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Rossetti, Christina Georginafree

(1830–1894)
  • Lindsay Duguid

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830–1894)

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866

photograph by courtesy Sotheby's Picture Library, London

Rossetti, Christina Georgina (1830–1894), poet, was born on 5 December 1830 at 38 Charlotte Street, London, the second daughter and fourth child of Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti (1783–1854) and Frances Mary Lavinia, née Polidori (1800–1886). Her father, a Neapolitan patriot who had escaped to England in 1824, was an Italian scholar, an expert on Dante, and professor of Italian at King's College, London. He married, at the age of forty-three, the 26-year-old daughter of Gaetano Polidori and Anna Maria Pierce, another of whose children, John William Polidori, was Byron's physician and the author of The Vampyre (1819). Christina Rossetti was close in age to her sister and brothers—Maria Francesca Rossetti (1827–1876), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), and William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919)—and they were bound by a strong family feeling. Their home was open to visiting Italian scholars, adventurers, and revolutionaries; the works of Dante and Petrarch were part of their birthright; and all the children were taught—the boys until they went to school, the girls until they were deemed to be ready to be employed as governesses—by their mother, who was a formidable influence on all their lives.

Childhood and illnesses

Christina Rossetti's childhood—to judge from her brother William's reminiscences and from the blithe tone of her children's verse—was happy. Family interests included visits to the zoo in Regent's Park (and an enthusiasm for animals in general), chess, and games of bouts-rimés (where the challenge is to write a sonnet to fit a given sequence of rhymes within a certain time); a family newspaper was also kept. Among her surviving juvenilia there is a poem addressed to her mother, dating from 1842, and a volume of Verses which was privately printed by her Polidori grandfather in 1847. At about the age of fifteen she suffered a collapse in her health and was attended by several different doctors, who advised that she spend winters at the seaside. As a young girl she was vivacious, even (according to her own report) short-tempered; the children were characterized by their father as being two storms—Christina and Gabriel—and two calms—Maria and William. A caricature by Gabriel of Christina shows her destroying a room in a fit of anger. As a teenager she became neurotically self-aware, always on her guard against sins of vanity and idleness, reluctant to transgress her own strict rules of behaviour. William described this change of personality in his 1904 memoir of his sister: 'Her temperament and character, naturally warm and free, became “a fountain sealed” … Impulse and elan were checked, both in act and writing' (Rossetti, Memoir, lxvi). It is likely that it was about this time that her deep religious convictions were formed, when she came under the influence of the Puseyite minister of Christ Church, Albany Street. Her mother and her sister regularly attended church and Christina was a devout Anglican all her life.

In 1849 Christina Rossetti again became seriously ill, and in 1857 she seems to have experienced a major religious crisis, which prevented her from taking the sacraments; this was also the year in which she wrote several of her most heartfelt poems. There is a decided absence of any contemporary accounts of these periods of collapse—apart from some of her melancholy verses (termed her 'groans' by her brothers) and a perfervid semi-autobiographical story, 'Maude' (1850), whose heroine, a poet, loses all zest for life and dies young. This absence of any explanatory material intrigues modern biographers, who have gone to a good deal of trouble to invent psychosexual reasons for the breakdowns. The recorded events which may have influenced her depression, however, include her father's illness and his loss of paid employment, which led to her mother and sister having to go out to work; there must also have been a sense of the closing in of her own life as an invalid.

The Pre-Raphaelites

In her late teens Christina Rossetti became involved in a group of her brothers' painting friends—among them Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais—and she was, emotionally at least, involved in the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose dissolution in 1852 she marked with some sprightly comic verses. It is difficult to know how much contact she had with these young men. In one much quoted account, in a letter to William in 1849, she is characteristically sliding out of the picture:

Think of my dismay; today I met Mr Hunt on the stairs; and actually not knowing him, ran past without exchanging greetings. Unconsciously I have thus transgressed the rules of my unlivable-with politeness; and this reflection costs me a pang.

Letters of Christina Rosetti, 1.26

But she took an interest in their projects, continued to visit their studios, and, in one poem, 'In an Artist's Studio', she takes a strongly sympathetic view of the painter's feelings for his model. She sat for the figure of the Virgin in Gabriel's Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce ancilla domini! (1850), and was a model for works by Millais and Hunt and also sat for one of the founding Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, James Collinson.

Suitors rejected

Collinson was the first of Christina Rossetti's three suitors. In 1849 she became engaged to him and went to stay with his family at their house in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but her letters from there reveal only her awkwardness and longing for home; a barrier may also have arisen in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The engagement was broken off in 1850. A second proposal came from one of her father's former pupils, the Dante scholar Charles Cayley, who was refused in 1856 but became a lifelong friend. The third candidate for her hand was the painter John Brett, who did at least two portraits of her and is believed to be the rejected admirer in her forthright poem 'No, Thank you, John'.

