Lizzie Siddal: A passive feminist?

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Apologies, once again, its the festive season meaning my workload is killing me softly (keeping up with the terrible references though). So today, you get to read my lovely and rather long research project on Elizabeth Siddal as a proto-feminist of sorts. I will follow this up with a shorter post about the controversies (the more interesting bits) which surrounds her and emm paraphrase the ideas here. Please enjoy my terrible doodle of Siddal freezing whilst posing for Millais’ Ophelia as an apology for this long read. Also I will attempt to write a post about the idea of collective memory and Rasputin (because everyone one loves that man, right?). Off to do work I go, but before that have a pickup line ‘After the sino-soviet split, your legs should be easy’.. seriously they work… well they work on me….

Elizabeth Siddal: Critic of the Chivalric State

Throughout history the female form has been use as a muse, inspiring artists and writers to create great work of art and literature. The Victorian era was no exception to this. Prior to first wave feminism, arguably, the female role was restricted to that of a muse, an ideal, an upholder of morality and beauty.  Victorian poetry, in particular, was ‘inherently masculine’[1]; dominated by a school of educated gentlemen who, generally, wrote about aestheticism and morality: their prime use of symbolism to demonstrate these being the female form. Mermin states that ‘Victorian poems like Victorian women were expected to be morally and spiritually uplifting, to stay mostly in a private sphere, and to provide emotional stimulus and release for overtasked men of affairs’.[2] Leighton echoes this view in her study of ‘The Fallen Women’: ‘She [the Victorian Women] is the chief upholder and representer of morality, and its most satisfying symbol. Thus, angel or demon, virgin or whore, Mary or Magdalen, women is the stage on which the age enacts its own enduring morality play’.[3] Both critics suggest that the world of poetry reflected Victorian social structure; it served to constrain the role of women as ideals. Armstrong, however, takes a different approach on the subject. She argues that the symbolic female form is ‘the real agents of cultural transformation through the imagination’ and by using this representation ‘women are like the poet of sensation, subversively attacking entrenched, habitual opinion by dissolving and re-forming associative patterns’.[4] Victorian poetry served both as a mean of female submission and a challenger to social consciousness. Although poets were predominately male, a number of female writers dared to contribute poetically and by doing so publicly defied Victorian social norms. Unfortunately, until recently, these women poets have often been neglected by scholars and the majority of research which concerns the work of  Victorian female poets centred on the study of Elizabeth Barett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. One such female figure who has been discarded by academics is Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, wife of Dante Garbriel Rossetti.

Siddal is better known as the model for Millais’ Ophelia, the face of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix and a muse to the Pre-Raphaelite Circle. Her tale is painfully simple: a working class girl who by chance entered the world of the Pre-Raphaelite as a muse, through this she fostered her interest in writing and painting and developed a romantic relationship with Rossetti. However due to her enigmatic biography, her simple life was ‘readily transformed into a legacy’[5] by scholars who obsessed over the scandals that concerned Siddal. Marsh in her essay Imagining Elizabeth Siddal chronicles the changing school of thoughts regarding the figure; from the traditional school of thought who saw her as the victim of Rossetti’s love and a suicidal maniac to a feminism driven contemporary school who sees her as a symbol of Victorian oppression and a proto-feminist.[6] Marsh and Nunn’s collaborative work briefly biographs Siddal’s life, unlike their predecessors they attempt to free Siddal’s biography from her legacy thereby highlighting her individuality.[7] This idea that Siddal’s work is separate from her personal life is still relatively new and slowly taking prevalence. Bradley, being one such contemporary who adopts this idea, hails Siddal for her successes as an artist stating that her paintings indicated she was far more than a frail muse and lover.[8]  Cherry also uses Siddal’s art as a focus in her research; concluding that Siddal’s paintings pushed the Pre-Raphaelite Circle forward to an era of medievalism and that the artist was an embodiment of ‘this double movement of woman as sign and woman as artist’.[9] Ehnenn studies both Siddal’s artistic and poetic work, stating that she uses her protagonist as a subtle commenter on the unequal gender relations which existed in the Victorian era.[10] Hassett’s article supports Ehnenn’s beliefs; through exclusively studying Siddal’s poetry, Hassett concludes that Siddal’s poems were not simply self-expressive but targeting a wider issue.[11] Although this school of thought is becoming increasingly recognised, there is still a very limited amount of research dedicated to Siddal’s artistic and poetic work; the latter is particularly lacking. Unfortunately, most are still fascinated by the Siddal as a tragic legend such as Hunt, who saw her as ‘the protagonist throughout’ her poems.[12] However, this idea that Siddal’s work was simply self-reflective is extremely presumptuous as her poems were published posthumously meaning no dates or written records indicate that she identified herself with the protagonists. Even if we assume that Siddal was writing from personal experience, it is still an indication of the gender relations in Victorian society. Armstrong proposes that ‘Language, like myth, is a possession of the totality of a culture and not that of an individual’ and this ought to be the way we read Siddal’s poems.[13] Boldly reading Siddal’s work in a wider social and cultural context, this research aims to contribute to the ever increasing studies on Siddal’s work as subtle criticisms on the constraint of gender roles in Victorian society.

