It all started in a bookstore.
Isn't that so often the case? It's such a vivid picture in my head, the sort of crystalline defining moment people are always having in the movies. A coffee-table hardback -- Jan Marsh's Pre-Raphaelite Women -- with an extraordinary color-saturated portrait on the dust jacket, propped up on a table display. (Beyond my university-student means; thank goodness for used bookstores years later!) The term "Pre-Raphaelite" was new to me, though I knew in that vague cultural-osmosis way (freely admitting a partial debt to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) that Raphael was an Italian Renaissance painter. Armed with that spotty knowledge, I picked it up and began to leaf through it, expecting something about the early Renaissance.
Instead I found a fascinating overview of the images and archetypes of women in a nineteenth-century art movement I had previously known nothing about, though inevitably a few of the pictures were familiar. I skimmed the text probing how a group of young men had seen the women they encountered and translated that view into the gobsmackingly beautiful images I saw on page after glossy page.
About two-thirds of the way through, a very different image pulled me up short: the self-portrait in oil of Elizabeth Siddal, one of the models and artists whose real lives Marsh's text illuminated in some measure.
The shock that went through me as I turned that page was one of recognition. Not that the face so very much resembled mine (though I have had my share over the years of "Hey, you look like that Ophelia painting!"), but the searching intensity of the gaze in the mirror I knew she must have painted from -- that I knew, and knew intimately.
My relationship to my own reflection was still that of a dancer, my eye trained from an early age to evaluate the image as a whole, to zero in and adjust details. That was what I recognized in the long-ago eyes looking out at me from the page, their sharpness unmitigated by the downcast gaze of nearly all representations of her face painted by others.
This contrast -- undeniably a striking one -- between how other artists represented her and how she represented herself is a persistent theme in examinations of her life. The implied question always seems to be, "Which is the truth?"
As I researched and wrote Unvarnished, it became more and more clear to me that the answer -- for me, and, I think, for Lizzie herself -- was "Both, and more besides."
That's the short answer, anyway. The long one... Well, I invite you to see for yourself.