about Rossetti’s life was their true aim and for them, Elizabeth Siddal existed only as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s love interest.  When William Michael Rossetti wrote about her, he completely ignored the fact that during a romantic split from his brother, she attended an art school in Sheffield, an act that demonstrates that she attempted to pursue art independent of DGR. It seems that WMR was unaware of this fact and that he had no knowledge about any occurrences in her life apart from her interactions with Rossetti. When Joseph Knight wrote of  her death in his 1887 biography Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he stated that “Regina Cordium had passed forever from his life.”  It’s a creative way to write about her, but it makes her seem more of a prop than a person.
 Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Theodore Watts-Dunton mentions Siddal, almost in passing, with a cursory description of their marriage.  Rossetti, however, is described in an extremely dramatic fashion when Watts-Dunton says that on Siddal’s death Rossetti “for a time ceased to write or take any interest in his own poetry .  Like Proserpero indeed he literally buried his wand…”  Likening Rossetti to Prospero, Watts-Dunton glosses over the inclusion of DGR’s poetry in Siddal’s coffin and shifts the focus from the deceased woman to the husband left behind.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

I certainly don’t intend to lay the blame of the mythologized versions of Siddal solely at the feet of people like William Michael Rossetti or Theodore Watts-Dunton. It is almost impossible not to romanticize her.  The memory of poet Sylvia Plath endures a similar fascination (coincidentally, Plath committed suicide in 1963 on the anniversary of Siddal’s death). Nor do I judge anyone who relishes stories of Lizzie Siddal in a bathtub or her tresses filling her coffin.  These things are unavoidable and firmly embedded in Pre-Raphaelite lore. And it cannot escape our notice that there are not very many opportunities to balance these dramatic anecdotes with Siddal’s own account of her life. Since very few of her letters survived, it is not through her own voice that we  hear her story. This leaves us with gaping holes where a life should be.  So we can not help but continue to see her only in relation to Rossetti because without him, we would know nothing of her.  We can attempt to fill these holes, as many do, by reading her own poetry as autobiographical. Is this fair, though?  A great deal of Victorian poetry is just as melancholy yet we are often able to separate the poet from their subject.
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Among the male accounts of Elizabeth Siddal, the lone voice of Georgiana Burne-Jones shines through.  The wife of artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Georgiana wrote about Siddal several times in The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones.  Here Siddal is remembered fondly and discussed not as Rossetti’s lofty muse, but as a dear friend that was greatly missed.  Where William Michael Rossetti may have been interested in writing about a carefully honed version of Siddal, Georgiana was only concerned with preserving the memories of a woman who had been a friend to her in the early days of her marriage.  While she certainly mentions Elizabeth Siddal’s ill health and melancholy, she also shares happy memories such as this account of Siddal and their friend Algernon Charles Swinburne:
“Dear Lizzie Rossetti laughed to find that she and Swinburne had such locks of the same coloured hair, and one night when we went in our thousands to see “Colleen Bawn”, she declared that as she sat at one end of the row we filled and he at another, a boy who was selling books of the play looked at Swinburne and took fright, and then, when he came round to where she was, started again with terror, muttering to himself “There’s another of ’em!”
Mrs. Burne-Jones also shares a treasured note received from Siddal:

“I never had but one note from Lizzie, and I kept it for love of her even then.  Let it stand here in its whole short length as a memento of the Blackfriars evenings, and in the hope that some one beside myself may feel the pathos of its tender playfulness:

“My Dear Little Georgie,

I hope you intend coming over with Ned tomorrow evening like a sweetmeat, it seems so long since I saw you dear.  Janey will be here I hope to meet you.

“With a willow-pattern dish full of love to you and Ned,

“Lizzie”

I certainly wish more letters such as this had survived.  The few that still exist give us a glimpse of an Elizabeth Siddal that is so much more than an Ophelia trope.