Posthumously published by her brother-in-law, Siddal poem concerns themselves with the themes of love, betrayal and death; it is understandable that some would interpret them as self-expressive pieces. However, her status as a Pre-Raphaelite muse and a female Victorian artist and writer deems that her work should be read in a wider context. Cherry comments that the mere fact she is dealing with such themes in a strict chivalric era makes her a significant contributor to the critiques of Victorian gender relations.[14]  Though passive in her approach, Siddal’s fresh twist on the common tropes of ‘The Fallen Women’ and ‘The Damsel’ forces her audience to be sympathetic to these women’s causes and see them beyond an ideal. By exploring the innovative use of these tropes by Siddal, this research hopes to demonstrate Siddal’s significance as a female poet defying the masculine norm of Victorian society.

The constraints to gender roles can be demonstrated through the idea of ‘The Fallen Women’; a woman who has lost her moral consciousness and is now unworthy in the eye of society. It is a crude definition which supports the harsh realities that to be female, one must be a moral ideal for men. Yet the classification of a fallen woman was broad, ranging from streetwalker to raped child to adulteress to the seduced innocent; to put it plainly ‘To fall, for women, is simply to fall short’.[15] Leighton, in her article, argues that ‘The Fallen Women’ trope is often used as a political tool to raise social consciousness and a mean for poets to reclaim control.[16] Perhaps not intentionally political nor socially conscious, Siddal’s poem At Last uses ‘The Fallen Women’ trope to demonstrate the perils and bravery of a Victorian woman who bores a child prior to marriage. The protagonist of At Last is self-aware of the consequences of her action, thus addresses a suicide note to her mother. However, unlike her peers, Siddal’s protagonist is not consumed by her own circumstantial misery; instead she bravely accepts her death and pleas for her child’s wellbeing.

At Last

O mother, open the window wide

And let the daylight in;

The hills grow darker to my sight

And thoughts begin to swim.

And mother dear, take my young son,

(Since I was born of thee)

And care for all his little ways

And nurse him on thy knee.

And mother, wash my pale pale hands

And then bind up my feet;

My body may no longer rest

Out of its winding sheet.

And mother dear, take a sapling twig

And green grass newly mown,

And lay them on my empty bed

That my sorrow be not known.

And mother, find three berries red

And pluck them from the stalk,

And burn them at the first cockcrow

That my spirit may not walk.

And mother dear, break a willow wand,

And if the sap be even,

Then save it for sweet Robert’s sake

And he’ll know my sou’s in heaven.

And mother, when the big tears fall,

(And fall, God knows, they may)

Tell him I died of my great love

And my dying heart was gay.

