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BEAUTY IN THORNS: celebrating the Pre-Raphaelites!

Sunday, August 06, 2017


Today I'm giving a lecture on the Pre-Raphaelites at the Art Gallery of NSW - I thought I'd re-run a vintage post for those of you who cannot make the event.

‘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 now!

JANE MORRIS: her Life & Sorrows

Tuesday, August 01, 2017


Jane Burden Morris (b. 1939 – d. 1914)

Jane Morris is one of the four women who tell their stories in my novel Beauty in Thorns.

Her sorrowful face, her heavy ripples of hair, and sensual mouth were what first drew me to the Pre-Raphaelites. I was fascinated by her story – a girl from the slums who married a rich young man who loved her but could not paint her, and then her secret and ultimately tragic affair with one of his best friends. Reading about Janey led me to read about William Morris, and I discovered his poetry and his philosophies and his designs, all of which I loved.



His words, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, is one of my life mantras. 
 
Janey rarely spoke about her childhood. She kept it well-hidden, even famously refusing to allow John Mackail to include a drawing of the house in which she grew up in his biography of her husband. One of the few things she ever admitted is that she used to pick violets on the Iffley Road, outside St Clements. It is most likely she picked these flowers to sell. 



It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband. 

It is necessary to understand what life would be like for a child growing up in a 19th century rookery. 

Her mother was illiterate, her father working as an ostler in a stable. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than a loose-box. Her life would have been hard and brutish and hungry, and she would have seen much that the other women in the book would have been protected from. It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbour, that he was unable to pay the parish poor rate, and that her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts. 

Janey went to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. Yet she was to later teach herself Italian, learnt to play the piano, and read unusually widely. Where and how Janey was taught to be a lady is not known, though there is one reference to friends of William Morris rowing to Godstow to ‘see Topsy’s Stunner’. I invented her teacher, Miss Leigh, and their skivvy, Violet, the only made-up characters in the novel.

To help me imagine Janey’s childhood, I am grateful to Margaret Fleming for her essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ published in The Journal of William Morris Studies, Winter 1981, and for London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862). The Old Cotswold Dialect by Charles Gardiner was also helpful to me in imagining how Janey and her family might have spoken. 

It is not known whether Janey and Gabriel had an affair when they first met in Oxford, when she was only seventeen. However, Hall Caine wrote that Gabriel had confessed to him one night that ‘(he was) a man who, after engaging himself to one woman in all good honour and faith, had fallen in love with another, and then gone on to marry the first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and a fear of giving pain.’ 



A drawing of Janey at the age of 17 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 
I have written what I believe most likely happened, but of course I cannot be sure. Maybe one day a lost packet of letters will be found that proves me right (or very wrong). 

The other great unknown about Jane Morris was her ill health. Once again she has not been treated with much kindness by her husband’s biographers. It has become fashionable to think of all Victorian-era women as hypochondriacs and hysterics, and Janey has not escaped this slur. E. P. Thompson’s 1955 biography of William Morris says explicitly: ‘Janey seems to have entered a settled melancholia and hypochondria (the symptoms mentioned include lumbago, sciatica, neuralgia, migraine, sore throats, fevers.)’ 



This has been repeated by all following biographers, including Fiona MacCarthy who, in her brilliant 1994 biography of William Morris, writes: ‘There remains the mystery of the ill-health of Mrs Morris, who took to the sofa at the age of twenty-nine, and never really left it.’ Even Jan Marsh, the most sympathetic of all the Pre-Raphaelite historians, entitles her chapter on the subject ‘Jane Discovers the Benefits of Invalidism’ (Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938, published in 1986).



This is despite the evidence that Janey worked for Morris & Co as an embroiderer, was a notable housekeeper and cook, and went on numerous adventures to Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds, to Kelmscott Manor in the country, and to Italy and Egypt. Her letters are cheerful and full of a self-deprecating humour. 

It seemed poor Janey was only ever sick whilst in London. Quite apart from the smog, and the Great Stink of the sewage in the Thames, recurring outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, and the lack of antibiotics, no-one has ever investigated the possibility that Jane Morris may have been suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning from living in close quarters with wallpapers and fabrics known to be saturated with the poison. 




