How they met Themselves by Loretta Proctor

Posted by on Jan 21, 2013 in 19th England, Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Tidbits | Comments Off on How they met Themselves by Loretta Proctor

Pen and brush drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti c.1861

With a peculiar start of recognition, I first came across this unusual and atmospheric drawing in the 1980’s. In this haunting image of a man and woman walking in the deep woods and meeting an apparition of their higher and spiritual selves, I met myself as well.  For me, the swooning earthbound lady craves to reach her otherworldly self, glowing with ghostly and luminous light.  The spirit maiden gazes back at her with a troubled, compassionate look.  The men in the picture are shocked, afraid, challenging, hands on their swords – as men often seem to be when presented with anything unearthly or otherworldly.  I felt that yearning for my higher ‘self’, felt the amazing pull of understanding and depth that this picture depicted.

Forests and woods represent the unconscious mind and when we enter these woods and tangled byways of the mind we make a special journey where we can become lost unless we have some familiarity with them.  It is a journey of the soul through a landscape that is confusing, mysterious, frightening and yet full of delights.  Birdsong, little creatures, large fierce animals, healing and poisonous plants meet us at every turn and we feel a part of the rustling music all around us.  Here in the forest, Rossetti’s couples meet each other.  It is the mystical quaternio, the four functions identified by Carl Jung, the great psychologist and philosopher.  It is the anima and animus seeking their higher selves.  It is all this and more.

What I didn’t see at that time was that it is a ‘doppelganger’ picture and that a message from Gabriel Dante Rossetti’s unconscious mind.  The doppelganger is said to appear when we are about to die and this vision heralded a startling and prophetic presage of events that were later to envelop him.  I will always be a follower of  Jungian psychology and thus for me the picture has meanings that are nothing to do with doppelgangers.  In fact, I knew nothing about this concept or a great deal about Gabriel Rossetti at that time.  It was much later that I discovered that he drew this picture while on honeymoon with Lizzie Siddal whom he married in 1860.  Interestingly, a tradition in the Talmud does not see the doppelganger as an evil portent but rather as a meeting with God.  This is far closer to my own feeling about this picture.

Rossetti met Lizzie when she began modelling for Holman Hunt and some of the other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  He was attracted to this slender, red-haired girl so much that he eventually lured her away from his colleagues to model exclusively for himself.   Lizzie was never a beauty as such but she had a certain magnetic quality and was a highly sensitive and intelligent young woman with aspirations of her own about becoming a poet and an artist.  It soon became evident to his friends that Gabriel and Lizzie were falling in love with one another.

Ostensibly, Lizzie became Rossetti’s fiancée but he found himself unable to commit to marrying her.  This was partly from lack of ‘tin’, as he would have called his financial deprivations but above all, it was also due to his intrinsic nature and attitude to life.   Rossetti appeared to dislike any form of authority, constrictions of convention, or entrapments, be it the need to adhere to the developed notions and rules of painting or the need to meet deadlines for a client or in this case, to commit himself to marriage.  He preferred his Beloved Damozel, his rarified Beatrice, on canvas, in his poetry and in his imagination.  He saw her through the eyes of his passionate Italian soul.

Lizzie was constantly delicate and unwell though she managed to travel about the country, take arduous journeys abroad for recuperation, walk miles, and achieve other considerable activities despite her ‘frailness’.  Was this mere neurotic hypochondrium, a method of manipulating and controlling Rossetti?   Or simply the peculiar ennui that attacked so many intelligent and creative Victorian women who found little outlet for their talents and intelligence?  Hardly the latter, for the Pre-Raphaelite men actively encouraged the talents and work of their lady companions.  Rossetti did much to encourage Lizzie.  He taught her to draw and paint alongside him.  Lizzie’s work was much admired by John Ruskin who actively arranged to buy some of the designs and seemed much impressed and taken with her ladylike style and good manners. .

However, Lizzie’s position was a difficult one.  She was engaged but not married and the years were passing her by.  It seems too that it was unlikely that the couple lived together as physical lovers.  We look on it all with modern mores (poor Rossetti has lately been depicted in a dreadful BBC programme as a boozing womaniser.  He was nothing of the sort but an intellectual, sensitive, serious and deeply thoughtful person.)  If his love for Lizzie and for Jane Morris tended towards the archetypal, anima figure, the soul woman within every man, the women that appealed to his sexual needs were more of the Fanny Cornforth type.  These women were earthy, warm, common, plump, kind, and loving, generally untroubled about their reputations. Lizzie strikes one as a cold, highly reserved person in many ways.  Thus, sexual frustrations may also have played a part in her illness and in Rossetti’s difficulties in coming to terms with the real woman in her rather than his own projected anima image.

Rossetti parted eventually from Lizzie when they both realised their love was finally over.  This left Lizzie in the invidious position of being a rejected woman, now too ‘old’ and too ailing to find another suitor.  She was apparently close to dying when she contacted Rossetti who came rushing to her side and in a fit of guilt (supposing she was about to die soon) married her in a very private ceremony.  While on their honeymoon he began the drawing of How They Met Themselves, a strange, haunting doppelganger picture that did indeed presage the sad death of Lizzie’s baby girl in childbirth and then the suicide of Lizzie herself shortly afterwards from an overdose of laudanum . Whether this was by mistake or by her own hand is never quite clear.  She did leave a note, which Madox Brown destroyed, so the latter seems more likely.  Later Rossetti completed the work in oils and it is to be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.

This strange story was unknown to me when I first came across the reproduction in a book on Pre-Raphaelite art.  I was so taken with it that I sat down and copied it in the exact original size in pencil and my eyesight suffered for days as a result, so minute is the detail involved.  I am not displeased with the result and have my own copy of the famous picture now!  And it made so deep an impression upon me that I resolved one day to write a story set in the Pre-Raphaelite era of art; a story that would contrast two artistic couples who were similar and yet different, reflections of one another.  This, therefore, is the germ of The Crimson Bed that lay dormant within me for some time.

doppelganger: German for ‘double walker.’

Loretta Proctor, January 21, 2013