"Strong traivelling": re-visions of women's subjectivity and female labor in the ballad-work of Elizabeth Siddal.
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' 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 questions about work, in fact, originated with a line from Sir Walter Scott's version of the aforementioned "Clerk Saunders," in which the central female character, maid Margaret, asks the ghost of her recently murdered lover, Clerk Saunders: "what comes of women ... who die in strong traivelling?" (ll. 87-88). (6) My considerations in this paper, then, are intended to resonate--with no little irony when we think of Siddal's tragic life--with the archaic verbal noun "travailing," which the OED defines as "labouring, toiling; labour of child-bearing; distress, fatigue." Thus, I will focus on the tendency, within her ballad work, to depict women in unique moments of internal struggle where the body becomes a site of tension between gendered representations of containment and of specifically female labor. Ultimately, I intend to show that Siddal's re-visionary engagement with the ballad tradition capitalizes on the multiplicity of readings permitted with this palimpsestic poetic form; enables her to problematize Victorian notions of female subjectivity, embodiment, and behavior; anticipates what we might now define as a feminist phenomenology of embodiment that directly addresses female discomfort with "feminine" labor; and, through reverse ekphrasis, contributes to the above projects while also complicating traditional theories about gendered tensions between the sister arts of painting and poetry.
Elizabeth Siddal's unique treatment of ballad subjects comes out of and comments upon a complicated social context. The Romantic ballad revival put to various uses by Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had lasting effect into the mid and late nineteenth century. At this time, English and Scottish ballads, in bowdlerized and sanitized form, contributed to a set of patriotic, nostalgic discursive practices that delineated Englishness and nationalism through and against quaint folklore traditions. As Yuri Cowan writes, one type of ideal Victorian ballad reader was the "country squire, fond of history, interested in geography, and priding himself on his proprietary relationship to the land and the people who worked it. Another, more numerous, ballad reader is the Tory industrialist, urban or rural, rich or soon to be so, who idealized that squire's connections to the land and to the romantic past and dreamed of moving in his sphere." (7) Thus, the popularity of ballads created renewed connections to the rural landscape and romantic past in a time of unrivalled industrial production and social change and circulated these complex narratives for widespread domestic consumption.
The border ballad, "Sir Patrick Spens," to which we will later return, serves as good example of a text that was widely attractive in this context, as it is a tale of local heroes--brave men and patient women--who demonstrate steadfast loyalty. In this ballad, the King of Scotland sends the best sailor in the land, Sir Patrick Spens, to Norway to bring back a woman. Despite the certain danger of the trip, Sir Patrick obeys his king's orders; and although the ship never returns, the ladies of the town wait patiently for Spens and his fellow sailors. Thus for the general reader, "a journey into a ballad collection" could be "a descent into the singing, dancing throng, there to find the English commoner's essential hardiness of spirit, his feudal loyalty, and his native sense of right and wrong" (Cowan, p. 1006).
Other uses of the ballad proliferated throughout the nineteenth century as well; and while some considered the renewed popularity and continuing middleclass consumption of traditional ballads to be a sentimental, even feminine form of recreation, Victorian street ballads, albeit more lowbrow than the others, depicted current events such as crime, scandal, and politics in ways that were often ironically subversive. (8) During the same period, Pre-Raphaelite artists and affiliated authors were using historical themes from myths, legends and ballads to criticize Victorian gender roles, aesthetics, and industrialization. Take for example, Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," which can he read as a cautionary tale about a woman who is punished for exceeding gendered boundaries, or as criticism of the stifling limitations of the "cult of true womanhood," or as symbolic of the "contradictions between artistic autonomy on the one hand and art's necessary commodification on the other." (9) The immense success of this poem, other, similar, new ballads, and the many written and visual renditions of both new and older ballads, is due, at least in part, to the manner in which the ballad invites, and sustains, multiple interpretations.
Indeed, a foundational premise of this paper is that the continued Victorian popularity and ongoing cultural work of both old and new ballads is predicated upon the unique, dialectical relationship between the comforting regularity of the ballad form on the one hand, and, on the other, the fact that the ballad is a malleable narrative that is accepted as having, or perhaps even expected to have, multiple versions. The aforementioned "Clerk Saunders," for example, exists in at least eight variants: the Sir Walter Scott border version referenced in my introductory comments plus seven other versions compiled and recorded by Child. (10) In fact, William Allingham, who published The Ballad Book: A Selection of the Choicest British Ballads two years after Siddal's death (albeit without any of her drawings) celebrates the metamorphic nature of the ballad in his preface: "The ballads owe no little of their merit to the countless riddlings, siftings, shiftings, omissions and additions of innumerable reciters." (11) He states, "A better ballad is the result" (p. xxxii). Granted, there is also evidence that some readers became disgruntled when familiar ballads were modified, such as one American reviewer of The Ballad Book who provides the following back-handed compliment: "It is a literary crime to make an old thing new; yet this has been Mr. Allingham's temptation. We owe him thanks that he has yielded to it so little." (12) Ultimately, however, I would argue that the familiarity of ballad themes and stories, even when they have been modified, contributes to their potential to be consumed as--indeed perhaps willfully misread as-the traditional version; and the regularity of the form and ballad meter itself also facilitates and naturalizes such happy, habitual misreadings.
