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  • Writer's pictureA.F. Linley

Oddments: Lizzie Siddal, Tragic Victorian

Updated: Mar 5, 2019

Welcome to 'Oddments', a bi-monthly demonstration of excitable, semi-coherent babbling about things related to stuff I write. I swear they're related to stuff I write.

(TW: depression, stillbirth, suicide)

Lizzie Siddal was a direct influence on the development of Lizzie Finch in Oddities, both in appearance and in backstory. I couldn’t help myself; this woman fascinates me. And horrifies me. And frustrates the entire crap out of me. She, uh, she was a complicated person. 

You’ve probably seen her. She’s in several of the more well-known paintings from the mid-1800s, and before she became the exclusive model, mistress, and eventually, wife of supreme Pre-Raphaelite self-loathing narcissist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (fair warning, I do not like Rossetti as a human being, so if you’re a fan, I am not going to be nice to him in this post), she sat for a number of other painters of that movement, such as John Everett Millais, who painted “Ophelia” in 1852 and eventually married art critic John Ruskin’s sexually frustrated wife Effie (but that’s a whole other post), and who was famous in my high school art department for being constantly mistaken for John Waterhouse

Fun story about this painting: in order to be able to paint the water and the various things in the water (fabric, hair, woman), Millais bought an antique wedding dress for Lizzie to wear and then popped her into a full tin bathtub full in his studio. His unheated studio. Millais had thoughtfully rigged a little heating apparatus beneath the bathtub to keep Lizzie warm, but at some point during the final session, the thing went out. Millais, being absorbed in his painting, did not notice, and Lizzie, being a professional, dared not bring the matter to his attention. 

Unsurprisingly, she did not choose to model for Millais again. 

If non-art-history people today know anything about Lizzie Siddal, it’s that when she died, Rossetti buried the only copy of his poetry with her, in a grand romantic gesture of grief... and then seven or eight years later, he realized (or rather, his agent realized), “Well, that was a terrible idea.”

And really, it’s that story that first caught my attention, for reasons which I will explain shortly.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was born in Camden, London on the twenty-fifth of July 1829, into a financial stable and loving family. (These facts are entirely contrary to the melancholy backstory the later created to work on Rossetti’s sympathies, btw.) Her father Charles believed he was descended from a branch of nobility with the same surname and therefore entitled by birthright to the estate of Hope Hall in Derbyshire. If you’re a fan of Victorian literature or you were just forced to read a lot of it in college, you may remember this plot point from the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of D’Urbervilles

Another fun fact: during Lizzie’s childhood, Charles rented a house in Kent Street from a man named James Greenacre, who Lizzie remembered as a big massive smiling man who was always kind to her. In 1837, while the family were still his tenants, Greenacre was convicted and hanged for killing and dismembering his fiancée. 

The quest to prove his lineage consumed most of Charles Siddall’s life – and more importantly, most of his income as a cutler, so in spite of what should have been a decent working-class living, Lizzie had to go out to work. 

(You will notice two different spellings of Lizzie’s last name in this post. This is not a typo; Rossetti convinced her and her father to drop the second ‘L’, because he went as hard as Charles did for the ‘lost branch of a noble family’ idea; basically, because it was more romantic. Charles only inflicted this on the wider family for a year or so, but Lizzie kept the alternate spelling for the rest of her life.)

She didn’t start off as an artist’s model, though, which in those outwardly prim times was maybe a half-a-step up from being a sex worker. No, she started off in a milliner’s – a hat maker’s shop. And she was working there in 1849 when was she was spotted (through the shop window) by a young artist named Walter Deverell, who happened to be looking for a tall, flat-chested woman with flaming red hair to model as Viola in a painting inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

As luck would have it, Lizzie was tall, rail-thin, and had such unfashionably bright red hair that she was considered ugly by most people who felt required to comment on her looks. (After she became a professional model, unfortunately, quite a lot of people felt required.)

Deverell got his mother to go into the shop and convince Lizzie that he was a for-real artist and not a particularly awkward pimp, and then after some back-and-forth with the mothers to be sure that everything was Very Proper, Lizzie agreed to model for Deverell. And why not? The pay was a heckin’ lot better than at the hat shop and she could actually *gasp* sit down sometimes!

(Retail work has always sucked, kids.)

This is the painting Deverell produced. 

Lizzie is on the left. To the right of the central figure is the person who would shape the remainder of her life: founding member and Most Extra™ of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 

Dante and Lizzie did not model together for this picture, but when his friend Deverell introduced them, Dante took one look at Lizzie and decided then and there that they were Meant To Be. In the most epic sense. In the literal epic sense. 

See, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (born Charles Gabriel Dante Rossetti; he dropped the Charles pretty early on and switched his middle names around, though to his family he was always known as ‘Gabriel’) took his namesake, great Italian poet Dante Alighieri, very seriously. Particularly his poems about an unobtainable woman called Beatrice. And in Lizzie, Dante Rossetti believed he had found his Beatrice. 

Photos: Lizzie Siddall in 1860 and Dante Rossetti in 1863
Lizzie, c. 1860, and Dante, c. 1863 (image source: Wikipedia)

As you may imagine, this mindset is not… the greatest foundation for a romantic relationship, though it took some time for their interactions to blossom into romance; their friends recognized them as a couple as early as 1852 (the same year that he took on Lizzie as his own pupil as well as model) (and when she more or less moved into his studio), although Rossetti refused to introduce her to his family until 1854, and when he finally did, the meeting… uh… did not go well.

