Saturday 6 October 2018

Review: My Ladys Soul: The Poems of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall

Whilst doing the rounds to publicize my new book Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, I was mainly asked questions about one woman. Above any other Pre-Raphaelite woman, Elizabeth or Lizzie Siddal (or Siddall) remains most people's idea of what 'Pre-Raphaelite' means.  With her long red hair and tragic legends, people definitely have an opinion about her, but as Serena Trowbridge, editor of a new collection of Siddal's poems, says in her introduction 'the woman has come to be represented purely by her face.'

Elizabeth Siddal (1850s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
From the countless images drawn by the obsessive Dante Gabriel Rossetti all through the 1850s, we feel we know Lizzie, but without knowledge of her work our impression is only ever surface-deep or what we project upon her.  It is beyond marvellous therefore that Serena has brought together all of Siddal's poems for the first time in one handy volume.

First a note about 'Siddal' vs 'Siddall'.  Elizabeth was originally 'Siddall' but it was suggested by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that one 'l' was better than two and so she dropped an 'l' professionally.  However as Serena discusses, 'Elizabeth Siddal' has come to represent all the woman-in-the-bath-tub, buried-then-dug-up-with-the-poems type nonsense, whereas 'Elizabeth Siddall' is the actual person who lived, wrote, painted, modelled and all that jazz.  One is a construct of first of all, arguably, herself, but mainly the Rossetti family, then of countless biographers, novelists, film-makers and journalists, until all that is left is a Sad Ginger (TM).

Sketch for Ophelia (1852) John Everett Millais
The book is just over 100 pages long and contains not only Siddal's poems but also Serena's helpful notation which gives not only a perfect understanding of each of the poem but also how it fits with Siddal's other work and her life. Serena draws on the work of other biographers and art historians to explain the poems in wonderful depth.  The explanation often covers more space than the poem itself showing not only how complex Siddal's writing is but also Serena's own palpable love of the subject that is infectious.

Clerk Saunders Elizabeth Siddal
It's not a wholly jolly read, unsurprisingly, but it is in the sad poems you hear a proper 3-dimensional version of  'Lizzie Siddal'.  'Thy strong arms around me love' speaks of a woman who has been worn down by her lover so much that her only hope is that he will leave, even though she knows it will break her further.  As Rossetti wrote of the lure of tendrils of hair binding men to conniving temptresses, Siddal's lover with his strong arms has her captive and weakened even though she can see the physical difference he has reduced her to, just as clearly as Beyonce in 'Crazy in Love'. Sorry, couldn't resist, but it's true.

Lady Clare (c.1854-7) Elizabeth Siddal
Reading the poems I was struck not by the resignation to death that some of the poems seem to hold, but the feeling of being a part of nature.  She speaks of woods, trees, earth, all metaphors for life and the return to dust but also as being connected to nature and the seasons.  These emotions express not only a strength but also an inevitability that she is as unpossessable as summer, and this changes my view of Siddal in a permanent way.  Through her poetry she speaks of love and its trials and tribulations but by aligning herself with nature that will welcome her home at the end, the woman who speaks is never truly owned by the man who never appreciates her. Whether you embrace one 'l' or two, Elizabeth Siddal is not merely one man's 'face' to look out from his canvas.  It's time to get to know her better.

Elizabeth Siddal (c.1860)

My Ladys Soul: The Poems of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall edited by Serena Trowbridge is available now from Amazon (UK, USA) and all good bookshops.

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