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…

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