Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal

You will probably be aware by now that there will be a play on in London from the end of this month all about the tragic life of Elizabeth Siddal.  The life of the 'Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel' has been shown on screen before, but this is apparently the first time she has appeared on stage.  Maybe they have found a theatre with a door big enough to fit a bath through.

Emma West as Lizzie and Tom Bateman as Rossetti in rehersal for Lizzie Siddal
I wish them well and hope this will encourage more interest in Pre-Raphaelite art but it reminded me of an old niggle I have.  Elizabeth Siddal's name is synonymous with two things: baths and tragedy.  Is it fair or are we participating in her tragedy by reducing her to this?

You know me, I loathe assumption.  Most of the ten years it took me to write Stunner was spent saying 'No, she wasn't a cockney,' and 'No, she wasn't an illiterate prostitute!  She could read!'  However, when you are reading about someone for the first time you have to wade through the conclusions of others before you can afford to make your own.  For example, think about a short summary of Siddal's life.  It's bound to involve a bath-tub and an early death, these are unavoidable points in her life.  Possibly your summary involves painting, poetry, possibly infidelity and sadness.  Does it involve her laughing and chasing around the Red House?  Does it involve being sponsored by the leading art critic of the day?  Does it involve her finding out her artworks will appear in America?  How many of those later points appear in the 'fictional' depictions of her?

Gug in a Tub from Desperate Romantics
So, we have poor Gug, as Rossetti called her, packing quite a bit into her 32 years.  She loved poetry, after apparently discovering a poem by Tennyson wrapped around a pat of butter as a child.  See, less young 'uns these days would long to go on X-Factor if we printed poems on butter wrappers.  They would all want to be Pam Ayres, and rightly so.  She longed to paint, possibly a by-product of being thrust into the art world by her stint of modelling.  Her engagements before Ophelia seem inconsequential, even though they were for Deverell, who discovered her.  Ophelia is the moment she begins to exist for us as an icon.

Yes, yes, very nice...
I have just been reading about the many and varied theories about what followed.  Standard story is that the candles went out, she got cold, got ill and that affected her for the rest of her life.  Add to this that she may have already been taking laudanum, she may have been anorexic, she may have been a hypochondriac, she may have been taking other preparations that were slowly poisoning her, her parents may have been on the make.  Goodness, how complicated.  I wonder if the whole palaver around her near-drowning makes Ophelia remain such a prominent image of the age.  Certainly the popularity of the painting seems to have sealed Siddal's fate to be ever the dying dame, much in the same way as certain actors can never be seen as other than their most popular role.  It is much to Millais' credit that it is almost impossible to imagine the fictional character of Ophelia as being anything other than the perishing Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth Siddal Painting at an Easel (1850s) D G Rossetti
Why do we not think of her like this, at an easel?  She painted for around a decade and wrote for possibly longer.  Her poems explored melancholic themes but her art works were as varied as others in her circle.  In his drawings of her at work, Rossetti shows a woman who is busy and well.  I do not look at the above image and think 'Poor Lizzie' because there is no need.  I pity her no more than any other woman artist of the age, and she achieved a great deal.

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Something I have talked about before is the shortening of names.  I know I have discussed this with people in various contexts but I am always intrigued by the way that we shorten or change the names of famous people, notably women.  Elizabeth Rossetti becomes Lizzie Siddal but does this tell us anything else?  People shorten the names of others for many reasons; a sense of familiarity with a person, a sense of possession, an empathy or identification.  Undoubtedly Elizabeth was known as 'Lizzie' by her friends but is that a good enough reason for us to call her that?  I am variously known as 'Kiz', 'Moo', 'Nelly' and far worse, but none of those should be used by my future and no doubt plentiful biographers.  Why not use my full name under which I work?  I would think it a terrible presumption if someone I did not know referred to me as 'Kirst' (lawks, it sounds like 'cursed').  By shortening a name you are assuming the role of acquaintance of the person, but also it stops the person being at a distance, up on a pedestal, which they might be if you admired them.  It's hard to think of Alfred Lord Tennyson as being 'Alfie' or 'Fred' but presumably he must have had a nickname.  A nickname humanizes a subject, but is that helpful?  I would add that it seems common in newspapers to shorten names of victims to involve the reader with their plight, for sad example would you think of Madeleine McCann or Maddie?

Regina Cordium D G Rossetti
Now, there is nothing wrong with seeing a person in the past as a human being, if fact I would like more such understanding shown to Rossetti who seemingly is either held on a pedestal or seen as a devil devoid of feeling.  However, a byproduct of seeing a person as 'human' is that naturally we see their all-too-human foibles and failings.  It was alright for me; writing about Fanny could only reveal better things than were already said about her, but when the woman is revered then the revelations can only be detrimental in order to be 'revelations'.  Also it seems to me that we don't like uncertainty, we don't like the unexplained in life stories.  Therefore, more often than not Elizabeth Siddal 'killed herself' rather than 'took an accidental overdose' because it has a definite point rather than raise more questions.

