John Everett Millais


John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

Part Ten Chapter 9

The twins are particularly moved by the story of Lizzie Siddal, the drowned Ophelia in Millais’ painting: Insufficiently educated to become a governess or teacher, too talented and intelligent to settle for factory work or shop assistant, she built a career as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti fell in love with her, but the marriage that would give her a social existence was repeatedly put off. To make her less lower class, to give her the opportunity to cultivate herself, Rossetti wanted her to give up modelling, or rather to pose only for him; the sole alternative to marriage would then become impoverished spinsterhood. Lizzie did give up modelling, seeking to elevate herself in society, but not before posing for Millais: Stretched out in a bathtub with oil lamps underneath to heat the water, she posed as the drowned Ophelia. The last session lasted five hours, the oil ran out in the lamps; Lizzie was chilled to the bone, but did not complain: Her capacity to give herself up completely is what makes the painting so convincing. Finally married to Rossetti, she became pregnant; the child, however, died in her womb. Lizzie then took an overdose of opium and alcohol and killed herself.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Regina Cordium, 1860

“Rossetti painted his new wife as the Queen of Hearts shortly after their return from their honeymoon. The viewer can appreciate how ill Lizzie was when modelling for this painting, she appears too listless to be convincing as the intended subject.”

From the biography by Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites (NY: Walker & Co., 2004)

Arthur Hughes, Ophelia, 1851-54

Part Ten Chapter 8

The cat jumps off the bed; under the table, it rubs itself on my legs. Anna, her back against the headboard, draws up her legs and hugs her knees.

̶ Snúlli likes you, Sprague. It’s rare she’s affectionate with anyone but me.

She smiles into my eyes: Her gaze is disquieting, there’s an aware sexuality in her charm. I open the box: In one photo after another, in subdued Kodachrome colours, Anna and Gudrun take turns to play the drowned Ophelia: Now submerged in a stream, flower-strewn hair and long white dress flowing in the grassy current, now floating in reedy water, eyes and hands open to heaven, they perform variations on the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of femininity. As I study the images, Anna studies her face in a hand mirror.

̶  They’re really lovely, Anna.
̶  Do you like them?

She takes off her cardigan.

̶̶  Yes, very much.

With consummate skill she’s captured all the tropes of the romantic myth: still water as a call from the deep, reality yielding to dream, death as sleep.

̶̶  You’ve mastered light on water, Anna.
̶  You mean I know how to use a polarizing filter.
̶  And the flowers are very well arranged.
̶  Flowers! Snúlli, come!

The cat jumps onto the bed; Anna stretches out her legs and places the animal in her lap. So this is how you manage the ambiguities of adolescence, this is how you cope with its contradictions: Stroking the cat in your lap while Ophelia preserves your innocence, her death arresting you in childhood. Yes, you’ve staged things beautifully; you’ve realized your fantasy of a pure sexuality, a sexuality without the sex: The dead Ophelia, your second twin, never having become a woman, saves you from the violence of becoming one. But your photos are out of date, they don’t fool me: I know that though you be fifteen, you are impatient for deflowering— I can tell by how you blossom in my presence.

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1889