'The Lady of Shalott', Elizabeth Siddal

‘The Lady of Shalott’, Elizabeth Siddal

I will end this post with two of Lizzie’s letters to Rossetti. The first is a portion of a letter written while she was traveling in Nice.  In the second, she writes about her summer holiday in Clevedon, where donkey rides were an attraction. Note that she writes in satire and makes fun of the boy’s speech. Reading this, it is easy to picture the boy and his enthusiasm. In these accounts, we can see a version of Elizabeth Siddal that is not the ill, melancholy figure we often assume her to be.  I suggest that on this day, the anniversary of her death, we view these letters as an antidote to the fact that the laudanum-addicted version of Elizabeth Siddal is the version we hear the most about.  Sometimes we can take a break from telling the tales of her sadness and focus on the happy little tales, scant though they may be.  There were probably millions of happy moments in her life, forever forgotten.  But today, I leave you with these:

[NICE, Christmas-time 1855]On your leaving the boat, your passport is taken from you to the Police Station, and there taken charge of till you leave Nice. If a letter is sent to you containing money, the letter is detained at the Post Office, and another written to you by the postmaster ordering you to present yourself and passport for his inspection. You have then to go to the Police Station and beg the loan of your passport for half-an-hour, and are again looked upon as a felon of the first order before passport is returned to you. Looking very much like a transport, you make your way to the Post Office, and there present yourself before a grating, which makes the man behind it look like an overdone mutton-chop sticking to a gridiron. On asking for a letter containing money, Mutton-chop sees at once that you are a murderer, and makes up its mind not to let you off alive; and, treating you as Cain and Alice Gray in one, demands your passport. After glaring at this and your face (which by this time becomes scarlet, and is taken at once as a token of guilt), a book is pushed through the bars of gridiron, and you are expected to sign your death-warrant by writing something which does not answer to the writing on the passport. Meanwhile Mutton-chop has been looking as much like doom as overdone mutton can look, fizzing in French, not one word of which is understood by Alice Gray. But now comes the reward of merit. Mutton sees at once that no two people living and at large could write so badly as the writing on the passport and that in the book; so takes me for Alice, but gives me the money, and wonders whether I shall be let off from hard labour the next time I am taken, on account of my thinness. When you enter the Police Station to return the passport. You are glared at through wooden bars with marked surprise at not returning in company of two cocked-hats, and your fainting look is put down to your having been found out in something. They are forced, however, to content themselves by expecting to have a job in a day or so. This is really what one has to put up with, and its not at all comic when one is ill. I will write again when boil is better, or tell you about lodgings if we are able to get any.There was an English dinner here on Christmas Day, ending with plum-pudding, which was really very good indeed, and an honour to the country. I dined up in my room, where I have dined for the last three weeks on account of bores. First class, one can get to the end of the world; but one can never be let alone or left at rest.But believe me
Yours most affectionately,Lizzy

***

[1855]  The donkey-boy opened a conversation by asking if there was any lions in the parts she comed from. Hearing no, he seemed disappointed, and asked her if she had ever ridden on an elephant there. He had last year when the beastesses was here, and on mounting the elephant for a penny, he felt so joyful that he was obliged to give the man his other two-pence, so he couldn’t see the rest of the fair. He wished to know whether boys had to work for a living there, and said that a gentleman had told him that in his country the boys were so wicked that they had to be shut up in large prisons. He never knew hisself no boy what stole anything, but he supposed in that country there was nothing but fruit-trees. He pulled a little
blue flower growing out of a rock, and said he liked to let flowers grow in the fields, but he liked to catch one when it grew there and take it away, because it looked like such a poor little thing. He had a project for leading
donkeys without beating, which consisted of holding a grass within an inch of their noses, and inducing them to follow it. Being asked whether that would not be the crueler plan of the two, he said he had noticed that donkeys would always eat even when they were full, so he had only to fill the donkey first. All that could be got in an explanation of why he thought Lizzie some outlandish native was that he was sure that she comed very far, much farther than he could see.

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

You might also enjoy:
Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal
Elizabeth Siddal: Laying the Ghost to Rest
Did Elizabeth Siddal inspire Bram Stoker
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“So, why do you do this Lizzie Siddal thing?”

Once someone asked me why I spend so much time creating a website about a woman who committed suicide over a century ago. (Suicide was their word, not mine. I lean toward the belief that it was an accidental overdose during a very troubling time both mentally and physically.)

