Christina Rossetti

Christina G. Rossetti

30 Torrington Square, London, Middlesex

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Eliza H. Polidori

Head

U

71

Income from dividends

St. James, Middlesex

Frances Rossetti

Sister

W

80

Income from dividends

St. James, Middlesex

Christina Rossetti

Niece

U

50

Authoress of Poetry

Middlesex

?

Twice, in her teens, she has been an artist's model for the young Virgin Mary, although Mariolatry is quite anathema to her: indeed, it is partly what has prevented her defecting to the Roman Catholic church, like her fianc?. Now she has lost her pallor, her skinny-Minnie fragility. She is agreeably plump for the first time in her life. There was a time when she would have felt regretful; when she would have raged against the inevitable loss of her looks. She rises at seven; attends to her old ladies who are essentially in her charge. Next Thursday would have been her parents' fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. She will make that a special event. Otherwise, days are spent at her desk, carefully completing her new book of poems, A Pageant; or venturing out, to the church, to visit friends for lunch or tea, or a game of her favourite whist. It is competitive enough. As a child, she has carefully abandoned chess, because she felt it brought out an unpleasant side in her, something pushy and aggressive. Now she moves, stilly, through the dull and deliberate furniture in Torrington Square, in tune with her widowed mother and her aunt, dressed as ever in her shabby black dress (perhaps the grey silk if there were to be an occasion). Boots: sensible and solid. The ceiling in the drawing-room has been plastered and papered, after its recent collapse. It is spring at last, after the protracted winter. One called her proud,/Cross-grained, uncivil ? No, not proud; but sometimes, perhaps, uncivil, quite unable to engage in prattle. She maintains a stern-but-friendly presence; conceals whatever disturbs her; whatever anxieties rush about behind her brown eyes, those heavy-lidded eyes, still slightly bulging after the thyroid problems some years earlier - whatever anxieties there are, they are held in check. She has learned to hold back, to hide, to suffocate her feelings. Children find her slightly unnerving. Smiles do not crack her mouth apart; her olive, still oval face is usually unyielding. She keeps the household accounts, organises the domestic rituals, arranges the ferns. At this time, she talks and writes assiduously about copyright, about the ownership of her work. The new book is almost ready. Sometimes the nerve-ends crackle within her, as they always have done. She has often been ill; often the victim of nervous exhaustion. But still - it has saved her from the necessity of being a governess. She can laugh at that, now she is fifty. Laugh, and then retreat into the shadow, where she can happily scratch the family cat behind its ears. Or remember the wombats at London Zoo.

Christina Georgina Rossetti was the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls, born to Frances Polidori and Gabriele Rossetti: Maggy (Maria Francesca), Gabriel (Gabriel Charles Dante - he reversed his names later), William Michael, Christina. She arrived on December 5th 1830, in the wake of her three talented siblings - Gabriel Rosetti, the elder of her brothers, being the one to make his mark more effectively than the others. Their childhood was more carefree than an English childhood - they were, after all, three-quarters Italian. Children could be seen and heard. Their conversation was not restricted to the mundane. Christina, perhaps not surprisingly, given the competition, was known for her ability to fly off the handle, once ripping her arm with a pair of scissors in the throes of a tantrum. Her mother, who had been a governess (and who took up teaching again, when her husband, effectively a political refugee from Italy, became ill), taught Maria and Christina. The boys went to school from the age of five.

Her mother and father lived simply, frugally, respectably, and in London. They did not travel much as a family, other than to Holmer Green, near Amersham, where Frances's father lived, and where her mother had taken to her bed. Their first home had no garden; but they lived near Regent's Park; the grandparents moved close by when Christina was nine. Christina missed the garden her grandparents left behind, where she had inspected the insect world with enthusiasm. And frogs (which she loved). All four children were exhilarated by folk-tales, by the Bible, by the Arabian Nights, by poetry; they produced - shades of the Bront?s - a family magazine. They all emerged from childhood with the same interesting tension - a tolerance of the flamboyant, and a fierce innocence. Eccentric they may have been, but moral they remained. They grew up in a family with Romantic and colourful connections. Their uncle had been Byron's doctor (had indeed been there on the evening when Byron-Shelley competition over a ghost-story nudged Frankenstein into existence); their father had met Coleridge; Paganini was a regular visitor.