Jason Rudy's assertions about form vis-a-vis both Spasmodic and ballad poetry are instructive here: "If ... the 'blustering blank verse' of [Spasmodic poetry] reveals the underside of life and culture in the 1850s, then the comfortingly predictable Victorian ballad offers just the opposite, an impossibly idealized vision of the British nation." (13) Rudy is careful to argue that the Victorian ballad, which he observes is "homogenized and pasteurized," can actually represent violent and passionate impulses just as well as the Spasmodics; he writes, "It is only through the attentive use of the form" that "most middle-brow literary ballads ... offer insistent regularity as a model for cultural stability" (pp. 592, 593). Creative work with ballads in either verbal or visual media, as the remainder of this paper will show, thus lends itself to both subverting and reinscribing social convention. This proves especially useful to Victorian women such as Elizabeth Siddal, who, as authors and artists, sought to express their own experiences through re-visions of ballad traditions, while also negotiating the boundaries of cultural and aesthetic norms.
Both in form and content, Elizabeth Siddal's re-workings of traditional and contemporary ballads perform significant commentary about female agency and its relationship to embodiment and labor, language and image, and space and time. For example, the traditional ballad has been long defined as "a folk-song that tells a story ... by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias"; (14) but in contrast, Siddal's poetry, including "Fragment of a Ballad" and "At Last," makes innovative use of a first person narrator. Of course, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's lyrical ballads do this as well; but the speakers in Siddal's poetry demonstrate more self-consciousness and raw emotional engagement than is generally found in either the traditional folk ballad or even Romantic lyrical ballads. It is also clear to the reader that Siddal's ballads, although obviously influenced by Wordsworth, feature a narrator who is a woman speaking to women rather than a "man speaking to men."
In Siddal's poetry, the first person narrator does not merely tell a story, but is the emotional center of the poem. "A Fragment of a Ballad" (sometimes also called "Speechless"), for instance, begins with the common ballad trope of the return of the long absent lover, but with a twist:
Many a mile over land and sea Unsummoned my love returned to me; I remember not the words he said But only the trees moaning overhead. And he came ready to take and bear The cross I had carried for many a year, But words came slowly one by one From frozen lips shut still and dumb. (ll. 1-8)
The female speaker in this poem does the unexpected: she does not welcome her long-absent lover's attentions, manly comfort, strength, and (presumably) offers of marriage. The consonance that links the great distance of "many a mile," the "unsummoned" lover, and the dreary sounds of "moaning" trees is not harsh, but it does leave its mark; and combined with the content of the second stanza, the speaker communicates that loving and waiting is burdensome work. The reader then suspects that the speaker's lack of excitement about her lover's return is not due to modesty or passionlessness (which one might expect from a shy Victorian maiden) but because she had loved so laboriously, painfully, and unrequitedly for so long, that now she is simply exhausted and incapable of mustering the expected response.
Where abandoned women in traditional ballads (and even Victorian ones, like Rossetti's "Sister Helen") might utter a vengeful curse, or at least engage in witty banter, the speaker in Siddal's poem is nearly speechless, and pauses to reflect upon her conflicted feelings and actions (or more precisely, inaction):
How sounded my words so still and slow To the great strong heart that loved me so, Who came to save me from pain and wrong And to comfort me with his love so strong? (ll. 9-12)
Thus, the poem performs a suspended moment of female subjectivity, and also an attempt to recapitulate a sense of agency. This speaker does not know why she does not have anything to say; and she wants to try to collect herself in order to attempt to be more in control of her emotions and actions. Meanwhile, at the close of the poem, Nature ominously portends the aftermath of the lovers' reunion with images of decay:
I felt the wind strike chill and cold And vapours rise from the red-brown mould; I felt the spell that held my breath Bending me down to a living death. (ll. 13-16)
Ironically, we are not told whether or not the speaker accepts the proposal; but as in Siddal's own relationship with Rossetti, it does not seem to matter, since with him or without him, she is buried alive in her misery. (15) It is notable, however, that although the speaker's "words came slowly one by one / From frozen lips shut still and dumb," we are left with words, Siddal's words. We have the short ballad narrative to tell us of the speaker's laborious waiting, of the burden she carried, and of her unconventional thoughts about it all.
Marjorie Stone and other critics, such as Dorothy Mermin, have argued that Victorian women writers' revisions of the ballad form "skeptically examine ... the virtues of self-repression and self-sacrifice they seem to affirm." (16) To this end, Stone has written that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, especially after the publication of her 1844 Poems, was known for her skill at ballad writing, which rivaled even that of Tennyson. She argues that the ballad form appealed to Browning because "its energy, its frank physicality, its elemental passions, its strong heroines, and its sinewy narrative conflicts allowed her to circumvent the passionless purity conventionally ascribed to the middle class Victorian woman. In her own appropriations," Stone contends, "the lowly maiden is used to interrogate the inscription of sexual difference it appears to encode" (p. 234). In Siddal's ballad work, in both verbal and visual media, we see this strategy as well.
