The Little Lady Pt 2: Elizabeth Siddal

I was first introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a second year English lit course called "Victorian Sexuality in Poetry and Painting." It was taught by an elderly Brit who looked like he'd been there, and had decided to tell us the tale. Despite his sometimes meandering lectures (I remember he'd often veer off into talking about Marlene Dietrich), he had such amazing knowledge of the subject, and a real obvious love for the era. It was infectious. Soon, we were all in thrall with Tennyson, William Morris, Waterhouse, Burne-Jones*, and Dante Rossetti. Especially Rossetti, because he had that fantastic macabre tale attached to him: when his wife died, he buried his unpublished poems with her, then exhumed her years later to get the poems back. It is said that when Elizabeth Siddal's casket was opened it was discovered that her hair had continued to grow after death, filling the casket with red-gold. We saw slides of Beata Beatrix** in that class, we looked at some of Siddal's sketches and self-portraits, and we read as many of her poems as were available (few exist and are rarely anthologized). It was impossible for me not to fall for Elizabeth Siddal's tragic, romantic legend.

It's the stories and myths surrounding Siddal, and the way she's portrayed visually by male artists that draws people in. In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal Jan Marsh does an admirable job attempting to fleece out the verifiable details of Siddal's life, of which there are surprisingly few. However, the book is less a strict biography, and more a study of the way in which biography is influenced by the times. Marsh looks at the renditions of the legend, from Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, to modern scholarship (including her own first forays into Siddal's story). The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is able to piece together facts about Siddal while illuminating biases that went into earlier biographies (and biographical sketches, since early on Siddal was rarely given much space or attention at all, other than references to her relationship with D.G. Rossetti). It's a bit disappointing to realise that we'll never know much, comparatively, about Siddal, and Marsh is extremely clever to take on that lack of knowledge, and how others filled the spaces, as the basis for her book, rather than attempting another biography filled with guesswork.

This is not to say that there aren't any facts to be had. One does learn a great deal about Elizabeth Siddal, reading The Legend. There aren't many books devoted to Siddal specifically, and even more modern explorations of the PRB, like Desperate Romantics, relegate Siddal to little more than girlfriend/wife. In fact, Siddal studied and produced art in her own right, as well as being muse for Rossetti, and model for Millais' famous Ophelia (below). The common idea that Siddal committed suicide is disputed, and her life before "discovery" by Walter Deverell is examined as much as possible. Indeed, any "fact" of Siddal's life (including the spelling of her last name!) has at least two published versions, and Marsh examines all possibilities, keeping in mind the circumstances under which they appear.

The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is excellent reading not only for those interested in the PRB, or Siddal specifically, but as a very interesting look on how biography —especially biography of women—is created within a societal context. Says Marsh in her Postscript:
The quest for the 'real Elizabeth Siddal' reveals more about the changing ideological context, and the uses to which the legend is put in the redefinitions and negotiations in the realms of gender and art. [...] [B]iography is not reincarnation, but a form of exhumation.

*My favourite PRB work: Burne-Jones' The Depths of the Sea.
**I saw a Beata Beatrix in Chicago a couple years ago and almost wept. I suppose this sounds dramatic, but I did get a great lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Art, AMIRITE?
The painting of Ophelia, prior to her taking up with Rossetti, gave rise to another often told story about Siddal, who was painted while floating in a bathtub of freezing water, while Millais painted her. "As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses. According to Millais' son, he eventually accepted a lower sum"
And now I feel like I need to re-read The Biographer's Tale.

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