How They Met Themselves
1. An article on the 'bogie' drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
With a peculiar start of recognition, I first came across this unusual and atmospheric drawing in the 1980’s. In this haunting image of a man and woman walking in the deep woods and meeting an apparition of their higher and spiritual selves, I met myself as well. For me, the swooning earthbound lady craves to reach her otherworldly self, glowing with ghostly and luminous light. The spirit maiden gazes back at her with a troubled, compassionate look. The men in the picture are shocked, afraid, challenging, hands on their swords – as men often seem to be when presented with anything unearthly or otherworldly. I felt that yearning for my higher ‘self’, felt the amazing pull of understanding and depth that this picture depicted.
Forests and woods represent the unconscious mind and when we enter these woods and tangled byways of the mind we make a special journey where we can become lost unless we have some familiarity with them. It is a journey of the soul through a landscape that is confusing, mysterious, frightening and yet full of delights. Birdsong, little creatures, large fierce animals, healing and poisonous plants meet us at every turn and we feel a part of the rustling music all around us. Here in the forest, Rossetti's couples meet each other. It is the mystical quaternio, the four functions identified by Carl Jung, the great psychologist and philosopher. It is the anima and animus seeking their higher selves. It is all this and more.
What I didn’t see at that time was that it is a ‘doppelganger’ picture and that a message from Gabriel Dante Rossetti’s unconscious mind. The doppelganger is said to appear when we are about to die and this vision heralded a startling and prophetic presage of events that were later to envelop him. I will always be a follower of Jungian psychology and thus for me the picture has meanings that are nothing to do with doppelgangers. In fact, I knew nothing about this concept or a great deal about Gabriel Rossetti at that time. It was much later that I discovered that he drew this picture while on honeymoon with Lizzie Siddal whom he married in 1860. Interestingly, a tradition in the Talmud does not see the doppelganger as an evil portent but rather as a meeting with God. This is far closer to my own feeling about this picture.
Rossetti met Lizzie when she began modelling for Holman Hunt and some of the other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was attracted to this slender, red-haired girl so much that he eventually lured her away from his colleagues to model exclusively for himself. Lizzie was never a beauty as such but she had a certain magnetic quality and was a highly sensitive and intelligent young woman with aspirations of her own about becoming a poet and an artist. It soon became evident to his friends that Gabriel and Lizzie were falling in love with one another.
Ostensibly, Lizzie became Rossetti’s fiancée but he found himself unable to commit to marrying her. This was partly from lack of ‘tin’, as he would have called his financial deprivations but above all, it was also due to his intrinsic nature and attitude to life. Rossetti appeared to dislike any form of authority, constrictions of convention, or entrapments, be it the need to adhere to the developed notions and rules of painting or the need to meet deadlines for a client or in this case, to commit himself to marriage. He preferred his Beloved Damozel, his rarified Beatrice, on canvas, in his poetry and in his imagination. He saw her through the eyes of his passionate Italian soul.
Lizzie was constantly delicate and unwell though she managed to travel about the country, take arduous journeys abroad for recuperation, walk miles, and achieve other considerable activities despite her ‘frailness’. Was this mere neurotic hypochondrium, a method of manipulating and controlling Rossetti? Or simply the peculiar ennui that attacked so many intelligent and creative Victorian women who found little outlet for their talents and intelligence? Hardly the latter, for the Pre-Raphaelite men actively encouraged the talents and work of their lady companions. Rossetti did much to encourage Lizzie. He taught her to draw and paint alongside him. Lizzie’s work was much admired by John Ruskin who actively arranged to buy some of the designs and seemed much impressed and taken with her ladylike style and good manners. .
However, Lizzie's position was a difficult one. She was engaged but not married and the years were passing her by. It seems too that it was unlikely that the couple lived together as physical lovers. We look on it all with modern mores (poor Rossetti has lately been depicted in a dreadful BBC programme as a boozing womaniser. He was nothing of the sort but an intellectual, sensitive, serious and deeply thoughtful person.) If his love for Lizzie and for Jane Morris tended towards the archetypal, anima figure, the soul woman within every man, the women that appealed to his sexual needs were more of the Fanny Cornforth type. These women were earthy, warm, common, plump, kind, and loving, generally untroubled about their reputations. Lizzie strikes one as a cold, highly reserved person in many ways. Thus, sexual frustrations may also have played a part in her illness and in Rossetti’s difficulties in coming to terms with the real woman in her rather than his own projected anima image.