Christina Rossetti in 1877

Christina Rossetti is an elusive figure, at least partly because she covered her tracks, sedulously destroying her correspondence. Yet there is also a false aura surrounding her for a very different reason. We might expect her, having been an honorary sister in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to conform to the stereotype which attaches itself to that quickly separated group of artistic "disciples". In her life, there is little trace of the mythical mystery produced by the painters. Yet in her poetry, which was to her most central to her identity, there is the same strange blend of folk-lore and fantasy - and also, the same repeated note of distress, the same worship of the forlorn. The problem comes when one tries to apply the qualities of her poetry to the business of interpreting her life. It seems safest to see the romantic-fantastic-depressive side to her work as being in harmony with the imagination of her brother and his associates. She was an admirer, for instance, of Swinburne (although she had to stick strips of paper over his anti-religious lines in order to enjoy his poems!) Nobody accuses Swinburne of revealing himself in his poetry, in which similar romantic fancies appear.

At sixteen, Christina had completed a sufficient number of impressive poems for her grandfather Polidori to pay for a private edition (1847). At this stage of her life, she had already seemed physically delicate, and neurotically introspective about religious faith to the point, sometimes, of compounding the outward appearance of politely-concealed angst. But she was sparky enough to have taken skilfully to the game of exchanging bouts rim?ssonnets with her brother William; and at seventeen, she accepted an offer of marriage from one of Gabriel's pre-Raphaelite associates, James Collinson. This engagement does not seem to have appealed to his family; Collinson himself was the first to leave the P.R.B., on account of his impending conversion to Catholicism. The engagement could not continue, for the same reason. Since Christina seems to have accepted him at a time when she was vulnerable, it is hardly surprising that the break caused her some inner shock. She fainted in a London street when she caught sight of him. Christina had meanwhile contributed poems to the first P.R.B. literary venture, a magazine called The Germ (1850) which rapidly sank without trace. In the second issue, she appeared as "Ellen Alleyn". 


Gabriel Rossetti's The Annunciation - Christina is the model for Mary.

Her father deteriorated; there followed a stint living in Frome; and then the illness and death of her grandfather and father. The 1850s found the Rossetti family back on a financially even keel, in London again. Christina's writing career took cautious steps forward: by now, she hoped it would be her vocation, although her breakthrough would not come until the next decade. Christina also began to undertake charitable work, as a "visitor" to the less fortunate households in the adjoining streets; together with her aunt Eliza (shown as "head" of the household in the 1881 census), she responded to Florence Nightingale's appeal for nurses in the Crimean War. (Her aunt was selected, although her work in the Crimea was restricted, to her annoyance, to helping with supplies; Christina was considered too young).

The late 1850s saw William settled as an excise officer and art critic; Gabriel as a remarkable painter and poet; Maria as a pious governess; and Christina, after a severe depression, creating her most famous poems -Goblin Market Up-Hill A Birthday ("My heart is like a singing bird/ Whose nest is in a watered shoot"). She wrote her poems on any scraps of paper to hand, revising them continuously, until they were fit to be set down, in perfect copperplate, in her notebook of dated, completed poems. Even then, she sometimes revised them. Her poems sometimes had to pass the family test: she enjoyed and encouraged the scrutiny of all three siblings. In 1861,Up-Hill was published in Macmillan's Magazine; in 1862, Macmillan published Goblin Market and other poems , which was by any standards a critical success. Her poetry has been subjected to all kinds of analysis, principally because of the perceived tension between its sensuality and Christina Rossetti's apparently ascetic spiritual beliefs.

