Christina Georgina Rossetti, like many talented women of the Victorian period, knew great frustration. While she had the exceptional good fortune to live amid the most stimulating artistic and literary influences of that era, she had little formal education. University training remained unavailable to all of her sex. Though her childhood years were without material want, her father’s death clouded her adolescence and a broken engagement her young womanhood. If Jan Marsh’s deductions are correct, paternal sexual abuse scarred the poet’s childhood. (This is in direct conflict with the settled picture that William Michael Rossetti, the poet’s younger brother, evokes in Rossetti Papers .)
Such conjecture aside, it is clear that Rossetti had reached middle age before achieving any substantial recognition. Even then she had to contend with the dominating presence of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (whose epic scope she could not match), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whose marriage had captured the popular imagination and whose romantic verse resembled her own), and the greater contemporary appeal of more cheerful women poets such as Jean Ingelow.
It may seem that Rossetti was fortunate to have her elder brother, Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, as mentor and critic. It is true that he provided the first venue for her poetry in The Germ, the magazine of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Just as important, he introduced her to the artists who helped found this movement, W. Holman Hunt and John Millais. In so doing, he charted the literary course that her most popular verse would take, one that paralleled the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite painters: to recapture the realism that they believed had characterized the fine and literary arts before the birth of the Renaissance artist Raffaello Santi (1483-1520). Her brother also placed his sister’s work with Alexander Macmillan, titan of Victorian publishing and founder of the firm that still bears his name. The Macmillan edition of Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), her first anthology, containing handsome woodcut drawings by her brother, provided her first national exposure and was a considerable success.
In practice, however, as Marsh demonstrates, Rossetti’s elder brother often attempted to dominate his sister artistically, usually in the guise of concern for her interests. Rossetti frequently had to use considerable skill to make her own preferences hold. That she managed to achieve this without ever offending her brother is an artistic triumph in itself.
Rossetti generously acknowledged her elder brother’s guidance in the dedication of her second collection, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866), but an intervening century has repeatedly shown that there was a vast difference between what Victorian women felt and what they literally expressed. Given time and place, Rossetti’s success was remarkable; she knew that it was, and she felt genuinely grateful to the men who had helped her. At precisely this time, after all, on the other side of the world, a much less traditional woman poet named Emily Dickinson was entrusting her poems to miscellaneous scraps of paper; her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had convinced her that the world was not ready for her poetry because it was eccentric and unfeminine, and at her death in 1886, only seven of her nearly eighteen hundred poems had seen any form of publication.
Dickinson’s literary unfulfillment was far more profound than Rossetti’s, though given what by contemporary standards seems the superhuman ability of Victorian women to accept things as they were, it is hardly likely that either Dickinson or Rossetti saw herself as a tragic figure. Sadness and discontent are there, but they are inseparable from the verse. One might well argue that had either woman lived in a society less conscious of place and class, she would have been an entirely different poet.
This, then, is the primary challenge that faces any contemporary biographer of a Victorian woman disinclined to question openly the norms of her time. To what degree did Rossetti view the constraints that surrounded her as imposing the status of victim, and to what extent did she manage to press beyond them in her life and in her work? Marsh frequently isolates such questions and casts new light upon them.
One example of this is the details Marsh provides concerning Rossetti’s work at Highgate Penitentiary, a church-sponsored hospice for prostitutes and unwed mothers in London. Such volunteer social work, which required periodic residence at the site, was virtually unheard of among ladies of the Victorian middle class. Had Highgate not had unimpeachable Anglican affiliations, Rossetti certainly could not have pursued her work there with impunity, for it brought her into direct contact with women whose very existence polite convention did not acknowledge. For Rossetti, it was a way to move beyond needlework and drawing room, perhaps even a means of vicarious identification with her contemporary Florence Nightingale, the...
(The entire section is 2088 words.)