Literary daybook, Feb. 11

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 11, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 11, 1992: Patrick Lanigan's funeral.
-- "The Partner" (1997)
By John Grisham

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1862 Elizabeth Siddal died at the age of 32, almost certainly a suicide by drug overdose. Husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti discovered her body -- and, the conjecture goes, 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, nestled beside her cheek; 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; from any, it is a compelling story, made vivid by the painting and poetry that surrounds it. Some see a tale of class and gender barriers: The beautiful, teenaged Siddal is first glimpsed by one of Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite Brethren 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 soon relegated to wife while Rossetti continues to philander, paint and poeticize.

A related reading finds a tale of art for art's sake, or some sake not 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. In Jan Marsh's "The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood," the Brotherhood is painted as typically exploitive: artists (male) reducing models (female) from "their real, complex, contradictory personalities and lives to flat figures in a fantasy landscape, and taking away from them all sense of active life." In Siddal's case, this meant that the promise that she showed as a painter and poet herself went unrealized.

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 laudanam -- 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.

Rossetti lived on for another 20 years. Though they were dominated by remorse, addiction, mental breakdown and attempts to communicate with his wife in séances or to pay tribute to her in poems and paintings (such as "Beata Beatrix"), they also had the comfort of other model-mates, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris. Rossetti died at 52, partially paralyzed and prematurely aged.

Siddal's poems are simple lyrics, often of despair and loss, if not death-in-life -- "Dead Love," "Early Death," "Gone." This is from "Worn Out":

"Thy strong arms are around me, love
My head is on thy breast;
Low words of comfort come from thee
Yet my soul has no rest.

For I am but a startled thing
Nor can I ever be
Aught save a bird whose broken wing
Must fly away from thee ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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