Janey’s ill-health began once she moved to Queen Square in London, where the Firm’s workshops were at that time situated. Apart from the fumes from the kilns and the leading of stained glasses, every room in the apartment was furnished with early William Morris wallpapers. Nine of the first eleven wallpapers made by the Firm have since tested positive for arsenic. 

Topsy’s father’s company, Great Devon Consols, was then the largest arsenic producer in the world. In 1862, a medical health officer established that three children in the Limehouse district had died as a result of arsenic poisoning from their wallpaper. Their symptoms were the same as Janey’s: headaches, fatigue, nausea, abdominal cramps, weakness or trembling in the limbs, and chest and upper respiratory tract complaints. Lily Yeats, who learnt embroidery from May Morris, even observed that Janey’s skin had become ‘sallow and coarse’, another known side effect of chronic arsenic poisoning. 

In 1875, the Firm announced it was no longer using arsenic in its wallpaper, and the next year William Morris resigned from the board of Great Devon Consols (and famously sat on his ceremonial top-hat to squash it). However, arsenic was still being found in the Firm’s wallpapers in the mid-1880s – and it was particularly strong in the ‘Trellis’ wallpaper which was used in the master bedroom at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, where the Morris family lived after 1878. It has been argued that there is no evidence that arsenical wallpapers – produced by William Morris & Co or not – were poisonous, but the World Health Organization has just recently shown the dangers of long exposure to low doses of arsenic. Interestingly, in light of Jenny Morris’s epilepsy diagnosis, seizures are also a side-effect of arsenic poisoning.

The theory that Janey suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning seems to be borne out by the fact that she recovered much of her health whenever she travelled away from Queen Square or Kelmscott House, but relapsed once she returned to London. 

If you’d like to know more about arsenic poisoning, read The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play by James C Warburton or King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic by John Parascandola.



A portrait of Janey by DGR - Kelmscott Manor can be seen in the background

Kelmscott Manor is, of course, the setting for Janey and Gabriel’s blissful summer of love in 1871. For many years, it was not known whether Jane Morris had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or not. Many of their letters had been destroyed after Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress and housekeeper, tried to blackmail Rossetti by threatening to sell them. Only a few survived. 

However, it is impossible to read Rossetti’s love poetry – which he wrote out for Janey in a small notebook– without being aware of the deep sensual bond between them. Many of these poems have not been published. I read them in the Special Collections reading room at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was unspeakably moving, seeing these beautiful poems of passion and yearning written in Gabriel’s bold handwriting and knowing that Janey kept them all of her life, despite the danger. Jan Marsh has edited a small booklet of the poems, called ‘Water-Willow & Well-Away’, if you’d like to read more of them.




After Gabriel’s tragic descent into madness and paranoia, Janey broke off the affair to protect her children. She wrote later: ‘he wanted me to go away with him altogether, to leave my children & everything. But you know I (could) not do that.’  



If you’d like to read more about Janey, the best books are Jane & May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 by Jan Marsh (1986), William Morris (1994) by Fiona MacCarthy, and Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013), which dismantles many of the unkinder myths circulated about her. 


Want to know more about the fascinating women of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood?


I do hope you enjoyed this blog. If so, tell me so! I love to read your comments. 

LIZZIE SIDDAL: Her Life & legacy

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Lizzie Siddal Rossetti (b. 1829 – d. 1862) 

is one of the key characters in my novel 

Beauty in Thorns

which reimagines the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale 

set amongst the passions, tragedies and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelite circle 

of poets and artists in Victorian Britain




'Paolo and Francesca da Rimini', Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855 


Known best for her work as a model for Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal  was an artist in her own right, writing delicate melancholy poetry and painting small jewel-like oils. She was the only woman to have her work included in the first-ever exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art in 1857. 



'Clerk Saunders', Lizzie Siddal (1857)


One of the difficulties of writing biographical fiction is that the author cannot sit on the sidelines, and say, ‘it is believed that …’ or ‘it is possible …’ A novelist needs to try and find the explanation that seems most likely, and then bring it to life on the page. This was most difficult in the case of Lizzie Siddal, someone whose real life is much obscured by myth and rumour.

The story persists that Lizzie was discovered by Walter Deverell, an artist friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, while working in a milliner’s shop. However, as the renowned Pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh has found, Lizzie did not passively wait to be discovered but rather went out to meet her future by taking her drawings to Mrs Deverell, the wife of the secretary of the London School of Design, in the hope of pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist. Mrs Deverell’s son Walter then went to visit Lizzie at her workplace and, after seeing her, asked her to model for him. 

