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BEAUTY IN THORNS: The Mystery of Lizzie Siddal's illness

Sunday, February 07, 2016


I am writing a novel at the moment which tells the story of the passions, scandals and tragedies behind the famous painting 'The Legend of Briar Rose' by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones. He was obsessed with the 'Sleeping Beauty' fairy tale, and painted a number of versions of it over a thirty year period. The story is told through the eyes of the women who helped inspire him, among them his wife Georgie, Lizzie Siddal, the wife of his friend and mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Jane Morris, the wife of his friend, William Morris, who had an affair with Rossetti after Lizzie's death. 



I have spent the last few years researching and reading, and am now working on the first draft.

The biggest problem for a novelist working on a piece of fiction inspired by the lives of real people is deciding whose story to believe. A historian can say 'it is possible ...' or 'it was rumoured  ...' or 'one can infer ...', but a novelist must choose what scenes to bring to life on the page, what point of view to favour, what drives and motivates a character to act in the way that they do. it is not enough to simply decide what will make the most interesting or suspenseful story (though that must be considered too). It is more about trying to find the psychological truth of the character.

At the moment, I am working on the scenes told from the point of view of Lizzie Siddal Rossetti.  There was a rumour that Lizzie fell pregnant early in her relationship with Gabriel, then either had an abortion or a miscarriage. I have to decide if there is any truth in this rumour and whether to include it as part of my novel. I thought I would beg all you Pre-Raphaelite lovers out there for your insights! 

Here is the basic outline of her story: 

Lizzie Siddall was the daughter of an ironmonger who had wasted years and a great deal of money pursuing a legal claim to a property in Derbyshire. The family was poor but respectable. They lived in Southwark, and Lizzie at the age of twenty was working either as a dressmaker's apprentice or a milliner's apprentice.

Lizzie had always loved to draw and write poetry, and she dreamed of a better life. According to her version of events (recounted in her obituary by a family friend), she took the bold step of trying to show her sketches to a man named Mr Deverell, who was secretary of the School of Design in London. His son Walter Deverell had been a student at the Royal Academy of Art and now worked at the School of Design also. He met with Lizzie and - struck by her unusual beauty and vivid red hair - asked her to model for him.


An early drawing of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Lizzie agreed, even though in those days modelling for artists was considered not all respectful. In fact, for many mid-Victorian prudes, it was considered little better than prostitution. She met many of Walter's friends and modelled for them also - William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais, and most significantly, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was called Gabriel by his friends). 

She is probably most famous for having modelled for Ophelia, Millais's haunting painting of a drowning girl. Famously, she lay in a bath of water for hours while he painted her. The lamps that had been placed under the bath all blew out, and the water slowly turned icy-cold. Lizzie did not complain and ended up being very sick. Millais's son wrote in his memoirs that she caught a 'heavy cold', but it is more likely to have been something like pneumonia since her family called a doctor (not something that was usual for people of their class and situation) and her doctor's bills were large. Lizzie's father threatened to sue Millais for loss of income, which indicated Lizzie may have been sick for some length of time, but in the end he settled for payment of the medical bills.



A detail of Millais' painting of Ophelia

The doctor most likely prescribed Lizzie laudanum at this time, and she became increasingly addicted to it as the years passed. It also seems possible that she suffered from some type of eating disorder, perhaps triggered by the laudanum addiction which suppresses appetite. She is described in the diaries and letters of friends as being 'the slenderest creature', 'thinner than ever' and at one point, according to a letter by Gabriel, does not eat at all for two weeks. The idea that Lizzie Siddal suffered from anorexia nervosa was first put forward by Elaine Shefer in a 1985 article, and I must admit it does seem to explain many of her symptoms. 

Lizzie also suffered increasingly from melancholy, most intensely expressed in her poems. She and Gabriel have a tumultuous relationship, strained by both her constant bouts of illness and depression, and by his affairs and failure to marry her.  She becomes so ill, everyone fears she will die, and Gabriel promises to marry her if only she recovers. She does recover, although she needs to be carried to the church. For a while, they seem happy but the birth of a still-born daughter tips Lizzie over into deep depression, and eventually she dies from a laudanum overdose that may or not be suicide (there were even rumours that Gabriel murdered her! These rumours are both a novelist's dream and a novelist's nightmare.)



All I have to build Lizzie's story are fragments of letters, diaries, the report from the inquest into her death, and rumours.

Now, the gossip about Lizzie having a miscarriage or an abortion comes from Diana Holman Hunt, the granddaughter of one of the founding fathers of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of Rossetti's closest friends during this period. 

