Rossetti, Maria Francesca (1827–1876), author and Anglican nun
by Susan Elkin

Rossetti, Maria Francesca (1827–1876), author and Anglican nun, was born on 17 February 1827 at 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London. She was the eldest of the four children of Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti (1783–1854), Italian exile and professor of Italian at King's College, London, and his wife, Frances Mary Lavinia (1800–1886), daughter of Gaetano Polidori and his wife, Anna Maria; her siblings were , , and . In a household of exceptionally talented children, all born within four years, Maria was always reckoned by her parents and siblings to be the family's brightest spark. Yet she is the Rossetti who is least well-known, because she achieved the least, although like her sister and her brothers she was a published author—on several quite disparate topics. Dante Gabriel later averred that ‘she might have topped us all’ and thirty years after his sister's death, William wrote, in the memoir in his 1904 edition of Christina's poems, that:
Maria was mentally a precocious child, learning very early and easily all such matters as reading, writing, speaking two languages etc; indeed she was from first to last much the best of the four at all matters of acquired knowledge of that sort.
Maria was a plain, round-faced child and woman, rather unkindly nicknamed ‘Moony’ by her pretty younger sister, Christina. It is striking that among all Dante Gabriel's lush and voluptuous Pre-Raphaelite drawings and paintings of Rossetti women and of family friends, there is no known portrait of Maria.

By the time ‘ingegnosa Maria’, as her father habitually referred to her, was ten years old, she had fallen passionately in love with the works of Homer, and was thirsting for more knowledge. Although her mother was much better educated than most women of her generation and was an experienced teacher, the daughters, whom she educated at home, were denied access to Latin and Greek, to Maria's distress. She was, however, able to study Italian—which she later taught—to a high level, under the supervision of her maternal grandfather. For a while she tried single-handedly to master the classics by an improvised correspondence course, via her brothers, who were away at school. Inevitably she could not keep this up and by her mid-teens she was instead channelling her considerable intellectual energy into religious devotion and study. With her mother and Christina, Maria discovered, about 1843, a strong high-church brand of Anglicanism, through attending services at Christ Church, Albany Street, where the charismatic Revd William Dodsworth, darling of the rising Oxford Movement, was the incumbent: it was to sustain her and bring her great joy for the rest of her life.

At seventeen Maria went reluctantly as governess to Gertrude Thynne, niece of Lady Bath, a necessity caused by the inability of the ageing and ailing Gabriele to continue working to support his family; she hated being away from home. A year later she took a similar post with the Read family. Thereafter she gave private Italian and other lessons for many years, devising a system of her own for the learning of Italian. Her text book Exercises in Idiomatic Italian through Literal Translation from the English was published in 1866. She was almost entirely responsible for the education of Lucy Brown, daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown. Lucy eventually married Maria's brother William. By William's estimate, in the mid-1860s Maria was earning about £100 a year from her teaching. Once the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood emerged from a larger literary society in the summer of 1848, under Dante Gabriel Rossetti's leadership, Maria came into regular contact with the ‘brethren’, who often met in an upstairs room at Charlotte Street. Like her mother and Christina, she was wryly amused by it all. Although she showed some brief interest first in Charles Collins, brother of Wilkie Collins the novelist, and secondly in John Ruskin after the annulment of his marriage, neither relationship developed and Maria remained single.

Maria taught Bible classes at Christ Church, and the SPCK published her Letters to my Bible Class in 1872, although it was written earlier. In 1860 she became an associate sister at All Saints, Margaret Street, an Anglican order begun in 1856 by the Revd Upton Richards and Mother Harriet Brownlow Byron. Always talented and happy in the practical application of her unshakeable faith, she took an active part in pastoral work. Ever a fine scholar, in 1871 Maria published her book A Shadow of Dante, described by Dante Gabriel in a letter as ‘a compendious and most thoroughly executed view’. It is still regarded as one of the best available introductions to Dante. Both agnostically inclined brothers regretted what they regarded as a waste of Maria's formidable academic talent, as she devoted herself ever more to good works and religion. Maria was always cheerful, even looking forward to death with something akin to excitement. She was no killjoy, and had a delightful sense of humour, once writing, for example, a witty letter to the dog of William Bell Scott, artist and family friend.

A powerful influence on Christina, Maria, with her unwavering strength in religion, often made the younger sister feel weak and inadequate. Christina, in fact, never seemed to achieve the joie de vivre in faith that bubbled out of Maria. It was a half-doubting, half-amused Christina who related the quasi-comic anecdote that Maria was frightened to visit the mummy room at the British Museum, lest the day of judgment should unexpectedly arrive and cause the mummies to come to life. The warm relationship between two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, in Christina's most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’ (published 1862), is thought by many to be a depiction of the closeness of Christina and Maria.

In July 1873 Maria announced her long-delayed decision to join the All Saints Sisterhood as a full member. William's marriage was imminent, so domestic changes were inevitable. Maria was also already aware of the first symptoms of cancer: if she did not take this step now, it would soon be too late. She began her noviciate on 11 November, but as All Saints was not an enclosed order, she was still able to see the family regularly. Her illness worsened during 1875 and 1876, and she stayed several times at the sisterhood's hospital at Eastbourne. Maria Rossetti died on 24 November 1876 at the sisterhood's house in Margaret Street and was buried in the convent's plot at Brompton cemetery. Immediate family and fellow sisters respected Maria's dislike of ‘hood and hatband’ funerals, and marked in a reasonably cheerful way the passing of a woman who had awaited death so happily.

SUSAN ELKIN

Sources  

J. Marsh, Christina Rossetti: a literary biography (1994) · F. Thomas, Christina Rossetti (1992) · K. Jones, Learning not to be first: the life of Christina Rossetti (1991) · L. M. Packer, Christina Rossetti (1963) · W. M. Rossetti, ‘Memoir’, in The poetical works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, ed. W. M. Rossetti (1904) [and notes] · F. L. Cross, ed., The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church, 2nd edn, ed. E. A. Livingstone (1974) · Three Rossettis: unpublished letters to and from Dante Gabriel, Christina, William, ed. J. C. Troxell (1937)

Likenesses  

H. Booth, photograph, 1860–69, V&A [see illus.] · photograph, 1874, BL; repro. in W. M. Rossetti, Some reminiscences, 2 vols. (1906) · C. Dodgson, group portrait, photograph (with family), Hult. Arch.; repro. in The Bookman (1912)

Wealth at death  

under £600: probate, 1 June 1877, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Maria Francesca Rossetti (1827–1876): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24142