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The Rossettis

In response to:

Cosa Nostra from the January 26, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Your critic of my Four Rossettis: A Victorian Biography, Mr. Geoffrey Grigson, in his barbarously written review (NYR, January 26), is entitled to his opinions as well as his prejudices, but not to his errors. He declares that I “won’t be found telling the reader how badly…Rossetti painted.” But my account does describe, more than once, Rossetti’s weaknesses as a painter, which became more pronounced and more exaggerated as he grew more ill and neurotic and created what were almost parodies of his style. “I can correctly say,” he then pontificates, “that Rossetti’s poems are neither the worse nor the better, nor any more interesting, because Rossetti’s model and wife Lizzie Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum…or because many of his poems, in a manuscript book, lay between her cheek and her golden hair in her coffin….” Whether the early works exhumed from the coffin are better or worse (than what?) is meaningless; what is important is that the work which Rossetti wrote afterwards is often in substance a reflection of those events, for example those “House of Life” sonnets written after Lizzie’s death.

Grigson also appears unhappy that I use Christina Rossetti’s poems “to point to the biography, not to themselves.” That seemed to me appropriate in a biography.

Stanley Weintraub

Pennsylvania State University

Geoffrey Grigson replies:

In fact I must apologize for treating Stanley Weintraub’s book too gently. It is his fault, not mine, that he writes “Thus beneath the bearded Jesus is the flesh of Christina,” and “It was a lesson in pessimism to complement her memory of the mouse,” and “Eventually Maria extricated herself from papistic Longleat,” plus a thousand more sentences of the kind. Also he must know exactly what I mean by saying that the sensational in Rossetti’s life is the usual cause for writing about him; and that a biography of a writer or a painter needs to be informed by a just estimate of his work. I should also have mentioned that his book is spattered with slips and errors, such as making Charles Lyell the Dante scholar the son instead of the father of the great geologist, and inventing a Somerset market town called Fromefield.

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