To say Rossetti painted this from her corpse is
far more interesting than saying he used existing sketches
So where is all my rambling leading?  Well, firstly to make a general point:  Sometimes I fear that biography of successful women reinforces prejudice in a perverse way.  Speaking as a biographer, it's a hard balancing act, showing a woman in all her glory without backing up the views of the society they lived in because they lived in that society and were subject to it.  Elizabeth undoubtedly found life as an artist far more difficult than her erstwhile lover because any woman attempting to achieve success in such an elitist world is bound to find it difficult.  Goodness, there are scores of men who found it damn near impossible too, but we don't find them so pitiful as poor, tragic Lizzie.  Not even Walter Deverell gets labelled as 'tragic' as often as Mrs Rossetti.  It somehow seems a little improper to bring up the private life of men, or to lend it equal weight, when writing biography as if we are trying to excuse them or lessen their impact. Many men of Elizabeth's circle could be labelled as tragic - look at Swinburne!  Maybe we linger on women's private lives because they played such a huge part in their lives, their 'proper sphere' was the domestic, the private, and so obviously that would have a massive impact in who they were and what they did.  It held women back, it filled their time, it even killed a few of them (in childbirth), it was seen by society as being their 'job' so any attempts on their part to participate in a 'male' occupation has to be seen in the context of what they weren't doing or trying to balance.

Rossetti discovers his perfect model, as seen in Look and Learn
So why is Lizzie special?  A combination of things seem to affect Miss Siddal.  Firstly, she's a woman, therefore biography tells us about her private life.  We know she was led a merry dance by Rossetti, but then Georgiana Burne-Jones had a hard marriage and Jane Morris' was troubled.  There has to be more to the relationship than unending misery, and there are tales of laughter and joy.  She didn't almost die during every modelling assignment, but then possibly none of the other pictures were as astonishing as Ophelia.  Mind you, we don't assume Millais had a tragic life because he created the image.  It is a brilliant image of death but all the credit, emphasis, and blame is placed on the model.  That's ridiculous.  That's like saying the tiny robin in the corner had a tragic life because he appeared in Ophelia.  Yes, she had an accident while modelling but I wonder if she had been posing for a more positive subject when she had the accident, would we see her in a different light?

Elizabeth Siddal (photo)
I don't think it helps that a great deal of Pre-Raphaelite-ness is the melancholic, the tragic, the doomed, the sinister.  As a person in a movement, of course Elizabeth would look the part.  I love the photo of her in her 'melancholic swoon' but I don't think she was like that any more than any of the various pictures of me give you a full idea of what I am like as a person.  I would be very interested to find out what someone who has met me after following the blog thought I would be like.  Lawks, can you imagine...?

Anyway, back to Lizzie.  For some reason we are stuck with the epithet 'tragic' when describing her life but that lessens her because it makes her appear helpless.  The majority of her life was not tinged with tragedy, in fact proportionately more of her life was spent in victory than in sorrow.  She spent one afternoon in a bath tub but this dominates our vision of her.  I wonder if the tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal is that we can't let her be happy.


  1. I'd never thought of it like that. 'Lizzie' is a bit too familiar perhaps isn't it. You are right, she doesn't sound as much like a serious artist with a shortened name, but she was. I shall start referring to her as Elizabeth from now on instead.

    I'd heard about the play, I'd be really interested to see it, but unfortunately it will just have finished by the time I visit London in Jan, perhaps it will do will and get another run. I hope so.

    Brilliant post Kirsty, just the thing to start off my day of art, I'm off to Leeds Art Gallery later today!

  2. I suppose it is almost inevitable that myths semi-truths surround extraordinarily beautiful women. Especially those who die young.

  3. Thanks for your comments, m'dears. It's a tricky one and possibly one that has most impact in the lives of women from the past for some reason. I wonder if the importance of women is defused by the 'infantalizing' of their names and so it becomes harder to place female artists and writers within a movement.

  4. lovely post. The first play about Lizzie was Dear Dove Divine in 1999 and Clever as Paint about Lizzie/Morris/Rossetti around same time.

    I agree with you - like Plath, why does a tragic moment have to define the many days of a life?

  5. An earlier play "Raising Mrs Rossetti" premiered at the Link Theatre in Holborn in 1995 and the cast included Lizzie, Janey, Rossetti and Morris lookalikes. so good that I went back to see it a second time. I also saw "Clever as Paint" at the Hen and Chickens about a month later, which was less memorable, apart from a ghost sequence which appeared to have been borrowed from Howard Brenton's "Bloody Poetry".

  6. I feel a Pre-Raphaelite theatre season coming on....

  7. I never refer to JR Spencer Stanhope as 'Roddy' and it sets my teeth on edge when others do. I suspect that some biographers and researchers need to infantilise and diminish their subjects, perhaps so that they can take control of their lives. Then again, maybe we 'moderns' are just impertinent. Which Victorian was it who delivered the crushing snub 'I don't recall your face, but your manner is very familiar'?

  8. Maybe some purists are offended by the fact that I call Fanny 'Fanny' which wasn't even her name, but my work would be far less entertaining if I started acting responsibly on that front.

    I have a bit of a thing where I don't like calling women by their surname only, but that's my problem not theirs. I wouldn't feel the need to call William Morris Topsy as a matter of course, so even I have limits.

  9. Wonderful post. My favorite part: "I do not look at the above image and think 'Poor Lizzie' because there is no need. I pity her no more than any other woman artist of the age, and she achieved a great deal." Thank you for that. I can't tell you how many times I have grimaced over the years when reading the words, 'poor Lizzie.'


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx