What’s in a Name? When I first put up a prodom website, years before The English Mansion, anonymity was essential and I decided I would use a pseudonym. It was never a name I was intending to use for myself but I wanted something memorable and unique for search engines. I chose the name of Sidonia von Bork (or Borcke) who was one of the first femme fatales of English literature and of whose portrait I had seen in the Tate Gallery. Sidonia was a historical figure (1548–1620), a Pomeranian noblewoman (an area on the Baltic sea coast, today part Germany, part Poland) who was tried and executed for witchcraft.
She soon, however, became the stuff of legends and in the 19th century was featured in many works of fiction most famously Wilhelm Meinhold’s gothic romance Sidonia the Sorceress translated into English by Oscar Wilde’s mother Lady Wilde (1849). (The book undoubtably influenced one of her son’s sublime children’s stories The Birthday of the Infanta.)
The novel is set in 16th century Pomerania and chronicles the life and crimes of the evil but captivatingly beautiful Sidonia, who loves cruelty and spends her days tormenting men. She becomes an all-powerful ‘medusa’ figure who gains her power from making the men she seduces sterile – until her eventual downfall. The book was hugely popular in the UK and must be recognised as one of the first explorations of a wicked sexually forceful woman. It was highly regarded by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and she became the subject of many paintings most famously Sidonia von Bork, 1860 by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
In the painting we see her in profile lost in her thoughts scheming her heinous plans. In the background stands the Duchess of Wolgast who will become one of her victims. The pattern of her gown is an intricate tangled web and there is a spider at the bottom of the painting both symbolising her power to entrance and ensnare those around her. (The gown’s design is derived from a portrait of Isabella d’Este by Giulio Romano at Hampton Court.)
So I hope I have done her memory justice and that she has been brought back to life to once more wreak her wicked magic and ensnare men in her web.