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SPOTLIGHT: The PreRaphaelite Sisterhood

Thursday, May 25, 2017

To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

As many of you will know, I have spent the past few years researching and writing about the fascinating lives of some of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood for my novel Beauty in Thorns




BEAUTY IN THORNS is an historical novel for adults which tells the story of the tangled desires behind the famous painting ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Four very different women tell the story: the wives, mistresses, and muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, Georgie Macdonald, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, and Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s beloved daughter. 

The Pre-Raphaelites were a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings, their passionate affairs, and their scandalous behaviour. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  His work and ideals inspired Edward Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris to create their own art, and with it, to try to change the world. 

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale haunted Burne-Jones’s imagination, and he painted it many times over the course of thirty years, culminating in an extraordinary quartet of paintings that were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’ in 1890. It was bought for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted in 1893.



Burne-Jones and his friends drew together an extraordinary group of young women who all struggled in their different ways to live and love and create as freely. 

In chronological order of birth:




Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)
Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.






Jane Burden (b. 1839)
Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began a scandalous affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. She had two daughters, Jenny and May. Her eldest suffered from epilepsy, then thought a most shameful disease.
                                                



Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)
The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale “Briar Rose”, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.





Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father refused to countenance their marriage. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the sleeping princess in "The Legend of Briar Rose" series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved. 

The Pre-Raphaelite circle also included Effie Millais, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, May Morris, Mary de Morgan, and many others who I wish I could have included in my novel. maybe one day I'll write something about them too ....  

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

BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Saturday, January 07, 2017




THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience. 

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. 




MY THOUGHTS:

I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

You may also be interested in my review of The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK




BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Thursday, January 05, 2017




THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.





MY THOUGHTS:


I have read Emma Donogue’s brilliant collection of fairy-tale retellings Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins but have not yet read any of her novels. I have heard such high praise of her writing, however, and I was so interested in the premise of her new novel, The Wonder, that I bought it as soon as it hit the bookshops.


The story begins with an English nurse, who had trained with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arriving in a tiny Irish village to watch over a little girl whose family claims can survive without food. She lives on ‘manna from heaven’, and so is thought of as a kind of miracle. People come to her to be blessed, and leave the family gifts in return. The nurse, Mrs Wright, thinks it is all a sham, and determines to reveal the truth. However, slowly, all her preconceptions and prejudices are turned upside-down, and she discovers a very different truth to what she had expected.


I first read about cases like this in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s brilliant history of anorexia nervosa, Fasting Girls. She shows how food-refusal by girls and young women stretches all the way back to medieval times, when saints and martyrs refused food or purged themselves of food as a sign of their religious devotion. In the nineteenth century, there were many cases of so-called ‘fasting girls’ including the famous case of Sarah Jacob, the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’ who eventually died of starvation at the age of twelve after a watch was set over her by the local doctor. 


The Wonder is inspired by such real-life stories but, in the true art of fiction, transforms it into something much greater. The Wonder is a story about faith, about love, about secrets, and about the mysterious ways in which human lives intersect and impact on each other. I absolutely loved it.

BOOK REVIEW: Gillespie & I by Jane Harris

Monday, December 19, 2016

BLURB:

As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved.

Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception.

Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction. 


MY THOUGHTS:

I loved Jane Harris’s debut novel The Observations, which was told in the tough, humorous voice of a young Irish serving-maid, Bessy. It was a tour-de-force of ventriloquism, and a real page-turner. So I was interested to see what Jane Harris would do next. 

Gillespie & I, her second novel, is very different. The narrator, Harriet Baxter, is a plain and rather nosy spinster who becomes embroiled in the life of a young artist and his family in Glasgow in 1888. Her tone is wry and self-deprecating, and yet there are darker shadows beneath the narrative – hints of mysteries and tragedies and misunderstandings – that slowly build until we no longer know whether or not Harriet’s view of events is can be trusted at all. 


Once again, the voice is utterly compelling and the desire to know the truth of what is happening drives the suspense of the deftly handled plot. In the end, it is a darker more heart-rending book than The Observations, but one that stayed with me for a long time afterwards. 



Interested in Jane Harris's first book, The Observations? You can read my review here.

SPOTLIGHT: Christina Rossetti 'In the Bleak Midwinter"

Thursday, June 16, 2016

    I have loved the poetry of Christina Rossetti since I was in my teens, and bought a volume of her poetry at a church fete. 

I had wanted her to be a major character in BEAUTY IN THORNS, my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, but eventually decided that I could not do her poetry and life justice in the small amount of space I could have devoted to her. 



I removed all the chapters I had written about her, and put them into a separate file. 

