Tortured Tales of Love from the Victorian Era

Tortured Tales of Love from the Victorian Era

Have a very Victorian Valentine’s Day with three stories of macabre romance from the footnotes of 19th-century English literature.
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Have a very Victorian Valentine’s Day with three stories of macabre romance from the footnotes of 19th-century English literature.

T he Romantics and Victorians had no shortage of lofty ideas about love – it was eternal, transcendent, supernatural, sublime – but god help the person who became an object of the poet’s desire.

An epic painting of a Jacobin soldier hugging his imprisoned wife
JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS’ THE ORDER OF RELEASE, 1746, 1852-53, DEPICTS HIS MUSE AND LATER LOVER AS THE WIFE OF A JACOBIN RELEASED FROM A BRITISH PRISON.

“The story of Effie Gray’s marriage to John Ruskin really embodies the Victorian notion of the ideal woman – a figure who’s defined more by aesthetics than reality,” says Dr Kalika Sands, a books specialist and head of sale at Sotheby’s. Ruskin dedicated the classic Victorian fairy tale The King of the Golden River to Gray when she was just 12 years old, and the two were wed in 1848 when Ruskin was 29 and Gray was 19.

Famously, they did not consummate their marriage during the five years they were married. “Ruskin admitted that he didn’t really understand what women were,” says Sands, “and so he agreed to have the marriage annulled.” The government accepted on the grounds of “incurable impotency.”

In fact, Gray had fallen in love with Sir John Everett Millais, who’d painted her in The Order of Release, 1746, an 1853 portrayal of an incarcerated Highland Jacobite soldier and his wife. The image depicted a woman implied to have sacrificed her virtue to atone for her husband’s rebellion against convention – in hindsight, it would prove a suitable subject for Millais, whose former lover’s ruin is the first of our three Victorian Valentine’s Day stories.

The Exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal

A founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Everett Millais sought “to study Nature attentively” – yet insects nearly ruined one of his most famous paintings. “The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh,” he wrote to a friend. “I am … in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that Lady sank to muddy death.”

Millais refers to the Ophelia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Driven to madness by her father’s murder, she drowns near the end of the tragedy: “Mermaid-like … she chanted snatches of old tunes … Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.”

By 1851, Millais was left with an unfinished painting of a bog in his studio, which he had no plans of finishing en plein air. “Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging,” he wrote. So the artist acquired a splendid old dress – “all flowered over in silver embroidery” – and summoned his muse of the moment, a model named Elizabeth Siddal. She spent four months posing as Ophelia in lukewarm bath water while Millais integrated her drowning likeness into the picture. At one point, the oil lamps heating the tub went out, causing Siddal to catch an awful cold – and her father to threaten the painter with a lawsuit.

A romantic painting of a woman drowning in a lake, modeled after Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
ELIZABETH SIDDAL SAT IN A BATHTUB EVERY DAY FOR 4 MONTHS WHILE SHE WAS ADDED TO JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS’ OPHELIA, 1851-51. IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
“Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.”
- John Everett Millais

The result was one of the most sensual paintings of 19th-century British art. Ophelia floats corpselike beneath an oppressive thicket, rendered in excruciating detail. Around her neck, a garland of violets symbolizes her chastity, while other flowers represent her love, innocence and death. Ophelia is considered one of the masterpieces of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but not everyone who saw it was impressed. Ruskin found the painting “insipid” – and then Millais wooed Ruskin’s wife.

Not to be discarded, Siddal deepened her relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another founding Pre-Raphaelite for whom she served as model and muse. As Lucinda Hawksley writes in her extraordinary biography of Siddal, she lived on a stipend from Ruskin while delaying her marriage to Rossetti due to her fiancé’s philandering.

A romantic painting of a red-haired women posed to resemble Beatrice Portinari from Dane Alighieri's Divine Comedy
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s BEATA BEATRIX, CIRCA 1864-70, MEMORIALIZED SIDDAL AS DANTE ALIGHIERI’S AMOUR. IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Siddal unfortunately developed a terrible addiction to laudanum, and in February 1862, overdosed on the drug and died. Rossetti was distraught. He placed a copy of his verse in Siddal’s coffin, against her cheek and entwined by locks of her hair. The image of his dearly departed weighed on his mind – he later immortalized her as Beatrice Portinari, the subject of Dante Alighieri’s unrequited love, in Beata Beatrix.

1862 also saw the publication of Goblin Market, the first book of poems by Christina Rossetti, the artist’s sister, who would become a preeminent poet of the Victorian era. Dante Rossetti illustrated the volume and designed its binding, contributing to its success. The book’s popularity no doubt fueled her brother’s desire to be known as a man of letters. There was only one problem: all his verse lay entombed at London’s Highgate Cemetery, buried alongside his wife.

