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SPOTLIGHT: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites 

William Blake was born today, two hundred and sixty years ago. He was a poet, painter and visionary who was virtually unknown in his lifetime. 
Nowadays he is widely celebrated, even being named No 38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of 100 Greatest Britons. 

Yet few know that it was another young British painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was instrumental in saving him from obscurity. 

        

     William Blake, painted by Thomas Phillips (1807)  

                      

      A self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, drawn in 1847 


Rossetti first became interested in Blake after reading about him in Allan Cunningham’s The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1830. He was intrigued by this man who saw angels and devils, and who implored humanity to cast off their ‘mind-forg’d manacles.’ Like Rossetti, Blake was educated at home by his mother, showed extraordinary early promise as an artist, wrote poetry as well as painted, and was interested in the work of such unfashionable artists as Raphael, Michelangelo and Durer. 

One day Rossetti heard that an attendant at the British Museum had a battered old notebook in which Blake had drafted poems and scribbled sketches, mostly in pencil. On 30 April 1847, when he was just nineteen years old, Rossetti purchased the manuscript from the attendant, William Palmer, whose artist-brother Samuel had been a pupil of Blake’s in his final years. Rossetti paid ten shillings for it, which he borrowed from his long-suffering younger brother William Michael Rossetti. 

              

Blake had begun writing and drawing in the notebook in February 1787, and continued to work in it for the next thirty years. When he reached the end of the notebook, probably around 1793, he turned it upside down and began working from the end on the back of each leaf, over-writing earlier drafts and illustrations. 

The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's creative process, allowing readers to follow the composition of some of his best-known work, including one of my own personal favourites, 'The Tyger'.

            

The notebook was to have a profound effect on Rossetti’s work and life, and rippled out to influence the art and poetry of his friends and family, including Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. 

Rossetti was intrigued with Blake’s rebellious reputation and with his rejection of conventional morality. The notebook is full of poems that promote free love and radical politics, including the humorous epigram ‘When a man has married a wife, he finds out whether/her knees and elbows are only glued together’, which accompanied a sketch of a man and a woman rising from a rumpled bed. 

              

The book also contained attacks on such well-known artists such as Sir 
Joshua Reynolds which chimed with Rossetti’s own rebellion against the establishment (Rossetti famously nicknamed the Academy’s first president Sir Sloshua). It was after reading Blake’s manuscript that Rossetti and his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais decided to form the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848.

Rossetti showed the notebook to Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, which helped inspire him to write what would become the first major biography of the poet and visionary. And after Gilchrist died from scarlet fever, Rossetti helped his widow Anne Gilchrist to finish the magnus opus. 

  
Rossetti also edited Blake’s poems for publication. He has since been criticised for making changes to make the poems more palatable for a Victorian readership, but the fact remains the poems may have been lost if he had not done so.

Blake’s interest in the occult, in the Gothic and in the spiritual can all be seen to chime with the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and his clearly delineated outlines and rich prismatic colouring can also be seen as influences. 

         

William Blake "Glad Day", c. 1794 


          

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' c.1857  

The literary critic Arthur Symons has written: ‘it is to D.G. Rossetti that we owe the recovery, if not also the discovery, of Blake.’ 

I went to see the notebook (often called The Rossetti Manuscript) at the British Library when I was in London last June. They have very kindly microfiched each page so you can scroll back and forth as you please.

I really loved looking through the pages, seeing William Blake’s swift deft sketches and scribbled poems, and seeing Rossetti’s handwritten note on the inner cover, describing how he bought it. And, yes, of course, I had to put  reference to it in my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty in Thorns, to be published July 2017. 

You can see the whole book at the British Library’s website

Here is the final manuscript version of 'Tyger, Tiger, Burning Bright', with the words below for ease of reading. 



Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


William Blake

BEAUTY IN THORNS: celebrating the Pre-Raphaelites!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


‘We cannot censure at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes, which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves PRB.’ 
The Times, 1851

What were the Pre-Raphaelites?
In 1848 in England, a group of young painters rebelled against the Royal Academy, which rigidly adhered to rules laid down by the eighteenth century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. They wanted to paint in a more natural style, drawing from myth and fairytales and poetry, and trying to make their paintings more true to nature. In a spirit of fun and defiance, they formed a secret society called The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).

Who were these young daring painters?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (age 20) founded the group along with Sir John Everett Millais (19), and William Holman Hunt (21).  Later, many artists followed the style set by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, and John William Waterhouse.  Although the Brotherhood was meant to be a secret, four others were later invited to join.  


Self-portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What were they trying to do?
The Pre-Raphaelites felt stifled by the rigidity of the Royal Academy's idea of what art should be. The PRB believed the only true great art came from before the 16th century Italian painter, Raphael (hence the society's name). The PRB wanted to produce works based on real landscapes and real models, and paid intense attention to accuracy of detail and colour.

What is so special about their art?
Instead of painting the typical landscapes and seascapes, the PRB drew their subject matters from medieval tales, fairy stories, and classical mythology.



