(transcribed from a copy in the British Library, via Inter-Library Loans)
M E M O I R
GABRIELE ROSSETTI and his wife Frances Mary Lavinia (Polidori), marrying in April 1826, had four children. They were: Maria Francesca, born 17 February 1827; Gabriel Charles Dante (better known as Dante Gabriel), 12 May 1828; William Michael, 25 September 1829; and Christina Georgina, 5 December 1830. These were all born at No. 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London. Christina, like the other children, was baptized in the Church of England. Her two godmothers were Lady Dudley Stuart, originally the Princess Christine Bonaparte, a daughter of Lucian, and of course niece of the great Napoleon - Rossetti being well-known to several members of this world-famous family; and Miss Georgina Macgregor, a daughter of Sir Patrick Macgregor, and pupil of Mrs Rossetti, who had before marriage been a governess in that house.
In my Memoir of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, published along with his Family Letters in 1895, I have given various particulars about our father Gabriele Rossetti, and a few about our mother. I shall not repeat them here, beyond what is necessary for my immediate purpose. Gabriele Rossetti was a native of Vasto in the Abruzzi, kingdom of Naples, born February 1783. His origin was quite undistinguished, his father being a blacksmith and locksmith, and his maternal grandfather a shoemaker; he had, however, I believe, some hereditary connection with a family of more position, named Della Guardia, and either in the Rossetti or in the Della Guardia line of a previous period there had been some sort of local literary note. Gabriele Rossetti showed an early aptitude for drawing, and also for verse. He went towards 1803 to Naples, and held for a short time the official post of librettist to the Operatic Theatre of San Carlo, and for a much longer term that of custodian of Ancient Bronzes in the Naples Museum. He published in Naples some of his poetical compositions, but was more especially known and admired as an improvisatore. In 1820 he adhered to the movement, started by a military uprising, for obtaining a Constitution for the kingdom of Naples. The Bourbon king, Ferdinand I., granted and swore to the Constitution; and then rapidly revoked it, and treated its promoters as criminals. In the summer of 1821 Rossetti had to escape from Naples in disguise; sojourned for a while in Malta; and early in 1824 came over to London. He married the second daughter of Gaetano Polidori; he being at the time forty-three years of age, and she much younger, barely twenty-six. Polidori had, in his youth, been secretary to the celebrated dramatic poet Alfieri; he was a teacher of Italian in London, and author of many books, and had been the father of Dr John Polidori, who became Byron's travelling physician in 1816, made some name as author of The Vampyre, and committed suicide in 1821.
In London Gabriele Rossetti (having no private means of subsistence whatever, and his wife nothing in hand, and only a modest contingent expectation) followed the same career as his father-in-law -- that of teaching Italian. He was appointed Professor of Italian in King's College, London, in 1831; but this added little to his occupations, and next to nothing to his income. He published several books, both verse and prose. The verse procured him very considerable celebrity in Italy as a patriotic poet; the prose - largely concerned with the interpretation of Dante and other mediaeval writers as being members of a secret school of daring speculators in politics and religion - was prohibited in Italy (and so indeed was the verse), but made a good deal of stir in England, earning some few partizans here and there, and a fair number of adversaries. Rossetti did not naturalize himself as an Englishman, but remained an Italian; neither did he protestantize, though in open and frequently published opposition to the papal system and pretensions.
Such was the household into which Christina Rossetti was born; a household of narrow means, according to the English standard of income and living (I suppose the years were very few in which Rossetti made, from all sources, more than an annual £300, and it must generally have been less); of no display and no inclination for display; of careful but not stingy economy - the father being highly inexpensive in all personal habits, and the mother an assiduous housewife from day to day and from year to year; of infallibly upright dealing and no indebtedness; of substantial but not self-indulgent comfort; of steady continuous occupation; of a high standard of right; of serious thinking and many intellectual interests - few of any other sort. These brief words of attestation are no more than my due to my parents; to point out the defects of my father, or to discover some in my mother, is not incumbent upon me, nor indeed is there anything of this kind which needs to be stated as relevant to the home-life of Christina Rossetti. I should add that Mrs Rossetti (who was of wholly English extraction on her mother's side, as of wholly Italian extraction on her father's) was born and bred in London, and was of a decidedly English rather than Italian type of person and character; her education was good, her mind fully formed. The mutual affection and esteem of husband and wife were solid and unvarying; there was little dissent between them - except indeed an abstract dissent on subjects of religion - and quarrelling and nagging were unknown. Rossetti was mainly a free-thinker, although much in sympathy with the moral and spiritual teachings of the Gospel; his wife was a devout but not sanctimonious member of the Church of England - the dominant tone of which was, towards the date of Christina's birth, the `evangelical,' the `high church' being as yet dormant.