And mother dear, when the sun has set

And the pale kirk grass waves,

Then carry me through the dim twilight

And hide me among the graves.[17]

Siddal does not directly challenge the Victorian norm and fight for ‘The Fallen Women’ in At Last; instead she chooses, through narrative, to highlight her protagonist’s inner struggles and forces the audience to identify with this young mother. Through choosing this approach Siddal ignores the moral implications of having a child out of wedlock, concentrating on the character’s bravery. This can be demonstrated in the lines ‘Tell him I died of my great love/ And my dying heart was gay’. Fully understanding the consequences, the protagonist is concerned only for the loved ones she leaves behind, in particular her child: ‘And mother dear, take my young son,/ (Since I was born of thee)/And care for all his little ways/ And nurse him on thy knee’. Siddal highlights the greatness of motherhood goes beyond a societal constraint. However despite bravely accepting her death the protagonist still wants her suicide to be a secret: ‘And mother dear, take a sapling twig/ And green grass newly mown,/ And lay them on my empty bed/ That my sorrow be not known.’. In this stanza Siddal comments upon the hypocrisy of Victorian society; birthing a bastard child brands her as immoral and would lead to a life of ridicule by society, but suicide is equally decadent and is seen as against God’s will. The protagonist, ultimately, has no choice on the matter, but for the sake of her family’s status wants the affair to be kept hidden. Throughout the poem we are sympathetic toward our female lead, and it is Siddal’s awareness of ‘The Fallen Women’ trope and the consequences of immorality that begs her audience to question gender relations. Hassett comments it is this twist to the traditional tale which highlights the issue facing Victorian women. She contrasts At Last to Rossetti’s The Lass of Lochroyan; Siddal’s protagonist is portrayed as brave and accepting of her death, whilst Rossetti’s Jane had to be saved through marriage by Lord Sands prior to death due to childbirth.[18] At Last is a subtle commentary on the idea of ‘The Fallen Women’ and the restrictions of gender roles; unlike her peers Siddal chose to portray a sympathetic, brave, yet tragic protagonist.

Whilst At Last deals with the trope of ‘The Fallen Women’, many of Siddal’s other poems concerns the female’s role in Victorian courtships; this trope can be titled ‘The Damsel’. Once again, Siddal in these pieces does not aggressively attack the norm, rather she passively comments upon heterosexual relationships in Victorian society. Through these she also criticises the idea that women should be symbol of perfection for the pleasure of men. The Lust of the Eyes, in particular, comments upon the latter; the male narrator depicts no concern for his lady companion, caring only for her beauty.

The Lust of the Eyes

I care not for my Lady’s soul

Though I worship before her smile;

I care not where be my Lady’s goal

When her beauty shall lose its wile.

Low sit I down at my Lady’s feet

Gazing through her wild eyes

Smiling to think how my love will fleet

When their starlike beauty dies.

I care not if my Lady pray

To our Father which is in Heaven

But for joy my heart’s quick pulses play

For to me her love is given.

Then who shall close my Lady’s eyes

And who shall fold her hands?

Will any hearken if she cries

Up to the unknown lands?[19]

From the beginning the male protagonist indicates his affections for the lady: ‘I care not for my Lady’s soul/ though I worship before her smile/ I care not where be my Lady’s goal/ When her beauty shall lose its wile’. His love is purely based upon lust and the lady, in this context, acts an ideal for beauty; her characteristics are not important to our lead. The protagonist is self-aware of his lust: ‘Gazing through her wild eyes/ Smiling to think my love would fleet/ When their starlike beauty dies.’, however he indicates no remorse. The lady in question does not speak and is only portrayed through his perspective. This actually parallels Victorian society; in which a woman’s place in society is to be an ideal of beauty and moral, she is not allowed a voice and is expected to accept her role within a chivalric state. This antagonising relationship of courtship between men and women is further explored in Love and Hate.