That, at least, is the story that Lizzie herself told. It may not be true, but it seems more likely than a busy young man accompanying his mother to her milliner’s. There is as much evidence for one as for the other, (i.e. none), and this novel was inspired by the desire to give the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle a chance to tell their own stories, in their own voices. So it is Lizzie’s version of events I have drawn upon in Beauty in Thorns.


'Twelfth Night', Walter Deverell (1850)

Walter Deverell wanted a girl who looked like a boy, to pose as Viola in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'. Lizzie sits on the left, her slim legs exposed as she pretends to be a pageboy. The jester was modelled by Walter Deverell's friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who would soon become Lizzie's mentor and - most probably - her lover. 

Rossetti (called Gabriel by his friends) drew Lizzie obsessively.


        
 

Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850-1852) 


In 1852, Lizzie modelled as 'Ophelia' for John Everett Millais. It was January 1852, and bitterly cold. Wearing an antique silver-embroidered wedding dress, she lay in a bathtub filled with water drawn from the filthy River Thames.  Millais had put candles and lamps underneath to try and keep the water warm, but one by one they blew out. Lizzie lay in the bath for five hours. In that one afternoon she would earn more for modelling than she did in a whole year as a milliner's apprentice. He brother had just died of tuberculosis, and her family were poor. She could not afford to lose her modelling job.


'Ophelia', John Everett Millais (1852) - Lizzie Siddal was the model


At last Millais saw that she was shivering with cold and fever, and helped her out of the bath. The damage was done, however. Lizzie was ill, most probably with pneumonia. Her family called for a doctor (a most unusual act by such a poor family). It is most likely that he prescribed her laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol. Lizzie became dependant on the drug, and began a slow slide down into addiction and physical and mental ill-health. 

Lizzie Siddal has not been treated well by the key biographers of the Pre-Raphaelites. She has been called 'sickly', 'wan', 'morbid', 'passive', 'obstinate', 'primitive', 'stupid', 'prim', 'neurotic', 'hysterical', 'feeble', and 'frigid', along with many other similar emotionally loaded words. Many of these biographers were apologists for Rossetti (including his brother and his niece), and so were not unbiased.  

Her addiction to laudanum is widely known. What is not so well-known is that Lizzie may have suffered from an eating disorder. Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away to a virtual skeleton, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19th century such pronounced emaciation was normally attributed to tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ because it seemed to consume the sufferer.  

The first medical identification of eating disorders was made in 1868 (six years after Lizzie’s death), when Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, delivered a paper describing a digestive disorder with no known cause, which he called ‘hysteric apepsia’ (apepsia means ‘without digestion’). In 1873 (eleven years after Lizzie’s death), Ernest-Charles Lasègue, a French physician, published a paper entitled 'De l’Anorexie Histerique' which was the first real examination of the idea that the wasting away of these young women could be caused by self-starvation. It was not understood as a mental illness, however, but as a ‘maladie imaginaire’. Sir William Gull consequently undertook further investigation and coined the term ‘anorexia nervosa’.

Dr Gull's illustrations of anorexia in the 1870s

If Lizzie was an anorectic, she and her family and friends would have had absolutely no idea what was wrong with her. Any ‘curious perversions of appetite’, as Lasègue named them, such as binge eating, secret eating, hoarding of food, purging, refusal of food, or food-related rituals, would have seemed, at best, a hysterical demand for attention. 

The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal and "The Bird in the Cage".'  

However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Even the most recent biography, by Lucinda Hawksley in 2004, says: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’ Lucinda Hawksley does acknowledge that Lizzie may have had some kind of eating disorder, but then says that ‘it became common for her to emotionally blackmail (Gabriel) by refusing to eat.’

Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are mental illnesses with devastating physical consequences, having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. They cannot, and must not, be dismissed as a form of emotional blackmail (even though they are commonly misunderstood in such a way).

The more I researched Lizzie’s life, the more convinced I became that she did have an eating disorder. Descriptions of her thinness and her inability to eat are constant in the letters and diaries of the Pre-Raphaelites. A few examples:

In 1854, Ford Madox Brown writes in his diary that Lizzie was ‘thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever’.
 
