• Lizzie's Bathtub


       A hot day. Humid. Leech air … sapping the blood. And I watch cool Ophelia float past, her mouth open as if gasping at the thrill of chill water. The river? stream? bluish in the foreground, bearing her up.

       And I picture Millais hesitate (despite his hours copying from nature) - which colours, to evoke the mystery of those depths? Something murky enough to banish the bathos of the bathtub where his model lies, rigid and stark, shivering almost to death, the candles used for warming her bathwater having flickered out.

       Perhaps that’s the real reason young PRB Johnny painted Lizzie Siddal with her mouth open. The stunner’s teeth were chattering so much, she couldn’t help herself. Even if her arms, legs and torso were dutifully stiff as rigor mortis, those clickety-click molars betrayed any pretensions to professional elan. And if as rumour had it, Lizzie Siddal in fact nearly caught her death with pneumonia while posing in cold bathwater, it only proved she was the stuff of dreams. Not the sterner stuff, flesh and blood, of which real women are made.

       One man’s dream. Hardly Millais’s, who went on to paint Bubbles and Jersey Lilys. But a man whose own name was the stuff of legends: Dante. Gabriel.

       Rossetti snatching Lizzie from under Millais’s nose, even if not in time to save her from the effects of that accursed bathtub.  

       As she filled his dream, Christina Rossetti wrote of her brother’s obsession with red-haired Lizzie. And there you have it. The crux of the matter. His dream. Sadly a dream into which she couldn’t melt like Porphyro. Leaving us with the perplexed riddle, still unsolved. How does the dream free itself of the dreamer?

       Some charge that Lizzie, along with the others: the Janes, the Fannys, the Emmas and Alexas are too supine, too doomed, too erotically brooding; too stripped of their own souls to lead us anywhere other than the dead end of a Hades. Surely women, shaking off the shackles of centuries, should run for the hills, not the deep dark underworlds where Rossetti and his kind profess to find us.

       And yet, we 21st century females continue to line our walls with those images: Proserpine in snaky blue-greens. The Lady of Shalott, like Ophelia destined for a watery grave, still triumphantly beautiful, hair and robes flowing much like that of  her painted sisters.

       So what are we to make of our dilemma! Are we captivated in the image, as Lacan would have it, of those Victorian stunners? Lured by their siren call that it’s only in exquisitely costumed death we can be beautiful? Or is our spellbound gaze to be deflected by the accusation that male artists sought in these female others an alibi, a belated chivalric pretence that all was right in the world of nineteenth century sexual politics. The walls of the palace of art, ablaze with beauty, turning the voyeuristic gaze away from those workhouse and whorehouse walls scored with blood.

       Perhaps. And yet. We haven’t considered. Really puzzled it out. Can the dream divest itself of the dreamer?

       I go on looking at Lizzie’s Ophelia. Lizzie’s, or should I say Johnny’s? Or mine. My silver-framed poster hung on my matt white wall. I know her fate. The fate of the real woman, that is. She died, of course. By her own hand they say. Laudanum and all that. Melodrama. She had been Rossetti’s flavour of the month until another became one. And it wasn’t until a posthumous fate resurrected her fame around the middle of the twentieth century, much as her corpse was disinterred at Highgate in the middle of the nineteenth, that she acquired a kind of balefully beautiful immortality.

       They say her corpse wasn’t waterlogged. Her dead beauty was perfection. Lizzie’s that is, not Ophelia’s. Nails pointed, hair glorious - flaming hair, red as the fires of hell. But the grave gaped. And that night, when she came to Rossetti in yet another dream, her final resting place assumed the lineaments of a bathtub.

  • The Red Sleeve: An Arthurian Romance

    My latest novel, The Red Sleeve, is a reworking of the Maid of Astolat  episode from Malory's 'Morte D'Artur'; a medieval romance of unrequited love which obsessed the Victorian psyche; most notably in Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelite influenced paintings of artists such as Waterhouse.  

    My own take on the story, predicated on a quest for the origins of the romance hero, re-adapts the dynamics of the tale, positioning Launcelot, the original knight in shining armour, as the narrative focaliser.  Malory's fiction, with its teleological thrust, is less concerned with what a character thinks and feels than what she/he does.  Thus the conflict between Launcelot's public role as the queen's champion and his transgressive private persona as her lover is played out in the political arena, eschewing exploration of the inner demons of desire.