Love and Hate

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,

Nor turn to me thy face;

The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down

Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,

Nor turn to me and pray;

The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing

Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,

Nor gaze upon my face;

Great love I bore thee: now great hate

Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,

I neither sing nor pray;

And thou art like the poisonous tree

That stole my life away.[20]

Love and Hate is extremely different in tone to the rest of Siddal’s work, there is a distinct aggressiveness and bitterness to the poem. Many have interpreted it as Siddal’s response to Rossetti’s infidelity and their informal romantic status; however, it is also a criticism of Victorian courting customs. Assuming the narrator is female; Siddal uses Love and Hate to depict the emotional hurt of false love and being merely seen as an ideal of beauty. In particular the last line, ‘And thou art like the poisonous tree/ That stole my life away’, indicates the peril of being an aging female courted by a man who cares only for one’s beauty. It comments upon the idea that the female form is simply used for male entertainment and lust, an attraction that would falter over time; but where does this leave our female lead. A woman passed her prime with no formal relationship status was not the norm in Victorian society, thus she is forced into a life of ridicule and spinsterhood. Love and Hate depicts a woman weary of the falsehood of men in a strictly chivalric society. Fragment of a Ballad continues this theme; in both poems, ‘The Damsel’ trope is altered from a young maiden passionately in love to a woman frustrated that she is constraint to an idealise gender role.

Fragment of a Ballad

Many a mile over land and sea

Unsummoned my love returned to me;

I remember not the words he said

But only the trees moaning overhead.

And he came ready to take and bear

The cross I had carried for many a year,

But words came slowly one by one

From frozen lips shut still and dumb.

How sounded my words so still and slow

To the great strong heart that loved me so,

Who came to save me from pain and wrong

And to comfort me with his love so strong?

I felt the wind strike chill and cold

And vapours rise from the red-brown mould;

I felt the spell that held my breath

Bending me down to a living death.[21]

The tone of Fragment of a Ballad is a lot calmer, and like Love and Hate and At Last Siddal’s female protagonist is self-aware thus identifying the issues with Victorian gender relations. She once again brings originality to a traditional tale: the story of the returned lover. Unlike most writers who romanticises the lover reunion, Siddal paints a portrait of a woman exhausted by the experience and thus no longer cares for her returning knight. She is no longer the young maiden dazzled by her lover’s word of yesteryear, but a woman stunned by his return after many a morrows and is not quite certain how to react. The lines ‘I remember not the words he said/ But only the trees moaning overhead’ perfectly demonstrates her lack of concern for his return. The last lines to the poem are particularly interesting: ‘I felt the spell that held my breath/ Bending me down to a living death’. It seems to suggest that her lover’s words were like a curse trapping our protagonist, restricting her to a specific gender role. Hassett comments that the poem depicts Siddal’s own ‘reluctant disbelief in heterosexual love’.[22] This idea that Siddal was using her poetry to critique the chivalric nature of courting is not exclusive to Fragment of a Ballad; it can be seen throughout her poetic pieces. In these poems Siddal twists the traditional trope of ‘The Damsel’ to depict an unromanticised female perspective to courting, highlighting the woes of gender relations.

Siddal acts as a perfect embodiment of an idealise symbol of femininity for the Pre-Raphaelites and poetic critique of Victorian gender structure. Admittedly she is not the poster girl for a Victorian female poet challenging the norm, as her work often served as a passive commentary on gender relations rather than a radical attack on the subject. This, however, does not make her any less significant as a critique of the chivalric state; Ehnenn comments that Siddal ‘nevertheless complicate Victorian gender norms’ through her subtle twists to clichés and her self-aware protagonists.[23] Her talents in the arts, of painting and poetic writing, and her awareness of the issues plaguing women in Victorian society deems that her significance was much more than a tragic legacy; rather scholars should study Siddal’s work within its social and cultural sphere thereby not simply dismissing the poems as personal, but understanding its complex social commentary.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Isobel, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge 1993).

Bradley, Laura, ‘Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 18 (1992), 136-145.

Cherry, Deborah, ‘Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (1829-1862)’, in Prettejohn, Elizabeth, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012), pp. 183-195.

