Rossettifest – the Rossettis at Highgate Cemetery with Dinah Roe

Yesterday, I hopped on the train to attend another talk at Highgate cemetery, this time by Dinah Roe, author of The Rossettis In Wonderland: A Victorian Family History. A great chance to meet up with friends and talk about my favourite thing in the world – the wonderful, strange Rossetti family.

Jan Marsh had advice for Dinah when she embarked upon Wonderland: “Be careful not to let Dante Gabriel run away with the story”. Sure enough, DGR Superstar wasn’t centre stage last night. Instead, Dinah focused on those family members interred at Highgate:

  • Mother Frances, who quoted Byron in her commonplace book and wished her children had been born with a little less genius and a little more common sense.
  • Father Gabriele, revolutionary poet, exile, and prime example of how excessive close-reading under the influence of the Freemasons will do you no good.
  • Daughter Christina, the baby of the family, who struggled with feelings of under-achievement. (What hope is there for the rest of us?)
  • Son William, The Dependable One, who made his mark as Pre-Raphaelite chronicler and a respected critic of art and literature.
  • Daughter-in-law Lizzie Siddal, grudgingly accepted into the family, perhaps only after her death.
  • The three Polidori aunts: Eliza, Charlotte, Margaret. Intimidating, witty and tough.

Italian, exiled, religiously and intellectually radical, the two families were always going to encounter suspicion in Victorian England. Viewing themselves as Londoners first and foremost, they tended to close in on themselves for emotional and creative support, creating an intense environment that makes for a fascinating talk in a pseudo-medieaval chapel whilst sheltering from June rain.

What I enjoyed most about Dinah Roe’s talk, and the book, was that she allows space for the family to be tremendously funny and surprising. It’s all too easy to take a High Romance view of the Rossettis, obscuring their wit and affection. These were, after all, the siblings who liked to roll around on the floor, re-enacting violent deaths from the novels of Walter Scott.

Thanks to William chronicling the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s every move, we know that the critics called Dante Gabriel and the other PRBs ‘young gentlemen with animal faculties morbidly developed by too much tobacco and too little exercise’ – which sounds great – or, in other words, ‘unmanly’. Because being feminine is the absolute worst of the worst, obviously. You might as well be some kind of mollusc.

The unmarried Polidori sisters, on the other hand, were comparatively macho. Wearing threadbare unfashionable dresses, striding across decks, appreciating ‘pretty boys’, and healing the wounded alongside Frances Nightingale, these weren’t women content to sit at home and embroider. I shan’t recount all their adventures here, but if you’re in need of an antidote to the Victorian matriarch – read the book.

I was inordinately pleased to hear the Polidoris getting some attention. John Polly-Dolly Polidori, author of The Vampyr and possibly the first man to deliberately hit Lord Byron with an oar*, is a favourite of mine. He must have been the coolest uncle for a romantically-minded bunch like the Rossetti children. This rather fetching portrait hung in the family home. To be reading Shelley as teenagers and knowing their uncle knew him, bickered with him, and eventually shared a similarly sad, early death, must have been yet another reminder that theirs was a very special family indeed.

The highlight of the evening – and I’m about to betray my geekiness here – was the inclusion of three recipes from the family cookbook. Histrionic Gabriele hated English food, so his wife duly replicated Mediterranean dishes for him throughout their marriage: Macaroni soup (containing a mere 2lb of beef), a cheeseless lemon cheesecake allegedly safe to store for six months, and a sugary rum punch Christina called ‘grog’. If I ever feel like adding diabetes to my list of ailments, I’ll give them a go.

Something interesting happened when the floor was opened to questions. A lady asked a question I’d asked Lucinda Hawksley last time: does anyone know what happened to Lizzie and Dante Gabriel’s stillborn baby? I’ve never found the slightest clue. So, if you know what generally happened to stillborn babies in the mid-Victorian period, chime in.

As always, Highgate is the loveliest possible place to gather for a talk. The staff (who now know my boyfriend and I by name – have we been spending too much time there?**) are friendly and sympathetic to the misguided compulsion that sends guests creeping up the steps to the unstable west cemetery, where you’re as likely to stumble upon a Victorian luminary as get brained by a falling tombstone.

It’s always lovely to meet other PRB enthusiasts, and Dinah Roe was no exception. Especially in the rain, when I was glowing under the influence of one too many £1 glasses of Highgate red wine. The Rossettis will have that effect on you.

* See Benjamin Markovits’ Imposture (Byron Trilogy) for a fictionalised account of John’s adventures.

** I have a thing about visiting Highgate in inclement weather. The first time, on a snowy Valentine’s day out, my boyfriend and I managed to get ourselves locked in after twilight closing time. So, on one hand, we had to lurk around the gate and beg a passing couple to alert the gatekeeper, but, on the other, we now get to reminisce about “the time we were locked into a Victorian necropolis…on Valentine’s day. Sigh.”

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Fifth of May is Claret Day!

While I was researching my Masters dissertation on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I was lucky enough to handle his notebooks in the British Library. Tiny little things, like books of stamps, leather-bound, and in my hands. I was delirious. One of the happiest days of my life. All those poem-snippets, the cryptic notes to himself, the fingernail sketches. He felt so close, as if when I went on my break he’d be there in the café to meet me for a cup of tea.