In her poems and visual art, Siddal's speakers and female figures may not be as physically strong or spirited as some other ballad heroines; but they nonetheless complicate Victorian gender norms by exhibiting brave endurance, and by betraying that they have experienced intense romantic passion, even if they seem worn out with exhaustion by the time we encounter them. Siddal's "At Last," for instance, composed most likely in 1861 or 1862 and often interpreted as communicating her own intentions for committing suicide, is the first person narrative of a woman who prepares to end her own life because she longs to end, "at last," her sorrow of pining for her "great love." (17) The speaker charges her mother with the care of her (most likely illegitimate) son, and with carrying out several tasks, which include rituals to protect her reputation, to prevent her spirit from walking, and to guard her child's future well-being. Notably, the ballad begins, indeed entirely takes place, in an interior space, thereby calling to mind Victorian separate and gendered spheres, along with a sense of confinement:
O mother, open the window wide And let the daylight in; The hills grow darker to my sight And thoughts begin to swim. (ll. 1-4)
The "to do" list is unrelentingly long, especially for one grown pale with grief and yearning for death:
And mother dear, take my young son, (Since I was born of thee) And care for all his little ways And nurse him on thy knee. And mother, wash my pale pale hands And then bind up my feet; My body may no longer rest Out of its winding sheet. And mother dear, take a sapling twig And green grass newly mown, And lay them on my empty bed That my sorrow be not known. And mother, find three berries red And pluck them from the stalk, And burn them at the first cockcrow That my spirit may not walk. And mother dear, break a willow wand, And if the sap be even, Then save it for sweet Robert's sake And he'll know my soul's in heaven. And mother, when the big tears fall, (And fall, God knows, they may) Tell him I died of my great love And my dying heart was gay. And mother dear, when the sun has set And the pale kirk grass waves, Then carry me through the dim twilight And hide me among the graves. (ll. 5-32)
While there will be much to do after the speaker's death, this ballad shows us that planning it all while waiting for death is significant labor in and of itself. Notably, the tasks the speaker asks her mother to perform are all traditional women's work: childcare in stanza two, preparation of a dead body in stanza three; folk rituals in stanzas four through six; and conveying difficult messages with compassion in stanzas six and seven. The speaker also repeatedly requests that her reputation be protected. In stanza four, the folk ritual of laying the sapling twig and new mown grass on "my empty bed / That my sorrow be not known" (ll. 15-16) gestures on the one hand to the notion that once the speaker dies, her bed will be empty and she does not want to be remembered for melancholy or misfortune, which she also emphasizes at line 28: "And my dying heart was gay." More likely, the empty bed also refers to the fact that the speaker has been abandoned by her lover; in this case "my sorrow" would represent her pregnancy and illegitimate child. Stanza eight, as well, seeks to avoid public attention. The speaker asks that her body be disposed of clandestinely, "when the sun has set," in "the dim twilight," and she specifically uses the word "hide" instead of buried or interred (ll. 31-32). The necessity for secrecy is made clear by line 30's reference to kirk grass, if we understand "kirk" to be, as the OED suggests, "a Northern and Scots variant for church." The speaker desires to be buried in sacred ground, among the churchyard graves; however, as an impure woman and a suicide, this is a formidable task that only can happen surreptitiously, in darkness and hidden by the tall grass.
In "At Last," as in the previous discussion of "Fragment of a Ballad," we observe that Siddal maintains the tragic narrative common to ballads but dispenses with the dialogue characteristic to the form, so that the focus is completely on the central female character and her struggles. Yet many other ballad conventions and tropes are present: the repetition of first lines, often invoking people, such as "And mother dear"; "throw-away" second lines of stanzas that use faint echo to weakly modify the previous line, such as "(Since I was born of thee)" at line 6 and "(And fall, God knows, they may)" at line 26; and references to folklore tradition, superstitions, things that come in threes, and the magical liminality of natural spaces. Simple modifiers abound--"young son," "pale pale hands," "sapling twig," "newly mown," "empty bed," "berries red," "willow wand," "sweet Robert," "big tears," "great love," "dim twilight"--these lend an air of specificity to the world the speaker longs so desperately to escape. Her waiting and planning for death, therefore, seems more palpable. Importantly, although she dispenses with the use of dialogue and the ballad refrain, Siddal's poetry maintains the recognizably regular ballad meter. Much as other critics have asserted that Patmore's The Angel in the House achieved great popular success through the use of ballad meters to hold in the "'lawless' tendencies of 'sexual passion' ... and the autonomy of its firmly ensconced angel" (Rudy, p. 594), Siddal's appropriation of the ballad form has the effect of appearing to contain potentially subversive expressions of female subjectivity and female agency regarding passions, sorrows, sexual histories, and unconventional behaviors; the ballad form also helps to neutralize her assertion that traditional female labor, including the labor of waiting, is difficult work.