Rossetti parted eventually from Lizzie when they both realised their love was finally over. This left Lizzie in the invidious position of being a rejected woman, now too ‘old’ and too ailing to find another suitor. She was apparently close to dying when she contacted Rossetti who came rushing to her side and in a fit of guilt (supposing she was about to die soon) married her in a very private ceremony. While on their honeymoon he began the drawing of How They Met Themselves, a strange, haunting doppelganger picture that did indeed presage the sad death of Lizzie’s baby girl in childbirth and then the suicide of Lizzie herself shortly afterwards from an overdose of laudanum . Whether this was by mistake or by her own hand is never quite clear. She did leave a note, which Madox Brown destroyed, so the latter seems more likely. Later Rossetti completed the work in oils and it is to be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.
This strange story was unknown to me when I first came across the reproduction in a book on Pre-Raphaelite art. I was so taken with it that I sat down and copied it in the exact original size in pencil and my eyesight suffered for days as a result, so minute is the detail involved. I am not displeased with the result and have my own copy of the famous picture now! And it made so deep an impression upon me that I resolved one day to write a story set in the Pre-Raphaelite era of art; a story that would contrast two artistic couples who were similar and yet different, reflections of one another. This, therefore, is the germ of The Crimson Bed that lay dormant within me for some time.
doppelganger: German for 'double walker.'
Where did the skull go?
On the cover of my new book The Crimson Bed is a beautiful picture by John William Waterhouse. (1849-1817)
He was not a part of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which had disbanded as a group by the time Waterhouse was a young man. However, like many other artists who came later, Waterhouse was much influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style and their interest in mysterious and beautiful women, mythical subjects and rich colourful clothing and scenes.
The picture is called The Crystal Ball and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902. Later on it was bought and entered the Pyman collection, later to take its pride of place in the dining room at Glenborrodale Castle in the West Highlands. It was later sold with the castle in 1952-3 and as the new owner disliked the look of the skull, it was painted over and hidden behind the purple curtains!
The image reproduced on the cover of The Crimson Bed was supplied by Christie’s Art images. It appears a good deal deeper in colour because they photographed the original oil picture when it came up for auction later on the 4th November 1994, the skull by then forgotten behind its concealing curtain. However, Martin Beisly, then head of the Victorian picture department, discovered the original version in The Art Journal when they came to research the painting and its background. An x-ray was taken which showed the skull still there and protected by the original layer of varnish. This meant it could safely be cleaned and restored to its former intent … a magical damsel weaving a spell with aid of wand, book and skull and consulting the future in her crystal ball.
The painting was said to be worth round £300,000 but I have no idea how much it eventually went for…hate to think! According to Christies the picture is now in an undesignated private collection in Mexico.
Promises made and Broken: a war-time romance
Sometimes I wonder if my enduring love of writing romantic stories comes from my awareness of my parent’s tragic love story. My debut novel The Long Shadow is set in Greece and has as a theme the conflict of a child who is born from parents of Greek and English nationality and the subsequent tension in that person’s soul over where their roots lie and where their heart belongs. There must be many people in Britain who face this dilemma nowadays and in the end I’m not sure there’s a real conclusion. But you’ll have to read the book to see the possible solution!
My father, Alex Cairns, joined the RAF when he was eighteen years old, spending his twenty-first birthday on a troop ship bound for the North West Frontier in India. Here he served for six years before being sent on to Aden, then Malta. The Second World War broke out and my father was posted in 1940 with the Mediterranean Forces and sent to Athens. As he was out on the town with a friend one day, he spotted a beautiful young woman walking along arm in arm with her own friends. They were a group of cheerful, young theatrical performers celebrating their latest success and singing as they walked along happily through Constitution Square. Alex fell in love in an instant. He said he knew she was his destiny there and then. He and his friend joined up with the group and both being fluent in French they began a conversation. During a drink at a nearby cafeneion Alex asked Diana Safralis to meet him again.
