It’s 1850, London.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal is a young seamstress sewing bonnets in a millinery, and at times shopgirl for the establishment where she works. A chance encounter with a young American painter named Walter Deverell, puts Ms. Siddal on her path to destiny and ultimately immortality, for while posing as a model for a Deverell’s painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, becomes besotted, and makes her his muse in painting and poetry; thus beginning a tumultuous relationship that will last for the rest of her life. Not only Deverell’s and Rossetti’s works were inspired by Lizzie Siddal; she became Hamlet’s Ophelia in the famous painting by John Everett Millais, also co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
I thought that Rodin and Camille Claudell’s relationship, as depicted in Rodin’s Lover, which I read earlier this year, had taken the cake for a tempestuous love affair, but apparently I was wrong. Lizzie Siddal and Rossetti’s affair is the ultimate testimony of two people that are destined to bring the best (and the worst) in each other.
Love, loss of it, taking advantage of a less privileged person without intending to fulfilling promises, bouts of illness, manipulation, distortion of self and body image, drug abuse…This affair had it all, and probably the best thing come from all this suffering was the art created by the duo during their years of courtship. I became so repelled by Dante Rossetti’s lies that every time he started to make promises I felt like screaming to the book: “No, don’t listen. He doesn’t mean it!” But do characters listen? Never, so Lizzie kept falling ill and listening to promises that weren’t meant to be fulfilled. I just had to get that out of my system!
Rita Cameron did her research and it shows, because she was very meticulous with her depictions of art and character sketches. I formed a negative opinion of Dante G. Rossetti, but I think it had more to do with my life experiences than the author’s intention to depict him as “less than a gentleman”. Lizzie was trapped in a relationship limbo because of the role women played in society. Rossetti saw marriage as the end of creative freedom and worldly pleasures. Both were right; they just expressed it in a destructive manner.
If you want to imagine how all may have happened, then read this book. Otherwise you can save yourself the heartache and the madness and head to Wikipedia. I did both and felt richer for it.