So far, I have demonstrated that Siddal's re-visionary ballads invite readers' skepticism that female passionlessness is how women really feel, illustrate how the dutiful angel in the house becomes worn out, and portray female autonomy (albeit to tragic ends). Such readings of Siddal's otherwise tragic and sentimental poetry provide a lens through which also to consider her paintings, which, unlike her poems, were actually intended for public consumption. The shift in medium from verbal to visual, like the comforting familiarity of a ballad meter, helps Siddal to mask the extent of her re-visionary treatment of the original ballad narratives and her critiques of Victorian gender ideologies. (An analogous claim about an efficacious shift in media, or genre, was made by another lover of ballads, Thomas Hardy, when he wrote that subversive ideas, in his case, about being agnostic, can be more easily accepted when articulated in poetry, rather than prose.) (18)
In particular, Siddal's visual representations of traditional and Victorian ballads depict women in unique moments of internal struggle where the body visually becomes a site of tension between gendered representations of containment and specifically female labor. For example, Siddal's watercolor, The Ladies' Lament from Sir Patrick Spens (Fig. 1) depicts two stanzas near the end of the ballad:
The ladyes wrang their fingers white, The maidens tore their hair, A' for the sake of their true loves; For them they'll see nae mair. And lang, lang, may the maidens sit, With their goud kaims in their hair, A' waiting for their ain dear loves! For them they'll see nae mair. (Scott, p. 12)
What is striking about this painting especially in contrast to the original text, is how Siddal uses the image to show that waiting--the traditional provenance of the dutiful, loyal, and patient woman--is hard work; and in this picture, it is physical, rather than emotional difficulty and pain that is emphasized. Siddal's title and the image do not directly engage the men in the ballad or their active male heroism. Instead the spectator must contemplate women, who, ostensibly waiting for their men, are depicted in community--with the colors of the painting linking the women to each other and with the natural environment. The only woman who remains standing looks, much as Millais' painting of Tennyson's Mariana does, as if her back aches tremendously from the strain and toil of waiting, while the other women sit against one another, their children, and the rocks for support. The standing woman appears to be a self-portrait, which suggests that this painting resonates with Siddal's own lived experiences of desire, anticipation, and postponement. Meanwhile, the futility of waiting is emphasized by the lone figure's back turned to the ignored path that leads to higher ground. The faces of the women are dutiful; yet they seem bored with their task; so it is the bodily strain of their laborious stasis that impresses the viewer. Although these "true" women are depicted in the open air and not confined within a domestic environment, they are nonetheless contained, rendered still, by their duty. Indeed, Siddal seems to suggest in this painting, as in "Fragment of a Ballad" and "At Last," that for women, loving a man is painful and paralyzing work. As she probably wondered herself in reference to Rossetti, the image seems to suggest that the toil of waiting, which often results only in distress and fatigue, may not be worth it.
Here, I would suggest that Siddal's ballad work anticipates what we might now define as a feminist phenomenology of embodiment that directly addresses female discomfort with "feminine" labor, and specifically in the case of The Ladies' Lament, "Fragment of a Ballad," and "At Last," the labor of being the good woman who waits. Over one hundred years after Siddal, feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young would expand upon Simone de Beauvoir's observation that women experience the body as a burden." (19) Following the work of Merleau-Ponty, who locates subjectivity not in the mind but in the body as it is oriented in space, Young argued that differences in orientation to the world create gender differences. Young contends that "for any lived body, the world appears as the system of possibilities which are correlative to its intentions," and thus, female existence "lives space as enclosed or confining" (pp. 147, 149). Due to the effects of living in a patriarchal society that often views women as objects, "modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality exhibit [a] tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object" (p. 141).
I argue that the works by Siddal that we have discussed thus far represent their female speakers' embodied subjectivities in ways that resonate, across time, with observations such as Young's; and that the works do this specifically by emphasizing the central female figures' unhappiness and bodily discomfort with "feminine" work. Recently, feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed has persuasively argued that happiness is an "an affective form of orientation" toward certain objects and goals. (20) Glossing the history of "the happy housewife," Ahmed reminds us that the duty and supposed happiness of Rousseau's Sophy is to be the right kind of woman for Emile (p. 60). The good woman--certainly the deferential middle class Victorian female--must be oriented toward her man's happiness. As we have seen in the texts I have discussed thus far, this means "she" must wait for "him" when he goes away. Yet Siddal's representation of exhausted and strained female figures, intentionally or not, suggests that the lived female body situated in such a context experiences both physical discomfort and emotional distress.
Phenomenology helps us recognize that experience is the embodied engagement of subjects with their world and also helps us understand subjectivity as located in the body as it is oriented to other subjects and objects in the world. Accordingly, we can read the women in Siddal's poems and artwork as negotiating their problematic relationship to the bodily horizons that have been established, by society, for women. What we observe in these texts is the failure of the female subject to continue to be oriented to the task of feminine labor--in the cases we have discussed thus far, to remain oriented to the toil of waiting. Siddal's figures betray that the selfless love and duty that is supposed to ensure the happiness of their men does not achieve for the female subject the happiness it is supposed to achieve. Dutiful waiting ceases to make these figures content; and, as we have seen, the subject experiences strain, boredom, and discomfort. The female figures are no longer absorbed in their labor; instead, it seems they become conscious more of the body in discomfort than of the task at hand. Interestingly, the female figures' obvious discomfort communicates that these female bodies are subjects and not merely objects of male pleasure; indeed, especially in the images, the pleasure of the spectator is curtailed because these women are not passive feminine beauties.
