Chapter 3: Lizzie and Dante
I have been here before,
You have been mine before, –
Has this been thus before?
Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1863)
February 11, 1862
Lizzie decided to arrange the flat that morning. She made sure that every piece of furniture was free of dust and motes and every paintbrush and color bottle in Dante’s studio placed exactly as he liked. All the rags folded and tucked in the armoire. She moved to the bath next. She placed all her hairbrushes on her dresser making sure that they were perfectly aligned. Her wardrobe consisted of several garments of dresses and underthings were neatly folded and exact. She thought “there, just like always.”
She heard the water come to a boil in the pot and decided to use the fine china given to her by Dante’s mother on their wedding day, “a family heirloom must always be used for the most perfect occasion,” Lizzie recalled Dante’s mother tell her. Lizzie thought that today is definitely a day that can be considered as such.
She took the cup with its delicate etchings of posies weaved within thin leaves, and a silver spoon from the cabinet. The tea set was an heirloom that travelled from the motherland of Dante’s ancestry in Italy. It was one of the few sentimental things that his family brought over when they learned of their banishment from their own home. With this in mind, Lizzie always took care to make sure that she only uses the heirloom for meaningful occasions. She had already taken out the tea jar and the silver box from her stationery filled with its white powder of dreams.
Dreams to Lizzie are the means she found escape. There, she may come across herself as a young girl playing in a field of daisies on a summer’s day when her mother would take a moment just for her. Sometimes her dreams took her to a time with the artist known as John Everett Millais when he painted her for his work. He was truly pleased when she followed his instruction to become a vacant soul as she laid there in the bath filled with ice cold water. Little did he know that he need not to guide her, Lizzie knew how to escape the prison that is her body. John was quite proud of himself for being able to convince her to take on such an endeavor. Lizzie didn’t find the heart to tell him that she looked forward to such escapes in more ways than one. It was no surprise that when he unveiled his painting of Ophelia that there were a few of those who regarded it with interests, and it was not until decades later that many art enthusiasts fell in love with its beauty.
The pot screamed out once more and Lizzie grabbed a tea towel. She watched as the white powder dissolved, and the tea color materialized in a cesspool of aubergine liquid. How beautiful, she thought. Such color would be difficult to capture in canvas. It had always been a fascination of Lizzie that she defined meaning through the colors before her. What was devastating, Lizzie thought, was that her artistic spirit never fully came to fruition. Lizzie accepted that she would only be known as a muse, and never more than that.
Art is a world created by men and she knew her place in that world.
Lizzie decided to take her tea away from the settee, where she usually sat in the afternoon. Rather, she thought, it would be quite impressive to take it in the bath instead. How defiant would that appear to the eloquence and the expectations of etiquette in society? Lizzie gracefully placed one leg in the bath as she laid the cup of tea on the marbled floor. She lowered herself gently to avoid any spill as if the bath water actually filled the vessel. She sat there in the cold carriage as she sipped her dreams slowly.
Her mind wandered to and fro certain times in her life; faces filled her thoughts as they drifted in and out. Dante, his face of an angel; her savior and her damnation. Yet, it was Dante who made her feel the life in her bones and the fibers of her being. The anger he fueled within himself ignited a life in Lizzie that she had no inkling existed.
She had known all along whom they were before they decided to embark on this journey together. Lizzie believed that he would never realize this truth. She allowed him to believe that he was always several steps ahead of her. But she knew better.
Lizzie knew then that she has been given another chance and another life with him. The minute she saw him writing away in his own quiet storm on a grassy hill; his fingers stained with ink and colors of every palette imaginable.
She had no vague idea what it was that she felt, all she heard was a voice. A voice barely a whisper graced her ear and said, “there he is.” That was enough. She remembered how she walked up to him and said hello. He acknowledged her with a grunt response, and she cleared her throat louder and said hello once more. It was then that he looked up and smiled. She saw up close that the corner of his eyes wrinkled and that his lips reminded her of a bow outstretched before the arrow left its possession.
The way he looked at her in that single moment, Lizzie realized years later, was the last.
Dante, along with his artistic circle of brothers, called those who stood in front of their storm as their ‘Muses’. Lizzie scoffed at this notion. She was far more than that to Dante. Her role in his life exceeded that of wife, nor muse. There is no word to describe who she was to Dante.
Even he cannot define her, or who they are in this life.