I suppose all I can say is that I am just so interested in Elizabeth Siddal that no matter how much I learn about her it never seems to be enough.  I feel compelled to read, to dig, ponder, and discuss.  And then I long for more.  It’s usually a solitary process.  But then, as a happy by-product of having this site, someone will friend me on facebook or approach me on twitter and I will discover that they too have an interest in Elizabeth Siddal and other Pre-Raphaelite artists.  Then a strange friendship is born.  I say strange because it’s entirely possible that offline, we may never have discovered this mutual interest.  We could have passed by each other in the grocery store or nodded hello in the post office and not have had the slightest inkling that we may like the same art or books, let alone this deep, questioning interest to learn more about Elizabeth Siddal.  So, you see what happened there?  It’s a magical thing.  Yes, I know the internet can be a dangerous place. It can be superficial, full of vain selfies and inane memes.  But it can also be a place where not only can you pursue your interests, you can cut through the superficial small talk  and jump right into “Ophelia moves you too?  Yes, yes I get that…

 

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Thoughts on birth and Elizabeth Siddal

I write this as the mother of three children and, thankfully,  have never suffered the tragedy of a stillbirth as Elizabeth Siddal did.   I discovered Lizzie early in my adulthood, yet it was after the birth of my second child that my interest in her grew and I felt a strong urge to seek out her story, hungrily reading as much about her as I could.  I find it odd that I didn’t make the connection at the time, but thirteen years later I realize that there is a strange sort of parallel that it was during that time that my interest in her grew.

My son was born with Spina Bifida.  His condition was undiagnosed during my pregnancy, so the news was a shock.  My joy was quickly joined with fear and questions.   My situation was vastly different than Lizzie’s and yet I do understand what it is like to be in the throes of a joyful pregnancy and then suddenly have to switch gears when the blessed event does not go as planned.  It is jarring to the senses.  Unable at first to process the news, it may appear to others that you are digesting the information when actually it’s all just sliding over you — sliding over the calm exterior you’ve put on simply because you don’t want to share the emotion with the people around you, don’t want them to know of the panic that has swelled so much inside of you that it seems hard even to breathe.   Then that panic begins to feed your thoughts.  Thoughts that are now mainly interrogatives.  How?  Why?  What does this mean?  What do we do?  Then, eventually, when the  panic subsides and you’ve answered what questions you can answer, your brain supplies new ones.  Mainly of the “what next?” variety.

I don’t want to be presumptuous enough to say that I know Lizzie’s grief.  I refuse even to associate the word grief with the birth of my son.  I will say that since I was unaware during my pregnancy that he had Spina Bifida and that the hours after his birth were filled with shock and moments of denial and sadness,  I have a sliver of understanding.   Having a small glimpse into this unwanted world of melancholy, I feel for Lizzie to a deeper degree.  I was more fortunate than Lizzie, though.  My son was not well, but he was alive.  Lizzie’s feelings were permanent while mine were intermittent and  transient.

There was no hope for Lizzie’s situation to change while hope was all I had to cling to.  I was able to sit by my son in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit  and stroke his shoulder, the only area I could find unencumbered by wires, so I could whisper to him that no matter what, I felt that he was absolutely and breathtakingly perfect. Which was, and still is, the truth.  I had a baby who needed me to be tenacious for him, to speak to doctors on his behalf, to gather all the information about Spina Bifida that I could find.   I resolved to care for him in such a way that when he grew older he would know that there was nothing wrong with him, just differences.

I had him to absorb my focus and my love while Lizzie had an empty cradle to rock by the fireside while she frantically told visitors to hush so that they would not wake her dear, lost child.  Lizzie and other women of her era suffered through a time of misinformation and misunderstanding.  Grief and depression are natural responses to tragedy.  Lizzie must have been overwhelmed by a devastation that only deepened when surrounded by friends who were giving birth without difficulty.  Lizzie’s loss happened before grief was understood to be a process.  Pain went untreated and was covered up.  It was ages before people knew that with counseling and time, maybe things could get better.

It is no wonder that Lizzie sunk further into the grips of Laudanum.