'Ophelia' by John Everett Millais, modelled by Lizzie Siddal


Scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites

John Ruskin, one of the major critical supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites, never consummated his marriage to Effie Gray, with many believing he was shocked by the sight of her pubic hair. She annulled the marriage amidst a storm of scandal, and married his protégés, John Everett Millais. 

After Millais painted Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia, she caught pneumonia after being made to lie in freezing water for hours and almost died. 

Lizzie Siddall then became the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and eventually – after many affairs and problems including her addiction to laudanum – they married. She only lived two more years, however, and some believed she committed suicide. Rossetti buried his poems in her grave, but seven years later had her exhumed so he could retrieve the manuscript. 

William Morris fell in love with Rossetti’s favourite model, Jane Burden, and married her. But Jane and Rossetti began a passionate affair after the death of Lizzie Siddall, and eventually the three managed a strange and painful ménage-a-trois.  



Jane Morris, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with Kelmscott Manor (the house Rossetti shared with the Morrises) in the background 


William Holman Hunt fell in love with his wife’s sister. After his wife died, he fled England with his sister-in-law so they could marry.

Edward Burne-Jones had an affair with his model, Mary Zambaco, who was a talented sculptor in her own right. When he refused to leave his wife and children, she tried to drown herself in Regent’s Canal. 

He painted his mistress over & over again, including this provocative image of her as Summer. He then painted his wife as Winter.

 

The love triangle between Edward Burne-Jones, his wife Georgie & his mistress Maria Zambaco, echoing that of his best friend William Morris with his wife Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are the subject of my new novel Beauty in Thorns - out in August 2017!

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Friday, October 14, 2016

My Work-in-Progress: an update!

Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of five very different women - his wife, his daughter, his mistress, his best friend's wife and his best friend's mistress - Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 




In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 





In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.




In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.




This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.





And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 





His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  


It will be released in Australia in August 2017. 

SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, April 20, 2016



I am in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, which has a working title of BEAUTY IN THORNS. 

It tells the story behind Edward Burne-Jones's famous paintings of the 'Briar Rose' fairy tale, which he painted numerous times over the course of twenty tumultuous years. Most of the story will be told through the eyes of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter, Margaret, and Jane Morris, and her daughters, Jenny and May.    

I am still in the early stages of researching, which means a lot of reading. Here are just some of the books I have been studying: 




Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel – Lucinda Hawksley

Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London's artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.


A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin

 – Judith Flanders

The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.




The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination – Fiona McCarthy

This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.


Pre-Raphaelites in Love – Gay Daly 

This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.


Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - Franny Moyle

Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff about the Pre-Raphaelites.


have a lot more books on the Pre-Raphaelites to read, so if you're interested ... watch this space!


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! 




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 ...


BOOK REVIEW: OPHELIA'S MUSE by Rita Cameron

Friday, January 15, 2016


THE BLURB:

Ophelia's Muse depicts the passionate but doomed romance between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter Dante Rossetti and his model, muse, and wife, Lizzie Siddal.

"I'll never want to draw anyone else but you. You are my muse. Without you there is no art in me."

With her pale, luminous skin and cloud of copper-colored hair, nineteen-year-old Lizzie Siddal looks nothing like the rosy-cheeked ideal of Victorian beauty. Working in a London milliner's shop, Lizzie stitches elegant bonnets destined for wealthier young women, until a chance meeting brings her to the attention of painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Enchanted both by her ethereal appearance and her artistic ambitions--quite out of place for a shop girl--Rossetti draws her into his glittering world of salons and bohemian soirees.

Lizzie begins to sit for some of the most celebrated members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, posing for John Everett Millais as Shakespeare's Ophelia, for William Holman Hunt--and especially for Rossetti, who immortalizes her in countless paintings as his namesake's beloved Beatrice.

The passionate visions Rossetti creates on canvas are echoed in their intense affair. But while Lizzie strives to establish herself as a painter and poet in her own right, betrayal, illness, and addiction leave her struggling to save her marriage and her sense of self.

Rita Cameron weaves historical figures and vivid details into a complex, unconventional love story, giving voice to one of the most influential yet overlooked figures of a fascinating era--a woman who is both artist and inspiration, long gazed upon, but until now, never fully seen.

MY THOUGHTS ON THIS BOOK:

The tragic love affair of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse and model Lizzie Siddal has been surprisingly under-utilised in fiction. Most people know the basic storyline, however, thanks to numerous films and TV series such as ‘Desperate Romantics’. Lizzie was discovered in a milliner’s shop and became the ‘face’ of early Pre-Raphaelite art, modelling for quite a few of the brotherhood and becoming famous as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s painting of the same name. She and Rossetti had a tumultuous affair and eventually married, only for Lizzie to die of a laudanum overdose. 


Rita Cameron has taken this basic storyline, and built it into a satisfying novel of art, desire and tragedy. The mid-Victorian setting is vividly created, and the inner world of Lizzie Siddal brought touchingly to life. For anyone interested in the story of Lizzie Siddal, this is a good place to start (I should probably say that I’m currently writing a novel about the Pre-Raphaelites too – but that mine will be very different!)

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS TRAGIC LOVE STORY? I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS!

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