Thursday, February 11, 2016

Remembering Mrs. Elizabeth Rossetti (nee Siddal) (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862)

Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A young married woman in her thirties dies in her sleep while her husband is out with friends.Upon her husband's insistence, she stays home that evening after feeling tired but not complaining of illness.  The woman was Mrs. Dante Rossetti, Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti nee Siddal.  This skimmed over version presents the basis of the only surviving story told by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Speculation over Mrs. Rossetti's health has ranged over the decades as being an intestinal disorder, tuberculosis, anorexia as well. Her husband was known to have had numerous affairs with his sitter/models causing Eliabeth Siddal much stress on her nerves. It is believed that she took laudanum partly to cope with this stress and it increased in dosage over the years after suffering a stillbirth of a baby girl in 1861 leaving her with post-partum depression.  

An excerpt from the Daily News from February 1862, and found in inquest records, recalls the moments of the day Mrs. Rossetti died, 

"Mr. Rossetti stated that on Monday afternoon, between six and seven o’clock, he and his wife went out in the carriage for the purpose of dining with a friend at the Sabloniere Hotel, Leicester Square. When they had got about halfway there his wife appeared to be very drowsy, and he wished her to return. She objected to their doing so, and they proceeded to the Hotel, and dined there. They returned home at eight o’clock, when she appeared somewhat excited. He left home again at nine o’clock, his wife being then about to go to bed. On his return at half-past eleven o’clock he found his wife in bed, snoring loudly and utterly unconscious. She was in the habit of taking laudanum, and he had known her take as much as 100 drops at a time, and he thought she had been taking it before they went out. He found a phial on a table at the bedside, which had contained laudanum, but it was then empty. A doctor was sent for, and promptly attended. She had expressed no wish to die, but quite the reverse. Indeed, she contemplated going out of town in a day or two, and had ordered a new mantle which she intended wearing on the occasion. He believed she took the laudanum to soothe her nerves. She could not sleep or take food unless she used it. Mr. Hutchinson, of Bridge Street, Blackfriars, said he had attended the deceased in her confinement in April with a stillborn child. He saw her on Monday night at half-past eleven o’clock, and found her in a comatose state. He tried to rouse her, but could not, and then tried the stomach, and washed it out, when the smell of laudanum was very distinct. He and three other medical gentlemen stayed with her all night, and she died at twenty minutes past seven o’clock on Tuesday morning. “ The inquest jury gave a verdict of ‘Accidental Death.’

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal was not only her husband's model, muse, but the focal point of such adoration and love that it bordered on obsession. She wanted to be an artist in her own right. She wrote poetry, painted and drew during her marriage and relationship with Rossetti.  Her work is preserved and archived in museums throughout the United Kingdom. I especially was surprised to find this one she wrote, 



Early Death by Elizabeth Siddal
Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.
Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.
But true love, seek me in the throng
Of spirits floating past,
And I will take thee by the hands
And know thee mine at last.

In reading about the death of Mrs. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's brother, William Michael Rossetti describes his brother's mindset and household during the six days between his wife's death on 11 February, 1862 through the day of the funteral on 17 February, 1862. Dante Gabriel kept his wife's body in her coffin open inside their house. Now maybe this was a custom of the day, during the nineteenth-century but it still surprised me. Just imagining the grief during those days. Today, the deceased family member and loved one's body stays at the funeral home until burial. However, back in 1862 for The Rossetti's this was the scene, 
 
"Our mother and sisters and myself were constantly with Dante during those harrowing days which intervene between a death and a funeral. His anguish was keen, but his mind clear. Brown was often there, and the sister of Lizzie playfully nicknamed “the Roman.” I recollect a moment of great agitation, when my brother, standing by the corpse, was crying out, “Oh Lizzie, Lizzie, come back to me!” On the second or third day after death Lizzie looked still lovelier than before, and Dante almost refused to believe that she was really dead-it might be a mere trance consequent upon the laudanum. He insisted that Mr. Marshall should be called in to decide with what result I need not say." 

“They stood beside the coffin's foot and head.
Both gazed in silence, with bowed faces—Grey
With bony chin pressed into bony throat.”
A woodcut by Arthur Boyd Houghton 
from The Broadway Annual, Volume 1, 1867-8

 In this issue of The Broadway Annual appeared a long poem by William Michael Rossetti called, 'Mrs. Holmes Grey' along with the above woodcut. Focus on the two men standing beside a coffin with a dead young woman inside it; her face only visible. Well, here is one stanza from Mrs. Holmes Grey



Grey's face turned whiter, and his fingers twitched.
It is my turn to speak, then":-and he rose,
Taking a candle: “come this way with me.”

