This is a transcript of a letter sent by Rossetti to his friend Swinburne, some weeks after Lizzie Siddal’s body had been exhumed from her grave in order that his poetry manuscript could be retrieved. Rossetti didn’t attend this ghoulish ceremony, sending his friend Charles Augustus Howell in his place.
This letter, from the Ashley Collection at the British Library, was perhaps sent with some fear that the story was beginning to be known, perhaps out of guilt, or perhaps with some desperate desire to hear words of solace and forgiveness, some of which Rossetti attempts to give himself, as you will see. Ford Madox Brown, William Bell Scott, William Rossetti and Jane Morris were all informed of the event, and were generally supportive. Rossetti also tells us that William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones had learned of the affair (via Howell) but it is not really clear when Rossetti’s mother and his sisters, Maria and Christina, learnt of the ghastly event which they no doubt regarded as desecration of their father’s grave (if not Lizzie’s).
The letter has a strange tone of hope mixed with desperation to it.
My dear Swinburne
I want to tell you something lest you should hear it first from any one else. It is that I have recovered my old book of poems. Friends had long hinted such a possibility to me but it was only just lately I made up my mind to it. I hope you will think none the worse of my feeling for the memory of one for whom I know you had a true regard. The truth is, that no one so much as herself would have approved of my doing this. [A little scribble here]. Art was the only thing which she felt very seriously. Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book on my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave, no other hand would have been needed.
The thing was done a few weeks ago. Of course I could not have seen to it myself, but Howell (whose pressure / purpose on the subject it was that prevailed with me) took the charge of the matter. The book was in a bad state, but I have recovered and copied every word of the poems I wanted. The matter was of a less dreadful nature than might have seemed possible. Indeed, had not I received medical assurance that all in the coffin would probably be [crossed out word with a word written above] perfect (as it proved to be) I should not have had the courage to make the attempt.
You are the only person to whom I have yet told this except my brother, & Scott, & Brown. I find Morris and Ned Jones have heard of it through Howell, (else I should have told them too at some moment.)
I had rather write you word before I see you. Perhaps after all it was hardly worth while but the conflicting states of mind [scribble] one passes through about work are among the things which most need making allowances for.
Your affectionate friend
D G Rossetti
Copyright lies with the British Library.