Ehnenn, Jill R., ‘“Strong Traivelling”: Re-visions of Women’s Subjectivity and Female Labour in the Ballad Work of Elizabeth Siddal’, Victorian Poetry, 52 (Summer 2014), 251-276.

Hassett, Constance W., ‘Elizabeth Siddal’s Poetry: A Problem and Some Suggestions’, Victorian Poetry, 35 (Winter 1997), 443-470.

Leighton, Angela, ‘‘Because men made the laws’: The Fallen Woman and the Woman Poet’, in Bristow, Joseph, ed., Contemporary Critical Essays: Victorian Women Poets (Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd 1995), pp.223-245.

Marsh, Jan ‘Imagining Elizabeth Siddal’, History Workshop, 25 (Spring 1988), 64-82.

Marsh, Jan and Nunn, Pamela Gerrish, Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement (London: Virago Press 1989).

Mermin, Dorothy, ‘The Damsel, the Knight and the Victorian Woman Poet’, in Bristow, Joseph, ed., Contemporary Critical Essay Victorian Women Poets (Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd 1995), pp.64-83.

Siddal, Elizabeth, in Collins, Thomas J. and Rundle, Vivienne J, eds., The Broadview Anthropology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory (Canada: Broadview Press 1999).

Siddal, Elizabeth, ‘Fragment of a Ballad’, in LizzieSiddal.com <http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/fragment-of-a-ballad/&gt; [Accessed 3rd November 2014].

[1] Dorothy Mermin, ‘The Damsel, the Knight and the Victorian Woman Poet’, Contemporary Critical Essay Victorian Women Poets, ed. by Joseph Bristow (Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd 1995), pp.64-83, (p.65).

[2] Ibid., pp.68-69

[3] Angela Leighton, ‘‘Because men made the laws’: The Fallen Woman and the Woman Poet’, Contemporary Critical Essays: Victorian Women Poets ed. by Joseph Bristow (Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd 1995), pp.223-245, (p.225).

[4] Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge 1993), p.36.

[5] Constance W. Hassett, ‘Elizabeth Siddal’s Poetry: A Problem and Some Suggestions’, Victorian Poetry, 35.4 (Winter 1997), 443-470, (p.443).

[6] Jan Marsh, ‘Imagining Elizabeth Siddal’, History Workshop, 25 (Spring 1988), 64-82, (pp.74-76).

[7] Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Women Artists and the Pre-Rahaelite Movement (London: Virago Press 1989), pp. 65-73.

[8] Laura Bradley, ‘Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 18.2 (1992), 136-145.

[9] Deborah Cherry, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (1829-1862), in The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, ed. by Elizabeth Prettejohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012), pp. 183-195, (p.194)

[10] Jill R. Ehnenn, ‘“Strong Traivelling”: Re-visions of Women’s Subjectivity and Female Labour in the Ballad Work of Elizabeth Siddal’, Victorian Poetry, 52.2 (Summer 2014), 251-276.

[11] Hassett, Op. cit., 443-470.

[12] Ibid., p.444.

[13] Armstong, Op. cit., p.25.

[14] Cherry, Op. cit., p.185.

[15] Leighton, Op. cit., p.226.

[16] Ibid., p.242.

[17] Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, ‘Love and Hate’, in The Broadview Anthropology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, ed. by Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle (Canada: Broadview Press 1999), p.846.

[18] Hassett, Op. cit., p.454.

[19] Siddal, ‘The Lust of the Eyes’, ed. by Collins and Rundle, p.845.

[20] Siddal, ‘Love and Hate’, ed. by Collins and Rundle, p.846.

[21] Elizabeth Siddal, ‘Fragment of a Ballad’, in LizzieSiddal.com < http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/fragment-of-a-ballad/&gt; [Accessed 3rd November 2014].

[22] Hassett, Op. cit., p.457.

[23] Ehnenn, Op. cit., p.257.

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One thought on “Lizzie Siddal: A passive feminist?

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Siddal: Who? | The Diary of an Amateur Historian

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