Christina, as being the youngest of the four children, could not fail to be influenced to some extent, in her earliest years, by the qualities of her sister and brothers, as well as of her parents. Maria was mentally a precocious child, learning very early and easily all such matters as reading, writing, speaking two languages, etc.; indeed she was from first to last much the best of the four at all matters of acquired knowledge of that sort. She was of an upright and affectionate, but naturally a rather jealous, disposition, and of enthusiastic temperament; plunging with great ardour, before reaching the age of twelve or eleven, into such themes as the career of Napoleon, the Iliad, Grecian mythology, etc. From her earliest years she was devout; and, after being confirmed (towards 1840), she made religion her paramount concern, attending little in comparison to anything else. The character of Gabriel is perhaps pretty well understood by readers at the present day. In childhood as in manhood he was ardent, impulsive, dominant, generous, good-natured; not unfrequently passionate; determined to be a painter; eagerly susceptible to anything of a poetic, imaginative, or fanciful kind, but not to what partook of abstract or scientific knowledge. Of myself I will say nothing, except that I was a somewhat demure little boy, not quarrelsome and not teazing, and, as nearest to Christina in age, was regarded by her as a kind of ally against the thews, sinews, and dictation (such as they were), of our two very juvenile seniors.
The earliest years of a child's life are doubtless of great consequence in forming lines of character which afterwards deepen; but those very earliest years do not remain clear to the consciousness of the adult. Let us then, ignoring those first years, imagine Christina Rossetti at the age of five years completed, or about as far back as she would remember in after life, and define a little of what she saw around her. It is the beginning of the year 1836, in which the family moved from No. 38 Charlotte Street to No. 50, a rather larger house, but still a small one. The father is now no less than fifty-three years old, the mother thirty-six.
The Rossetti household was thoroughly unconventional, living plainly and comforably within their own walls, and being very little visible to outsiders. No Rossetti, and also no Polidori, had any idea of `keeping in the fashion'; one or other of them (but this does not rightly apply to my mother) would have been found in 1860 dressing in very much the same mode as in 1835. Hence a kind of family tradition, which to some extent - though it was but a very minor extent in comparison - clung to Christina in her adult years. Our father was either occupied out-of-doors teaching, or was indoors writing about Dante, Freemasonry, and other light topics. He was kind in his family, open-hearted, very animated in mind and manner, and on the whole cheerful, in spite of the bitterness of exile and the wrestle with fortune. The mother went out into society hardly at all, being wholly devoted to her domestic duties, with husband and four young children. The education of her two daughters was, from first to last, entirely her work - allowing for some trifles, such as singing and dancing lessons, and these had no appreciable sequel. There was nothing of the ascetic about her, nor yet any disregard for the social proprieties, as ordinarily accepted and applied: but an extreme indifference to `showing off,' or putting herself forward in any way whatever, and a perfect willingness to forego all sorts of diversions and social distractions; her duties, her requisite occupations, and the cultivation of her mind by miscellaneous readings in three languages, sufficed her. The children were constantly with their parents; there was no separate nursery, and no rigid line drawn between the big ones and the little ones. Of English society there was extremely little - barely one or two families that we saw something of at moderate intervals; but of Italian society - in the sense of Italians who hunted up and haunted our father as an old acquaintance or a celebrity - the stream was constant and copious. Singular personages these Italians (with occasionally some foreigner of a different nationality) were, in many instances; almost all of them eager after something - few or none eager after those things which occupy the thoughts of the average Englishman - to increase his income, to rise a grade higher in social position, to set his children going in one of the approved grooves, to relax over the sporting columns of a newspaper. There were exiles, patriots, politicians, literary men, musicians, and some of inferior standing; fleshy good-natured Neapolitans, keen Tuscans, emphatic Romans. As we children were habituated from our earliest years to speaking Italian with our father, we were able to follow all or most of the speech of these `natives'; and a conspirator or semi-brigand might present himself, and open out on his topics of predilection, without our being told to leave the room. All this -- even apart from our chiefly Italian blood -- made us, no doubt, not a little different from British children in habit of thought and standard of association; and, when Dante and Christina proved, as poetic writers, somewhat devious from the British tradition and the insular mind, we may say, if not `so much the better,' at any rate, `no wonder.'
