Dim Phantoms

Elizabeth Siddal, drawb by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

On this day in 1862, Elizabeth Siddal died.  In many accounts of her, you will see her death described as suicide.  Whether intentional or not, she lost her life due to an overdose of Laudanum.   You can read a transcript of the inquest here.

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The hills grow darker to my sight
And thoughts begin to swim. (from her poem, At Last)

Lizzie was discovered in millinery shop, a simple girl who was tall for the time and had a mass of red-gold hair.  Her first sitting was for Walter Deverell’s Twelfth Night. 

Twelfth Night, Walter Howell Deverell. Lizzie on the left. Dante Gabriel Rossetti posed as the jester on the right.
Twelfth Night, Walter Howell Deverell. Lizzie on the left. Dante Gabriel Rossetti posed as the jester on the right.

Lizzie then began to pose for other Pre-Raphaelite artists, Sir John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt to name a couple. It is Millais’ depiction of her as Ophelia that adds to her legend.  Posing in a bath lit with oil lamps, the lamps burned out over the course of the long session.  Lizzie lay in freezing water for hours as a cold, silent Ophelia.  Her father threatened to sue Millais.  (Read a full account at LizzieSiddal.com)

'Ophelia' (1852) by Sir John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal
‘Ophelia’ (1852) by Sir John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal


I started LizzieSiddal.com eleven years ago, having spent at least a decade prior studying her.  Almost my entire adult life has been in pursuit of this elusive woman.

Like most people, I first discovered her through the story of her exhumation and my reaction was “surely, this can not be true”.

When I read this fragment of one of her poems, my curiosity became something else entirely. Something deeper.

Dim phantoms of an unknown ill
Float through my tired brain;
The unformed visions of my life
Pass by in ghostly train;
    — taken from Elizabeth Siddal’s poem A Year and A Day

The imagery of dim phantoms, the idea of this woman’s struggle and her ‘tired brain’ reached across a century and gripped my heart.  I don’t know if I had ever felt such compassion before for someone so long dead.

All these years of compiling information about her life and I am just now realizing that she has become, to use her words, my own dim phantom.

Describing the writing of her book Possession, A.S. Byatt said “I had been thinking about such a novel for at least 15 years, and it had changed a great deal in my head during that time. Unlike anything else I have written, it began with the title. I was sitting in the old round reading room in the British Museum, watching the great Coleridge scholar Kathleen Coburn pacing round and round the circular catalogue, and I realised that she had dedicated all her life to this dead man. And then I thought “Does he possess her, or does she possess him?” And then I thought there could be a novel, “Possession”, about the relations between the living and the dead. It would be a kind of daemonic tale of haunting.” (via the Guardian, here)

There is no question that my pursuit of Lizzie Siddal happily and unequivocally possesses me.  And that, in turn, led me down an endless rabbit-hole of all Pre-Raphaelite art and artists.  For that, I am grateful .

I wish I had written a more profound blog post today, but as I have not, here are some links that I’d like to share in her memory:

My post about her marriage to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The painting Rossetti painted of Lizzie as Regina Cordium (the Queen of Hearts).

Elizabeth Siddal: Laying the ghost to rest

The Worst Man in London: How Charles Augustus Howell convinced Rossetti to exhume Lizzie.

From Kirsty Stonell Walker:  The Tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal and A Tale of Two Stunners.

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