Like The Ladies' Lament, Siddal's drawing Sister Helen (Fig. 2) also portrays a strained female body in context of considerations of woman's agency, domestic confinement, and dominant notions of femininity. The poem that inspired the drawing, D. G. Rossetti's ballad "Sister Helen," is the tale of a young woman who uses a wax doll to cast a vengeful spell upon a lover who intends to marry another woman. The reader learns the story through dialogue between Sister Helen, who is in the process of melting the wax poppet in the fire, and her little brother, who watches out the window and reports the comings and goings of the ailing lover's comrades, father, and bride. The end of the narrative is not a happy one: the cheating lover dies with his cursed soul forever caught between heaven and earth, the unfortunate bride swoons in sorrow, perhaps never to recover, and Sister Helen admits that her own soul has been the price of her actions.
Meanwhile, the closing two stanzas, to which Siddal's drawing loosely alludes, unfold as follows:
"See, see, the wax has dropped from its place, Sister Helen, And the flames are winning up apace!" "Yet here they burn but for a space, Little brother!" (O Mother, Mary Mother, Here for a space, between Hell and Heaven!) "Ah! what white thing at the door has cross'd, Sister Helen? Ah! what is this that sighs in the frost?" "A soul that's lost as mine is lost, Little brother!" (O Mother, Mary Mother, Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!) (21)
Here, the penultimate stanza invokes the eternal fires of hell that will eventually engulf the young witch; while the final one suggests that none of us are so different from each other--we are all lost between Hell and Heaven and we all might suffer the same fate.
Like so many Pre-Raphaelite images including Siddal's own Lady Clare, Clerk Saunders, and Lady of Shalott, Siddal's Sister Helen makes use of Renaissance conventions, with an interior space containing the central female figure and with the outside world tauntingly visible through a window or doorway in one upper corner. In contrast to her brother, Sister Helen is firmly confined within the interior space delineated by the arch; in phenomenological terms her bodily horizon--a space for action that puts some objects and goals within reach and not others--is limited, which again brings to mind countless images of Victorian women confined within the domestic sphere. Like the woman who waits in The Ladies' Lament, Sister Helen appears to be experiencing great physical as well as emotional distress as she labors in front of the fire, realizes that her curse is successfully killing her ex-lover, and resigns herself to her own eternal damnation. Her sense of selfhood is completely constituted now by her orientation toward the wax man, just as it had been before, toward the flesh and blood one.
Notably, although Siddal's drawing, like Rossetti's ballad, is disturbing, it is potentially more sympathetic toward Sister Helen, largely because it invites multiple interpretations. Siddal's image does not clearly illustrate a specific line from the poem; and thus if the spectator's memory of Rossetti's ballad is not fresh, it is possible to think that the boy is escaping out of the room through the window and abandoning the female figure, rather than climbing back down into it. Furthermore, it is possible to say that she clutches her throat as her soul flies out of her body; but alternatively, a sympathetic spectator might instead read Helen's strained body as choking, sorrowing, catching her breath or trying to calm her heart in her breast after physical labor, or trying to control feelings of panic or that favorite Victorian female malady, hysteria. It is also up to the spectator to determine whether the wax fetish in Siddal's drawing has tumbled, on its own, from the flames or whether Sister Helen has pulled it out in attempted act of remorse, however futile. If, as Merleau-Ponty asserts, "the body is no longer merely an object in the world ...; it is our point of view on the world," (22) the spectator's reading of the drawing will be predicated upon her perception of Sister Helen's body and its orientation to the little wax man.
Finally, to return to the ballad with which this essay began, Siddal's watercolor of Clerk Saunders (Fig. 3) portrays another disconcertingly awkward female body caught between her desires and properly deferential self-sacrifice. In this tale, Clerk Saunders convinces Maid Margaret to sleep with him before marriage; then her brothers, finding them together, murder him. Clerk Saunders's ghost comes back, asks Margaret to free him, and she asks for a kiss in return. When he refuses, stating it would kill her, Margaret bargains for an answer to her suggestive query: "what comes o' women ... who die in strong traivelling?" (ll. 87-88). It is the next moment that Siddal's painting depicts, when Margaret reluctantly releases her dead lover from his promises. The stanza reads:
Then she has ta'en a crystal wand, And she has stroken her troth thereon; She has given it him out at the shot-window, Wi' mony a sad sigh, and heavy groan. (ll. 97-100)
Clerk Saunders thanks Margaret for releasing him and tells her "Gin ever the dead come for the quick, / Be sure, Marg'ret, I'll come for thee" (ll. 103-104). Encouraged by his statement, Margaret then attempts to follow the ghost, traveling throughout the countryside in "hosen and shoon, and gown alone," until she "lost the sight o' him" (ll. 105, 108) and weeping, realizes that there is no way for them to be together, in life or in death.