For years, Dante resisted temptation before acquiescing to the advice of his agent. In 1869, he leveraged his relationship with the Home Secretary to have Siddal’s corpse quietly exhumed in the middle of the night. His agent later recalled that her body remained “quite perfect”; legend has it that her resplendent hair grew and grew until it pervaded the coffin.

Rossetti received his poetry – reeking of disinfectant and riddled with wormholes – two weeks later, whereupon it became the sole source of his collected works.

The Curious Case of the Calcified Heart

The Romantic and Victorian eras saw an influx of objects made in memoriam: mourning jewelry crafted from the deceased’s hair, postmortem photography of subjects staged in vibrant tableaux, death masks cast from a lost one’s likeness. But Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley held on to her husband’s heart.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was 29 when he died in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy on 8 July 1822. When his body was found ten days later, his face and hands were badly decomposed; he was identified by a book of John Keats’ Romantic poetry found in his pocket. A month later, Lord Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt had Shelley’s body dug up and cremated on a pyre – a funeral rendered at epic scale by the painter Louis Édouard Fournier.

An epic, romantic painting of the poet Percy Shelley's funeral after a shipwreck
LOUIS ÉDOUARD FOURNIER’S THE FUNERAL OF SHELLEY, 1889, DEPICTS THE YOUNG POET’S CREMATION, ATTENDED BY TRELAWNY, HUNT AND BYRON. MARY SHELLEY IS AT FAR LEFT. IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
“It is to be my last thought in life, how my soul yearns after you, even now – It is my last idea – the sweetest – the only perfect one – my love – I am content.”
- Mary Shelley, ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’

But a piece of Percy’s heart refused to burn – it had probably calcified when he’d suffered a bout of tuberculosis years before. Trelawney plucked the hardened object from the fire and gave it to Hunt, who preserved it in purified alcohol.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was barely four years old when the Gothic author found herself in possession of her husband’s embalmed heart. It’s impossible to say what she thought of the aberrant organ, yet it seemed, for her, to take on the aura of a relic – an inexplicable object imbued with otherworldly significance by the magnitude of her loss.

A portrait of the Gothic novelist and author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, depicting her wearing a mourning shawl
A MINIATURE PORTRAIT OF MARY SHELLEY BY REGINALD EASTON, LIKELY DRAWN FROM HER DEATH MASK, CIRCA 1857. IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

She carried Percy’s heart as she traveled across the continent with the couple’s only surviving son. In her morose travelogue Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) she recounts coming to terms with Percy’s death: “My love, my only love – how will this ceaseless longing end? – I am the most miserable of mortals – I am the most happy – the way you died, the wild storm that rose around you, and the waves that took you from us – and that lone ocean-burial – I am at peace.”

On 1 February 1851, Mary died from a suspected brain tumor and was laid to rest near her home at Boscombe. One year later, her family began to clean out her desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she’d shared with her husband and a copy of Adonaï: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, one of Percy’s final poems, which was wrapped around a silk parcel containing the ossified remains of his heart.

The Cat That Ate Thomas Hardy’s Heart

Apparently, it’s rather common for men to bequeath their hearts – a practice not without its risks. Napoleon Bonaparte’s heart was removed during his autopsy, with some sources suggesting it was intended as a gift for his estranged wife; his physician kept it instead. Frédéric Chopin’s was pickled in a crystal jar, encased in a Warsaw church and stolen by Nazis. Thomas Hardy’s was allegedly eaten by a cat.

Perhaps the last great writer of Victorian England, Hardy was honored with a spot in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, near Charles Dickens’ grave, after his death in 1928. Except Hardy, an agnostic, had stated a desire to be buried in Dorset. Florence Dugdale, his widow, and Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, his executor, reached a compromise: the author’s ashes would be spread between Westminster and the garden of his home in Dorchester, while his heart would be interred in Stinsford.

A black-and-white photograph of the Victorian Realist novelist Thomas Hardy’s funeral
HARDY’S COFFIN LEAVES THE NOVELIST’S HOME AT MAX GATE IN DORCHESTER TO BE CREMATED IN WOKING, JANUARY 1928. PHOTO BY TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY / HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES

At the Stinsford churchyard, Hardy’s organ was removed during his embalming. There’s no real evidence of anything untoward happening next. Nonetheless a rumor spread that the physician stored Hardy’s heart in a biscuit tin overnight, when it was nibbled on by his cat. In the morning, upon discovering human offal on its whiskers, the doctor wrung the poor animal’s neck.

Thankfully, no cats were actually murdered – and Hardy’s heart is intact. Still, the piece of apocrypha has a curious staying power. Although he was influenced by Romantics such as William Wordsworth, Hardy was unequivocally a Realist in the vein of George Eliot – he’d no doubt be delighted by the parable of an animal whose natural instincts placed him in conflict with human sentimentality. Yet the fact that the legend still clings to Hardy even now suggests the degree to which grand, Victorian allegories of love still course through modern tales of romance.

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