I need to try and decide if it is true. And this is where I need your help.

Let me lay out the evidence for you.

Diana Holman Hunt was born after her grandfather's death, but spent a great deal of time with her grandmother Edith who told her many stories about the Pre-Raphaelites. Diana grew up to write several books about her upbringing and her grandfather's life, and was a respected art critic and biographer. The research she did into the Pre-Raphaelites uncovered much that had not been known, and has since been corroborated. So, although she is repeating gossip, she is not doing so with scurrilous intent.

So I need to consider the possibility that Lizzie had an abortion or a miscarriage during the early years of her relationship with Rossetti. I usually try and find at least two or three pieces of corroborating evidence before deciding to include such a scene into any narrative.

Here is a timeline of her early illnesses:

March 1852 - Lizzie lies in an icy-cold bath for five hours, being painted as Ophelia. She suffers some kind of respiratory tract infection as a result, most probably pneumonia. She is treated by a doctor who is very likely to have given her laudanum which was commonly prescribed at that time.

August 1852 - Lizzie is sick again and goes to Hastings to convalesce. This may be a sign that she has not fully recovered from pneumonia, or it might be caused by her laudanum addiction, or it might be caused by an eating disorder, which could involve fasting and/or purging. Whatever the cause, Lizzie appears noticeably thinner in drawing and paintings of her made at this time. 


   

Early drawings of Lizzie by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, done 1850-1852

  

Later drawings 1855-58 


August 1853 - Rossetti writes to a friend saying Lizzie 'has been very ill lately.' Cause unknown; it could be any of the above. Note many people mention her 'consumptive' look, which usually means very thin, with pale skin and fever-hollowed eyes.



Lizzie's self-portrait was painted in late 1853

February 1854 - Lizzie is sick again. Some biographers conjecture that she is upset by the death of Walter Deverell, the man who supposedly 'discovered' her, earlier that month. Her main symptoms seem to be nausea, vomiting, weight loss, dizziness. 

March 1854 - she is taken to see Dr Wilkinson, a Swedenborgian physician. According to Violet Hunt, a biographer generally thought to be unreliable, the doctor did not touch Lizzie or ask her to remove her clothes. He diagnosed a 'curvature of the spine'. Many biographers are puzzled by this diagnosis, as Lizzie was usually complimented on her ladylike posture. Lucinda Hawksley notes that some 19th century commentators have observed a stooped posture
is a side-effect of laudanum - however, I have not been able to corroborate this. 

However, pregnancy does cause curvature of the spine. So it may be possible that Lizzie was pregnant at this time. If she was suffering "hyperemesis gravidarum' or severe morning sickness, she may have lost weight, which could explain why the doctor did not suspect pregnancy as the cause of her illness. The spine does not begin to change shape in pregnancy until at least 12-14 weeks, which means that she must have fallen pregnant in late 1853/early 1854 ... (I wondered if the incidence of her being sick in August 1853 could have been the beginning of her pregnancy, but that would make her seven months along,  which would have been difficult to conceal. Though again it must be noted Lizzie wore loose unstructured dresses, without a corset or crinoline hoop, which would have disguised her figure much more than the usual fashion of the day.) 

So the curved spine diagnosis may support the possibility of Lizzie being pregnant at this time, but its not by any means conclusive.


In mid-April 1854, Lizzie goes to Hastings on her own, though supported by the same friends who took her to see the doctor. They are convinced that she is dying of consumption. One of the most well-known symptoms of tuberculosis is the rapid wasting away of the body, which also occurs in anorexia. At this time, anorexia had not yet been diagnosed. It would not be identified for quite a few years after Lizzie's death.

(Sir William Gull, the Queen's physician, first spoke about the condition in 1868, when he delivered an address to the British Medical Association, talking about "peculiar form of disease occurring mostly in young women, and characterised by extreme emaciation." initially, he called this condition Apepsia hysterica, but subsequently amended this to Anorexia hysterica and then to Anorexia nervosa.)


 
One of Dr William Gull's drawings of an anorexic patient of his, before and after treatment

Lizzie's friends tried to persuade her to go to the hospital, but she refuses. This is interesting, because it seems to show that Lizzie knows her illness is not caused by tuberculosis, which was one of the most common causes of death at the time. Her own brother had died of the disease in late 1851, and it was well-known to decimate families.  Lizzie seems intent on not seeing doctors, which could indicate she was trying to hide a pregnancy, or could be due to the secretive nature of anorectics, who often go to great lengths to hide their eating disorder. 

