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.
In Max Beerbohm’s cartoon she is the black-clad maiden lady in the coalscuttle bonnet, theatrically dowdy, as her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti remonstrates, “What is the use, Christina, of having a heart like a singing bird and a water-shoot and all the rest of it, if you insist on getting yourself up like a pew-opener?” Yet there is a blissful moment (new to me) in this biography in which she appears in Syrian costume and “unusually animated” at a large party held to celebrate the return of Holman Hunt’s companion Tom Seddon from Egypt and Palestine. Seddon himself spent the whole evening in “full Arabicals.”
I deck myself with silks and jewelry,
I plume myself like any mated dove!
Christina understood completely the Pre-Raphaelite glory in exoticism, sensuousness, and display, if only to declare it finally impossible. “My Dream,” in which the orbed and jeweled great king crocodile swells into phallic splendor, gorging himself on lesser crocodiles, is almost a parodic Pre-Raphaelite poem.
There was a strain and great tendresse between the sister and the brother. They inhabited twin worlds of the visual and verbal. Christina Rossetti’s story “The Lost Titian,” an underrated work of the mid-1850s first published in the American magazine The Crayon, examines the roots of the artistic urges in a lavish, perfumed crimson and gold setting of Renaissance Italy. Both Rossettis pushed human experience to rash limits, exploring territory of the unsayable, unthinkable; Gabriel in his real-life sexual adventurings, Christina in what she called “the Poet mind.” Gabriel responded prudishly to his sister’s verses of lust and loss, loose women, prostitution, acting in effect as the censor of her published poems. These were things he did not want people to see his sister knew. As a visual artist he certainly outshone her. She took classes in drawing but her work was very tentative. She claimed to have no “eye” for art and to be bored by looking at paintings in galleries. She once submitted a design for wallpaper, apparently of apple trees, for possible production by William Morris, who made polite excuses. But as a poet she was surer than her brother, more persistent:
He wore me like a silken knot,
He changed me like a glove.
Gabriel’s poetry about bad women never rings so true.
Marsh’s interrogatory interventions about the Rossettis can be irritating. “What happened between them?” “Was any romance budding?” “Was this the whole truth?” But she raises one question we need to pay attention to. Why, in a family in which the parents’ marriage was, until the father’s breakdown, close and amicable, were the emotional lives of all four children so badly synchronized? In 1860, after nine years of dithering, Gabriel married his model, the former milliner Lizzie Siddal, by which time the lung trouble from which she suffered was acute. Within two years Lizzie had miscarried and then died from an overdose of laudanum. Gabriel became besotted with Janey, wife of his brother in art and business partner, William Morris. Here is a nice example of Christina’s double standard: she did not “agree” with “Guggums,” as Gabriel called Lizzie, but referred to Janey ingratiatingly as “dear Mrs. Morris,” inviting her to dinner and lending her a recipe. Janey, the daughter of an Oxford stable hand, had by now been well absorbed into the high Bohemian class.
William Rossetti’s first, and overlong, engagement to Henrietta Rintoul was broken off at the point at which she demanded that the marriage should be celibate. Maria conceived a hopeless passion for John Ruskin, who by then loved little girls, not large and hearty holy ladies. In the case of Christina the sibling tendency toward mismatching and mistiming is even more acute. When the young Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson surprised her by proposing she first of all refused him on the grounds that he had recently become a Roman Catholic. He reverted to the Anglican Church and she accepted him. By the time she slowly, nervously, had come to love him, Collinson had again set sail toward Catholicism, finally entering a Catholic community. Christina braced herself for “dreary emptiness” but fainted when she met Collinson unexpectedly in Regents Park.
Christina of course had a genius for preempting. The song that she wrote in early days of her relationship with Collinson—“When I am dead, my dearest”—has a melancholy prescience, unusual for an engaged girl, even in 1848. A poem of the following year, “Symbols,” contains none-too-hopeful signals of apocalyptic violence:
Then in my wrath I broke the bough, That I had tended so with care, Hoping its scent should fill the air;
I crushed the eggs, not heeding how Their ancient promise had been fair: I would have vengeance now.
Christina, daughter of a millenarian, was already attuned to retributive destruction and waste.
In 1860 she wrote “No, Thank You, John,” a poem addressed to a rejected suitor in her most suspect tone of edgy sprightliness. Marsh identifies John as John Brett, another Pre-Raphaelite painter, a Ruskinian, specialist in mountainscapes. His The Stonebreaker, now in the Tate Gallery in London, is typically accurate and solemn. Dante Gabriel Rossetti thought Brett was “insufferable” and had “no more eye for colour than a pig.” Whether John proposed or not is lost in the mists of history, but Marsh is more determined than previous biographers have been in unraveling the details of a botched romance for which little documentation exists.
The third of Christina’s doomed suitors was Charles Cayley, her father’s last pupil, a Casaubon-like figure, erudite and foolish, who spent his days incarcerated in the British Museum Reading Room. Christina envisaged him burrowing and grubbing, her velvety-soft mole. She declined his long-awaited proposal, then regretted it and settled her hopes on an eventual fulfillment of their love in heaven. Meanwhile they exchanged cautious presents, a little poem, a pickled sea mouse. Sometimes he would be invited to make up a four at whist. In later years Christina composed a sonnet sequence that was not simply a lament for love that never happened but a celebration of sexual love subsumed into spiritual love. By now she could address an essential truth and paradox:
I cannot love you if I love not Him, I cannot love Him if I love not you.
