Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Melodramatic/businesslike

Angela Leighton reviews the latest volumes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's surprisingly businesslike letters at the TLS. Here's an account of DGR's decision to exhume the poetry manuscript he buried along with his dead wife Lizzie Siddal:

The emotional cost of that event can be gleaned only from the odd word here and there. Certainly, between 1865 and 1870 Lizzie was not entirely undisturbed. As a friend put it, she was “constantly appearing (that is, rapping out things) at the séances at Cheyne Walk – !”. On this topic Rosetti’s letters are silent. Whatever news he sought from the other world is kept to himself. The episode of the chaffinch, which has been taken as the turning point in his decision to recover the poems, is reported indirectly by a friend. On picking up the bird, Rossetti apparently cried out: “It is my wife, the spirit of my wife, the soul of her has taken this shape”. Lizzie, who is rarely mentioned in these letters, is evidently a restless lodger in his imagination. The actual exhumation of the grave, in October 1869, only gave that restlessness a wider and more complicated circulation. Rossetti did not attend the event, but followed its progress closely. The recovery of his poems, poems which are “as I may say, dead stock”, set loose a mix of morbid fear and guilt which would run for years. A briefly mooted, then suppressed, suggestion that he might dedicate the volume to Janey Morris reinforces the undercurrent of plunder and betrayal. These grave-goods, Rossetti knew at some level, were a way of stealing from one woman to give to another.

Little of this inner turmoil, however, is verbally apparent. Even during the event, the letters appear all sense and practicalities. The “rough grey calf” cover of the manuscript – not, Rossetti explained, to be confused with the copy of the Bible also in the grave – had to be recovered, disinfected and then carefully transcribed, in spite of, as he puts it, “a great worm-hole right through every page” of “Jenny”. He sends a vivid drawing of that hole to William Michael, showing the precise proportions. “It has a dreadful smell”, he warns him of the whole. The few friends in the know were sworn to secrecy, although, Dante Gabriel guessed, in a word which touches a bit too closely on the physics of the event, “the truth must ooze out in time”. It is as if the self-protective cloak of his matter-of-fact style is punctured, here and there, by words which mean more than they should. One of these becomes prominent through sheer repetition. Four days after the exhumation, he writes, with relieved satisfaction: “It, and all with it, was found quite perfect”.


I did not know that DGR kept such a menagerie in his house on Cheyne Walk, but he does not seem to have taken care of the animals very well. In the letters, the menagerie

which included a zebu (a small domestic ox), a parrot, a peacock, a dormouse, a wombat, a fawn, a woodchuck and a laughing jackass, . . . remains largely invisible. The beloved, much-sketched wombat survived only two months, the dormouse was found caught in a trap, “almost dead . . . but still gnawing at the wires”, the fawn pulled out all the peacock’s tail-feathers, and the jackass “drowned himself in a tub of water”. “My poor beasts have been dying fast”, Rossetti writes in 1871, and hurries on to other matters.

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