Thursday, 26 August 2010

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

An icon of the Victorian age, thanks in no small way to the portrait of her as Ophelia by John Millais, Lizzie Siddal is the tragic heroine of the Pre-Raphaelite era, the doomed wife and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the suicide dead of an overdose at the age of thirty two.

A stunner, spotted by Walter Howell Deverell while she worked in a millinery shop near Leicester Square, Lizzie started modeling for painting at the age of nineteen. She soon caught the eye of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and quickly became her muse. Unfortunately, Dante could never quite bring himself to introduce her to his family, let alone propose marriage.

Lizzie endured poor health most of her life, and although there is no precise diagnosis of what exactly it was that ailed her, the Hawksley’s biography suggests that it may well have been an eating disorder combined with bouts of depression. It wasn’t long before she began self medicating:

Whatever the original ailment was, Lizzie began alleviating it with one of the nineteenth century’s most common drugs, laudanum. It was that which was prove her downfall… Laudanum, otherwise known as “tincture of opium”, was a mixture of opium and alcohol. It was available widely and without prescription. Laudanum was perceived as a cure-all-painkiller, much as aspirin or paracetamol are viewed today.

Laudanum, still available today under strict prescription, was available without license just about anywhere. It was a panacea:

To understand why laudanum was so widely taken, one needs to look at the vast list of disparate symptoms it was claimed to alleviate. These included symptoms of alcoholism (even though alcohol was the main ingredient of the “medicine”), bedwetting, bronchitis, chilblains, cholera, coughs and colds, depression, diarrhoea, dysentery, earache, flatulence, gout, gynaecological problems, headaches, hysteria, insanity, menopause, morning sickness, muscle fatigue, nausea, nervous tension, period pains, rheumatism, stomachache, teething in babies and toothache in adults.

By the mid 1850s, Lizzie, still hanging on for an offer of marriage from Dante Gabriel, was addicted and laudanum was a constant companion in their relationship. She was no mean artist and poet herself, although her output suffered from her intake of the noxious stuff:

Her style is erratic, sometimes drawn with clarity, at other times sketchy and rough – indicative of the amount of laudanum she had taken before starting.

As the decade wore to a close, Lizzie’s illness grew worse and more life threatening. Sojourning in Matlock to take the waters, she fell desperately ill:

The years of laudanum addiction had taken hold and her symptoms were advanced and pathetic. She was unable to ingest anything without vomiting, she was weak, terribly thin and could summon up little creative energy.

Dante Gabriel came to see her and she recovered, but when he left again, fuelling her (not unjustified) suspicions that he was fooling around with other women she grew sick once more. In Hastings in 1860 she was at death’s door, and Rossetti finally married her, convinced that she wouldn’t make it to the church. Once again, she rallied, soon falling pregnant, but tragically, the baby was still-born. Lizzie was destroyed by grief:

Her usual tendency to depression, combined with a new pressure of post-natal depression, led to a dangerously increased dependence on laudanum… Rossetti later admitted that he had known her to take up to a hundred drops of laudanum in one dose.

In February 1862, Dante Gabriel went out for supper:

When he returned home at half past eleven, Rossetti found Lizzie snoring very loudly and disconcertingly. The bottle of laudanum beside the bed, which had been half-full earlier in the day, was now empty and ominously a note addressed to him was pinned to her nightgown.

The note was burned: as a suicide she would have been denied Christian burial as well as being deemed to have broken the law. As he mourned, Dante Gabriel slipped a book of poetry into her coffin before the burial. The sad coda to this tale is that seven years later, finding himself in an artistic rut, he regretted this noble act and was persuaded to have the poems exhumed.

Hawksley’s biography is a sympathetic and touching account of the tragically short life of one of the most famous faces of the 19th century; definitely one to be filed under the ‘perils and pains’...

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