Amongst many sad things and many funny things, this note on one of the 1870s pages caught my eye:

MAY 5 – CLARET

No indication of whether he was referring to wine or just the colour, or why the date was significant. But since then, every year on May the fifth, I’ve bought a cheap bottle of red plonk and enjoyed it in honour of the dear old DGR.

Yes, you have to involve a wombat.

Happy Claret Day!

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Some thoughts on the 150th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death

Yesterday, I travelled to Highgate cemetery for the 150th anniversary of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal’s death.

That morning, Lucinda Hawksley, author of The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, and Jan Marsh, one of the leading lights of Pre-Raphaelite studies, laid lilies on Lizzie’s grave in the west cemetery. Being also the resting place of Christina Rossetti, they chose to read Christina’s In An Artist’s Studio, probably the most telling sonnet ever written about the iconic artist’s model:

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

bookmarks

That evening, in the sub-zero chill, Lucinda Hawksley gave a talk on Lizzie Siddal’s life and sudden death. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (the publisher’s title, not Hawksley’s), there are few better ways to enter the world of The PRB. It’s an entertaining, thoughtful study of a fascinating period of artistic innovation, and, what’s more, it allows Lizzie Siddal the space to stand alone – not as a legend, but as a fully-formed human.

As is often the case with historical women, Lizzie Siddal has always been in danger of being overwhelmed by her own image. Even today, we’re told she simultaneously froze in Millais’ bathtub, killed herself after a blistering row with her husband, and slowly wasted away with Romantic Consumption™. Legend has it, she spent her life quietly enduring victimisation, and (conveniently for a stunner) never decomposed*. It’s saddening to see yet another woman artist and poet reduced to 2D, and it’s an especial problem with the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood. Annie Miller is cast as the foulmouthed slut. Christina Rossetti is the religious one. Lizzie is relegated to a pedestal as The One Who Died. It is for this reason that it was so wonderful to spend yesterday with people who truly care about Lizzie and her legacy.

I first met Lucinda Hawksley a few years ago, while I was dissecting Lizzie’s poetry for my BA dissertation, and I was glad of the opportunity to see her again. She’s a charismatic speaker, and people always leave her talks smiling. Yesterday was no exception. In the newly-renovated Highgate chapel, she opened with the admission that she was glad to be talking about something other than her great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Dickens. With the recent bicentenary of his birth, Hawksley has been the guest-speaker du jour and she feels she’s rather Dickensed us to death. Hawksley’s talks manage to be rollicking fun. She has a way of putting the PRB humour back into what could be dry art history. When talking about Hunt being reviled for painting the holy family as Jewish: “As we know, Mary was from Sweden.”

The evening was full of the lovely anecdotes that flesh Lizzie out as the creative, funny, intelligent woman she was. How she silenced the bullies in her ladies’ art class by turning up in French fashions they could never hope to emulate; how she told ghoulish tales of her childhood neighbour, Mr Greenacre, who was hanged for dismembering his fiance; how she was shrewdly aware of her own image as a romantic figure, and embellished it with heightened depictions of her working-class upbringing. Lucinda Hawksley brings to the fore all those charming human elements of the PRB story that so often get swept away in the myth-making. As silly as it may sound, by the end of the evening, there was a warm sense of shared energy in the room, as if we were being told stories of someone we had all once known and loved.

The talk took place in the newly refurbished chapel, which, until recently, was in dire need of repair. Now, it’s an optimistic, bright space. Highgate is sadly neglected when it comes to funding, relying heavily on volunteers despite being one of the most beautiful places one is ever likely to see. The whole Highgate cemetery area is quiet and green – very ‘un-London’. It’s always a surprise to catch a glimpse of The Gherkin in the polluted horizon. I wonder if Lizzie would be pleased to know her body rests in such a peaceful spot. Christina, I’m sure, would be relieved. “O grave, where is thy victory?”

Although she was at the cemetery in the morning, Jan Marsh wasn’t able to make it to the talk, which is a shame, as I’d love the opportunity to tell her how important her writing has been to me. On a personal note, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is my absolute overwhelming passion. Even after a BA and an MA, with a PhD on the backburner, it’s difficult for me to talk about him and his work without becoming insufferable. I once turned a corner in the Fitzwilliam museum to find Rossetti’s 1882 Joan of Arc, and promptly had to pivot and faint on a bench. (Apparently, Stendhal syndrome does exist). He’s important – I’ll leave it at that.

Was Lizzie’s death a suicide? I’m unconvinced. But moreover, I don’t believe it’s the detail we should fix Lizzie’s life around. Yes, she died young and she died troubled, but she left an indelible imprint on British art and aesthetics. She was a skilled satirist and frequently reduced Algernon ‘sado-masochism’ Swinburne to giggles. She was a quick learner and impressed the major artistic players of the day, not as a novelty, but as a figure in her own right. She delighted in collecting the Oriental china the Aesthetes were so wild about. Her Christian faith was important to her. She was human.

Overall, it was heartening to see so many people gathering together yesterday to honour Lizzie by keeping a more accurate image of her alive, even after all these years. As one of the talk’s organisers reassured me as we prepared to step out into the snow: “We look after her”.

Lizzie

*Turn to the late Ken Russell’s hilarious Dante’s Inferno for zombie-Lizzie rising from her coffin and Oliver Reed as Rossetti scrambling across boulders to escape.

 

The new Highgate Cemetery website is soon to launch, with a list of upcoming events. I highly recommend becoming a member of the society, not only because funding is vital to the cemetery’s survival, but because the newsletters are a taphophile’s dream.

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