“The known facts about Elizabeth’s Siddal’s life are few; knowledge of her personality, opinions and emotions is even scantier. Of her ‘true self’ only her paintings, drawings and poetry survive, and these do not admit of simple biographical analysis.”
Most of the time a biography will tell you who a person was charting their life from cradle to grave, or in the case of Jordan from one year to the next, but what Jan Marsh has done with this book is that and more.
Elizabeth Siddal was a young woman with striking red hair who was spotted by one of the group of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and used as a model by a few of them before settling down to become the love interest and eventually wife of Gabriel Rossetti.
She produced art in her own right and as the years go on is being recognised more for her own pictures, painting and poetry than her role as a bit of romantic interest in the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
But with the details of her life still reasonable sparse Siddal has become a figure used and abused by others to make a point about class and the battle of the sexes as well as by some as an almost legendary whimsical Yoko Ono type figure with Rossetti filling the part of John Lennon. That he loved her at some points is not in doubt but Marsh suggests that he had tired of her and moved on before she managed to eventually pin him down to marriage.
“Gabriel had fallen out of love with his dear dove, but did not know how to resolve the relationship to which he was in honour bound.”
Their married life was brief as an addiction to opiates and general ill health dragged Siddal down to the point where she eventually over-dosed and died. Was it suicide? That’s another mystery for the Siddal addicts to debate and muse over.
What is certainly true is that she has remained a figure that can command time of writers, art historians and gossips long after her death. Part of this is because of the way that after her death Rossetti exhumed her body to get back some poetry he had buried with her and wanted to publish but it is also perhaps because despite the ups and downs of artistic fashion the interest in the Pre-Raphaelites has continued to remain a force.
This book was published 15 years ago and has been reissued and updated following the BBC drama Desperate Romantics which put Siddal back into the public spotlight. Marsh oozes knowledge on her subject and manages to chart the different times and movements of the 40s, 50s and 60s to detail how Siddal was treated and shows how one person can be used for different ends.
There are still parts of Siddal’s life that remain a mystery and that makes the chances of the legend being extended and enhanced even more likely in the future. Although that might confuse things the hope is that Marsh will be on hand to guide the reader through in the same way she has done so masterfully here.
A while ago the BBC broadcast a drama about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood which helpfully provided enough background knowledge to pick this book up with a slight knowledge on the area.
But in that series the model and inspiration for many of the artists in the PRB Lizzie Siddal comes across as a flame haired beauty that at various times seems to have had the artists fighting for her affections with Rossetti winning out in the end.
But he failed to be faithful and the drama left you under the impression Lizzie kills herself with an overdose and then the guilt combined with grief tears her husband apart.
Of course this is probably as much legend as fact and Jan Marsh’s book is all about looking at the legends that started during Siddal’s life time but went into overdrive after her death.
Unlike most biographies this starts with the death and works back from there which is a refreshing way of avoiding the she born, she lived, she grew up here formula.
Looking forward to discovering a bit more about the woman who was an artist in her own right as well as being a muse and lover.
A review will follow on completion…