Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lizzie Siddall

Above is a depiction of Elizabeth Siddall as she is painting, created by Dante Rossetti. I mentioned her in my previous post, of which he was the subject. Which is the way she is remembered, in the main—that is, by her association with him.

She was, however, a remarkable person in her own right.

I learned more about her because of the representation above; I noticed it while searching for his paintings. I admit I thought it to be ironic at first—kind of funny sometimes when one is slapped across the head by one's own preconceptions and latent prejudices, isn't it?

She was the daughter of a tradesman (her father was an ironmonger), one of seven children in a family that was poor, although not dirt-poor. She received no formal education, though she did learn to read and write. According to wiki, she happened upon a scrap of Tennyson from a bit of newspaper that had been used as butter-wrapping, which thrilled her imagination, and set her way. I like this story very much, and hope it's true—Tennyson (another poet much loved by me) achieved his first real success in 1842, when Lizzie was 13.

Six years later, while apprenticing in a lady's hat-shop, the artist Walter Deverell accompanied his mother to the shop. Struck by Lizzie's odd beauty, he induced her to model for him, beginning the career for which she is best remembered. Deverell was associated with and influenced by Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, though not an official member (apparently membership was finite and closed), and through him, she came to model for Pre-Raphaelite artists like Hunt, Millais and, of course, Rossetti himself.

Their association erupted rapidly into a passionate affair. Recognizing her talent, Rossetti gave her lessons in art and poetry. Although Deverell, too, was in love with her (as were, doubtless, others), by summer of 1852, she was no longer sitting for artists other than him.

Lizzie blossomed, these years. Rossetti was obsessed with her, drawing and painting her endlessly, thinking, in the way peculiar to tediously romantic young men, that she was some realization of his greater self, in this case that she was his Beatrice (the equally tedious device of his idol, Dante Alighieri) . To his credit, though, he came to as passionately believe that she was a genius, and introduced her to John Ruskin, who was also much taken with her abilities, and became her patron, endowing her with the sum of 150 pounds a year, and buying nearly everything she produced.

Rossetti's obsession, though, gradually waned, and his eye wandered. There were affairs with several other women, leading to her conviction that he was trading her in for someone younger. Her subsequent depression, along with the lifestyle of the young, urban, ultra-hip crowd they mixed with, led to her addiction to laudanum, and to a number of physical ailments. After Rossetti finally married her, she became pregnant the following year, giving birth to a stillborn daughter, in 1861. This was the end for Lizzie. Inconsolable, she became deeper into her addiction. In early 1862, after discovering that she was pregnant again, she took her own life.

The rest—Rossetti's discovery of her body, his destruction of her suicide note so that she could receive a Christian burial, the romantic gesture of burying his poems and their gruesome retrieval, his descent into self-pity and addiction and finally madness because of his guilt—don't really concern us here.

The work Lizzie left behind was buried surely as Rossetti's poems were, beneath what I can only regard as the disinterest of the critical elites—couched, I'm sure, within any number of critic-speak justifications. Which add up to nothing, of course, more substantial than the fact that she's not supposed to be good. She is Beatrice, after all. She is an object which contains the projected yearnings of a man. She is a muse, a creature made from the bathetic pixie-dust fueling the fantasies of the (male) artist who glorified—objectified—her. Beyond her innate goodness, her natural beauty, and her essential simplicity—the blander the better—she does not matter. Because she is not, beyond that, beyond which the artist imagines, beyond what swells the heart (and nether regions) of the patriarchal critical establishment.

Lizzie was not a typically beautiful woman—heavy-lidded, skeletal and severe, with thin lips and an angular figure. Beneath the brush of painters of her time she became something else, a thing scarcely related to her at all. It is a hard thing to be the container for the dreams of others, especially when the vessel containing the possibilities of your own desires is not only infinitely smaller, but exists only at the pleasure of others. Her self-portrait, at right, must have been representative of something important to her—her actual depiction, removed from the manipulations of self-gratifying dreamers. How deep must have been her desire to be received on her own terms—how could it not have been?

As I've said, Lizzie had no education. No Eton, no Cambridge, no Oxford, nor even any public schooling. The only instruction and training she ever received was begun at age 23, at Rossetti's knee (so to speak). Several more of her paintings can be seen at bottom, and numerous others seen here, and here. Her poems can be read here. You be the judge.

I will say this, though. I suspect that if Lizzie had enjoyed the same background and education as Rossetti, the master-teacher relationship would've been reversed. I'm rather ashamed that I did not know more about her, that I was in effect among those who objectified her—several of her images have hung in our home for years—without even a glimmer of curiosity regarding who she was, beyond being an appendage to a poet and artist I admire. Whatever it's worth, when I remember this story in the future, it is Lizzie who will come to my mind. For me, Rossetti has become subordinate to the legend of Elizabeth Siddall.

I like a number of her poems, but this may be my favorite. It's called Dead Love (do look though at her other poems, and her paintings and drawings—they are remarkable):

Oh never weep for love that’s dead
Since love is seldom true
But changes his fashion from blue to red,
From brightest red to blue,
And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.
Then harbour no smile on your bonny face
To win the deepest sigh.
The fairest words on truest lips
Pass on and surely die,
And you will stand alone, my dear,
When wintry winds draw nigh.
Sweet, never weep for what cannot be,
For this God has not given.
If the merest dream of love were true
Then, sweet, we should be in heaven,
And this is only earth, my dear,
Where true love is not given.

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