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Rossetti, The Sleeper (1846-1847, British Museum)

On the evening of 10th February 1862 Lizzie, wearing a new cloak, had accompanied Rossetti and Swinburne to the Sablonière Hotel, Leicester Square, where they had dined early. She had seemed drowsy in the cab on the way but refused Gabriel’s offer to take her home. During dinner her mood had fluctuated; she had seemed excitable, chaffing Swinburne who delighted in her company and was one of her few friends. Since Rossetti was teaching that evening at the Working Men’s College, he and Lizzie returned early to Chatham Place where she made preparations for bed while he went out to take his class.

Returning two hours later he found his wife dying. Beside her on a table was an empty phial which had contained laudanum and pinned to her nightgown a message – not one of farewell to her but a petition on behalf of her afflicted brother: ‘Take care of Harry’, it read. No surer evidence was needed that this was suicide. Rossetti snatched up the tell-tale paper before the arrival of the doctor and, leaving Lizzie in the care of the doctor and of her sister, urgently brought from the Old Kent Road, he hastened to Kentish Town to knock up the faithful Madox Brown. There he showed him the scribbled message which Brown took and burnt before they hurried back to Blackfriars. Overwhelmed with despair and unable to believe that nothing more could be done. Rossetti called in three further doctors but Lizzie was beyond help. She died soon after seven o’clock on the morning of 11th February; a verdict of accidental death was recorded.

Twenty years later, nearing his own death, Rossetti would still speak of how remose for his failure of affection had haunted him since that time.

As much as in a hundred years she’s dead

Yet is to-day the day on which she died

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Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Seating in Chair (1854, British Museum)

This extract is taken from Virginia Surtees’, Rossetti’s Portraits of Elizabeth Siddal A catalogue of the drawings and watercolours (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1991), pg.  10 and 11.

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