In 1857, Gabriel wrote that she is ‘not better in health or eating anything to speak of’; This was the same year in which Lizzie refused to touch food for two weeks, resulting in her admission to the health spa in Matlock. 

In 1861, he refers to her ‘unfortunate lack of appetite which keeps her mostly fasting and prevents her from gaining much strength.’ 

Then, at the inquest into her death in 1862, he told the court ‘she could not sleep at times nor take food’ (insomnia is a common side effect of anorexia).

Most striking is the visual evidence of Gabriel’s drawings and paintings which show her physically dwindling away. 

    

                  Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (late 1850s)

Lizzie’s death is another matter which needed to be investigated carefully. It is widely believed that Lizzie committed suicide, even though the inquest into her death found that she died ‘accidentally and casually and by misfortune’ of an overdose of laudanum.

Laudanum was widely available in the 19th century, and was even given to newborn babies to help them sleep, sometimes resulting in the child dying of starvation. Laudanum acts to suppress appetite, among other effects. It is common for people with an eating disorder to also suffer from substance abuse problems, and certainly the opium would have been the cause of, or exacerbated, many of Lizzie’s problems.

But did Lizzie take an overdose of laudanum by accident, or on purpose?

The possibility of suicide was first given life by Sir Thomas Hall Caine, who had worked as Rossetti’s secretary during the last year of his life. In 1928, he published a new edition of his book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in which he claimed Rossetti had told him of finding ‘a letter or message addressed to him lying on the table by her side.’ 

The rumour was fanned by Violet Hunt in her 1932 biography, Rossetti’s Wife, in which she declares that Lizzie left a note saying ‘My life is so miserable I wish for no more of it.’ Violet Hunt was born the same year that Lizzie died, and is no relation to William Holman Hunt, though her father Alfred Hunt was a landscape painter who knew the Pre-Raphaelites. She had a long affair with Ford Madox Brown’s grandson, Ford Madox Ford, and claims to have heard all the inside gossip from him. Her biography is considered unreliable, at the very best. At its worse, it is malicious and deliberately misleading.

William Rossetti’s daughter, Helen Rossetti Angeli, published an article in rebuttal of Violet Hunt’s book, which said ‘Lizzie’s last message, as reported, is touching and romantic, but she did not write it.’ 

Seventeen years later she published her own biography of her uncle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Friend and Enemies, in which she said that Lizzie was found with a note pinned to her nightgown, saying ‘Take care of Harry’, who was Lizzie's feeble-minded brother. 

The note did not survive, and so it is impossible to know if Helen Rossetti Angeli’s account is any truer than Violet Hunt’s. It has been argued that Angeli may have been trying to refute a consistent rumour that Gabriel had murdered Lizzie; or, at the very least, driven her to suicide by his cruel behaviour (Oscar Wilde told everyone that Gabriel had pushed the bottle into her hands and told her to ‘drink the lot’ before storming out of the house).

Then we have Lizzie’s last poem, ‘O Lord, May I Come?’, written in ‘a shaky and straggling hand’ which William Rossetti thought must have been ‘written under the influence of laudanum.’ It is possible that Gabriel was referring to this poem when he told Hall Caine of a message to him left by Lizzie’s bed.

Life and night are falling from me,
Death and day are opening on me,
Wherever my footsteps come and go,
Life is a stony way of woe.
Lord, have I long to go?

Hallow hearts are ever near me,
Soulless eyes have ceased to cheer me:
Lord, may I come to thee?

Life and youth and summer weather
To my heart no joy can gather.
Lord, lift me from life's stony way!
Loved eyes long closed in death watch for me:
Holy death is waiting for me -- 
Lord, may I come to-day?

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.
O Lord, remember me!

How is it in the unknown land?
Do the dead wander hand in hand?
God, give me trust in thee.

Do we clasp dead hands and quiver
With an endless joy for ever?
Do tall white angels gaze and wend
Along the banks where lilies bend?
Lord, we know not how this may be:
Good Lord we put our faith in thee -- 
O God, remember me.