1852 was also the year that Lizzie’s chronic ill-health is first mentioned in Rossetti’s letters. No one is entirely sure what Lizzie’s physical complaint was, although the good old standby of consumption seems unlikely, given the recovery-and-decline patterns of her ailment. An intestinal complain has also been suggested (and as someone who has spent a lot of time caring for a Crohn’s patient, I can vouch for that). Regardless of what her underlying complaint was, this was the Victorian period and you could find a relief for pretty much anything that ailed you in the form of ridiculously strong opiates. In Lizzie’s case, she became addicted to laudanum. 

The fact that Lizzie spent much of her adult life in various states of illness is something that crops up a good deal in memoirs of Victorian women, and seems to have given a measure of influence and power to a segment of society that was typically denied both of those things. When the woman of the house is ill, she gets what she wants. And Lizzie was not above using the threat of a relapse in order to get what she wanted, which was Rossetti’s undivided attention, and which he was not always capable of giving her. The man did have to work and network sometimes (even if he hated to admit it).

There were other, more troubling issues, as well. Rossetti was deeply invested in his dream world, inspired by Alighieri’s Beatrice, a place where love must always be painful and unfulfilled in order to be Real, and with Lizzie as his muse, he believed he had finally achieved that pinnacle. A poet and an aspiring painter herself, Lizzie adored him, idolized him, and wanted to be his wife, something that he continuously promised to do and then backed out of. When it came to marriage, Dante Rossetti was the epitome of wishy-washy. Like many artists of vision, he was terrified of respectability. It was only in 1860, when Lizzie was on what everyone thought would be her deathbed, that he promised in front of witnesses to marry her, if she would only live long enough to do so. Consequently, Lizzie was intensely jealous of all of his other relationships, both with the other men of the PRB and with other women. (Especially with other women. Especially with other men’s women.)

The difference between Lizzie and Rossetti’s various other women (in his mind, at least) was that he genuinely believed she was a talented artist, and he devoted hours to her instruction. They would often paint together, using one another as models. 

This is my personal favorite of Lizzie’s paintings. Despite having far less training than the other artists surrounding her, there is something deeply moving about this piece. It’s rustic and amateurish but very… poignant, somehow. 

In 1855, the art critic John Ruskin (he of the unsatisfied wife), a long-time proponent of the Brotherhood, saw some of Lizzie’s work in Rossetti’s studio, and promptly bought everything she’d ever done, saying it was better than Rossetti’s. And to his credit, Dante agreed with him. This was a woman with real talent, and although her attempts to publicly show her work did not pan out, I’m glad that she had at least a little recognition in her own lifetime. 

In 1860, the year of their marriage, Lizzie became pregnant, and from the beginning, both she and Dante were consumed with worry for the baby’s health and safety. Lizzie was still taking laudanum, though she did attempt to stop. In May 1861, she delivered a stillborn daughter. She never recovered from the death of her child.

Postpartum depression was unknown, at this time, and Dante’s letters show a deep worry and confusion over his wife’s inability to move on from the loss of their daughter. 

On the eleventh of February 1862, Lizzie, again pregnant, and still deeply depressed and grieving, took an overdose of laudanum while alone in her home. Despite the attempt of Dante and the four different physicians he frantically summoned, she could not be revived. 

At the inquest, her death was ruled as accidental. However, according to Dante’s niece, she had left a suicide note, which Dante quickly destroyed on the advice of his and Lizzie’s close personal friend, the artist Ford Maddox Brown, to save the family from scandal and to keep Lizzie from being denied a Christian burial.

Lizzie was buried in the Rossetti family plot in Highgate Cemetery, later to be made famous in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Consigned to the grave with her was the sole manuscript copy of her husband’s poetry, a collection he had worked on for their entire relationship. According to Dante, now that his Beatrice was dead, poetry was dead as well. 

After her death, Rossetti began a slow descent into madness, his life destroyed by alcoholic psychosis and addition to chloral hydrate (a painkiller). A peculiar symptom of his mental instability was an insatiable restlessness. He became something of a transient wanderer, unable to rest anywhere for very long, convinced that Lizzie was haunting him. 

Seven years after her death, a clandestine gathering took place at Highgate in the dead of night. With Rossetti’s consent but without obtaining the permission of Rossetti’s mother, who owned the plot, Rossetti’s business agent Charles Augustus Howell had Lizzie’s coffin exhumed. The work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti was worth money, after all, and Howell had convinced the artist that it was worth the desecration to revive the manuscript. He made sure that Rossetti would not be present at the graveside. Wise man; the deeply superstitious Dante might have tried to throw himself into the coffin with her. 

But he reported back to Rossetti, perhaps even truthfully, that after seven years in the ground, Lizzie’s body was uncorrupted, as beautiful as she was in life, and that her beautiful red hair had grown during her time in the coffin. Which, in keeping with the theme of the cemetery, is traditionally a sign that the dead person is not quite dead. That they have become, in fact, a vampire. Which, according to the folklore of many countries, is also the fate that can await a person who takes their own life. 

Ever since I first learned about Lizzie Siddal, her life and her death and the strange post-burial circumstances surrounding her, I have been pursued by a deeply unsettling mental picture of Lizzie, uncorrupted in her grave, her long red hair wrapped around her like a cape, returning in the night to feed off the remains of Dante's sanity, leading to his transience and growing madness. 

And in one of those remarkable twists of coincidence that real life can get away with but fiction writers can’t, Dante Rossetti’s mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of one Dr. John Polidori, briefly physician to Lord Byron, and author of the first modern vampire story, “The Vampyre”.

Sometimes I worry that my titles are unoriginal, and then I think of John Polidori and I feel so much better.

If you're interested in reading about this fascinating woman artist further, I highly recommend Lucinda Hawksley’s excellent biography of Elizabeth Siddal.

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