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Governess on Speed

Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life

by Jan Marsh
Viking, 634 pp., $29.95

Christina Rossetti wrote poems of peculiar frozen feeling. This is one of the reasons for her long neglect after her death in 1894, an unpopularity out of all proportion to the neglect of Victorian poetry in general. Even children singing her Christmas carol “In the bleak mid-winter” recognize that this is a grimly melancholy version of Christmas: “Earth stood hard as iron,/ Water like a stone.” Rossetti’s dreary images are those of sudden arrested optimism: fountains sealed, hope deferred, hearts shriveled up to nothing, “hard and cold and small, of all hearts the worst of all.” A member of the family, perhaps her poet brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, called these intense laments “the groans” and Christina’s particular quality of groaniness arose from an extremity of female experience. There are parallels, of course, with Brontë and Dickinson but even more, I think, with Anne Sexton and with Plath in her fascinated instinct for self-annihilation. Rossetti wrote her own Lazarus poem in 1890, when she was sixty years old:

I laid beside thy gate, am Lazarus; See me or see me not I still am there, Hungry and thirsty, sore and sick and bare,
Dog-comforted and crumbs- solicitous.

Faced with the deadly void inherent in her work, biographers have felt a certain desperation. Lona Mosk Packer, author of the first substantial biography, Christina Rossetti,1 attributed the misery and guilt to a long, clandestine adulterous affair between Christina and the painter and critic William Bell Scott. This explanation has been judged by later scholars as unconvincing. Georgina Battiscombe, in her biography Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life,2 dismisses it as “an airy fabric of romance.” Kathleen Jones, in Learning Not to be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti,3 judges sternly that “Packer’s extraordinary conclusion is completely unsubstantiated.” Frances Thomas, in Christina Rossetti,4 a study which broke much new ground, is even more astringent: “In the end the monotones of Christina’s life defeated Professor Packer, and she invented a love affair for her, which puts her book more properly on the fiction shelves.” It was indeed a theory of legendary silliness. The mystery of self-hate and aridity remained.

Jan Marsh’s book is the best researched and fullest biography of Rossetti we have yet had. She gives much new information on her family and on émigré London in the mid-nineteenth century. Christina’s father, Gabriele Rossetti, poet and freedom fighter, had arrived in England only in 1824, as a refugee. Marsh produces a theory of Christina’s introspection in some respects as risky as Mosk Packer’s, being based more on her instincts than on provable facts. But she is too conscientious a biographer to claim it as more than the interesting possibility it is. In 1845, at the age of fourteen, Christina suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Her brother William described a startling change of personality:

During her girlhood, one might readily have supposed that she could develop into a woman of expansive heart, fond of society and diversions and taking a part in them of more than average brilliancy. What came to pass was of course quite the contrary.

Her fits of rage and remorse were so extreme she once seized a pair of scissors and used them to rip open her arm. She depicts a second self in her own later story “Hero,” in which the teen-age heroine mood swings into a depression, becomes violently énervée, and pines away singing bitter, manic songs.

Marsh notes (for the first time) how Christina’s breakdown occurred barely eighteen months after the illness of her father. Gabriele Rossetti, who had held the chair of Italian at King’s College in London, collapsed mentally and physically, suddenly unable to teach or study and virtually blind. Christina’s elder sister, Maria, was away in the country, working as a governess. Because of the financial crisis in the family her mother had taken a post as daily governess in London. Christina and her father were left alone together for long periods in the house. He was uprooted, demanding, querulous, pathetic. He had always been on terms of physical closeness with his daughters, with songs and games of pat-a-cake, small girls balanced on the knee. Christina, at fourteen, was physically mature but emotionally still the obedient child.

Although there is little positive evidence for saying so, her illness might reasonably be interpreted as showing some of the signs of incest trauma. In raising such a possibility, of course, Marsh is up against the current tendency to seize on incest as an all-purpose explanation for lives mysteriously blighted. This has been an incest-happy generation of biographers: Marsh runs the risk of appearing merely fashionable. But Rossetti is a special case of spiritual misery, and the argument has been too carefully pondered by a writer steeped in her subject and period to be cynically set aside. Sexual coercion of some kind by her father could explain Christina’s particularly relentless form of religious anguish, a sense of uncleanliness sometimes so extreme that it prevented her from taking holy communion. This devout Anglo-Catholic could be heard by her neighbors shrieking out as if from fear of literal hellfire in the days before she died.

There is an undercurrent of too-muchness in Rossetti’s work. Too much sucking, crushing, pulping; too much lip smacking and dribbling, sliminess and stickiness; what seems like too much sex. Marsh quotes a poem written by Christina in 1849, four years after her breakdown. A girl in the darkness is aware of grinning monsters:

One put forth a fin,

And touched me clammily: I could not pick
A quarrel with it: it began to lick
My hand, making meanwhile a piteous din
And shedding human tears.