They stepped aside into a neighbouring room.
Grey walked with quiet footsteps, and he turned
So noiselessly the handle of the door
That Harling fancied some one lay asleep
Inside. The hand recovered steadiness.

The room was quite unfurnished, striking chill.
A rent in the drawn window-blind betrayed
A sky unvaried, moonless, cloudless, black.
Only two chairs were set against the wall,
And, not yet closed, a coffin placed on them.

Harling's raised eyes inquired why he was brought
Hither, and should he still advance and look.
“It is my wife,” said Grey; “look in her face.”
This in a whisper, holding Harling's arm,
 And tightened fingers clenched the whispering.

Harling could feel his forehead growing moist,
And sought in vain his friend's averted eyes.
Their steps, suppressed, creaked on the uncovered boards:
They stood beside the coffin's foot and head.
Both gazed in silence, with bowed faces—Grey
With bony chin pressed into bony throat.


The woman's limbs were straight inside her shroud.
The death which brooded glazed upon her eyes
Was hidden underneath the shapely lids;
But the mouth kept its anguish. Combed and rich
The hair, which caught the light within its strings,
Golden about the temples, and as fine
And soft as any silk-web; and the brows
A perfect arch, the forehead undisturbed;
But the mouth kept its anguish, and the lips,
Closed after death, seemed half in act to speak.
Covered the hands and feet; the head was laid
 Upon a prayer-book, open at the rite
Of solemnizing holy matrimony.
Her marriage-ring was stitched into the page.

Grey stood a long while gazing. Then he set
The candle on the ground, and on his knees
Close to her unringed shrouded hand, he prayed,
Silent. With eyes still dry, he rose unchanged.

They left the room again with heeded steps.
On friendly Harling lay the awe of death
And pity: he took his seat without a sound.
Some of the hackneyed phrases almost passed
His lips, but shamed him, and he held his peace.
Study for Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1852





3 comments:

WoofWoof said...

Thanks for such an interesting account. I never tire of reading about the sad story of Lizzie Siddal. I remember exactly 4 years ago to the day on the 150th anniversary of her death attending an interesting talk about her life at Highgate Cemetary where she is buried in the Rossetti family plot (though DGR himself is not there). It's interesting hearing the exact details of what happened that night and William Michaels poem really brings out what it must have been like to have the open coffin there for so long. From the details, it is quite hard to tell whether it was suicide or just an accidental overdose. I tend to think it was the latter from the fact that it sounds like she was already feeling unwell when they set off for the dinner with Swinburne. Maybe she had already taken too much laudanum and possibly another dose before she went to bed finished her off. On the other hand, her poetry sounds like. She would have welcomed death. I also wonder where Rossetti went at 9pm. Was he going out to see one of his other lady friends, and perhaps if Lizzie suspected this she might have responded. Also, I think there were rumours at the time that she left a note, and that Ford Maddox Brown told Rossetti to destroy it? Whatever truly happened, it is a sad tale. It seems that in most cases for women who get involved with artists, life certainly becomes interesting but rarely ends happily ever after...

Kimberly Eve said...

Hi WoofWoof,
I remember that talk and wishing I could attend. I think its important to share in this case blood families direct accounts of a sad but very important event with the death of Lizzie Siddal. We must remember not everyone has read or researched The Rossetti Family or the women who surrounded them. A dangerous flaw we all share is a result of years of research can end up giving us a false sense of security in believing that we know and understand what happened in the past to artists we admire and respect. I am here to share the research I have found from sources I hope everyone reads and comes to their own conclusions. Thank you so much for your comment and time visiting my blog.

Loretta Proctor said...

Thank you for this detailed account, Kimberly. Oddly enough I almost got round to doing a blog on Rossetti so thought about this unhappy couple must be in 'the air'! There was something very tragic in their love affair...it took so long for Rossetti to commit to marriage. My feeling is she felt weary and disillusioned by this time and of course, had lost her baby too. Did you get to the archives at the Bodleian Library in Oxford? They have some of her poetry and paintings there and seeing these was deeply touching.

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