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Elizabeth Siddal and the pre-Raphaelites in Autumn by Philippe Delerm

December 30, 2011 14 comments

Autumn by Philippe Delerm. 1990. Not translated into English, the French original has an English title

Le soir venait comme à regret. Automne. Automne déployé contre le ciel, en branches entrelacées. Automne sur le sol jonché de feuilles, et cette odeur des pommes sous la pluie. Feuilles rouge écarlate sur les murs de Cheyne Walk baignés de vigne vierge. Branches de feuilles gagnant les fenêtres, s’élançant sur le toit. Feuilles tombées, mêlées sur la terre encore chaude aux mains ouvertes mordorées des feuilles de platane, au cuivre finement lancéolé des érables, des châtaigniers, au jaune vif si doucement ourlé des feuilles de chêne les plus minuscules. Tout était feuille, tout était l’automne : la mort du parc si bonne à fouler doucement, l’approche de la mort en beauté finissante. Il marchait comme enivré, les pieds dans la mélancolie bruissante, le regard fatigué noyé par la lumière chaude, rassurante, désespérée. Comme il était bon pour ce soir de se plonger dans le feuillage à chaque instant plus sombre, de boire en vin d’automne la danse d’or du désespoir. The evening was approaching sorrowfully. Autumn. Autumn with its enlaced branches unfurling against the sky. Autumn, covering the ground with leaves, and the scent of apples in the rain. Scarlet leaves all over the walls of Cheyne Walk which were overflowing with wild vine. Branches of leaves creeping over the windows, soaring over the roof. On the earth, still warm, fallen leaves, intermingled with the golden brown and wide open fingers of the sycamore leaves, the delicately striped copper of the maple, the chestnuts, the intense and softly seamed yellow of the tiniest oak leaves. All was leaves, all was autumn: it felt so good to tread softly the death of the park, and to watch the death of extinguished beauty slowly approaching. He was walking, as if drunk, his feet lost in melancholy swooshing, his tired gaze drowning in warm, reassuring and desperate light. How good it was, just for one night, to dive into the foliage that grew in darkness with every moment, to drink the autumnal wine of the golden dance of despair. BIG THANK YOU to Caroline for the translation, that was too difficult for me.

 Autumn starts in 1869 when Dante Gabriel Rossetti has Elizabeth Siddal exhumed for the sake of poetry. Indeed, he threw the only original copy of his poems in her grave when she was buried seven years before. After this first chapter, we go back in time and Philippe Delerm relates the adventure of the P.R.B. (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and the intertwined destinies of this group of artists. Delerm’s perspective is from the inside. We follow Walter Deverell when he discovers Elizabeth Siddal. We enter Ruskin’s household. We meet Rossetti’s family and home, follow his obsessions and addictions. We hover over Elizabeth Siddal when she’s away from Rossetti. We see John Everett Millais move forward with the former Euphemia Ruskin. We notice William Morris and his furniture and design company. We hardly hear about exhibitions, critics or scandals but we guess there were a lot of them.

Chapters alternate between the description of key moments in the group’s life and letters from one member to the other. Despite rivalries, disagreements and time, they remain bound by an unbreakable Ariadne’s thread. Rossetti is charismatic and obsessed with Dante and his Beatrix. His father, relentless translator of Alighieri cast a spell on his son. He passed on his passion for the Divine Comedy to Dante Gabriel, like a disease. His name itself speaks of angels and hell. His life will be torn between the quest of a pure paradise and frequent visits to an earthly hell of drugs and sex. Elizabeth is an image; she almost gave up her life to be a muse, an icon, reaching eternity in paintings. Melancholy runs in her veins, nurturing her beauty. She becomes someone else, the Beatrix Rossetti is desperately seeking. Ruskin isn’t a likeable personality, domineering when art is concerned, childish in personal matters. The others, Millais in particular, are tempted by domestic happiness.

All these people have a problem with sex and love. Ruskin never slept with his wife and is attracted to a little girl. Rossetti has the eternal saint/whore dilemma; ethereal and perfect love with Elizabeth, sensual love with Fanny, debauch in the filthy areas of London. Millais slowly discovers sex with Euphemia and I was surprised that a man of his age was still a virgin. Christina Rossetti is on the sainthood path, sublimating any physical attraction in her poetry. The Victorian era corseted sex in such a rigid code that it created dysfunctional adults who either feared sex or felt guilty.

When John Everett Millais gives in to domestic happiness with Euphemia, he and Rossetti say his painting loses its edge. And the recurring question came to my mind: do you need to be tortured to be a genius in art? Or do we see artists as tortured because as they see more, feel more, they have more difficulties to cast into the mold that society prepared for them?

Delerm wrote an atmospheric book. Autumn as the death of summer, of youth, of dreams. Autumn as Elizabeth Siddal’s hair. Autumn as the warm colours of the pre-Raphaelite paintings. Autumn as the declining health of Walter Deverell and Lizzie Siddal, as Rossetti’s dying eyesight. Delerm’s novel is full of sensations. His words talk to our five senses and he manages to let you smell the wet rich earth, hear the dead leaves crack under the character’s feet, see the metallic grey of the sky, touch the silken texture of Elizabeth’s hair and taste the perfume of summer flowers. His words are full of cross-sensations. He manages to bring the sensations to life by using words for one sense to the other; I mean words you use for sounds to describe something you see. It’s a symphony of sensations. He has a unique way to describe melancholy, that feeling that gives you shivers in the neck like an autumn drizzle.

I came to this book via an indirect path. I’ve been to the exhibition Beauté, morale et volupté dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde at the Musée d’Orsay. Oscar Wilde’s name attracted me and anyway I’m interested in anything that can enlighten my reading of Victorian writers. I discovered the aesthetic movement there. The exhibition is fascinating, showing how the PRB’s quest imprinted the society in its everyday life. There were paintings of course but also wallpapers, furniture, porcelain and clothes. A full journey into an art movement. I knew Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings but I’d never heard of the PRB or the other painters or Elizabeth Siddal’s tragic story. I wonder how such a long and strong movement had escaped my radar. I suspect that the average French is like me and that’s why Oscar Wilde’s name was included in the exhibition’s title. As an aside, Caroline reviewed the BBC mini-series about the pre-Raphaelite painters here.

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