The Rossettis lived out their exile in tall brick North London town houses of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. When Christina was a girl they lived in Charlotte Street, semi-genteel and dingy. The front door opened straight onto the street; she grew up in the close-packed city architecture of claustrophobia. Several of Christina’s poems have to do with physical barriers, the act of locking in or shutting out, and the terrors of self-confrontation in small rooms. In such environments the secrets blossomed strangely in Rossetti’s poems: “I tell my secret? No indeed, not I.” She teases and she bridles. This is the high-pitched and embarrassing Christina that Virginia Woolf identified. “You pulled legs; you tweaked noses. You were at war with all humbug and pretence.” Rossetti once described herself as an “escaped governess,” in a family in which the female destiny was teaching. In her “secret” poems she is gruesomely cavorting, like a governess on speed.

In the background is the specter of Dr. John Polidori, Christina’s uncle, brother of her mother, Frances. He had his days of notoriety as physician to Lord Byron, having been in attendance at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva at the time Byron was writing The Prisoner of Chillon and Mary Shelley began Frankenstein. Polidori himself wrote a Gothick tale he called The Vampyre. He poisoned himself after amassing gambling debts. Within the family he exemplified the taboo glamour of the bad. That inheritance of Gothick in Rossetti is important: blood-red seaweed, blood-stained water, love in ghostland, gross defilement by demon lover.

If I sleep, his trumpet voice com- pels me To stalk forth in my sleep:
If I wake, he hunts me like a nightmare; I feel my hair stand up, my body creep.

Whatever she invents is horrifically heightened. She loved little furry living things and indeed supported strongly the antivivisection movement. She told a story from her childhood of how in an orchard near the cottage at Holmer Green, where the family spent holidays, she discovered, and buried carefully, a dead mouse. Returning a day or two afterwards she removed the mossy coverlet and, to her horror, “a black insect emerged.” It is almost as if such impurities compel her. There is no one like Rossetti for alighting upon the canker in the apple. If a contemporary author invents a grotesque creature she can go one worse. Lewis Carroll’s sparring partners Tweedledum and Tweedledee are amiability itself compared with Rossetti’s memorable Mouth-Boy, who appears in one of her short stories in Speaking Likenesses. He grinds and gnashes his enormous teeth while attempting to relieve a small girl, Flora, of her chocolates. Marsh makes much of the sexual significance of the mouth. But big mouths are so Victorian. Perhaps Marsh has not noticed that Edward Lear’s Old Man of the South, who swallowed a dish “that was quite full of fish,” also had an “immoderate mouth.”

The young Christina and her sister and her mother and her aunts were swept up into the nascent Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England. Christina was being prepared for confirmation at the time of her collapse. The Rossetti women worshiped at Christ Church, Albany Street, where the preachers Edward Pusey and William Dodsworth delivered a rhapsodic Tractarian message to which the young women in their congregations were especially susceptible. After hearing Dodsworth the Adventist, Maria Rossetti imagined the mummies in the British Museum arising in a general resurrection. Christina’s writing at that time became imbued with the teen-age religious fantasy of martyr at the stake: “Quickened with a fire/Of sublime desire.” Marsh is excellent on the Rossettis and religion, and on Christina’s life-long commitment to High Anglican beliefs, which coexisted so unusually with a Protestant resistance to papal jurisdiction, Mariolatry, and sacerdotal intercession. Her belief in a direct communication with her God aligns her with the seventeenth-century Anglican divines and the English poets of personal and passionate spiritual experience, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Donne.

In 1845, in the same Christ Church parish, the first Anglican conventual order for women since the Reformation was established. All her life Christina would be flirting with the possibility of being shut up within walls; she was seen as the eccentrically subdued and pious figure on the outer edges of the shimmering, exuberant Pre-Raphaelite world.

Her oldest brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one of the three founders, with John Millais and Holman Hunt, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists. The Brotherhood was formed in 1848, the year of the European revolutionary ferment, and its intentions were fervently reformative. By painting directly from nature the Brotherhood aimed to recapture the lambency and truthfulness of pre-Renaissance Italian and Flemish art. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ideal community of artists was multitalented, and the Pre-Raphaelites assumed that art, design, and literature have a common creative basis. Christina contributed verse—anonymously—to the Brotherhood’s short-lived magazine The Germ. She sat for Gabriel for the head of the Virgin in his paintings The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850).

In 1861 the London decorating firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was established. Gabriel, again, was one of the original partners, with William Morris, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, the architect Philip Webb, and others. This new brotherhood was equally idealistic, aiming to reform standards of taste in architecture and design and to challenge the society that allowed such artistic poverty. It was a solemn “crusade against the age.” “The Firm,” as it was known, made its debut at the International Exhibition in South Kensington in 1862. Through Gabriel Christina was involved in what then became the most influential movement in English decorative arts.

  1. 1

    University of California Press, 1963.

  2. 2

    London: Constable, 1981.

  3. 3

    St. Martin’s, 1992.

  4. 4

    London: Virago, 1994.

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