I never said I loved you John:Why will you teaze me day by day.

Further ill health

Christina Rossetti's appearance at this time—pale, narrow-jawed, with large-lidded eyes and long, uncurled hair—might be seen as a prototype for the introspective, melancholy Pre-Raphaelite female, a look which later went through many exaggerations in her brother Gabriel's paintings. Even before the disfiguring condition of Graves' disease was diagnosed in 1872, she lost her looks rapidly. Photographs of her from the 1870s show a stout, swarthy, undistinguished-looking Victorian matron. She was aware of this; her letters often refer to her altered appearance, generally in a wryly humorous way: 'Still I am weak and less ornamental than society may justly demand' (1 Sept 1871, Letters of Christina Rosetti, 1.380); 'If only my figure would shrink somewhat! For a fat poetess is incongruous, especially when seated by the grave of buried hope' (26 July 1881, Thomas, 316). Self-consciousness about the way she looked may also have led to her later reclusive habits. Her ill health was lifelong; she suffered at various times from breathlessness, a persistent cough, angina, neuralgia, and sundry abscesses and swellings, which combined to prevent her from going out and led to her spending part of each winter at lodging-houses on the south coast of England. However distressing these symptoms, her chronic invalidism had the effect of absolving her from the need to leave home to work as a governess and, in providing an excuse for refusing invitations, they gave her time to herself.

Impoverished by Gabriele Rossetti's illness, the family made two attempts to start a school: in Camden Town in north London, and two years later in Frome in Somerset, where they remained from April 1853 to March 1854, when legacies from the Polidori grandparents enabled them to return to London, to 45 Upper Albany Street, Regent's Park, close to Christ Church. After Gabriele's death in 1854, the family settled down into its pattern: Frances, Maria, and Christina at home, their lives a round of church, visiting, and good works; Gabriel pursuing his successful career as a painter, caught up in his long affair with Elizabeth Siddal, whom he married in 1860, and in his complicated negotiations with Ruskin and others over the sale of his work; and William working at the excise office and writing art criticism for The Spectator. The record of Christina Rossetti's life at this time is sparse, but it is known that from 1859 she did occasional voluntary work with the inmates of the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate. This was a religious foundation dedicated to the improvement of ‘fallen women’, a social category the picturesque and symbolic qualities of which also appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Publications

Christina Rossetti had published a number of poems under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn in the short-lived Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood magazine The Germ, and in Mary Howitt's ladies' annuals and, more importantly, in The Athenaeum and Macmillan's Magazine. In 1862 her first collection, ‘Goblin Market’ and other Poems, 'with two designs by D. G. Rossetti', was published under her own name by Macmillan & Co. and was universally praised by reviewers as the herald of a new voice and an original talent. Sales, however, were disappointing. ‘The Prince's Progress’ and other Poems was published in 1866 and Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book, with illustrations by Arthur Hughes, in 1872. A Collected Poems was issued in 1875. All of these volumes had American editions and her reputation in the United States began to grow. After a sustained burst of creativity in the late 1850s, she mainly wrote occasional works, often donating poems to Christian charities such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Anti-Vivisectionist League of which she was a passionate supporter. Her writing after 1866 was chiefly devotional: daily collects, scriptural commentaries, improving tales for children, and memorial poems. The exception to this tendency is found in her late sonnet sequence, Monna Innominata (1881), which is a romantic and part-secular imagining of the feelings of a ‘female troubadour’, the object of male devotion. Her attitude to her own work in her dealings with publishers and critics was quietly professional, though her correspondence with her publisher Alexander Macmillan, like her response to Gabriel's criticisms, was not at all subdued. In one of her few pronouncements on literature she hinted, in a letter to Caroline Gemmer (27 February 1883), that, in general, the world had too many men and women of artistic promise: 'Oh, my dear friend, don't let us wish for any more geniuses!' (Marsh, 511).

Publication and literary recognition did not do much to change the quiet habits of Christina Rossetti's life, though she must have been glad of the guineas since she had no money of her own and was dependent on her mother and William. Her letters are the only direct evidence there is of her private life, and it is known that she systematically destroyed personal family letters. Those which have survived give a glimpse of a restricted existence with her mother and sister, first in Upper Albany Street, then at 56 Euston Square, and then at 30 Torrington Square (she lived nearly all her life within a few square miles, north of Oxford Street), within a subdued social circle; her 'shy and stay-at-home habits' allowed her visits to a few familiar friends, such as the Heimann family, Alice Boyd, and Caroline Gemmer, quiet holidays at the seaside or in the country for her health, and religious and charitable observances. She did, however, make two trips to Europe with William and their mother in the 1860s.

