A coffin full of copper hair

Elizabeth Siddal may have had a greater talent and potential than all the her male counterparts.  While alive Siddal was buried beneath her gender, addiction and crushed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘s perpetual rejections during their ten-year engagement.  Any spark of illuminating the truth and nature of her abilities were extinguished at 32 by her own hand.  Weakened by years of illness, emotional strain and the tragedy of a still born daughter she overdosed on laudanum.  Her suicide note is thought to have been burned by Rossetti to avoid scandal and to assure her a Christian burial.

The loss of his wife seemed to make him, for a time, hopelessly grief ridden.   He had caused her undue suffering by not securing a future for her for such an extended time, numerous infidelities and by taking a new muse for his art as well.  Maybe the fact that he only seemed to condescend to marry Elizabeth when he thought she was dying gave him pause.  He laid her body out in her coffin for seven days to be certain there were no signs of life before her burial.  So deep was his sadness at the time, that he buried his only copy of his complete works of poetry with Elizabeth.

All this may be common enough knowledge and maybe the fact that Rossetti changed his mind seven years later and exhumed his poetry and his wife are well-known.  I did not know that he hadn’t the courage to be there and was even superstitious about it.  Those who were in attendance at the exhumation stated Elizabeth Siddal seemed untouched by death and showed little if any corruption of body.  The paper of the book was worm-eaten but the poetry itself remained untouched.  And most extraordinary of all was that Elizabeth’s copper hair was said to have grown to such an extent it filled the coffin.

Was it a reprieve from Elizabeth?  The preservation of a dream, the poetry and muse flourished even after death.  Some sign of forgiveness to the man she loved too well?  Rossetti has become a revered as a master artist and poet.  His dream was realized and fulfilled beyond his knowing.  Or was there a meaning in all this mystery only they two knew and shared.  Rossetti was never the same after the reclamation of the book.  He fell into a life of addiction and depression.  He never again found a heart that loved him as well as Elizabeth’s and broke all friendships from that time of art and discovery.  He became reclusive and brooding some lend the act of retrieving his poetry as the impetus of his decent into insanity.

It’s easy to have a romantic view of Elizabeth Siddal who inspired some of the world’s most romantic art.  An early death and a woman wronged are all classic and tragic themes. Biographies suggest a much more complex person and reveal the real woman.  A woman with an addiction to opium and longing for the security thwarted by her stormy relationship with Rossetti.  A deeply talented woman who refused patronage when her artistic freedom was compromised.  A woman who longed for children and was denied the privilege.  A depressive nature and tempestuous personality that may have been very hard to live with.  Which makes Rossetti seeking solace in affairs, if not completely forgivable, understandable.

All the creative energy that was extinguished seems to have burst forth in death.  Her beautiful hair surrounding her and filling her coffin in copper-colored splendor. All this may be legend and the facts are probably more in line with papers being covered by her hair and decaying body.  The notorious blackmailer Charles Augustus Howell is the one who had talked Rossetti into getting the poetry and was at the exhumation.  Howell’s involvement and maneuvering in disturbing Siddal’s grave and fate were immortalized in a poem by David Lewis Paget:

The book was caught in her tangled hair
Which had filled the coffin’s space,
And she was lovely, and quite serene
As they lifted the book from her face,
They lowered her gently, back in the ground
That had served as her awful tomb,
She lay defiled like a bride, reviled,
But without her lawful groom.

Rossetti published his poems then,
They sold by the thousandfold,
For Howell had leaked the story out
That he hadn’t wanted told;
But a fate awaited Augustus Howell
A revenge that would beggar belief,
He was found, throat cut in the gutter –
With a coin, tight clenched in his teeth!

It is good to see that Elizabeth Siddal has an increasing following that is devoted to her.  Her story is one worth knowing and the coffin in Highgate Cemetery may still hold the riches of her ever growing red hair.  Maybe one day hair will surface and bloom like poppies the shade of the Beata Beatrix dove and start a whole new mythology that will trump the Highgate vampire.


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