Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
Christina Georgina Rossetti (roh-ZEHT-ee) was born in Portland Place, London, England, on December 5, 1830, the youngest of four children of Gabriele and Frances Mary Polidori Rossetti. All three of her siblings achieved some measure of fame: Maria Francesca (1827-1876) as a Dante critic, Dante Gabriel (1828-1882) as a poet and painter, and William Michael (1829-1919) as an art critic and essayist. Her father Gabriele had been a noted liberal reformer and poet in Italy who was exiled to England in 1826, the year of his marriage.
When Christina was a year old, her father was offered a professorship of Italian at King’s College, London, which meant that the family’s situation was much less precarious than it had been for Christina’s brothers and sisters. Christina grew up surrounded by some of the finest minds of her time, and she matched her own against them at an early age. While a young girl she engaged in sonnet-writing contests with her brothers, and in 1847 her maternal grandfather published privately a collection of her early verses. By 1849, at the age of nineteen, Rossetti was publishing verse in the London Athenaeum, one of the leading literary journals of late Victorian England.
When her brothers and other London painters and intellectuals formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the fall of 1848, Christina took an important role in the group’s discussions, as well as serving as a model for many of their most important paintings. She sat for the painting that launched her brother Dante Gabriel’s career, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849). At about the same time she received her first marriage proposal, from James Collinson, a painter in the Brotherhood, which she declined for reasons of religious incompatibility. She would refuse him again in 1850, and refuse a proposal from Charles Cayley in 1866.
The first issue of the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ appeared in December of 1850, and though dominated by her brother Dante Gabriel’s writings, it contained several poems by Christina. She would continue to write verse over the next decade, publishing very little. In 1851, she helped teach in her mother’s day school in London (Mornington Crescent), and the following year took a position as a private tutor. In 1853, she moved with her parents to the Somersetshire village of Frome-Selwood, nearly one hundred miles southwest of London, to run a day school. A year later, however, the family returned to tend to her ailing father, who died in 1854.
In 1861, Rossetti made her first visit to the Continent with her mother and brother William, visiting Normandy and Paris. In the following year, she collected her verse from the previous decade in her first commercially published volume, Goblin Market, and Other Poems (1862).
As she wrote verses for her next collection, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems (1866), Rossetti continued to sit for paintings and photographs. Lewis Carroll, best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), photographed her in 1864. In 1865, she made her second trip to the Continent, this time visiting her ancestral Italy, which she had not seen before. Surprisingly, the Italian trip did not make itself felt in the poems of The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems, nor did a shorter trip in 1866 to Penkill Castle in Scotland.
Rossetti’s short fiction first appeared in Commonplace, and Other Short Stories (1870), though the critics rightly pronounced them inferior to her poems. In 1871, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid condition resulting in swelling in the eyes and throat, as well as nervousness. It subsided by 1873. Her book of children’s verse, Sing-Song (1872), became an instant classic of children’s literature, still widely read. Though she continued to write poetry for the remaining two decades of her life, little of it measures up to the standards set by her first three books of verse. Her religious prose, Annus Domini (1874), Seek and Find (1879), Called to Be Saints (1881), Letter and Spirit (1882), Time Flies (1885), and The Face of the Deep (1892), was widely read but generally undistinguished. Perhaps realizing her failing poetic powers, Rossetti twice published collected editions of her earlier poems, with some additions, in Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems (1875) and Poems (1882; revised edition, 1890). Devotional verse in A Pageant, and Other Poems (1881) and Verses (1893), which also collected the incidental poems from her earlier prose books, occasionally rivaled the quality of her earlier poetry. In 1892, Rossetti began to show signs of the cancer that took her life in 1894.
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