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  • “Strong Traivelling”:Re-visions of Women’s Subjectivity and Female Labor in the Ballad-work of Elizabeth Siddal
  • Jill R. Ehnenn (bio)

Elizabeth Siddal’s work as a painter and poet has been eclipsed by the fame attributed to her face and her misfortune. Apocryphal tales of the beautiful Pre-Raphaelite model recount many of her ill-fated life events: her pneumonia, contracted while posing in a bathtub for Millais’s Ophelia; her unhappy relationship with D. G. Rossetti, who painted her obsessively; her years of illness, drug addiction, and depression; her tragic death (or suicide) in 1862 from an overdose of laudanum, possibly as the result of postpartum depression following the birth of a stillborn child; and Rossetti’s exhumation of her coffin in 1869 to retrieve manuscripts he had buried with her in a fit of guilt and grief.1 These anecdotes, however, do not do justice to the creative work of a woman whose life included landmarks beyond her shift from dressmaker to fine art model and who possessed many talents beyond her delicate pallor, striking beauty, and long, red hair.2

In 1854, Elizabeth Siddal began to plan paintings of “Clerk Saunders” and several other ballads from Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1803), intending them for an illustrated ballad collection to be edited by William Allingham. Although the illustrated collection would not be realized, her work with ballads would not be insignificant. To date, over one hundred paintings and drawings by Siddal have been identified, many based on ballads.3 Within the next few years, Siddal also created paintings and drawings about ballads written by contemporary poets such as Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and “Lady Clare;” Rossetti’s “Sister Helen”; and Robert Browning’s “Pippa’s Song” from Pippa Passes. During this time, Siddal began to write poetry as well, much of it influenced by ballad forms.4

As we think about Elizabeth Siddal’s work with ballads in both visual and verbal media—the creative outpourings of a female artist-poet whose limited fame is due chiefly to the ways in which her model’s body contributed to other artists’ [End Page 251] works of art—I will be exploring the following questions: How does Siddal, as a woman author, appropriate and/or modify the conventions of traditional and Victorian ballad forms in her own poetry? How does Siddal, as a woman artist, use drawing and painting to recast the narratives of traditional Scottish ballads and ballad poems by contemporary Victorian poets? And how does Siddal’s reverse ekphrasis contribute to and/or complicate traditional observations about gendered paragone, or rivalry, between the “sister arts” of painting and poetry?5 Throughout, I will be focusing on how Siddal’s verbal and visual work with ballads, taken together, represents female subjectivity and female labor; how Siddal establishes a relationship between female selfhood and female labor through her work with ballads, and how the ballad form, itself, contributes to her task.

This project engages the word “work” deliberately, recalling the work of gender in the Victorian period and thereafter, including how middle-class gender ideology has influenced and almost erased the creative labor of women like Elizabeth Siddal. I want to think about the “work” or text, itself, of course, especially in context of the specific cultural work of the ballad form and ballad tradition; and I want to begin to think about the kinds of work, or labor, that female bodies do in these ballads and images. Finally, I want to situate these questions about her poetry and paintings within the context of their production—within the important history of Elizabeth Siddal who, like many of the other models and wives of male Pre-Raphaelite artists, was a working-class girl deliberately re-educated to become a member of an elitist bourgeois circle of artists, which, as Cherry and Pollock remind us, “required in particular an induction into that social role and psychic condition called femininity—silence, pleasant appearance, deferential manners, self-sacrifice” (p. 216). Such a performance of bourgeois femininity is work; and, I will contend, a performance Siddal’s poetry and painting seems to problematize.

My exploration of these...


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