Elizabeth Siddall: pre-Raphaelites’ muse finally gets her own voice, 150 years after death

Best known as the model for Millais’ much loved Ophelia painting, a new book hopes to foreground her own work as a poet

Her pale face floating amongst the reeds, Elizabeth Siddall is best remembered as the pre-Raphaelite muse depicted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais, and as the wife and muse of artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But the 19th-century icon was a poet in her own right, and her haunting writing is set to be published for the first time in accord with her original manuscripts, more than 150 years after her death.

Siddall was “discovered” in 1849 while working in a milliners’ shop, aged around 20, by the artist Walter Deverell. Deverell introduced her to the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and she sat as a model for various members of the group, including Rossetti, whom she would later marry. She became an artist herself, with John Ruskin as her patron, but suffered from continuous ill health, enduring a still birth and a later miscarriage before taking an overdose of laudanum and dying at home in 1862. The grieving Rossetti buried many of his own unpublished poems along with her body, later exhuming her so he could recover them.

Memorialised by her husband in his painting Beata Beatrix, and in countless other works, she is, according to Dr Serena Trowbridge, a woman who “has come to be represented purely by her face”. But Trowbridge, a senior lecturer in English literature at Birmingham City University, hopes her forthcoming book, My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, which features some of Siddall’s best-known work along with fragments of previously unseen poems, will prompt a reassessment of Siddall as a poet.

I care not for my Ladys soul
Though I worship before her smile
I care not wheres my Ladys goal
When her beauty shall [lose its wile]

Low sit I down at my Ladys 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 art in Heaven:
Though for joy in my heart wild 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?

Siddall’s writing was not published during her lifetime. Previous editions of her work were edited by her brother-in-law, William Rossetti, who changed her grammar and “removed elements which he deemed to be too personal or too sad”, according to Trowbridge, who believes the work now deserves to stand as it was originally written.

“For too long, Siddall has been seen as the face of the pre-Raphaelite painters, the muse and wife of Dante Rossetti, and the model for Millais’ Ophelia. I’m really happy to be able to show her as a creative woman in her own right,” said Trowbridge.

Raised in a poor family, Siddall’s education in poetry came from reading Tennyson, Blake, Shakespeare and Walter Scott, said Trowbridge. “Her own authentic voice is clear in her poems, and I really hope that this book will encourage others to read her poetry and to research it further.”

A portrait of Elizabeth Siddall in a chair, by her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
A portrait sketch of Siddall by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photograph: Alamy

Trowbridge scoured Siddall’s manuscripts at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to put her book together. “Her face is much more famous than her creative work, and I wanted to give her a chance to speak … When I saw the manuscripts in the Ashmolean I was in tears – it was amazing to be able to see her own words in her own writing, and I felt that this was a great opportunity to produce a full edition of the poems exactly as she wrote them,” she said.

Trowbridge said there were many versions of Siddall’s poems in the Ashmolean, showing her thought processes as she substituted words and changed lines around.

“What she writes shows she understands how words work, how form and scansion affect a poem,” she said. “What the manuscripts contain is unpolished, though, and as the multiple versions indicate, some of these are probably unfinished.”

My Ladys Soul will be published by independent publisher Victorian Secrets later this month. It draws its title from the poem “I care not for my Ladys soul”, retaining Siddall’s missed apostrophe. That poem depicts a man who loves a woman only for her beauty. When it is gone, he will move on: “Low sit I down at my Ladys feet/ Gazing through her wild eyes, / Smiling to think how my love will fleet / When their starlike beauty dies”. Biographers consider it a representation of the relationship between Siddall and her husband; Trowbridge points out that in the last two lines, the beautiful, passive woman becomes active: “Will any hearken if she cries / Up to the unknown lands?”

Siddall’s poetry shares “themes and images” with the work of her sister-in-law, the better-known poet Christina Rossetti, said Trowbridge: “voicing the silenced woman, greenness as a contrast for sadness, the regenerative power of nature, hope for a better life to come”.

The academic hopes the new collection, the first since 1978, will “encourage readers to view Siddall as a creative woman in her own right”.

“I think her own work has always been overshadowed by paintings of her, and of course the work of women pre-Raphaelites in all areas has always been seen as second to the men,” she said. “I wonder if her poetry has not been taken seriously by scholars because it’s always been read as autobiographical, so it’s often seen as ‘evidence’ rather than art.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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