You have fascinated me since I was a teenager when posters of your long flowing hair and robes and air of romantic tragedy graced my bedroom wall. I am not alone. When I reveal my nom-de-net, nearly everyone has an opinion about you, indeed a number of authors have said that they are considering writing a novel about you. You see, you still have it! You remain a muse!
But what is the secret of your longevity? You were young and beautiful. You fell in love with a man who idolised you. He turned you into arguably the world’s first supermodel. But he would not marry you. He eventually made an honest woman of you but the stress of the troubled relationship and your jealousy of the other pre-raphaelite models led to a laudunum addiction. This spiralled into overdose following the death of your only child. Your grief-stricken husband buried you with the only copy of his love poems; an action he later regretted and he later desecrated your grave to reclaim them. We have to ask, is your legend founded purely on the sympathy vote?
Jan Marsh is the undisputed expert in this matter and I was delighted when her book, originally published in 1989 was revised and republished following the transmission of the BBC series, Desperate Romantics. Enjoyable as that was, I urge anyone who is acquainted with the Lizzie of that series to pick up this book to assess for themselves whether you were as liberated as you were portrayed to be. Indeed, while the world may think badly of Rossetti for his actions after your death, was he really that disloyal and unfaithful to you prior to it?
Jan Marsh charts the history of your legend from the discovery of the “stupendously beautiful creature” by Walter Deverell through to today. Perhaps it’s the lack of the story in your own words that’s the key but your legend has been frequently re-shaped to fit the politics of the times. Were you a real-life Orphelia, of necessity sacrificed to the altar of art? What difference does it make whether you died accidently or by design? How did you come to be perceived as a Sixties swinger or even an emergent feminist in the Eighties?
The book is as fascinating a cultural analysis of the 20th century as it is of you, Lizzie, and, as such is an academic work, to be read slowly chapter by chapter. That said, you do eventually emerge as flesh and blood in your own right in the final chapters which analyse your own paintings and verse. It’s clear your beauty, brains and talent brought you to the notice of the one who made and broke you …. the seeds of success sowing your ultimate self(?)-destruction.
While not exactly Shakespearean, it is the stuff of legend and will ensure that you live on, while your corporeal remains rest hopefully at peace now, in Highgate Cemetery.
I hope to visit you one day.