Apart from her sisters and brothers, Christina had no relatives of nearly her own age. She received plenty of affection from her maternal grandparents and maiden aunts. Most of this branch of the family lived in those years in the country - at Holmer Green, near Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Through staying there from time to time Christina came to know something, and to love much, of rural appearances - gardens, poultry, ponds, frogs, etc.; but this came to an end in 1839, when the Polidoris moved back into London, and from that time onward her experiences of anything countrified were decidedly sparse and scanty. Our father never took his family out of town for annual jaunts, as for instance to the seaside; there was little money to spend on such relaxations, and not much disposition to be on the move. Later on (as may readily be guessed) Christina visited several of the ordinary seaside or other resorts: Brighton, Hastings, Clifton, Cheltenham, Sevenoaks, Torquay, etc.; she was a little in Scotland, never in Ireland. In childhood she was of a lively, and a somewhat capricious or even fractious, temper; but she was warm-natured, engaging, and a general favourite, considerably prettier than her elder sister Maria. She was by far the least bookish of the family - liking a few things heartily, such as The Arabian Nights and the lyric dramas of Metastasio, but generally not applying herself with assiduity to either her books or her studies. She `picked up' things rather than acquired them.
I will give here three small anecdotes of Christina's childhood. They may be `puerile' or `silly,' yet are characteristic in their way, and have a kind of bearing on her faculty as a writer. It appears to me that at the dates of the first two incidents my own age was still under seven, so Christina's was under six: in the third instance she may have been between seven and eight.
1. One day Mrs Cipriani Potter (the wife of the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, who was my godfather) called upon my mother. Christina was in the room, and our household tabby cat, who, being of mature age, wore that aspect of self-collected gravity with which we are all familiar. Christina made the remark, `The cat looks very sedate,' and I can still remember the glance of amused surprise with which Mrs Potter greeted the use, by such infantine lips, of such a `dictionary-word,' so appositely introduced.
2. It appears to me that the very first verses composed and spoken by Christina (she was too young to write them) were these - they do not profess to be rhyme, but are metre, and correct metre: -
- Cecilia never went to school
- Without her gladiator.
There was no reason for coupling `gladiator' with `Cecilia.' The Christian name had been found, I fancy, in a book which we then often skimmed, named The Looking-Glass for the Mind, and something or other about gladiators had recently been heard by Christina, and the word (if nothing else) had hit her fancy. She understood this much - that a `gladiator' would be a man capable of showing some fight for `Cecilia' upon an emergency. Unmeaning as the lines and association are, they are not without hinting at a certain oddity or whimsicality of combination which (mingled indeed with qualities of a very different kind) can be not unfrequently traced in the verse of her mature years. 3. Possibly the earliest thing which Christina wrote (or rather, I think, got someone to write from her dictation) was the beginning of a tale called perhaps The Dervise, on the model (more or less, i.e. very little) of The Arabian Nights. The dervise, I think, went down into a cavern, where he was to meet with some adventures not much less surprising than those of Aladdin. In the thick of the plot it occurred to Christina that she had not given her dervise a name, so she interjected a sentence, `The Dervise's name was Hassan,' and continued his perilous performances. This outraged the literary sense of Gabriel and the rest of us. I doubt whether, after The Dervise, Christina wrote anything else prior to 1840, the date Retribution, which I have briefly mentioned in my Memoir of Dante Rossetti. This also must have been an oriental - I suppose a crusading - prose tale, as one incident was `Sir Guy finding the letter of Ali.'