In April, Rossetti's father dies. It seems that Rossetti's family disapproved of his relationship with Lizzie, because of her lower social status to some degree, but most probably due to her past as an artist's model. It is possible that she and Rossetti had decided to hide her pregnancy until after his death - he had been dangerously ill since February.

On May 1st, Lizzie's friends write to Rossetti saying she is 'dangerously ill' and he must come. Rossetti leaves as soon as his father's funeral is over, then - after seeing Lizzie - writes the following letter:

'I have known her for several years, and always in a state hardly less variable than now; and I can understand that those who have not had so long a knowledge of her will naturally be more liable to alarm on her account that I am. Nevertheless I am quite aware that she is in a most delicate state.'   



'A delicate condition' was a widely used euphemism for pregnancy.  Is this how Rossetti meant it? Or did he simply mean that she was fragile, weak, vulnerable? It seems more likely that he meant it in the latter way, because of the comment that she had been 'delicate' for several years. However, it could be seen interpreted the other way too.   

Lizzie's health seemed to improve once Rossetti was with her, and they went for long walks on the Downs and went out to tea. Rossetti drew many exquisite drawings of her at this time, many showing her filled with lassitude. It has been noted by Lucinda Hawksley that long energetic walks was often a method Victorian women used if they wished to trigger a miscarriage of an unwanted child, and I have found corroboration of this elsewhere. However, I must say I do not think Lizzie was trying to abort a baby with her long walks with Rossetti - partly because of this beautiful and tender painting of the two of them walking in Hastings:



On May 12, she again took a turn for the worse. Rossetti had planned to return to London to celebrate his birthday with his family, but stayed by her side instead. On May 23, Rossetti wrote to one of his best friends: 'Lizzy ... is looking lovelier than ever, but is very weak, thought not as much as one might expect.'  

Could this refer to a miscarriage? Or is it simply referring to continued bouts of nausea, vomiting, and dizziness (which may have been caused by an eating disorder). 

One side-effect of laudanum is the inability to carry children to term; Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a contemporary of Lizzie's who also suffered from laudanum addiction and had a series of miscarriages.

If Lizzie did have a miscarriage at this time, she would have been at least 19 weeks along. She would have experienced some kind of labour, and her foetus would have been recognisably a child. It would have been a horrible, painful, messy event, and rather difficult to keep secret. If a doctor or midwife had been called, the child would have been baptised and buried, and some kind of record kept. However, if the miscarriage happened in private, without any assistance, then Lizzie would have had to dispose of her dead foetus in secret. This was not an uncommon occurrence at all. One of the scandals of the time were the number of tiny corpses found in fields and rivers, which eventually led to the 'Committee to Amend the Law in Points wherein it is Injurious to Woman', a riposte to the infamous Bastardy Law of the 1830s.  



It has also been claimed (by the somewhat unreliable Violet Hunt) that Rossetti proposed to Lizzie whilst with her in Hastings. However, the marriage did not eventuate, and after their return to London in July, their relationship eventually began to deteriorate with arguments, accusations of infidelity, and other problems. Rossetti at this time was in mourning for his father, and it was unusual (but not unknown) to hold a wedding during the mourning period. But it also could be possible that he proposed marriage to her whilst she was pregnant, then - after a miscarriage - felt there was no longer any need to make an honest woman of her. It's very thin evidence, though, and there are other occasions during their relationship when he promised marriage then let her down.

It was soon after this trip to Hastings that Ford Madox Brown famously wrote: "Called on Dante Rossetti. Saw Miss Siddal, looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever." So her thinness continued after the long stay in Hastings, suggesting that it has other causes than severe morning sickness (i.e. an eating disorder).   



The only other evidence that I have of a possible pregnancy and miscarriage at this time is in Lizzie's own poems. They are intense, unhappy, filled with images of death and loss. Unfortunately most are not dates, and so its impossible to know when they were written, but a few of them are suggestive:

Lord, may I come today?
My outward life feels sad and still,
Like lilies in a frozen rill.
I am gazing upwards to the sun,
Lord, Lord, remembering my lost one.

(an extract from "Lord, May I Come?"

And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.

(An extract from "Dead Love")

Some biographers wonder if her 'lost one' is Walter Deverell; others think she is referring to Gabriel after their break-up. I have wondered if she was referring to a lost child (the poems are rather suggestive) but its impossible to know for sure.


So what do you think?     
  
Lizzie suffering a miscarriage would make a really gripping and heart-wrenching scene ... but it is likely to have really happened?

Tell me what you think & help me decide ...