Perhaps the simplest way to resolve this false contradiction is to look at a stained-glass window. Rossetti was a high Anglican; she loved the romance of ritual; she was associated with painters who had combined rich and elaborate beauty with religious images. Goblin Market has the same flames of colour as light through stained glass; it has the same headiness as incense. It has the air of a parable, with two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, who distantly resemble Mary and Martha. As a writer, Rossetti enjoys the gorgeous detail of the fruits on offer, the fruits of temptation to which Laura succumbs. Lizzie surrenders only to save her sister from dwindling away: she eats the goblins' fruit so that Laura may revive by sucking the juices from her face. There is no moral, other than that sisters should look out for one another, and that goblins are not to be trusted. It is a fairy story, but told with stunning control, with eccentric metrical brilliance (Ruskin loathed it for that).

One day remembering her kernel-stone 
She set it by a wall that faced the south; 
Dewed it with tears, hoped for a root, 
Watched it for a waxing shoot, 
But there came none; 
It never saw the sun, 
It never felt the trickling moisture run...

Success as a writer coincided with her refusal of another proposal, from family friend Charles Cayley. Perhaps she demurred for religious reasons, perhaps because she had by then no wish to unsettle her life (she liked to describe herself as a "stay-at-home"). Poems discovered, hidden, after her death, by her brother, suggest she loved him. But she had committed herself to her course; become an associate, with Maria, of a religious order; begun assisting at a penitentiary for "fallen women". And her literary career had given her independence, even if its financial rewards were unspectacular. Shortly after her one trip to Italy, in 1866, her second volume appeared; in 1870 came a short story collection; in 1871,Sing-Song , a collection of poems for children (including "Who has seen the wind?"). In 1872, she wrote In The Bleak Midwinter - as a poem - for a Christmas edition of Scribner's Magazine (it was not set to music, by Gustav Holst, until 1906). A Pageant appeared in 1881; she also published prose commentaries on religious subjects. Her poetry, after intervals, began to be re-printed, and her reputation thrived.

Christina remained, almost obstinately, always faithfully, with her mother. In 1872-73, Christina suffered badly from a thyroid condition, but recovered. Her sister Maria died in 1876; Gabriel in 1882; her mother Frances survived until 1886, at which point, Christina retreated a little further into her religious beliefs. She would not step on paper in the street, in case it had the word 'Jesus' on it. When Tennyson died in 1892, she was privately interested in the Laureateship (for which she would have been eminently suitable; the actual successor, Alfred Austin, was a lamentable poet). She campaigned for copyright laws; against vivisection; she lent her support to opponents of female suffrage. Her aunt Eliza, now senile, died in 1893, leaving Christina just one year of independence. But she had already been ill again herself, having had a mastectomy in 1892 after breast cancer was diagnosed. Now the cancer returned, and she died in some pain in the morning of December 29th 1894.

Her brother Gabriel's reputation as a painter has overshadowed hers; so has his life, with its theatrical scenes, most notably the opening of Lizzie Siddal's grave to retrieve the manuscript of his poems. But then he was a publicist - for Christina, as for himself. Her caution in all things probably diminished the spread of her success. In a famous remark, Gabriel once said to Christina, "You may be a singing-bird; but you dress like a pew-opener." His house was a hubbub where she could meet Browning, Carroll, even a young Gerard Manley Hopkins (plainly influenced by her). Torrington Square remained drab, forbidding. Her poetry tells a different story.

Her last cat was called Muff; it sat on her shoulders and scoured the surroundings for milk. It passed to her brother William; William was not to die until 1919, having carefully secured, as he hoped, the artistic and literary legacy of Gabriel and Christina alike.

Notes:

Lorna Mosk Packer argues at length that Christina was in love with another of Gabriel's associates, William Bell Scott; other biographers dismiss this.

Sources:

Christina Rossetti, by Frances Thomas, The Self Publishing Association, 1992

Christina Rossetti, by Lorna Mosk Packer, University Of California Press, 1963

Four Rossettis, by Stanley Weintraub, W.H. Allen, 1978

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