I do not seem to know of any other writing by my sister until we come to the date, 27 April 1842, of her first written verses, `To my Mother.' These were soon privately printed by our grandfather Polidori. They open - in the spirit of filial love which was hers through life - her career as a poetess. From that point onward the present volume furnishes ample material for judging what she was like in heart, mind, feeling, aspiration, faculty, and executive gift; and I may leave that matter to speak for itself.
Christina was, I think, a tolerably healthy girl in mere childhood; but this state of things soon came to an end. She was not fully fifteen when her constitution became obviously delicate. She always received excellent medical advice, and was treated at different times for a variety of maladies. There was angina pectoris (actual or supposed), of which, after some long while, she seemed cured; then cough, with symptoms which were accounted ominous of decline or consumption, lasting on towards 1867; then exopthalmic bronchocele (or Dr Graves's disease), which began in 1871, and was truly most formidable and prostrating, and which, after destroying for a while all her good looks, left her with permanent cardiac troubles, and an aspect, not indeed anything like so bad as it had been in the thick of the disease, but still sensibly altered. And yet she survived every single member of the Rossetti and Polidori families, myself and my children alone excepted. All these maladies were apart from her last and mortal illness, of which I must say a few words in its place. I have naturally much more reluctance than inclination to dwell upon any of these physical ills; but anyone who did not understand that Christina was an almost constant and often a sadly-smitten invalid, seeing at times the countenance of Death very close to her own, would form an extremely incorrect notion of her corporal, and thus in some sense of her spiritual, condition. She was compelled, even if not naturally disposed, to regard this world as a `valley of the shadow of death,' and to make near acquaintance with promises, and also with threatenings, applicable to a different world. As an invalid she had courage, patience, and even cheerfulness. I have heard her dwell upon the satisfaction - such as it is - of being ill, and interdicted from active extertion and the following-out of one's fancies. Perhaps the least unhealthy years of her womanhood were towards 1861, and again from 1867 to 1870 - age thirty, going on to thirty-nine.
The fortunes of the Rossetti family, always modest enough, were at a low ebb from 1842 to 1854. Ill-health and partial blindness overtook our father, leading to the diminution, and ultimately the loss, of professional employment. The sustenance of the household devolved to some extent upon our mother, who went out teaching. Maria was a governess - at first a resident governess, but afterwards attending to pupils from her home. Dante Gabriel, until 1848, could earn nothing, and for some ensuing years very little, and the expenses of starting him in his pictorial vocation were not inconsiderable. For myself, I became an extra clerk in the Excise (or Inland Revenue) Office from 1845, earning a very moderate stipend, which gradually increased; and from 1850 I got some amount of paid literary work as well. Christina, though she had no propensity to educational or other drudgery, was always most willing to do what might offer. In 1851-52 she assisted our mother in a small day-school at No. 38 Arlington Street, Mornington Crescent. This was far from prosperous, and in 1853 they two, along with our father, moved off to Frome-Selwood, Somerset, in hopes that another day-school might work better. This also proved a comparative failure; and early in 1854 I found myself sufficiently floated to allow of our all living together again in London - all, that is, except Dante Gabriel, who by this time had separate chambers of his own. We reunited in Upper Albany Street - the house now called No. 166 Albany Street; and from this time forward Christina simply lived at home - no longer under the necessity of teaching the small daughters of the neighbouring hairdresser or the neighbouring pork-butcher their p's and q's, but anxious to secure any literary pickings which might offer, and producing poems which the world has not as yet been willing to let die. Her earnings were decidedly meagre. I suppose that from 1854 to 1862 she seldom made `10 in a year; from 1862 to 1890 there might be (taking one year with another) an average of perhaps £40 per annum - less rather than more. By 1890 her poetic reputation was fully settled, and her profits were substantial, without being at all large. Of private income she had, so far as I remember, absolutely none up to 1867, and for many years after that a mere pittance. But, of course, she lived in comfort and security as a member of the family along with other members. The family had scarcely got reunited in Albany Street when Gabriele Rossetti died, 26 April 1854.
I must now go back a little in date, and give some slight account of an `affair of the heart' which brightened and darkened the life of Christina Rossetti. [* Note 1 ]. There were two such incidents, at an interval of years. The first began in 1848, before she was aged eighteen, and ended in 1850, or possibly late in 1949. The second must have commenced [* Note 2 ] towards the close of 1862; except as a matter of feeling, it terminated towards the opening of 1867.
