Frozen like a thing of stone
I sit in thy shadow but not alone.
–“A Silent Wood,” Elizabeth Siddal
I’m fascinated by explorations into a lyrical biography, such as having conversations in writing with personages from shared literary and artistic cultures. “The Working-Class Ophelia” is my first foray into the interior life of Elizabeth Siddal and the women the Pre-Raphaelites labeled “stunners.”
The lush sensualist paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the entire avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rebelled against the orthodox in painting, craving freshness. It is their concentration on real-world women in their art as models and lovers that shocked their contemporaries and fascinate feminists in the twenty-first century. I was interested in the Pre-Raphaelites’s celebration and exploitation of a new female beauty that turned on its head the Victorian ideal of a porcelain doll-like feminine loveliness with little trace of the idiosyncratic. Rossetti used an “airbrush” to soften or heighten his models’ beauty in creating his iconic portraiture. Yet the word “unconfined” keeps suggesting itself to me in speaking of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal type. The angular, long-jawed face, as opposed to the round; the tall, flowing figure, instead of corseted curvaceous; the wilderness of luxuriant hair rippling over the shoulders, rather than jabbed neatly to the head with pins, braided, or covered by a hat. Publisher’s Weekly, in reviewing a newly released book of the Brotherhood’s painting, called this beauty type, “tall dominant impassive merciless.”
When you look closer at the Brotherhood’s most important models like Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris, and Fanny Cornforth, you find singular women artistically talented in their own right. Having seen these paintings, these women models called “stunners” never left my imagination. That is particularly true of the John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia floating dead in the waterweeds.
Siddal was one of the primary models for the Brotherhood’s “stunners” and the creation of a new beauty, what a Guardian article describes as, “the original supermodel, the tragic beauty, self-destructive, and anorexic.” It seems not surprisingly that Siddal, no matter her talents, was worshipped as a goddess, objectified, a body to be acted upon. Even the poet Christina Rossetti remarks on her brother’s worship of Siddal as the idealized model and not the flesh-and-blood woman. It is the woman of flesh that I wish to understand and know. I began researching Siddal’s life and found that she wrote poetry and painted. Poems like “The Silent Wood” are quite marvelous, and in “Lust of the Eyes,” Siddal addresses the death of comeliness: “Smiling to think how my love will fleet / When their starlike beauty dies.”
At the time of her death, none of Siddal’s relatives were spoken to, their impressions never written down. Siddal’s death was regarded through the lens of its effect on Rossetti rather than as the ultimate tragedy for his opium-dependent and artistic wife. Feminist scholarship has taken a serious look not only at Siddal’s painting but also at her poetry and is trying to rectify this injustice.
The “Transcript of Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti’s Inquest,” available online at LizzieSiddal.com, contains testimony from Francis Hutchinson, the doctor who attended Lizzie during her pregnancy and at her death. I was haunted by his words: “I knew the deceased and attended her in her confinement in April or May last. The child was born dead and had been dead for a fortnight before it was born.” I understood I wanted to explore the stillbirth of Siddal’s and Rossetti’s child and the postpartum depression that followed. “The Working-Class Ophelia” had found its core.
STEPHANIE DICKINSON lives in New York City with the poet Rob Cook and their senior feline, Vallejo. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Other books include Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg (New Michigan Press), Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian Arts Press), The Emily Fables (ELJ), Girl Behind the Door (Rain Mountain Press), and her just-released Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself (Alien Buddha). Her stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South, New Stories from the Midwest, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. At present she’s finishing a collection of essays entitled Maximum Compound based on her longtime correspondence with inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.
Dickinson’s story “The Working-Class Ophelia” appears in our new double issue, now available.
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