Passionate Love-Letters to a Dead Girl: Elizabeth Siddall in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

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While Oscar Wilde's attraction to Pre-Raphaelite art has been well documented, surprisingly little attention has been paid to his career-long fascination with Elizabeth Siddall (1829–62). This essay will demonstrate that Wilde's deep and abiding interest in Siddall reverberates across his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), to an extent that has not been considered. I will specifically argue that the suicide of Dorian Gray's lover Sibyl Vane was inspired by Elizabeth Siddall's untimely overdose. The very name Sibyl echoes Siddall, who is best known as the model for John Everett Millais's Ophelia and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix. I want to suggest that Siddall, long dead by the 1890s, may have been coded as Celtic across turn-of-the-century Irish literature in ways not hitherto considered. Although Siddall was not born of Irish parents, she served ‘as a model for “a fair Celt with red hair”’ for the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt, perhaps owing to the fact that she was copper-haired, ivory-skinned, Welsh, and working class. As such, Siddall ­– who has not previously been read in a Celtic context – might serve as a signifier of the young, pale, passive, red-haired Irish maiden romanticised across popular culture as a symbol of the Irish nation. Indeed, it is plausible that the Dublin-born Wilde was attracted to Siddall because of her resemblance to the aisling figure derived from the eighteenth-century Gaelic tradition and popular in turn-of-the-century Irish culture. The essay will examine closely the nods to Elizabeth Siddall in The Picture of Dorian Gray and ultimately will propose that the Pre-Raphaelite musings in Wilde – whose engagement with feminism and with his native Ireland have always been complicated – effectively, if not intentionally, silence the figure of the fin-de-siècle New Woman as she appeared across the British and Irish Isles.


Copyright 2017 Edinburgh University Press

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Orlando, Emily J. "Passionate Love-Letters to a Dead Girl: Elizabeth Siddall in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray." Victoriographies 7.2 (2017): 101-123. https://doi.org/10.3366/vic.2017.0266



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