Rossetti had been a child poet to be marveled at, a precocious writer in the English juvenile tradition of Elizabeth Barrett and Felicia Hemans. In 1847, her first small collection of poems had been printed fondly by her grandfather in a private edition, handed around her family and friends. But up to the age of thirty Rossetti had not been professionally published, deterred by the strength of feeling in her high Anglican circles against female “publicity.” In the intervening years she had had some poems rejected by Blackwood’s Magazine. Marsh suggests, I think correctly, that those years of isolation helped her to find her odd, authentic, piercing voice. But although docile—a favorite epithet is “dove-like”—her demureness coexisted with a strength of self-belief which, like Charlotte Brontë’s, could erupt into extreme determination to overcome male prejudice and to succeed professionally. In 1861 her status altered when her poem “Up-hill” was accepted by Macmillan’s Magazine.
Men work and think, but women feel; And so (for I’m a woman, I) And so I should be glad to die
And cease from impotence of zeal.
Marsh writes well on Rossetti’s hesitant, alarmed, but often blisteringly caustic professional emergence. In her letters to her publisher it is surprising to see that she could give as well as she got. The conflict between womanly amateur performance and what could appear flagrant professional dedication had begun to surface in the England of the 1860s. In George Eliot’s grand, rambling, panoramic novel Daniel Deronda (1876) it is one of the main themes. The “impotence of zeal” of Victorian women writers is proving a productive subject for (mainly female) biographers of the 1990s. Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë,5 Jenny Uglow’s Elizabeth Gaskell,6 and now Jan Marsh’s Christina Rossetti: these are books of a new species, the biography of empathy, intent on tracing the interplay of social and domestic pressures and creative urge.
In 1854 Christina had offered herself as a nurse to travel with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea. On grounds of youth, inexperience, and her own precarious health her application was refused. Five years later she became an assistant at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate, North London, supervising young prostitutes and working to redeem them. Her yearning for the negligible made her the eternal volunteer. Why did she choose so controversial a task when other forms of voluntary work were open to her? Marsh speculates too far, I think, in her suggestion that Christina felt “There but for the grace of God go I.” But her chapter on the Highgate Penitentiary is generally admirable, with a solid sense of the place and valiantly retrieved detail, outdoing Frances Thomas’s earlier account.
This was the period at which Rossetti wrote the poem “Goblin Market,” which became her best-loved work and without which few anthologies were felt to be complete. Strange fate for a poem of such shrillness and harshness, with its lurid temptation scenes, explicitness of gang rape. Marsh makes out a good case for the poem being written originally for Christina’s Highgate charges, the young street girls, and claims it was designed to be read aloud. This makes sense of its pullulating cadences:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try.
The fast-moving, seductive, suck-it-and-see language has its origins in the street cries of old London. There are also, perhaps, intimations of the sweetmeats that Christina’s father, the professor and specialist in Dante, brought home for his expectant children in the afternoon
“Goblin Market” is a tale of two sisters, like Rossetti’s slightly earlier poem “The Lowest Room.” In recent years the image of the sisters enfolded in their curtained bed, “Golden head by golden head,/Like two pigeons in one nest,” has been looking like a gift to the lesbian voyeur. Rossetti’s view of sisterhood was certainly a most intense one. She both reveled in and resented sisterly dependencies. Her relations with her own sister, Maria, who entered All Saints Sisterhood in 1873, were always curiously fraught. Edmund Gosse, a visitor to that household of such piety, perceived the bustling bright Maria, with her cheerfully borne burden of immense flat feet, as the stronger character whose extreme High Church views “starved the less pietistic, but painfully conscientious nature of Christina.” He saw Maria’s influence as “police surveillance.” Gosse, brought up in a community of the Plymouth Brethren, had had his share of police surveillance, too.
As she grew older Christina became more like her mother. She clung to her mother tightly, and in her middle age wrote Mamma a valentine because she had never had one. Smooth-haired, pop-eyed and sallow, tremendously Italian: in the chalk drawing of 1877 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, now in the National Portrait Gallery in London, the mother and the daughter pose together like two aged twins. Christina’s intermittent illnesses became more permanent. Graves’ disease, a thyroid condition, was eventually diagnosed. Much of her time was spent recuperating in resorts on the south coast of England: Folkestone, Hastings, Herne Bay. She ate the glutinous jelly made from Carrageen moss, a medicinal seaweed, and with the same keenness as her brother Gabriel she watched the sea anemones sucking in their victims, waving their frondy arms. It was in Brighton, with her aunt at the aquarium, that she first equated the octopus with Satan, recording its behavior with Darwinian curiosity:
Inert as it often appeared, it bred and tickled a permanent suspense: will it do something? will it emerge from the background of its water den? I have seen it swallow its live prey in an eyewink, change from a stony colour to an appalling lividness, elongate unequal feelers and set them flickering like a flame, sit still with an air of immemorial old age amongst the lifeless refuge of its once living meals.
The Octopus of the Apocalypse makes his dramatic and insidious appearance in Rossetti’s devotional commentary The Face of the Deep.
Rossetti wrote a great deal: she had started at eleven and by the time she died in 1894 she had completed more than 1,100 poems. R.W. Crump’s variorum edition of The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti7 has recently revealed the full scope of her poetic activity and the clarity with which she worked. It no longer seems surprising that on the death of Tennyson she was being spoken of as his possible successor as Poet Laureate. But her prose is still ignored and Marsh argues persuasively for its reevaluation, especially the devotional books of Rossetti’s final twenty years. In Letter and Spirit (1883) and Time Flies (1885) Rossetti speaks out strongly for the contemplative values in a restless and aggressive age of unbelief. In confronting what she saw as the gross sickness in society she resembles Thomas Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin: Christina Rossetti as Victorian quasi-sage.
She could not write to order. “If I may at all hope to be remembered, I would rather live as a single book writer than as an only-one-readable book writer.” Rossetti was indeed a born single-book writer, shining, reckless, diamond hard.
November 2, 1995