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 existence – a life sadly 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?
“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!”
“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,
The meager letters that still exist give us a glimpse of an Elizabeth Siddal that is so much more than a tragic, suicidal Ophelia trope.
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, helping the reader to have a sense of the boy and his enthusiasm.
In these accounts, we can see a version of Elizabeth Siddal that is not the ill, depressive figure she is most often assumed to be
I suggest that 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.
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. 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
 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.
1 thought on “What shapes our perception of Elizabeth Siddal?”
Love this website, so full of information and pictures. Thank you so much. Enthusiasts may like to check out new studies of her poetry: https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn21/cherry-reviews-three-books-about-elizabeth-siddalls-poetry. Happy new year everyone!