Our compliments to your little sweetheart

Guess where I’ll be this time next month…

I’ve got my panama hat, my natty spectacles and the rouge is bleeding down my cheeks. But the boys of Venice are safe. I’m taking two of the British variety with me.

I’m more excited about Poveglia, the abandoned island two miles out into the Lagoon. A  quarantine/burial ground during the black death, it’s practically unvisitable these days, unless you find a very, very nice man with a boat, but even then, it’ll involve parting with quite a wad of Euros. Nowadays, the only inhabitants are packs of dogs running wild in the ruins of the old hospital there.

Poveglia has had a few uses over the centuries, most of them grim. In the ignominious tradition of dumping all our cultural anxieties onto the mentally ill, there are the usual regurgitated stories of rogue doctors throwing themselves off the tower of the psychiatric hospital operating there in the 1920s. TV ghost hunters enjoy telling American viewers how the soil is 50% human ash following the hasty mass burnings in the wake of the plague. Although there is a vineyard. Silver linings.

Deliciously dilapidated, it’s been described as “a great big ball of darkness, death and hauntings”  – picnic time! I’ll take Bonios for the wild doggies.

It’ll be good to get out of the UK. I’ve realised that the editing process is going to be much harder than I expected, and staring at the same pages every day is getting me down. The wet weather has been playing havoc with my knees – thanks, Marfans – so some sunshine wouldn’t go amiss.

Share Button

Did Dickens snub my uncle?

I have difficulty with Dickens.

I acknowledge the fact that he’s arguably the supreme symbol of the Victorian age I love so much, and yes, I adore his description of Miss Havisham’s rotting wedding cake. Say ‘speckled-legged spiders’ out loud. It’s beautiful. There are many things to like about Dickens, and I know it. But…

1) He was catty towards the Pre-Raphaelites and then retracted his statements as soon as they were popular, in that “I was at all their early gigs” way. Millais may have forgiven him, but I never will.

And 2) My parents took me to Dickens’ house in Portsmouth when I was small. Dad had me sit on the deathbed.* There was a big rip in the upholstery with the stuffing pouring out like guts, and I remember being convinced that Dickens had died thrashing and tearing at the velvet with his fingernails like some hairy roaring beast. Worse was the fact that the courtyard outside the room had recently suffered some kind of paint spillage. Nice, wet red paint. To this day, I have to remind myself during cosy Christmas BBC productions of Great Expectations that no, Charles did not throw himself out of any windows.

I don’t hate him, or especially dislike him. I just have trouble with him. And it turns out, my beef with Dickens may run in my family.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Quackery

While my favourite Victorians painted and wrote and exhumed their dead wives, my great-great-great uncle made his fortune selling pills and ointments and then advertising to the point that there were few countries in which you could avoid him. ‘Professor’ Thomas Holloway (although he was as much as professor as I am a raccoon) was a businessman who never missed a trick, a man of strong opinions. It was said that “millions who have never heard of Napoleon … have heard of Holloway”.

We Holloways are generally seafaring people. My dad spent 35 years in the Navy, his granddad did, and his dad in turn. During the eighteenth century, there was a patch in which thirteen of us had a go at petty crime and ended up being deported to Australia. On the same ship. So yes, we’re very nautical. Not so Thomas Holloway. Growing up in a Penzance pub, Thomas began concocting general-purpose ointments in the family kitchen in the late 1830s. Thirty years later, he was a multi-millionaire and living on a 72-acre estate that would later belong to John Lennon.

Like Dickens, Holloway rose to become one of the Victorian leviathans. Until recently, I had no idea whether the pair met, or even took much notice of each other. So I’m grateful to my friend Thora for pointing me to this article on The Quack Doctor detailing an amusing alleged incident between Holloway and Dickens…

The Professor, audacious in pursuit of a deal, supposedly sent a substantial cheque to Dickens in the hope of persuading him to highlight his ointments and pills in Dickens’ next novel. Product placement. What followed was a bitchy rebuff from one Enormous Victorian to another. It’s a brilliant piece of gossip, and I recommend you go and read it.

May Contain Traces of Nothing

I have a small collection of Holloway’s ceramic ointment pots and advertisements. They promise ‘all good nurses’ rely on Holloway’s products, which is just as well, as his pills promised to cure everything from bronchitis to gout, period pain  to fistulas. These were the days before advertising standards, when you could legitimately publish an ad asking DO YOU WANT YOUR CHILDREN TO DIE?

Thomas Holloway’s advertising was ruthless. If he were alive today, he’d be the mastermind behind those impossible-to-avoid “lose 2st with this implausible old tip” ads. Dickens commented on this in Household Words, joking at how terrible it would be to have psychological baggage attached to pills and ointments – Holloway’s posters were so ubiquitous, the victim would never escape their torment.

The trouble with Holloway is that, like Dickens, I don’t know how to feel about him. I admire his rise through society, but the medicine itself was pure fluff. Being a chronic invalid myself, I can’t shake the suspicion that The Professor brought down a karmic curse upon the family after all those years of fooling nannies into feeding their poorly charges something about as nutritious as Smarties. Deciding whether he was a goodie or a baddie all hinges on whether or not he knew it was fluff, and, unfortunately, he did.

It’s like that episode of Armstrong and Miller where Armstrong goes on Who Do You Think You Are?, and it turns out that each and every one of his ancestors were whores.

Although Thomas was aware his medicine was fluff, he claimed that the hundreds of letters he received from happy customers were all he needed in the way of proof he was doing good. His understanding of the placebo effect was pretty advanced, and he seemed never to view his customers as chumps.

So not dastardly exactly. She says. Hopefully.

As a philanthropist, at least, he was a good egg. He gave around one million pounds to charity and founded the uber-gothic Royal Holloway College for women which one of these days I’ll get around to claiming as my ancestral home. Considering it took until 1948 for Cambridge to grant full degrees to women, that was quite a progressive decision on face value.

But that’s all business. On a human level, he’s hard to pin down. As someone who deals in fiction, achievements don’t mean as much to me as characteristics. I have only snippets, like how, in the early days, he and his assistant would celebrate making a new batch of pills by having a good sing-song. His personal motto was “nil desperandum”. He worked hard, even on Christmas Day. From the few personal letters I’ve read, I can certainly say he was funny, but tending towards the melancholy. Like the rest of us Holloways, he was over six feet tall. He had a magnificent quiff.

This Isn’t Over, Charles

So did the snub actually happen? Leslie Katz’ paper “Dickens and Product Placement: Did He Refuse an Offer from ‘Professor’ Holloway?” concludes ‘probably not’. The story came from notorious fibber and owner of the gossip paper The World, Edmund Yates (What? A Victorian? Making something up?) after both parties had died. Although it’s a stunt The Professor was forward enough to try, there’s no proof that he did.

Which is a shame, as The Professor could be pretty catty himself, and the fallout would have been hilarious. Paraphrasing his estimation of William Makepeace Thackeray:

“That Mr. Dickens may think himself a very clever man; but I fancy that I could buy him up, ten times over.”



* Come to think of it, I doubt I sat on it. But in my traumatic memory, I was basically made to rub my face on Dickens’ hairy death-sofa.


The pictures: At an antiques market, I came across the satirical poster shown above. The coin (a gift token) is stamped with Thomas’ bequiffed profile and was a present from my dad.

Share Button

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.


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”.


*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.

Share Button