Since then I have been thinking and wondering and playing with ideas for a book about her. Not a novel. A kind of imaginative biography.  

Then I realised that Christina Rossetti was born on the 5th December 1830, a week before another one of my favourite poets Emily Dicksinson (who was born on the 10th December 1830). 



And so now I'm thinking of writing a double biography ... though perhaps the term bibliomemoir would be more accurate. A book that looks at the lives and works of two extraordinary 19th century women, and their shaping force upon my own life. Yet it is not the type of thing I usually write. Would anyone want to publish it? I wondered. Would anyone want to read it?

Then last night I went to hear my daughter sing at her school Christmas concert. And one of the songs the choir sang was 'In the Bleak Midwinter', a poem written by Christina Rossetti which I have always loved. It was so beautiful, I had shivers all over my body. It seemed like a sign. Maybe I should write about her and Emily Dicksinson, I thought. Even if no-one would want to publish it. Just for my own pleasure. And so I've begun to put a few ideas together - it'll be something I'll play with in quiet moments and hope one day will be born and have a life beyond me.

And I've thought of a title (always a sign for me that a book has real possibilities). I'm thinking of calling it 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers', from one of my favourite poems by Emily Dickinson.       




It has uncanny echoes with a poem by Christina Rossetti:

And here, for your pleasure, is Christina Rossetti's poem 'In the Bleak Midwinter':



And another favourite poem about winter by Emily Dickinson:

What do you think? Would any of you like to read a book about Christina Rossetti & Emily Dickinson?

BOOK REVIEW: PARAGON WALK; RESURRECTION ROW; RUTLAND PLACE by Anne Perry

Friday, June 10, 2016

Anne Perry is acknowledged as the Queen of Victorian murder mysteries, with clever plots, engaging characters, and a great deal of period atmosphere. I’ve read a few of her books over the years, and am now reading my way through her first series (The Inspector Pitt Mysteries) in order.

Paragon Walk is the third book in the series, and sees Inspector Pitt and his unconventional upper-class wife Charlotte investigating the rape and murder of a seemingly ordinary young woman. However, dark secrets lurk behind the elegant facades of Paragon Walk, and Charlotte’s relentless digging sees her facing mortal danger.  

In Resurrection Row, a corpse is found sitting at the reins of a hansom cab … a corpse that simply will not stay buried. A really intriguing mystery that tests Inspector Pitt and his wife Charlotte in unexpected ways. 

Rutland Place begins with a series of petty thefts, and escalates to bloody murder and a troubling denouement. Once again, Charlotte uses her upper-class family connections to dig out secrets that her policeman husband Thomas Pitt simply could not access.

This is not a series to read for pace and suspense. Anne Perry is much more interested in the interior lives of her characters, and in probing the hypocrisy of the Victorians’ attitude to gender, class, and sexuality. The mysteries are always intriguing, nonetheless, and most importantly – it’s quite hard to guess the murderer!

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! 




BOOK REVIEW: THE CATER ST HANGMAN & CALLANDER SQUARE by Anne Perry

Thursday, March 24, 2016


THE BLURB: THE CATER ST HANGMAN

Careless of both murder and manners, Charlotte Ellison and her sister, two determinedly unconventional young women, ignore Victorian mores and actively join the police investigation, led by young Inspector Thomas Pitt, into the murder of their servant girl. 




THE BLURB: CALLANDER SQUARE

Murders just don’t happen in fashionable areas like Callander Square–but these two have.

The police are totally baffled. Pretty, young Charlotte Ellison Pitt, however, is curious.

Inspector Pitt’s well-bred wife doesn’t often meddle in her husband’s business, but something about this case intrigues her–to the point that staid Charlotte Pitt is suddenly rattling the closets of the very rich, seeking out backstairs gossip that would shock a barmaid, and unearthing truths that could push even the most proper aristocrat to murder.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THESE BOOKS:

I love a good Victorian murder mystery, and Anne Perry is the queen of the genre.

Her books are full of brooding atmosphere and intriguing mysteries, and I particularly love this series, with the ugly but kind lower-class detective and his outspoken upper-class wife.

The Cater St Hangman is the first in the series, and introduces Inspector Pitt to Charlotte Ellison, when one of her family’s maids is brutally murdered. The denouement is really very clever (though I guessed the murderer), and the romance is subtly done.

Callander Square is the second in the series, and sees Charlotte and her sister, Lady Emily, helping Inspector Pitt with the gruesome murder of two newborn babies. 

The books are not very long, and swiftly paced, so its possible to read on in a couple of hours.

I have read the first few, but there are now 31 books in the whole series, and I plan to read them all. Watch this space. 

HOW MANY ANNE PERRY NOVELS HAVE YOU READ?  WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THEM?


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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