THIS IS A BRISK and sensible biography of one of English literary history's most enigmatic figures. Perhaps because her brother's life was so flamboyant, Christina Rossetti's life seems all the more quiet and restrained. On the one hand, poetry, sex and death; on the other, poetry, piety, gentility.
The sensational incidents of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's life are well known. Poet and painter, Victorian London's leading Bohemian artist, the bad boy everyone loved to help, he discovered a great beauty and a talented artist in a milliner's apprentice, Lizzie Siddal, married her when she was virtually on her deathbed, buried his manuscript poems with her after her death from an overdose of laudanum, and, changing his mind, had her body exhumed to rescue the poems for publication. Later he loved Jane Morris, his best friend's wife, and the three of them shared Kelmscott in ambiguous intimacy. Because of his membership in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood--a group of poets and painters, including Millais, dedicated to truth to nature--and because of his friendship and association with William Morris, the glamour that attaches to artists in groups attaches to D.G. Rossetti. Because in his later years he sought oblivion through chloral and whiskey, he has also the glamour we ascribe to self-destructive genius.
Meanwhile, his sister, also a very talented poet, lived at home, cared for their mother and devoted herself to her art and the Church of England, whose doctrine and ritual were the center of her life. She received two proposals of marriage and turned them both down, ostensibly for religious reasons: the gentlemen were not believing Anglicans. Christina's religion seems part of a larger fastidiousness, a refusal to immerse herself in the pitch and mire of ordinary life, especially sexual life. If it were not for this fine arrogance in her character, for the mass and quality of her work, and for her fame (in her time American readers thought more highly of her poetry than her brother's), one might be tempted to present her life as an example of what Virginia Woolf called the plight of Shakespeare's sister, the woman of great talent prevented from realizing it because of cultural restrictions on experience and expression. And it is true that Christina was not allowed to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because of her sex, despite her brother's fervent arguments that she be allowed the status of an honorary associate so she could read the Brotherhood her poems. Christina finally ended the dispute by saying that she wanted no honorary status, no chance to read her poems: it smacks too much of "display" and unchristian self-advertisement. Religious scruples again. How often they came in handy to justify her not having what she couldn't have anyway--or didn't really want.
The author of a biography (among others) of Charlotte M. Yonge, the Victorian novelist who wrote largely for girls and young women, Georgina Battiscombe imagines Christina Rossetti turning herself willfully and consciously from a passionate person into a pious, repressed, self-sacrificing heroine out of Miss Yonge. In her rather too simple psychological scheme, Christina's passionate side derives from her Italian background (her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a political exile) and her restraint from her mother's English blood (although Frances Polidori was herself the daughter of an Italian exile married to an Englishwoman). This clash between English and Italian blood is the source of the "divided life" of the title, although Battiscombe suggests other and perhaps more valid ways in which Christina's life is divided. Surrounded by emotional melodrama, drug overdoses, m,enages Ma trois, in addition to the usual Victorian run of sickness and death, she lived a life of calm, sweetness and quiet. Its intensity, not visible from without, comes through in her poetry, which is surprisingly erotic. One of Battiscombe's excellent insights is that Christina's relationship with God was the great sexual experience of her life. Mortal lovers--James Collinson, Charles Cayley--however lovable and loved by Christina, seemed puny by comparison with the love she could generate wholly from her own imagination.
Thus it is, that, although she never married and never had a lover, Christina Rossetti wrote some of the most beautiful love poetry in English. Her work is a massive rebuke to those who assume that art depends on lived as opposed to imagined experience, and Battiscombe attacks repeatedly (perhaps too repeatedly) a literalist biography of Christina by Lona Mosk Packer which posits a passion for a particular man, William Bell Scott, at the base of all the poetry. But the object of Christina's passion was everywhere and nowhere, perpetually present and perpetually absent. Yearning, loss, and separation are her great themes, and she writes of them coolly and quietly, with the brilliance and mystery of running water: Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand, Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Like Emily Dickinson, spinster-poet on the other side of the Atlantic, Christina Rossetti liked to imagine what would happen at the moment of death and after, as though to prove that there was a difference between her minimalist life and death. She was not afraid of death-- quite otherwise. It seemed a passageway to a better, brighter, and more vivid world.
That Christina's world is not more vivid to us is, I fear, the fault of Battiscombe's biography which is meager both on the details of Christina's outer life, the shape, texture, and incidents of daily life in the various Rosetti households, and her inner life, as might be known through a full and sensitive discussion of her poetry. Let me offer as a case in point the author's treatment of Goblin Market, Christina's strange and haunting narrative poem about two sisters, one of whom eats the forbidden fruit sold by goblin men and is dying in anguish for more, which they will not sell her. Her sister gets the goblin vendors to smear her with fruit and invites the tormented one to lick the remedy off her: Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me:
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men. Battiscombe notes that this extraordinary poem is open to many interpretations: it may be a fairy-tale, a parable of temptation, sin, and redemption, a sexual fantasy, or a hymn in praise of sisterly devotion. On balance she opts for sisterly devotion, which is brisk and sensible for her but leaves many questions unexplored. If she has little talent for literary criticism, however, she has some for quotation, and if her book is thin, it is readable. It will send one back to Rossetti's poetry.
Christina Rossetti is a poet one turns to when most voices seem too loud, when one yearns for the mysteries of simplicity rather than those of complexity. Her greatest poems seem so clear as to defy analysis. She pared away their surface just as she pared down, subdued and repressed the outward surface of her life. The passionate intensity was all within, as Battiscombe wisely perceives. But it will take a writer less brisk and sensible than she, more sensitive to imagined experience and how it gets expressed, to satisfy us fully about the quiet life of Christina Rossetti.