Friends and death

Christina Rossetti was not in the habit of drawing pen portraits or vivid vignettes. Although she visited her brother Gabriel's bohemian ménage in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, and spent some weeks at Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire house he shared with William Morris, she left almost no description of these places. Preferring old friends to new, she never moved in literary circles. There is little record of her acquaintance with Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Barbara Bodichon, or Algernon Swinburne, who admired her poetry greatly, and she seems to have avoided meeting Tennyson and Walt Whitman, both of whom were known to her brothers. Little can be learned about her reactions to such episodes as the death of Gabriel's wife after an overdose of laudanum in 1862, nor to his mental collapse and suicide attempts in 1873. Her relationship with Lucy, the sociable daughter of Ford Madox Brown and an exhibited painter, was uneasy, particularly after Lucy married William in 1873, although she later derived pleasure from their children, who have provided accounts of Aunt Christina's piety, and her grimness and rectitude. It is hard to avoid the impression that, as time went on, her life steadily became more and more melancholy. Maria, who had become an Anglican nun shortly after William's marriage, died of cancer in 1876; Gabriel in 1882 and her mother in 1886; and Charles Cayley in 1883. After William and Lucy and their family moved to Primrose Hill, London, in 1890, she shared the house at 30 Torrington Square with her two very elderly Polidori aunts. On 29 December 1894 she died there in great pain and anguish, of cancer, having undergone surgery two years earlier. She was buried on 2 January 1895 in Highgate cemetery, Middlesex, in the Rossetti family tomb, which, notoriously, had been opened in October 1869 so that Gabriel could retrieve a volume of poems he had buried with his wife.

Reputation

Although her literary status was never as high as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's during her life, Christina Rossetti's posthumous reputation has remained strong and is increasing; she stands far above her popular, prolific contemporaries Dora Greenwell, Adelaide Proctor, and Jean Ingelow. In the twentieth century a great interest has been taken in Freudian interpretations of poems such as 'Goblin Market', and her work, which was previously admired for its innocence and artlessness, has become a hunting-ground for critics and biographers; enlisted as a symbol of repressed female genius, she has had her work scanned for tropes of starvation and sexual guilt. As with several other nineteenth-century women writers, notably Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, the poetry seems more heroic when set in the context of what seems to the modern reader to be an unimaginably restricted life. In Christina Rossetti's case her pious scrupulousness seems at odds with the heartfelt emotion expressed in her poetry. Earlier admirers were anxious to promote her as a wholly Christian writer, as seen, for instance, in Mackenzie Bell's reverent Christina Rossetti (1898), William Michael Rossetti's congenitally careful 'Memoir' prefaced to his edition of her Poetical Works (1904), and Katharine Tynan's hagiographical 'Santa Christina' (1912). Later twentieth-century biographers, however, have tended to make more intimate moves and have sought to decode the writings in terms of a personal romantic disappointment. And so Lona Mosk Packer's 1963 biography puts forward the theory that the poetry was conceived around the poet's passionate, unrequited love for the painter William Bell Scott, a family friend. Georgina Battiscombe, in Christina Rossetti: a Divided Life (1981), presents her interpretation of a woman torn between religious observance and artistic rebellion. In her 1992 biography Frances Thomas suggests that her collapses were, in fact, periods of insanity whose recurrence she dreaded and which led to her circumscribed life. Most controversially, perhaps, Jan Marsh's Christina Rossetti: a Literary Biography (1994) presents her belief that the breakdown in 1845 and the strange imagery in some of the stories and poems was possibly due to sexual abuse by her father, when as a teenager she was left to look after him alone.

The interest in Christina Rossetti's life has led to a renewed evaluation of her work, which now is seen as going beyond the familiar lyric sweetness of poems such as 'My heart is like a singing bird', 'When I am dead, my dearest', and 'In the bleak midwinter', towards an appreciation of her gifts of versification and her strangely direct, assertive manner—so different from the muffled voice of her brother's poetry. Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were both attracted to a sumptuous vocabulary of exotic fruit and gems and, as poets, they both favoured a kind of plangent melancholy. Christina Rossetti is more personal; she often employs a confrontational address, opening on a colloquial note:

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:Perhaps some day, who knows?

Winter: my Secret

When I am dead, my dearest,Sing no sad songs for me;

Song

Shall I forget on this side of the grave?I promise nothing: you must wait and see.

Shall I forgetHer apparent lucidity and the strength of feeling in her work encourages biographical interpretation. The fair maidens and half-animal goblins of 'Goblin Market' seem to modern critics to be a cover for an erotic subtext with particular meanings for the poet herself. The poem's images of sensuality and violation

Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,Twitched her hair out by the roots.Stamped upon her tender feet,Held her hands and squeezed their fruitsAgainst her mouth to make her eat

and its outpourings

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juicesSqueezed from goblin fruits for you,Goblin pulp and goblin dew.Eat me, drink me, love me;Laura make much of me.

seem to many to be simply too strong for a fairy-tale, and twentieth-century interpretations have made use of Freudian notions of guilt and disguised passion, as well as adducing Christina's relationship with her more strictly religious sister. Victorian readers, however, saw the work simply as a narrative poem for children.

