February 11: On this day in 1862 Elizabeth Siddal died at the age of thirty-two, almost certainly a suicide by drug overdose. Husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti discovered her body — and, many conjecture, destroyed her suicide note — after returning home from an evening out. Several days later, he was stirred by grief, guilt and his romantic temperament to the last-minute gesture of placing the only manuscript copies of many of his poems in his wife’s coffin; seven years later, in one of the most notorious second-thoughts of love and literature, Rossetti retrieved and published the poems.
This sequence of events has been much-analyzed, and elevated to symbolic status from many angles. Some see a tale of class and gender barriers: the beautiful, teenaged Siddal is first glimpsed by one of Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite Brethern in the dress shop where she worked; like others similarly discovered, she is showcased to and painted by the group; she is eventually taken by Rossetti as his mistress, exclusive model, and eventual wife; having been posed and pedestaled as a string of tragic heroines and idealized visions in some of the most famous 19th-century art, she is then relegated to the role of neglected spouse, while Rossetti continues to philander, paint and poeticize.
A related reading finds a tale of art for art’s sake, the art anyone but Siddal’s. John Millais, for example, was able to paint his famous picture of Ophelia drowning only because model Siddal was kept in a tub of cold water for hours, getting pneumonia. Whatever fame Siddal found by posing for the Pre-Raphaelites, says one biographer, was at the expense of her own painting and poetry writing.
Yet another slant finds a tale of medicine and motherhood: Siddal’s years of poor health and semi-hysteria were viewed with condescension, labeled as yet more Victorian female invalidism, and treated with laudanum — the drug of her overdose — even during her last months, when the anguish over her recent, full-term stillborn and the news that she was again pregnant had her in despair.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.