    It's these inner demons which fascinated me. Like so many Romance heroes, Launcelot is a flawed hero. Betraying Arthur, his closest friend and liege lord, not only marks him as a traitor, but inevitably opens up a gap in Malory's original narrative in which to allow for the play of guilt.  And even in his treachery Launcelot is impelled by a code of chivalry demanding fidelity and service to the beloved.  Thus his public disavowals of any adulterous relations between himself and the queen are primarily to protect her reputation.  So in a sense he is a liar and a cheat in the service of a noble cause; that of saving the queen from slander.  But we mustn't forget that he is also a hero in the more traditional sense of valour;  literally riding to the rescue to save Guenevere's  life when she is finally condemnned for breaking her marriage vows to the king. 

    And yet ...

    In the end we're not quite convinced either by Launcelot's protestations of fidelity to the queen, or the motivations behind his martial role as her champion.   Always ready to fall into all the traps beauty sets, throughout the 'Morte D'Artur' Launcelot finds himself bedding other women.  And his excuses?  Those of any cheap Saturday night  seducer:  The woman trapped him.  How?  Why, with a love potion ... translate that for booze or drugs if you want the contemporary version!

    And isn't our hero always a little too ready to show off his prowess!  Even slaying close friends whom he apparently fails to recognise in the fury of battle.  Adding the sin of pride to his catalogue of venalities.

    Finally, Malory too finds the whole chivalrous knight template wanting.  It's Galahad, our hero's son, who's allowed to achieve the glory of the Grail.  And for all his exertions, Launcelot doesn't get the girl;  ending his mortal life a hermit, complete with ashes and sackcloth, not a glint of armour shining.

  • Lady Macbeth's Tale

    Lady Macbeth’s rapid trajectory from dominatrix to hysteric poses the question: just what was her problem? Her hounding of her husband to commit murder appears to be predicated on skewed notions of masculinity. Thus she taunts Macbeth to prove he is a man through an act of regicide. In fact, her greatest vitriol is reserved for what she perceives as her husband’s lack of manliness. But why is she so consumed with scorn when Macbeth hesitates to murder their kinsman and guest, King Duncan? Of course, Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt as to her ambition. But surely her demasculating jibes have a far murkier motivation? However, the swift pace of the play means that the ‘back story’ of the main characters happens offstage. And we are left to hazard breathless guesses at the sexual dynamics of their marriage. Intrigued by what Shakespeare left out – the source of Lady Macbeth’s personal demons – I followed my own quest to find the answer in writing Lady Macbeth’s Tale. Right from the start, I sensed that those vituperative interrogations of her husband’s masculinity could only have sprung from a primal sense of disappointment. Disappointment in men! And it is this profound rage against the first man in her life who had let her down which drives Lady M, not that much vaunted ambition. A disappointed daddy’s girl! Looking to the one man who could save her from the turmoil of eleventh century power politics, in which she finds herself a pawn, she discovers only weakness. Her royal father abandons her to fate in a warring kingdom. Yet still she hasn’t learned the lesson that a man can’t save her. And so like many a heroine – or should I say anti-heroine? – who would follow her over the next five hundred years of so of fiction, Lady Macbeth’s problem was that all along she longed for a hero – not a husband! 

  • Porphyria's Lover

    Browning’s perverse meditation on sexual desire sees Thanatos triumph over Eros. Or does it? As the febrile narrator of Porphyria’s Lover strangles his lover with her own long hair, in the ultimate act of possession, he must confront the irony of having lost the object of his desire at the very moment of fulfilment. Because his sexual mastery of his lover means her erasure. And of course, pre-Freud, Browning intimates that desire itself is nothing more nor less than a taunting demon. One of those hounds of hell leading lovers unwittingly towards a deep damnation. Or as Browning puts it more succinctly elsewhere ‘ … a man’s reach must exceed his grasp …’ And that grasp – reaching for nothing more nor less than the ghosts of Freud’s family romance – is doomed to clutch at thin air. What desire can never know, is that it seeks a spectre. So the necrophiliac narrator of Browning’s poem, having eliminated the object of desire, will be doomed to reincarnate her in yet another elusive love object. And as God remains silent in the face of murder itself within the poem, we can be sure that eros, erotic adventure, will urge the narrator on to enact yet further scenarios of sexual possession. In other words, desire never dies. It was this ultimate irony at the heart of Browning’s poem which led me to explore the notion of desire always being in excess of the object of its attentions. Of desire’s deathlessness. I wanted to literalise those ghosts of family romance. So I chose the setting of a spiritualist bordello for my novel inspired by Browning’s Poem. My novel, Porphyria’s Lover, originally published by Simon and Schuster, sees Gabriel Feaver: actor, seducer and master of ceremonies at The Resurrectionist Club, join in an uncanny alliance with whore, Kathleen Mangan, to take on the worlds of Victorian sexuality and spirituality, in a bid to make their fortunes. But they soon find that faking love and disinterring dead passions, has haunting consequences they could never have imagined …