In Scott's version of the ballad, Margaret understands her lover's parting remark at lines 103-104 as a pledge to love her forever; of course this is foolish on her part, since she had just granted his request to release him and what he seems to mean would be the equivalent of today's "when pigs fly." Then, as if her grief over Clerk Saunders's death (and her possible pregnancy) is not enough, the penultimate stanza ruins her future prospects of love, as well: "Gin e'er ye love another man, / Ne'er love him as ye did me" (ll. 127-128). Indeed, Siddal's painting, which could be read on the one hand as representing a woman the ballad says is "fair," "rare, "and "veritie" (ll. 125-126), from a more cynical point of view seems to foreshadow the unhappy ending that befalls the woman who loves too much. Margaret with her deep socketed eyes and floating gray-blue dress already looks as pale and dead as Clerk Saunder's ghost, or indeed, as the speaker in Siddal's "Fragment of a Ballad" who says she is "[bent] down to a living death." Meanwhile, the spectator's eye is drawn to Clerk Saunders's bright green robe and the bright blue vestments under the Bible on the prie-dieu on the right side of the visual field; and thus the figure of Margaret on the left fades into the background, perhaps to emphasize how she becomes erased by her insignificant status in relation to God and man, and the laws of both.
The painting, like the three extant pencil and ink studies (Figs. 4-6), places Clerk Saunders in the process of penetrating the walls of the room instead of remaining outside the window as he is in the ballad; this further suggests that female space, always already containing and confining, has been infiltrated by a force, perhaps gender conventions, perhaps love itself, that threatens women's autonomy and sense of self. In two of the studies (Figs. 4 and 6), Margaret's body is stiffly and humbly bent as she kisses the wand. In the other study (Fig. 5), as in the final watercolor, she is perched awkwardly on her knees as if she might fall over. Although her eyes are lifted, Clerk Saunders blocks her view of the outside world through the window, again as if to signify that love blinds women by harmfully orienting them only to their man. Yet this painting, which in fact was one of very few paintings by women included in the 1857 Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition at Russell Place, and which later toured the United States in the British Art Show, was not received, in its day, as conveying a radically unfeminine message. (23) I suggest that without being able to juxtapose Clerk Saunders and her other paintings with Siddal's ballad re-visions of femininity in her poetry, spectators merely read the images traditionally, with a horizon of expectation made possible by the familiar ballad narratives.
Finally, given that Siddal's visual work with ballads exceeded the never-realized plan to illustrate Allingham's collection of border ballads, I would like to think briefly about her images of ballad subjects not as illustrations, but as exercises in reverse ekphrasis that complicate the gendered dynamics traditionally thought to be associated with ekphrastic pairings of verbal and visual texts. Historically, critics have noted in ekphrasis a paragonal quality between the sister arts of painting and poetry whereby the verbal representation (generally written by a man) asserts linguistic mastery over the visual representation (which usually depicts a woman or a feminized art object). As Heffernan observes, "to represent a painting or sculpted figure in words is to evoke its power--the power to fix, excite, amaze, entrance, disturb, or intimidate the viewer--even as language strives to keep that power under control" (p. 7). For instance, the vivid, lively description, or enargia, of many ekphrastic texts often renders the female image into mere fragments through the use of a blazon or similar approach. Additionally, while ekphrasis often flatters the art object's versimilitude and/or perfection, and/or claims to liberate the silent, passive image--often through prosopopoeia, or dramatic envoicing--feminist critics in particular have noted that male authors employ these strategies within noticeably patriarchal frameworks. Women authors of ekphrastic texts, in contrast, may critique at least some of the gendered dynamics associated with the ekphrastic tradition: they may write about domestic artifacts instead of high art; move the spectator's focus from margin to center; employ parody to reveal sexist bias; question the veracity of the male artist' rendition of women or feminized art objects; refuse to speak for the visual image; call attention to sexism in representational friction, or tension between the word and image or image and referent; or establish a reciprocal rather than colonizing gaze, among many other approaches. Thus, ekphrasis, and reverse ekphrasis as well, have tremendous potential for projects in the spirit of what Adrienne Rich called women's writing as re-vision. (24)
Indeed, as we have seen, Elizabeth Siddal's drawing and paintings suggest that the images communicate important additional information or points of view that have been omitted in the ballads, whether that information be about the physical strain of female duty in The Ladies' Lament, confinement in Sister Helen, critique of feminine self-sacrifice in Clerk Saunders, or the labor of performing femininity, in general. As my discussion of her work as prefiguring a feminist phenomenology of embodiment has demonstrated, the paintings and drawings thus provide critical insight into female lived experience--realizations that are absent from other renditions of the ballad-tales--that are only made possible through Siddal's representations of female figures in the context of their environment. Further, and to engage the rhetorical terminology common to discussing ekphrastic texts, we could say that these critical insights most frequently occur, in Siddal's images, through a visual appropriation of descriptio, or, a vivid description that also includes a description of consequences. Siddal's reverse ekphrases show the spectator, in The Ladies' Lament, that the consequences of waiting are uncomfortable rather than romantic; in Sister Helen, that the consequence of all-encompassing orientation toward a man is ill-fated; and in Clerk Saunders, that the consequences of loving too much are erasure and the cutting off of new horizons, in short, the equivalent of death. Although the images are, of course, literally silent, the female figures nonetheless "talk back" to the ballads that motivated them, implying that efforts, in traditional ballads, at dramatic envoicing for female characters are either limited, biased, or absent.