Comments
Blake commented on 07-Feb-2016 04:13 PM
It is definitely a mystery! I'm not sure if this is helpful, but if Lizzie did have an eating disorder, it would have implications for possible pregnancy and conception. Most- but not all- women who are in a state recognised as anorexic cease to be fertile. Most experience their periods ceasing. For some, regaining weight can return their bodies to a ferile state and periods will resume. Others will be permanently infertile.

Anorexia would also pose a major risk to any child that was conceived. If a woman with anorexia was pregnant and continuing to fast, she could miscarry. Her body would need to be preserving itself and she would likely lose the baby. If Lizzie had conceived, theoretically she could have miscarried due to eating disorder behaviour. If she was purging (deliberately vomitting or taking emetics) this could also cause her to miscarriage.

Just some thoughts.
Blake.
Krys Saclier commented on 07-Feb-2016 04:32 PM
It does sound like she had anorexia. Can an anorexic woman get pregnant? If she can, it would seem logical that she would miscarry as her body wouldn't be able to support a child to full term. The poem really sounds like she lost a child not a lover. Off topic, but I'm fascinated at the way she had her own artistic yearnings but she ended up as someone else's muse. A misused muse perhaps.
Elise McCune commented on 07-Feb-2016 08:24 PM
Hi Kate,
I’m sure the book will be wonderful with all the thought you put in it…
My thoughts are that Lizzie suffered from melancholia which induced an eating disorder. I think if she had TB it would have been known she had a ‘wasting disease’. And she got better when Rossetti married her so she probably ate more when she was happy. She lost a little girl and I saw a picture once of LIzzie and Rossetti on a seat with an ethereal girl about nine years old standing beside them…I wondered if this was to represent their lost daughter or if this was and image before Lizzie lost the little girl. I think the loss mentioned in the poem is of a lover or Rossetti. The reason I think this is because in the poem she is gazing towards the sun. Probably Rossetti who was the centre of her universe. A child would possibly be described as more ethereal. Also in those times poems were often full of sorrow and despair and lost love I suppose you’d say it was the fashion. I think a miscarriage is more likely than an abortion as the depth of grief she felt for the lost girl testifies to her wanting to have a child. And then you throw in the laudanum which she perhaps takes if Rossetti was having an affair and her depression returned. She lived with such dramatic and artistic people that it would have been a dramatic gesture rather than a ‘I’ll make him sorry’ gesture. All the best with the novel.
Elizabeth Hopkinson commented on 07-Feb-2016 11:34 PM
From a purely storytelling point of view, pneumonia, laudanum and anorexia sounds like quite a lot without throwing a miscarriage into the mix. You don't want to over-complicate it! From a personal point of view, I'm currently suffering from (possible) pleurisy following (possible) pneumonia (doctors don't seem to want to commit!) It's been a very long job (over a month so far) and I have lost weight. A lot of different medication, tests in hospital etc (I'm only 42, by the way). So I'm inclined to say there's plenty to go on, just with that.
Terri commented on 08-Feb-2016 12:00 AM
I think the anorexia and subsequent miscarriage very likely. And wonderful fodder for the novelist!
Melanie commented on 08-Feb-2016 01:05 AM
This has me fascinated! So many possibilities I can see why you need assistance. Perhaps she suffered a miscarriage but because of her eating disorder the fetus was much smaller then usual thus she was able to conceal the event much easier. I do know this, I'm very keen on reading this book. Such good luck with it!!
Virginia King commented on 08-Feb-2016 04:28 PM
Hi Kate
How fascinating to read all these snippets of evidence and walk in your shoes a little. Before I read the comments from others I also had similar thoughts re an eating disorder leading to an undernourished foetus & an early miscarriage -- these things plus the laudanum addiction would lead to melancholy big time. And her vanity about her appearance -- commented on by others even though she's thin and ill -- might compound the eating disorder. Her general mental and physical state could lead to the deterioration of her relationship with Rosetti. I also wondered about any different cultural expectations between him and Lizzie around her role in his life and whether this might have been a factor in her mental state and addictions. Good luck.
Sandra Wagner-Wright commented on 09-Feb-2016 08:25 AM
As the author of an historical novel, you can decide which version best fits the spirit of the story you are trying to tell. Lizzie is a compelling character and either version would be equally engaging. You can put the dilemma and the reasons for making your choice in the author's note.
Kate Forsyth commented on 09-Feb-2016 09:37 AM
Thank you all so much for all your insights! I really appreciate it. It has really helped me clarify my thoughts and feelings about Lizzie and how to bring her to life on the page. I'm forging ahead again now - though I am sure I'll soon be stuck in a dilemma again! That's the nature of writing historical fiction based on real people's lives :)

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