In the beginning, things had been otherwise. In 1830 Christina was born into a warm Italian family, fourth and youngest child of Frances and Gabriel Rossetti. Her maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, had settled in England and married an English girl.Frances's brother John Polidori was Byron's eccentric friend and physician, author of The Vampyre. Gabriel Rossetti was a political exile from Naples. Academic, poet and patriot, he was a charismatic focus for London's Italian community. The four children were brought up in a loving, lively and talkative open household. From infancy they were bilingual. They played word-games, went to the opera, read, acted, painted and wrote. Christina was acknowledged as the poet of the family. They were precocious, bright and adored, all their lives remaining an exceptionally close family.
But when Christina was 13 her father became ill, and he was obliged to give up his post as Professor of Italian at King's College. Frances took over the family finances, working as a governess; sister Maria did likewise, and the boys, Gabriel and William, continued with their education while Christina stayed at home looking after an increasingly wretched and resentful invalid. For Christina the spectacle of her father's slow erosion by illness was catastrophic. She herself became acutely illand changedfrom a vivacious, boisterous and demonstrative child to a melancholy, withdrawn and untrusting young woman, haunted by nightmares and afflicted by self-loathing. Spiritually she and her sister came under the influence of Pusey and Dodsworth at their local church by Regent's Park. While Maria developed a radiant faith and many years later became a nun in Pusey's Anglican Sisterhood, Christina's self-doubt and scruples multiplied under fears of the Second Coming, the Da y of Judgement and the flames of Hell. Even Maria suffered from an anxiety that the General Resurrection might take place when she was among the mummies in the Egyptian room at the British Museum.
On a more cheerful note, grandpa Polidori printed and circulated among friends and family a limited edition of 42 of Christina's verses. The enthusiastic reception of this first collection confirmed her literary aspirations; the following year she sent two poems to The Athenaeum, which published them when she was still only 17. Her brothers were also writing poetry, and Gabriel printed Christina's work in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's short-lived magazine Germ.
Christina maintained an affectionate but distanced relation with the PRB, detached by social convention from its wild extravagances, but a willing sitter and amused onlooker. Over the years she had three muted romantic understandings with friends and colleagues of her brothers; none of these came to anything, and they left her stricken and wretched. The first and most wounding was her engagement to James Collinson, who rejected her for the Catholic Church. The image of the yearning, agonised heart recurs throughout her poetry: "I turn my face in silence to the wall/ My heart is breaking for a little love."
Love, locked out, displaced, an unwanted gift returned to its donor, was to be Christina's lot. She had a wide circle of friends, but her closest relationships were with her immediate family, and especially her mother, whom she outlived by only eight years. Hope deferred and redemption through suffering had become guiding principles. Her contemporary Dora Greenwell paints a chilling picture of the unmarried woman "fading into neutral tint" and "taking up less and less room in the world, and see ming to apologise to it for even the little space she occupies". Humility and modesty were the part of women, to serve mankind in Christ's image and to perpetuate the uncritical ideal of maternal love. When Christina's first book, Goblin Market and Other
Poems, was published in 1862, the London Review praised it especially for having "none of the violation of reserve" which it claimed spoiled the work of George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and others. Although her book received excellent reviews, its initial publication owed much to the persistence of her brother Gabriel, as did most of her subsequent printed work. Christina had a strong sense of her literary destiny, but was unwilling to further it by argument or what she saw as self-promotion. While she was well aware of society's double standards for men and women, she declined to support the movement for women's rights, citing Christian authority on male and female roles. She actually wrote a poem which began "Woman was made for man's delight". Her social conscience drove her to assist in a Home for Fallen Women, but she avoided all other forms of charitable work, preferring to campaign against vivisection.
As her literary career developed, her personal sorrows multiplied. The cruel early death of so many of her family and friends and her own recurring illnesses deepened her faith but rendered her "inflexibly puritan": many people found her reserve intolerable and she had increasing difficulty with friendships. In middle age she assumed the self-protective mantle of an old woman; from this security she permitted herself the odd self-mocking remark "A fat poetess is incongruous, especially when
seated by the grave of buried hope", or "I wrote such melancholy things when I was young that I am obliged to be unusually cheerful, not to say robust, in my old age."
If only more of her irony permeated this biography. One longs to feel passionately for Christina, but it is impossible. She remains remote, exasperatingly nebulous or painfully censorious, standing back, skirts furled, lips curled and nostrils flared in anticipatory scorn. Only the hooded, dolorous eyes speak of her inner desolation. But too long a suffering makes a stone of this reader's heart. I had a guilty desire to be off having fun with Gabriel in his Chelsea house where he kept wild women and Swinburne and a Brahmin bull and wombats. Why couldn't Christina have had a wombat? She loved them ("When wombats do inspire, I strike my disused lyre") and often visited them at the zoo, taking "A goodly bag of eatables". Surely ther e was something furry or frivolous in her life? How did she pass all those long gloomy days? This book gives a sense of her as a writer, as a Christian, but not as a human being.
Jan Marsh indulges in a fair amount of speculation: "doubtless", "one imagines", "perhaps", occur too frequently, and there is some gruesome writing. Concerning Gabriel, "The appearance of Verses alerted him to the fact that his kid sister was growing upwith a distinct gift." Concerning James Collinson, "He gave his heart to Christ rather than Christina." I found Marsh's comments on some of the poems informative, but more often they were tiresome and tendentious or over-explanatory. Some, no doubt, will be enthralled by the pages which deal with Marsh's proposal that Christina was sexually abused by her father. Here is a scrap of her evidence: "The figure of a crocodile who sheds tears to allure his victim, is an apt image for a sexually abu sive father." Oh? Cape's publicity sheet makes much of this, and of Christina's work for Fallen Women, in a pathetic attempt to lure the prurient. This is an act of gross dishonour to a most fastidious and private woman.
I'm not convinced by Marsh's attempt to present Christina Rossetti as a great poet. Far better to turn to the excellent Everyman Poems and Prose, where one may make one's own judgement on a selection from the work. There is a concise introduction giving all the facts and omitting the nonsense and tedium, with a helpful chronology. Meanwhile the National Portrait Gallery is celebrating (as they quaintly put it) the centenary of her death with a rich exhibition of portraits, photographs and manuscripts. Here you may see and wonder at the difference between Gabriel's ecstatic maidens and his sister's excruciated soul.
ce The exhibition in commemoration of Christina Rossetti is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2 until 12 Feb, free