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.