[ * Note 1 ]. Readers of her poems had not failed to see, and to say, that some such affair or affairs must have given rise to several of the compositions: but nothing distinct had been printed on the subject, prior to a note which I inserted in the volume New Poems, 1896. In that note I indicated the main facts very briefly, not giving names. It appears to me that there is now no serious reason for withholding the names. I therefore state them, along with the other particulars.
[ * Note 2 ]. See the series of Italian compositions, Il Rosseggiar dell' Oriente.
James Collinson was a painter, who fell in love with Christina soon after being introduced to her. He was chiefly a domestic painter, and had been enrolled in the `Praeraphaelite Brotherhood,' formed towards September 1848. He had originally been a member of the Church of England, and a devout one; but, before making acquaintance with Christina, he had been converted to Roman Catholicism. On explaining his feelings, he was informed that this difference in church-faith formed an obstacle not to be got over. From this fact it might appear that Christina - who already belonged to what was then called the Puseyite or Tractarian party in the English Church, or (as we should now say) the High Church party or Anglo-Catholics - was decidedly hostile to Roman Catholicism. I do not, however, think she was that. I consider that she held then - as she certainly did in later years - that the Roman Catholics are authentic members of the one veritable Church of Christ, but in some matters erroneous; she was, for instance, firmly opposed to anything savouring of Mariolatry. I do not see that her religious tenets were such as to make marriage with a Roman Catholic, in itself, distasteful to her, or contrary to her sense of duty: she may rather perhaps have been influenced by the consideration that, in the event of giving birth to children, she would be at odds with her husband as to the faith in which these should be brought up, with consequences which might expose their souls to peril and scathe. Anyhow she declined Collinson's offer, although, on general grounds, very well disposed towards him. Collinson then seems to have supposed that, after all, his religious convictions were not incompatible with membership in the English Church; he reverted to it, proposed to Christina again, and was accepted. But after a moderate while he found once more that his conscience pricked him, and he must at all hazards be a Roman Catholic. Such he re-became, and Christina (whose force of will, especially where any point of duty seemed to be concerned, was in full proportion to the family motto, Frangas non flectas) cancelled the engagement. I will not harshly condemn James Collinson for these successive tergiversations: he was a right-meaning man, of timorous conscience. But he had none the less struck a staggering blow at Christina Rossetti's peace of mind on the very threshold of womanly life, and a blow from which she did not fully recover for years. He died in 1881.
I must next deal with a personage of higher type, Charles Bagot Cayley, a man of letters and an author, but less author than scholar. Christina may first have known him as far back as 1847 or so, and again in 1854: but the two did not meet much until some such date as 1860. Towards 1847 he had been a pupil of my father for Italian; and he became an excellent Italian scholar (indeed a remarkable linguist generally), and produced a most able translation of Dante's Comedia in the original metre. He was a singularly unworldly person, which was no doubt in my sister's eyes a merit, and not a blemish. His precise religious opinions are not clear to me: he had been brought up in the Church of England. I suppose that, like so many other men of inquiring mind, he regarded all religions as much the same thing - a mixture of feeling with thought, and also with assumption and legend, not with verification. He may have considered Christianity the best of all religions, but not as being on a different plane from others, absolute truth as contrasted with fallacy. In course of time he proposed to Christina. She loved him deeply and permanently, but, on his declaring himself, she must no doubt have probed his faith, and found it either strictly wrong or woefully defective. So she declined his suit, but without ceasing to see and to cherish him as a friend. Knowing the state of her heart when the offer was made, I urged her to marry, and offered that they should both, if money difficulties stood in the way, share my home. But she had made up her mind on grounds which she recognized as higher than any considerations of either feeling or expediency, and she remained immovable. Years passed: she became an elderly and an old woman, and she loved the scholarly recluse to the last day of his life, 5 December 1883, and, to the last day of her own, his memory.
It may be added that Christina was extremely reticent in all matters in which her affections were deeply engaged. Of these two cases I knew a good deal directly, and could indirectly judge of much more; but it would have been both indelicate and futile to press her with enquiries, and of several details in the second case - though important to a close understanding of it - I never was cognizant.
