ANYONE WHO KNOWS how difficult it is to write a creditable biography about one person may at first be somewhat suspicious of Stanley Weintraub for having presumed to write the "collective story" of four people in one relatively slim volume, especially when those four people happen to have been as "notorious and obscure" as Maria, Dante Gabriel, William, and Christina Rosseti were. To be sure, there is a certain shallow incompleteness in Weintraub's treatment of any one of the four Rossettis. His achievement, however, comes from his having written the biography of a memorable family in such a way that it adds up to more than the sum of the frail lives of his subjects.
The four Rossetti children, each a year apart in age, grew up as few children ever do - comfortably close, in a house rich in literature, art, and things culture, in an atmosphere that encouraged them to develop and share their creative energies. From their father, an Italian revolutionary exiled to England for life, they received their exposure to a (for them) foreign culture, dead and living. To him, they spoke mostly in Italian. Gabriele Rossetti became professor of Italian at King's College, London and spent most of his time worshipping the works of Dante. Around him gravitated a host of Italian emigres, from artists and writers to coal merchants. From their mother and aunts, the children received strong doses of religion which the boys wouldn't swallow but the girls did. Eagerly and early on, they started creative projects which they had neither the self-discipline nor (at first) the real ability to carry out. Maria, by nine, however, could write in both Italian and English. Gabriel at eight and Christiana at six were writing and drawing. William, at seven, "was reading so well that he had been promised a six-volume Shakespeare for this birthday." It was not long before the children were "publishing" their poetry and tales on the private printing press of their maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori.
For a brief but formative time in their lives (and an all-too condensed chapter in Weintraub's book), the four Rossettis collaborated, cajoled one another, and played comfortably in their surroundings. That chapter abruptly over, they then went their sad, separate ways.
The sisters lived mature lives of "hidden desperation." Maria, "the ugly duckling, moonfaced and swarthy, but sweet-tempered and intelligent" went almost nowhere. At 17, she briefly became a governess and then spent most of her life tutoring Italian. At 45, she published a book on Dante. At 46, her piety at its peak and her health declining, she became a nun. She haunts the family biography. Christina, only slightly more worldly than her sister in out-look, was a semi-invalid, real or imagined, most of her life. In her poetry, she lived out the loves she ultimately rejected in her life with the same uniform lackof satisfaction.
Dante Gabriel, the pre-Raphaelite, starred in a one-act personal melo-drama in which everyone else played a minor role. Selfish, obstinate, undisciplined, impatient, insecure, outgoing, optimistic, and lively, he was a jumble of mixed emotions and warring creative energies. He was a man who seemed never to have been doing what he wanted to be doing or to have been at any time where he really wanted to be: painting, he would really rather have been writing; a pen in hand, he would really rather have reached for his brush. He lived a life full of unpaid monetary, emotional and artistic debts, including one to his wife Lizzy, whose suicide and bitterness towards him none of the seances he went to could help him exorcise. The blandness of Weintraub's narrative of Gabriel's eventual mental and physical deterioration alone makes it readable.
Every family needs a dependable child, whether it has one or not. The Rossettis had William, whom Weintraub dubs "the survivor." The Zeppo of the Rossettis, William spent his life from age 15 rising in the ranks of the British Civil Service, instinctively pursuing a "prudent, unadventurous" career to sustain his family. He tried art, he tried poetry, but his efforts never amounted to very much. He lived on the outside looking in on the creative and troubled lives of his brother and sisters. He wrote respected art and literary criticism, however. And underneath a socially acceptable exterior, he concealed thoughts of radical political idealism and religious unorthodoxy. William outlived Maria, Gabriel, and Christina and become the "chronicler and guardian of the family reputation" for Victorian consumption.
Considering how naturally Gabriel over shadows the other Rossettis in personality and in accomplishments and how much space is devoted to him in the book, it is remarkable that the other three, especially the sisters, emerge from the narrative as well as they do. The balance that Weintraub achieves in dealing with his subjects is in no way complemented, however, by any balance to the somber mood of the book as a whole - nor should it be. From beginning to end, the weight of a certain pervasive Victorian something is never lifted. Precisely because it couldn't be lifted from their lives, it nourished and oppressed the Rossettis. Call it cultural or psychological, blame it on the Spirit of the Age or on the personal fiber of the individuals, it hardly matters in the end. What only matters finally is that it was clearly much more than all of the four Rossettis combined.