Though few people know the name of Elizabeth Siddal, many have seen her likeness. As a reluctant painter’s model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Siddal’s image became famous when she posed as the title character of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (see book cover). In the new book by Rita Cameron, Ophelia’s Muse, Siddal’s factual life is intertwined with a fictional account of how her life may have progressed from milliner’s assistant to the tragic figure and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In Ophelia’s Muse, Cameron makes sure to emphasize the importance of class structure and a woman’s virtue to Victorian Society. Though Siddal’s family was once wealthy, her father now must make his living sharpening knives while his children work to help support the family. Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she is more often called, works long days and nights putting the finishing touches on bonnets for the ladies of society. After an altercation walking home one night, she finds herself under the gaze of the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. While they do not meet that evening, Rossetti feels he is destined to find her again. Though she fears for her reputation, when the son of a wealthy family asks Lizzie to pose as Viola from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lizzie finds the money too hard to pass up for her family. She has been made assurances that her reputation will be kept in tact as her participation will mostly be kept a secret. It is during this time that she accidentally locks eyes with Rossetti. She in turn poses for Rossetti and quickly finds herself swept up into a tumultuous affair with a man who cannot remain loyal to anyone.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not painted in the most alluring light in Ophelia’s Muse, but the depiction seems fairly accurate to what has been recorded of history. In short, Rossetti had a very difficult time keeping his little paintbrush in his pants and was often found cavorting with his models. Lizzie Siddal suffered greatly when her reputation was tarnished by their living together before marriage for many years and her illnesses and addiction to Ladnum made it only a matter of time before her body gave out. While the book follows the belief that she likely poisoned herself intentionally, it also makes allowances for the group of historians who feel it was just an eventual death due to her addictions.
Ophelia’s Muse alternates between wickedly beautiful prose and tormenting passages where the reader can see what’s going to happen to Lizzie and yet is unable to fight her fate. Cameron includes famous figures from the time period, such as William Holman Hunt and Christina Rossetti, as well as carefully includes the gossip of the day and details found in history books. She most certainly takes a few liberties with dialogue, but is far more accurate than BBC’s Desperate Romantics series from a few years back.
Ophelia’s Muse, like Lizzie Siddal’s life and death, is beautiful, poignant and tragic. This may be Rita Cameron’s first book, but I highly hope it will not be her last.
You may find Ophelia’s Muse on Amazon