Here we see that Siddal, unlike other, more recent artists and writers, does maintain the male/female binary so common among ekphrastic pairings. She does not challenge the binary by suggesting a more fluid or reciprocal gender dynamic as an alternative; but she does seem to suggest that the male ballad tradition is insufficient as it pertains to women--that it omits key details and perspectives. This, as in my discussion of Sister Helen, also opens the story up for additional interpretations. In this way, the paintings expose patriarchal structures and re-vision narratives from women's point of view. Overall, in the paintings we have discussed, I would conclude that the images exert mastery over their verbal referents, not the other way around.
By providing new steps in transmission, Siddal's art and poetry contribute to the ongoing "life" of the ballad subject, which is cultural form that reflects, in its constant re-modification of the multiply-told tale, much about the culture that continues to tell it. Tilottama Rajan argues that because ballads are "cultural palimpsests inhabited by the traces of more than one ideology," they "function as psychic screens on which desires having to do with ideological authority and hermeneutic community are projected and analyzed." (25) Siddal's work in both written and visual media capitalizes upon the ballad as such a palimpsestic cultural phenomenon, one in which the questions and protest in Siddal's voice can remain a trace hidden in the shadows, behind other, better-known versions of these tales. As reverse ekphrases, Siddal's ballad-images are doubly open to variation, re-vision, and translation (between media) and thus are doubly shielded or screened. True, some readers reacted with severe criticism to Victorian liberties taken with the Romantic ballad-revival; they wanted to read ballads in the versions they were used to. But interestingly, it seems other reviewers reacted equally with pleasure, (26) and even countered that such curmudgeonly readers were too set in their ways (Cowan, p. 1009). I suspect that a large number of readers also merely engaged nineteenth-century ballad revisions as they wished--getting caught up in the familiar yet still compelling rhythms, choosing as they pleased among the vast array of available images, and substituting freely their preferred variants and endings, which, after all, have survived and continue to circulate to this day.
Several decades after Elizabeth Siddal's death, W. M. Rossetti reminisced, "Her inner personality did not float upon the surface of her speech or bearing, to me it remained, if not strictly enigmatic, still mainly undivulged" (Cherry and Pollock, p. 214). Here, her brother-in-law seems disappointed--perhaps even annoyed--that the working-class girl adopted into his elite personal and professional circle never properly assimilated to her role. He has no complaints here or elsewhere about her acquisition of refinement; the issue, it seems, is that he thinks of Lizzie's personality as occupying a problematic space somewhere between the allure of the femme fatale and the deferential compliance of the angel in the house. The problem seems to be that she withheld part of herself from him, that she was not sufficiently oriented toward him, that she did not demonstrate membership in their community by being sufficiently accessible. Sara Ahmed's astute observation about belonging to a group, albeit over a century later, is apt: "Becoming a member of ... a community, then, might also mean following this direction, which could be described as the political requirement that we turn some ways and not others." (27) No matter how ethereally she is represented in D. G. Rossetti's paintings and in apocryphal tales of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Siddal's ballad work clearly indicates several complex, if subtly-screened, layers of protest against the task of performing as the kind of female subject (and object) she had been recruited to be within a particular kind of community. It is in this light that we should continue to ponder the critiques and questions that Siddal raises within and about ballad texts and contexts, even as we continue to study her own poetry and paintings of "women who die in strong traivelling."
I owe a debt of gratitude to Appalachian State University's Foundation Fellowship program and University Research Council grants program for funding this research. Many thanks also to Kim Q. Hall, Nathan Hauke, and Linda K. Hughes for feedback at various stages of this project.
(1) For more on the life of Elizabeth Siddal and her relationship with D. G. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite circle, see, among others, Deborah Cherry and Griselda Pollock, "Woman as Sign in Pre-Raphaelite Literature: A Study of the Representation of Elizabeth Siddall," Art History 7, no. 2 (1984): 206-227; Jan Marsh, Elizabeth Siddal, Pre-Raphaelite Artist 1829-1862 (Sheffield, England: The Ruskin Gallery, 1991) and The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal (London: Quartet, 1989); W. M. Rossetti, "Dante Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal" (1903) in The Burlington Magazine: A Centenary Anthology, ed. Michael Levey (London: The Burlington Magazine, 2003): 1-9; and with restraint, Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites (New York: Walker & Co., 2006).
(2) Many histories describe Siddal as having been a shop girl or milliner's assistant prior to her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite circle. However, foundational work on Siddal by Cherry and Pollock, which traces the ideological valences between the life of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall on the one hand and representations of "Siddal" as Rossetti's construct on the other, asserts that, other than conflicting Pre-Raphaelite memoirs, there is no evidence at all about her occupation. Nevertheless, Cherry and Pollock conclude that, given census records of her two sisters' professions and "family patterns of employment in the working class," it is likely, that like her sisters, she was a dressmaker (p. 215). As for "Siddall" vs. "Siddal," I agree with Cherry and Pollock that Rossetti's alteration of her name constitutes an important assault upon her status as a subject in his process of remaking her from working class girl to high art model. However, since the subject of this project is primarily her poetry and painting, which was then and is now attributed to Siddal, that is the name I will use here.
(3) Cherry and Pollock, p. 210. Other extensive catalogues of Siddal's work have been compiled by Jan Marsh (see note 1); also see Roger C. Lewis and Mark Samuels Lasner's Poems and Drawings of Elizabeth Siddal (Wolfville, Nova Scotia: Wombat Press, 1978), which is the source for all Siddal poetry quoted here. Citations within the text refer to line numbers.
