Elizabeth Siddal’s Grave
Elizabeth Siddal was an artist and a model, who posed for many of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A mystery arose following her death, as her grave in Highgate Cemetery was opened and her body, though dead for seven years, was said not to have decomposed at all, which has even led to speculation in some quarters that she was undead.
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (she later dropped the second ‘l’) was born on 25 July 1829 at 7 Charles Street, Hatton Garden and she grew up in Southwark. At the age of twenty she was working in Cranbourne Alley, London at Mrs Tozer’s millinery when she was discovered by the artist Walter Howell Deverell (1827–1854) who persuaded her to model for him. Through Deverell she was introduced to the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Pictured here in Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1852). She was described once as being “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.”
She became the muse for Dante Gabriel Rossetti who she married in Hastings on 23 May 1860 after returning from the continent where she had been recuperating. Lizzie was addicted to laudanum; possibly anorexic; depressed and was plagued with ill health which has been the cause of some speculation over for years. Suggestions have ranged from tuberculosis to gastroenteritis. In 1861 she had a miscarriage and their daughter was stillborn. Shortly after becoming pregnant for the second time, she was discovered dying and unconscious on her bed by Rossetti. She died on 11 February 1862.
She had overdosed on laudanum and an inquest held the day after her death ruled that it was accidental. ‘Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti being a female of the age of twenty-nine years and the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti an artist on the tenth day of February at Chatham Place in the said Precinct and City Accidentally took an overdose of Laudanum by means whereof she the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti then and there became mortally sick and distempered in her Body of which said mortal sickness and distemper and of the Laudanum aforesaid so by her accidentally taken as aforesaid she the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti on the Eleventh day of February in the year aforesaid at Chatham Place aforesaid did die And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their Oaths aforesaid do say that the said Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti in the manner and by the means aforesaid Accidentally and casually and by misfortune came to her death’
It has been speculated that Rossetti found a suicide note with his wife, but destroyed it to ensure she could receive a Christian burial and avoid a public scandal. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Dante, stricken with grief and wanting to express his love for Elizabeth, took his notebook and placed it in her red hair before the coffin was sealed. It is for this notebook that the body of Elizabeth was exhumed seven years later as it contained the only copies of this poems.
The exhumation of her body was to haunt Rossetti for the rest of his life. By 1869 he was fighting drug addiction (chloral mixed with whiskey) and the popularity of his work was diminishing. His literary agent, Charles Augustus Howell (born 10 March 1840 – died 21 April 1890) finally persuaded Rossetti to allow him to exhume Elizabeth’s body so that he could retrieve the lost book of love poetry and hopefully rekindle Dante’s career.
Dante did not attend the exhumation which he insisted must be done in secret. Howell therefore arrange for it to be done late at night. Some descriptions say a fire was lit to illuminate the work as they opened her coffin. According to Howell, even though she had been dead and buried for seven years, there was no trace of decomposition. She was perfectly preserved and her famous red hair was even said to have continued to grow after death and she appeared as if she was asleep.
The notes were retrieved and according to one source they were disinfected and dried by a physician. Another source mentions a hole in the notebook created by a worm that had eaten through it. Given the condition of the notes, it is hard to believe that Elizabeth showed no outward sign of decomposition.
I think we have to question the reliability of Howell as a witness and assess his motivations. Describing Elizabeth to Rossetti in such a way to put his mind at ease would have been beneficial, especially since the exhumation upset the artist so much.
Howell is looked upon as having been dishonest. He was a reputed blackmailer and even allegedly arranged the creation of some fake Rossetti drawings. He was described as “a base, treacherous, unscrupulous and malignent fellow” by Edward Burne-Jones and “the vilest wretch I ever came across” by Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Howell was found dead near a pub in Chelsea with his throat slit open and a 10 shilling coin in his mouth, which probably says something about his character.
So did Elizabeth Siddal’s body defy natural law after death, or did Howell lie to save the sanity of Dante and perhaps create a legend that would help sell the artists work?