Since the variorum edition of Christina Rossetti's Complete Poems appeared in 1979–90, a publication which made use of the manuscript notebooks in which the poems were copied, there have been dozens of reissues and reassessments which place her at the head of nineteenth-century women's writing, itself newly reassessed. The view of Ford Madox Ford (who was the son of Lucy Rossetti's sister Cathy) that she was 'a modern writer' is the one which stands. In an article to mark the centenary of her birth, Basil de Selincourt placed her as 'all but our greatest woman poet … incomparably our greatest craftswoman … probably in the first twelve of the masters of English verse' (TLS, 4 Dec 1930). Virginia Woolf wrote of her as an enduring presence in her essay '“I am Christina Rossetti”', found in The Second Common Reader (1932). Christina Rossetti also influenced poets as diverse as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin. The growth of her reputation is well illustrated by her increased representation in anthologies of Victorian poetry published throughout the twentieth century. For instance, Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1912) contains twelve pages of her poetry; Christopher Ricks's New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987) allots her twenty-three; and in the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (1997) fifty-five pages are devoted to her work.

Sources

  • M. Bell, Christina Rossetti (1898)
  • W. M. Rossetti, ‘Memoir’, in The poetical works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, ed. W. M. Rossetti (1904)
  • V. Hunt, The wife of Rossetti (1932)
  • L. M. Packer, Christina Rossetti (1963)
  • F. Thomas, Christina Rossetti (1992)
  • G. Battiscombe, Christina Rossetti: a divided life (1981)
  • K. Jones, Learning not to be first (1992)
  • J. Marsh, Christina Rossetti: a literary biography (1994)
  • Olive and Stepniak: the Bloomsbury diary of Olive Garnett, 1893–1895, ed. B. C. Johnson (1993)
  • The letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. A. H. Harrison, 1 and 2 (1997–9)

Archives

  • Arizona State University Library, papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters [copies]
  • Bodl. Oxf., notebooks and poems [copies]
  • Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, John Hay Library, papers
  • Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, corresp.
  • Iowa State Historical Department, papers
  • Princeton University Library, MSS of poems and corresp.
  • Ransom HRC, papers
  • University of British Columbia Library, corresp.
  • BL, letters to F. S. Ellis, Add. MS 41130
  • BL, letters to Sir Edmund Gosse, Ashley MSS B 1366, 1368, 1384
  • BL, letters to Hake family, Add. MS 49470
  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 54975
  • BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir T. H. Caine [copies]
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Miss May
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to D. G. Rossetti
  • NL Scot., letters to Alice Boyd
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to F. J. Shields relating to memorial for D. G. Rossetti
  • U. Newcastle, letters to Sir Walter Trevelyan and Lady Trevelyan
  • U. Nott. L., letters to Henry Septimus Sutton
  • University of British Columbia Library, Helen Rossetti-Angeli–Imogen Dennis collection

Likenesses

  • D. G. Rossetti, pencil drawing, 1847, V&A
  • D. G. Rossetti, pencil drawing, 1848, BM
  • D. G. Rossetti, group portrait, oils, 1848–9 (The girlhood of the Virgin Mary; as model for Virgin), Tate collection
  • D. G. Rossetti, group portrait, pencil, 1849, Tate collection
  • D. G. Rossetti, group portrait, oils, 1850 (Ecce Ancilla Domini!; as model for Virgin), Tate collection
  • D. G. Rossetti, two pencil drawings, 1852–65, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton
  • W. H. Hunt, oils, 1853 (The light of the world; as model for head of Christ), Keble College, Oxford
  • D. G. Rossetti, pen-and-ink caricature, 1862, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton
  • L. Carroll [C. L. Dodgson], group portrait, photograph, 1863 (The Rossetti family), NPG
  • D. G. Rossetti, chalk drawing, 1866, FM Cam.
  • D. G. Rossetti, chalk drawing, 1866, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • D. G. Rossetti, double portrait, chalk drawing, 1877, NPG
  • S. J. B. Haydon, etching and mezzotint, BM
  • W. B. Scott, etching (aged about seven; after miniature by Pistrucci), BM
  • portraits, repro. in Thomas, Christina Rossetti
  • portraits, repro. in Marsh, Christina Rossetti
  • portraits, repro. in Jones, Learning not to be first

Wealth at Death

£13,371 18s. 6d.: probate, 11 Feb 1895, CGPLA Eng. & Wales