As Mr Cayley was so important a personage in the hushed life-drama of Christina Rossetti, I will here insert a portion of the obituary notice of him which I wrote, and which was printed in The Athenaeum:
-- `Mr Charles Bagot Cayley, B.A., of Trinity College, Cambridge, died suddenly, and apparently without any serious forewarning, of heart disease, in the night of the 4th-5th December, in his lodging at South Crescent, Bedford Square: he was found dead in the morning, having expired, it would seem, in perfect calm during sleep. This gentleman was the son of a Russian merchant, and younger brother of the celebrated mathematician, the Sadlerian Professor at Cambridge. He was born on 9 July 1823, and had therefore completed his sixtieth year. Several of his early years were passed in Russia. ... He published, many years ago, a volume of original poems named Psyche's Interludes. Some of the same compositions, with others added, re-appeared lately in a privately printed volume. Mr Cayley was for many years past an active and valued member of the Philological Society. ... A more complete specimen than Mr Charles Cayley of the abstracted scholar in appearance and manner - the scholar who constantly lives an inward and unmaterial life, faintly perceptive of external facts and appearances -- could hardly be conceived. He united great sweetness to great simplicity of character, and was not less polite than unworldly. In a small circle of intimates his death leaves a mournful blank: they "will not look upon his like again."'
Apart from these two matters, the life of Christina Rossetti presents hardly any incident. Her life had two motive powers, - religion and affection: hardly a third. And even the religion was far more a thing of the heart than of the mind: she clung to and loved the Christian creed because she loved Jesus Christ. `Christ is God' was her one dominant idea. Faith with her was faith pure and absolute: an entire acceptance of a thing revealed - not a quest for any confirmation or demonstrative proof. There were few things she more disliked than an `Evidences of Christianity': I dare say she never read one, but she must have glanced at one or other sufficiently to know that she disliked it. To learn that something in the Christian faith was credible because it was reasonable, or because it rested upon some historic evidence of fact, went against her. Her attitude of mind was: `I believe because I am told to believe, and I know that the authority which tells me to believe is the only real authority extant, God.' To press her - `How do you know that it is God?' would have been no use; the ultimate response could only have come to this - 'My faith is faith; it is not evolved out of argumentation, nor does it seek the aid of that.' If she did not admit of discussion of her own belief, neither did she indulge in any discussion of the belief of others: no one knows this better than myself, with whom the field for debate, had she been minded to it, would have been a very large one. In fact, though enormously strict with herself in matters of religious faith and dogma, she was not intolerant of difference of opinion in others: she met on terms of close or amicable good-will many persons whom she knew to be decided disbelievers, not to speak of earnest and devout Dissenters. The Christian believer has before him two things: one, the promise of ecstatic bliss; the other, the decree of excessive misery. Some believers, perceiving themselves to be undoubted Christians in faith, become serenely or perhaps exuberantly happy in their inner selves: it may be said that Maria Rossetti was one of these, for (at any rate in her later years) she felt the firmest confidence of salvation. Not so Christina, who always distrusted herself, and her relation to that standard of Christian duty which she constantly acknowledged and professed. In this regard her tone of mind was mainly despondent: it was painfully despondent in the last few months of her life, but as to that the physical minor reasons may have been as truly operative as the spiritual major reason. All her long life she felt - or rather she exaggerated - her deficiences or backslidings: she did not face religion with that courageous yet modest front with which a virtuous woman, who knows something of the world, faces life. Passages can no doubt be found in her writings in which she is more hopeful than abased; in which her ardent aspirations towards heaven so identify her with its bliss that she seems to be almost there, or on the very threshold. These passages are of course perfectly genuine; but they are coupled with an awful sense of unworthiness, shadowed by an awful uncertainty. I will not dwell upon slighter matters - those which constituted her a `devotee' in the ordinary sense - her perpetual church-going and communions, her prayers and fasts, her submission to clerical direction, her oblations, her practice of confession. It should be said that, while she had an intense reverence for the priestly function, she cared next to nothing about hierarchical distinctions: anything which assimilated the clerical order to a `learned profession' forming part of the British constitution left her indifferent, or rather inimical.