As the years passed and time became a lost figure in their marriage, Lizzie understood that she became an object to him, one whose sole purpose in this life was to nurture an artistic storm he possessed, never one to find calm. To take away his storm, to dull his being was the only power that Lizzie can think of to rip away from him.
She thought that she could handle all of it this time around. This life with him, she once believed was tolerable. Her tolerance of his presence became her only ability to convey how she felt towards Dante. She believed that it was her will to get through was her key.
But, alas, Lizzie smiled to herself as she took the last sip of her tea, she denied the truth that hid behind every door. She nor Dante were ready. The empty shell that is her being in this life continued to leak in all ways it can. There was just no way to fill it quickly enough.
Not even the stirring of hope within her womb who will never see the light of day.
Ah, Dante, Lizzie thought.
She peaked at his latest creation, one that she was certain he had been working on for the last two days. Perhaps he had finally understood what she has known all along. Lizzie can only hope that he has finally awakened. Lizzie began to drift off and she remembered the first line “I have been here before… Dante what a fool you are..” she whispered ever so lightly as she drifted off to a dreamless sleep.
Dante took the shorter route home that day with the hope that he can share this new profound thought with Lizzie. His Lizzie. Dante’s Lizzie was the essence of his inspiration. He siphons on her very being. Every inch of her skin, every movement of her graceful body, and every strand of her hair had been etched in his mind. He may forget the many paintings he had created and forgotten the many poetic lines he has written, but he cannot forget Lizzie’s every inch in being. Lizzie is the air in which Dante breathes to survive in this life.
He walked with determination without paying any heed to the world around him. It was almost spring in London, yet those who found themselves in habit of walking the streets could barely tell. The air was often thick with yellow fog causing lung pain to its inhabitants. The streets are filled with horse manure at every corner permeating the noses of those who found themselves quite near the pile. It was difficult to walk amongst these streets. Women who were guided by their male companion with the utmost etiquette would allow them to walk on the inner part of the street to avoid the mess on the outer side of it. All this did not bother Dante that day. He was well known for what some considered as admirable whenever he became determined.
With Lizzie, Dante knew the very moment that he came to this conclusion of his love for her, that it will be his demise. A tragic demise about to unfold which he knew existed and lurked in every corner of his mind. But, his Lizzie was there for him. How else could he manage this raging war in his mind?
There were moments in Dante’s stupor when he made the decision to leave her and never return. And just as soon as he made that decision, her likeness floats in his mind causing him to disown such a rash decision.
Lizzie’s soul with its empty nature was what drove Dante to notice her. To Dante, Lizzie’s melancholy and sadness wasn’t something he ever wanted to change. In fact, he nurtured it. Her darkness and her longing was something that Dante wanted to nurture, to enhance—it made his work even more precise and confusing. The idea that this beautiful muse evokes sadness and deprives herself of any form of happiness drove Dante to heights of artistic creation. Any sign of her jolliness was quickly put to rest. Dante would leave her for hours and not return. And when he did, he would make sure that he left traces of his whereabouts, a lock of hair, the smell of another on his waistcoat, anything to arouse her suspicion and bring her back to her darkness. When Lizzie would fall back into herself, Dante would re-create her on canvas. He never thought for a moment that Lizzie did not love him enough and he was aware that she sensed that her darkness fed his talent. Her love for his talent and for him was enough. Dante believed in this the same way he believed in his spirituality.
When Dante arrived home that day, he was greeted with a still silence that overwhelmed him. He had hoped that Lizzie would be taking her tea in her favorite chaise to greet him. He yelled for her and noticed that there was no response. He walked in their bedroom thinking that Lizzie must have decided to nap and found that their room was impeccably tidy, unlike how he left that morning. He decided to go in his studio just to see if she was there. There are times when he would find her in his studio just standing in front of the easel looking at a blank canvas with just of a blank expression her face. Dante could never figure out which looked more beautiful and tempting to him: his wife or the canvas.
The bath was the last place he looked.
Upon opening the bathroom door a crack, he noticed that on the marbled floor lay Lizzie’s favorite teacup and her hand gracefully hanging over the rim of the tub. His excitement of telling her the news got the better of him and as opened the door much wider, he saw a sight before him that he neither could re-capture as art nor etched out of his mind for the rest of his life.
In his hand he dropped the single sheaf of paper as he stepped towards his wife, folded neatly showing only a simple line that read, “But when or how I cannot tell”—