Bleak Victorian midwinter of a woman's life

Susan Elkin remembers an unlucky poet who died 100 years ago
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The Independent Online
"In the bleak midwinter / Frosty wind made moan / Earth stood hard as iron / Water like a stone." Cold, plaintive words which most people will have heard recently. Set to music by Parry or Darke, the mournful long vowel sounds of "Snow had fallen , snow on snow / snow on snow / In the bleak midwinter long ago" have wafted freely round schools, churches, concert halls, shopping centres, restaurants and on countless television and radio programmes. The melody alone conjures up those words.

They were written by Christina Georgina Rossetti, who died in London 100 years ago this month. She had breast cancer and died in dreadful pain. Bed-ridden since September, she was comforted by visits from her brother William and other relatives. Her cat , Muff, was invariably to be found curled up on the bed. So great was her agony that a disgruntled neighbour complained about the noise of Miss Rossetti's nocturnal screams. Her nurse reported that, on the night of 28 December, the patient had had to be t ied to the bed. Horrifying stories like Christina's are a salutary reminder of the enormous strides medical science has made in the past century. Those who like, at this time of the year, to indulge in a bit of nostalgic yearning for all things Victorian , please note.

Christina Rossetti was born in 1830, the fourth and last child of an Italian emigre and a half-Italian mother. All the children were clever but, inevitably -another reason for moderating our sentimentality about Victorian Britain? - it was only the boys,William and Gabriel, who had a proper education. But Christina, an intelligent, lively and pretty child, began writing poems almost as soon as she could write - her earliest efforts were reproduced by her grandfather on his private printing press.

It must be pretty hard to grow up in the shadow of a brother as flamboyantly talented as Gabriel - or Dante Gabriel, as he soon styled himself. How fortunate, though, that he painted and drew his sister so many times. Most of his exquisite representations are currently on display in the centenary exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: it is a real joy to see so many versions of Christina's face, from childhood to middle age, in one place.

Illness in adolescence led to Christina becoming withdrawn and shy. Depression? Gynaecological problems? Family difficulties? Biographers have speculated for a century about the underlying reasons for her personality change, but we shall never know the truth. By the time she was 18, however, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established and she became engaged to the painter James Collinson. But the marriage was not to be.

Christina, like her mother and sister, was a deeply committed high Anglican. Religion was the driving force of her life. Roman Catholicism, however, she loathed. When the indecisive Collinson converted for the second time the engagement had to end. The first volume of poetry appeared in 1862. Its title poem was the famous "Goblin Market", illustrated with Dante Gabriel's woodcuts - tremendously popular in its day but now regarded as obscure or even "unsuitable", especially for children.

It is hard, in the late 20th century, when all our thinking is coloured by Freud's theories about sexuality, to take the poem at face value. The manically rapid rhythms and the tale of two young girls tempted to eat the fruit of the menacingly male goblins seems unavoidably suggestive. Interestingly, if you read this poem with classes in their early secondary years, as I have done several times, they love the musicality of it but are puzzled by its sinister sexual undercurrents. "Weird poem" i s a common reaction.

Christina became well known in her own right, although her income from writing was always modest. Two other major volumes of poetry eventually followed as well as children's verses, stories and a large output of fine religious poetry, some of which is distinctly erotic. It is astonishing today to recall an innocent era when a prim "poetess" could unblushingly write to her God: "You scratch my surface with your pin, / You stroke me smooth with hushing breath; / Nay pierce, nay probe, nay dig w ithin / Probe my quick core and sound my depth."

It was such a sad life by modern standards. She refused a second chance of marriage when she turned down her lifelong friend Charles Bagot Cayley. Nobody quite knows why, although his agnosticism was probably a factor. She cared for her mother and two aunts into their dotage and only briefly outlived them. She had, moreover, impotently to watch the doomed marriage of her brother Gabriel to Lizzie Sidall: it ended in Lizzie's suicide. Eventually Gabriel succumbed to mental instability and sank into a long decline marked by drug and alcohol abuse. Christina was at his side when he died at Birchington in Kent on Easter Sunday, 1882.

Thank goodness for her poetry: the saving grace. Much of it is magnificent, memorable - and coming back into fashion. "A Birthday" has found its way on to the London Underground: "My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a watered shoot" and soon.

But you cannot reflect on the life of Christina Rossetti for long without thinking about the miserable lot endured by so many Victorian women. For myself, I'm glad to be a child of the late 20th century.