When I began writing Beauty in Thorns, I believed that Lizzie had committed suicide. As I researched more deeply, I changed my mind. The day before her death, Lizzie had told her friend, the poet Bessie Rayner Parkes, that she was pregnant. Lizzie had been devastated by the stillbirth of her daughter a year earlier, and it is known she and Gabriel were trying for another baby. I do not think she would have willingly killed her unborn child. Bessie Rayner Parkes was always adamant that Lizzie’s death was an accident, for that very reason, and I came to agree with her. 

'Beata Beatrix', the portrait of Lizzie that Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted after her death

In regards to Gabriel, it has been alleged that he was a compulsive womaniser and sexually betrayed Lizzie on many occasions. Yet his foremost biographer, Jan Marsh, does not believe this to be true. The evidence seems to show he was not unfaithful to her until after their relationship breakdown in 1856-57, which occurred around the time of his meetings with Fanny Cox (later called Fanny Cornforth) and Jane Morris. 

Famously, Gabriel buried his only manuscript of poems with Lizzie in her coffin. Seven years later, he had her body secretly exhumed so he could retrieve the notebook. He transcribed the stinking, tattered manuscript - that had worm holes through some of his best lines - but never fully recovered from his sense of guilt and shame.

 
One of the pages from the buried manuscript, showing the damage to the paper 

If you would like to read more about Lizzie, the best books are 

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley (2004)
The Legend of Lizzie Siddal by Jan Marsh (1989) 
Elizabeth Siddal: Pre-Raphaelite Artist by Jan Marsh (1991), which is wonderful if you want to see Lizzie’s paintings and read her poems. Jan Marsh has also written a magisterial biography, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Poet and Painter (1999). The biography of Gabriel that I read when I was a university student was: 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Alien Victorian by Brian and Judy Dobbs (1977). 


The key texts for my research into eating disorders included 
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. 

I also read many memoirs of anorectics, including:

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright 
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher 
Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia Rossi
 Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle.

Want to read more about Lizzie? Check out a much earlier blog, written when I was speculating about what may have been the cause of Lizzie's mysterious illness

Or read more about the Pre-Raphaelites & Beauty in Thorns here!


BEAUTY IN THORNS: Love Triangles of the Pre-Raphaelites

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of young and idealistic artists and writers which formed in 1848, in the hope of revitalising British art. It was a time of great social unrest, with bloody revolutions sweeping across Europe and uprisings protesting the impact of the Industrial evolution on the lives of ordinary people.

Self-portrait, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 


At the heart of the Brotherhood were three artists who were all students at the Royal Academy of Art. Named John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they wished to discard the heavy brown tones and rough brushwork of most Victorian paintings and return to the luminous colour palette and lapidary detail of late medieval and early Renaissance art.


Lizzie Siddal painted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were inspired by myths, legends, fairy-tales, history and poetry, and – in the beginning, at least – had high moral ambitions, striving to paint with seriousness, sincerity and truth to nature.

The other members of the brotherhood were Rossetti’s younger brother William, who kept a diary of their meetings; the painter and art critic Frederic George Stephens; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the painter James Collinson, who resigned after breaking off his engagement to Rossetti’s sister, Christina. 

Although the Brotherhood dissolved in the early 1850s, it was to prove highly influential on a younger generation of artists, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris — two divinity students at Exeter College, Oxford— who gave up their studies to pursue careers in art. They hero-worshipped Dante Gabriel Rossetti and forged a close friendship with him that led to a new flowering of creativity.


An angel painted by Edward Burne-Jones

They painted, wrote poetry, and designed wallpaper, soft furnishings and stained-glass windows and furniture for the company they set up together, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (which was later called Morris & Co.). 

These three men of the later Pre-Raphaelite circle were also joined together in complex romantic triangles. After Rossetti’s first wife Lizzie died, he embarked on a passionate affair with Morris’s wife Janey. Morris turned to Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie for comfort. Burne-Jones, meanwhile, dallied with one of his favourite models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco. Their liaisons scandalised Victorian society as much as their radically different art.



Jane Morris painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti  

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the fascinating story of these three couples – Gabriel and Lizzie Rossetti, William and Janey Morris, and Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones – who lived and loved freely and ardently whilst creating some of the most sublime art the world has ever seen. 

Want to see more of Pre-Raphaelite art? Check out my Beauty in Thorns Pinterest page!


SPOTLIGHT: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

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: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Thursday, May 25, 2017



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 four very different women, 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 July 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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