Now my father was as handsome as Diana was beautiful; she was attracted to him and agreed ...why not?...with a shrug of her slender shoulders...but she was a much courted and admired young actress and singer and so in the end she didn’t bother to turn up for the date. On second thoughts...a British airman, not even a commissioned officer! He soon went out of her mind.
However, my Dad was a persistent and crafty Geordie lad. He had followed her home when they parted after that first meeting and later arrived uninvited, knocking at her door, flowers spilling from his arms, full of Geordie charm, determined to win this glorious Greek goddess.
My mother was a trifle snooty in those days. She came from a comfortable and educated family with servants, a two storey house in an Athens suburb. So it wasn’t as easy a courtship as he might have liked and he promised her all sorts of things. I do believe he meant to try and make them come true. Well, win her he did. They swiftly became engaged. The impending invasion of the Nazis hastened the wedding date and may well have played a part in my mother’s sudden acceptance of marriage. I think she may well have refused him otherwise. But this is hindsight and the outcome was that they married on Easter Day in 1941 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens. The only flowers available were arum lilies as it was Easter. My superstitious mother has always felt white flowers to be bad luck since then.
At the reception a car arrived from HQ and my father and his best man were taken back to base. The Germans were marching from Salonika and the Forces had to withdraw with all speed to Crete. Diana, now a British citizen, claimed her passport at the British Embassy and was taken to the port of Piraeus. There were two boats waiting to evacuate the British civilians and with the wisdom of youth, she asked to go on the uncomfortable little ferry ship rather than the large elegant cruiser, Patrice 2. She felt instinctively that it would be less easy to spot. She was right for the larger ship was sunk while her smaller vessel made it to Suda Bay. She claims to this day that her miraculous ikon, packed in her little case, helped to save them all. The soldiers went on into the mountains and forests to hide and she was the only woman amongst them. Diana recalls the officers sleeping in a ring around her to protect her from the Australian soldiers who, sadly, had a bad reputation in those days where women were concerned though no-one denied their bravery in battle. She had a blanket above her and another below and it was cold in those mountains.
Because Diana was Greek, she managed to get some eggs from a local farmer and made the officers an enormous omelette much to their delight. They rolled back their collars and cuffs because they were so dirty and did their best to look smart when called to her tent for the repast.
Then she was taken over in a Sutherland to Egypt and Dad was allowed to come with her as they were newly wed. He sat at her feet in the plane, holding her hand. Thus they arrived safely in Alexandria, Egypt. My father went off with his squadron and my mother stayed with her Auntie Emilia who lived there. Auntie had the unenviable task of using paraffin and a comb to get the lice out of Diana’s hair! Later Diana managed to find a flat in Cairo and in that magical city I was destined to enter the world!
Sadly the marriage was never an easy one despite these romantic and exciting beginnings. My father arrived at the flat in Cairo one evening without shoes, without his cap, looking deranged and shocked. He had to be taken to a mental hospital. The strain of the war had suddenly taken its toll on his nervous system. He recovered but was never quite the same man again.
The marvellous life, the servants and fine house my naughty Dad promised were never likely to materialise in Newcastle, a city then so grimy, poor and undeveloped. My Gran’s dark, Victorian house in Woodstock Rd. and the bleakness of post-war Britain was an immense culture shock for my Greek mother who literally fainted from the cold snows of 1947, one of the worst winters of the century. Immediately after the war, Mum took me over from Egypt to visit my grandmother in Athens but that was the last we saw of her for many years. I was only to meet her again when she came briefly to England in my teens. We lived the Forces life, moving from one married quarters to another until Dad at last retired from the RAF and we came to live in London. Life was poor and difficult and he fell ill once more, unable to cope with civilian life, succumbing to the manic-depression that haunted him until his early death at the age of 68.
However, Mum stuck faithfully and loyally to her unhappy marriage till Dad died in 1977 and their war-time love story ended forever
Diana re-married in 1981 and she and Norman Strassen were very happy together till his death in 1998.
Angela Diana Strassen nee Safralis died on 4th December 2010