Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hero Worship II: The Sylph

Lizzie Siddal (or is it Siddall?) was a different kettle of fish altogether. In the first place, even more obscure than Anne Boleyn. No one’s heard of her except art majors who’ve strayed down the same byways I have. And her life was pathetic. Anne Boleyn at least lived well and died bravely. You can dress Lizzie Siddal up all you like but she was still a drug addict who killed herself. And yet I admired her. I saw her as a role model. What was I thinking?
Perhaps part of it was the difference been childhood and adolescence. As a child I fixated on a dynamic heroine who did things her way. As a teenager I admired a passive, insubstantial figure who turned her back on life when it became too difficult for her. Pretty much textbook, I guess.
Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862) started out as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artists, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in time began living with Rossetti, though they put off marriage until 1860. The reasons for this un-Victorian arrangement seem to have been 1) economic (Rossetti was poor), 2) social (Lizzie was from a lower class) and 3) true love never running smooth (they broke up for more than a year.) Rossetti encouraged her to paint, as did John Ruskin, but Lizzie was sickly, given to going to spa cures and killing her pains with laudanum. She was, however, Rossetti’s primary muse, painted over and over in small, intricate, mysterious pictures. (The picture above is one of the early ones. There was a period in his life when he did little but sketch her.) In 1861 they had a stillborn child; thereafter she behaved “erratically” and became reclusive. In February 1862 Rossetti came home to find her dying of an overdose.*
In terms of actual facts, not a lot is known about Lizzie’s life. Only a couple of her letters survive. Victorian reticence covered her during Rossetti’s lifetime. By the end of the 19th century people had begun to spin mythologies about what they needed her to be: a frail muse, an emotional vampire, and, later, an anorexic victim of the patriarchy and Victorian hypocrisy. With her apparent beauty and not-so-apparent talent, her obscurity, her mysterious illnesses and her early death, she was born to be fictionalized. I can’t isolate now quite why I found this combination so admirable, but perhaps this was my first experience with pure storytelling, with floating away from reality into a world of embroidered highs and lows, of romance and drama.

*After this, things turned very weird: Rossetti buried his unpublished poetry with her, then, seven years later, decided he really needed those poems back and had her dug up so he could retrieve them. Then he had a mental breakdown and became an alcoholic and drug addict as well.


Elle Strauss said...

Thanks for sharing this tidbit of history. I think the cool thing is how, I guess because of her association with the artist, her life has not been forgotten. Her name is remembered, even if she was a weak but beautiful person. Many people from that era, especially if they were poor, just died and were forgotten.

Laura Canon said...

Yes, it's kind of funny but one of the pictures she posed for -- John Everett Millais' Ophelia -- has been reproduced very widely and is even in my husband's college art history textbook. So she has the tiny hold on history.