(4) W. M. Rossetti published a number of these poems well after Siddal's death, between 1895 and 1906. For detail regarding the publishing history of her poetry, see Beverly Taylor, "Beatrix Creatrix: Elizabeth Siddal as Muse and Creator," Journal of PreRaphaelite Studies 4 (1995): 41 n 14
(5) Traditionally, ekphrastic writing, or the verbal representation of visual representation, has been said to be powerfully gendered, assuming a male spectator and a female, err at least feminized, art object. James A. W. Heffernan writes, for instance, that the contest staged biy ekphrasis "evokes the power of the silent image even as it subjects that power to the authority of language ... male speech striving to control a female image." See The Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 1. For foundational work on the topic of ekphrasis in general, also see John Hollander, The Gazer's Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995) and W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994). For studies of women's ekphrastic writing, albeit in the twentieth, not nineteenth, century, see Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008) and Jane Hedley, Nick Halpern, and Willard Spiegelman, In the Frame: Women's Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2009). Substantial study remains to be done on ekphrastic writing by women prior to Modernism.
(6) Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (London, 1802).
(7) Yuri Cowan, "William Allingham's Ballad Book and Its Victorian Readers," University of Toronto Quarterly 73, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 1005.
(8) See Ellen O'Brien, '"Every Man Who is Hanged Leaves a Poem': Criminal Poets in Victorian Street Ballads," VP 39, no. 2 (2001): 319-339; and '"The Most Beautiful Murder': The Transgressive Aesthetics of Murder in Victorian Street Ballads," Victorian Literature and Culture 28, no. 1 (2000): 15-37.
(9) Kathy Alexis Psomiades, Beauty's Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997), p. 33.
(10) Frances James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 8 vols. (Boston, 1857-58).
(11) William Allingham, ed., The Ballad Book: A Selection of the Choicest British Ballads (London, 1864), p. viii.
(12) Anon. Rev. of "The Ballad Book: A Selection of the Choicest British Ballads, by William Allingham," in North American Review 102, no. 1 (1866): 317.
(13) Jason Rudy, "On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad," VP 41, no. 4(2003): 591.
(14) Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (1932; New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 11.
(15) Beverly Taylor cautions against overdependence on biographical detail when analyzing Siddal's poetry: "Siddal's poems examine the gender codes and power relations of her time in penetrating ways we overlook by concentrating on the apparent correlation between their mournful tone and the known sorrows of her life" (p. 35). 1 agree with this to a certain extent; and thus this project emphasizes what Siddal's manipulation of the ballad form and the context of the ballad-revival permits her poems to accomplish. Yet, Siddal did have a difficult life, and to downplay that fact when considering her work seems somewhat disingenuous. Siddal's lived experience as an embodied subject will, in fact, be central to my discussion of her paintings and drawings in the next section.
(16) Marjorie Stone, "A Cinderella Among the Muses," Victorian Literature and Culture 21 (1993): 238.
(17) In the poem, the "great love" is presumably her son's father. Some biographical critics of this poem, however, link the speaker's pining for the lost love to Siddal's grief over her miscarriage.
(18) "Perhaps I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinion--hard as a rock--which the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting.... If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone." Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (London: MacMillan, 1984), p. 302.
(19) Iris Marion Young, "Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality," Human Studies 3, no. 2 (1980): 139.
(20) Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2010), p. 54.
(21) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Sister Helen," in Dante Gabriel Rossetti Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Jerome McGann (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 6-14- This excerpt is from lines 281-294.
(22) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, trans. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1964), p. 5 [italics in original].
(23) In fact, throughout the decade some critics perceived her art to be so unthreatening that they described it as childish. Nevertheless, Siddal sold Clerk Saunders at the PreRaphaelite Exhibition to an American from Harvard for the handsome sum of 30 pounds. For several years, John Ruskin had already been admiring Siddal's talent as an artist, and subsidizing her work with an allowance of 150 pounds a year, although there is evidence that she was uncomfortable with the arrangement, and considered it patronizing rather than patronage. See Elaine Shefer, "Elizabeth Siddal's 'Lady of Shalott,'" Women's Art Journal 9, no. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1988): 24; and Jan Marsh, PreRaphaelite Sisterhood (London: Quartet, 1985), p. 76.
(24) An incomplete catalogue of female writers of ekphrastic texts might include Joanna Baillie, Felicia Hemans, Fanny Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Vernon Lee, Michael Field, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Margaret Atwood, Natasha Trethewey, and Jorie Graham.
(25) Tilottama Rajan, The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 142, 141.
(26) See Marjorie Stone, who contends that critics today underappreciate the extent to which Tennyson's and Barrett Browning's exploration of ballad plots and motifs earned them tremendous popularity among Victorian readers.
(27) Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2006), p. 15 (my emphasis).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Ehnenn, Jill R.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
|Previous Article:||"Mighty through thy meats and drinks am I": the gendered politics of feast and fast in Tennyson's Idylls of the King.|
|Next Article:||Masculine identification and marital dissolution in Aurora Leigh.|