I have often thought that Christina's proper place was in the Roman Catholic Church, yet I never traced any inclination in her to join it, nor did she ever manifest any wish to enter upon the conventual life - I think she held herself unworthy of attempting it. Her satisfaction in remaining a member of the English Church may have been due partly to her deep affection for her mother, who, though gradually conforming to the external practices of the High Church, was far indeed from wishing to Romanize.
I have said that, along with religion, affection was the motive power of Christina's life. For all her kith and kin, but for her mother far beyond all the rest, her love was as deep as it was often silent. She was not demonstrative, though of a fondling habit as regards her mother. To the latter it may truly be said that her whole life was devoted: they were seldom severed, even for a few days together. When at last, in 1886, death divided them, she tended her two aged aunts with like assiduity, although it was impossible that her outflow of love towards either of them should have had any similar force and glow. Maria she was truly fond of, and she regarded her latterly as almost a saint; of Dante Gabriel she was, so far as natural predilection goes, still fonder - and I might say the same of myself. It will easily be understood that, much as she saw of him after they were both grown up, she saw far more of me, for until 1876 (and allowing for the short interval in 1853-54) she and I were always residing together.
Like her mother, Christina went very little into society; none the less she knew and appreciated several leading personages, whom I will name in the order of date (approximately) when she made acquaintance with them: all the members of the Praeraphaelite Brotherhood, Madox Brown with his family [~sNote 4~PnCGR Note 4~K4~E], Coventry Patmore, Professor Masson, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ruskin (I question whether she saw him more than once), Dodgson, Dr Garnett, Robert Browning (but, unfortunately, not Mrs Browning), Swinburne, Jean Ingelow, Gosse, Watts-Dunton, Shields, Hall Caine. Many others could be named -- Dr Adolf Heimann, Canon Burrows, W.Bell Scott, James Hannay, J.R.Clayton, William Allingham, Dr. John Epps, Mrs Bodichon, John L.Tupper, the Howitts, John Brett, Thomas and John Seddon, Henrietta Rintoul, Arthur Hughes, Adelaide Procter, Alexander Macmillan (her publisher, with whom always had very amicable relations), William Ralston, Stillman, Ann Gilchrist, Dora Greenwell, Miss Alice Boyd, Mrs Cameron, The Rev. Orby Shipley, Dr. Littledale, James Smetham, Hueffer, the Rev. Alfred Gurney, Dr. Hake, Prebendary Glendinning Nash (her clergyman in late years), Lady Mount-Temple, William Sharp, Professor Dunstan, Lisa Wilson, Miss Ellen Procter, Mackenzie Bell. From a perusal of this list the reader will correctly infer that after the death of our father we saw little - next to nothing - of Italian society. There was, however, our cousin Teodorico Pietrocola-Rossetti, a leader in an Italian Evangelical movement, for whom and his Scottish wife Christina felt a sincere attachment. The physician whom my sister consulted was for many years Sir William Jenner: there were also Dr. Hare, Dr. Crellin, Dr. Wilson Fox, Dr. Stewart, and others; and at the very last Dr. Abbott Anderson.
[ * Note 4 ]. To avoid tediousness, I do not mention the family in the several instances; but it may be taken that very generally, when a married person is mentioned, the family also was known to Christina.
In company she was quiet, and reserved rather than otherwise, but made every now and then some remark which arrested attention. She was as a fact extremely shy. Most people probably perceived as much; but she preserved a calm and collected demeanour, which may perhaps have imposed upon some of the unwary, and induced them to fancy her distant rather than backward. Upon her reputation as a poetess she never presumed, nor did she ever volunteer an allusion to any of her performances: in a roomful of mediocrities she consented to seem the most mediocre as the most modest of all.
In a life marked by so few external incidents, such matters as the deaths of relatives and friends count for much: I will mention the leading occurrences of this kind, along with some changes of residence, and the like, all in a very summary form. 1853, death of the Polidoris, grandmother and grandfather. 1854 (as already specified), death of our father, Gabriele Rossetti. Later in the same year Christina wished to join her aunt Eliza Polidori in going out as a nurse to Scutari, in connection with the Crimean War, under the scheme planned out by Miss Nightingale; but she was pronounced to be below the stipulated age, so this did not take effect. 1861, Christina's first foreign trip, with our mother and myself, to Paris, Rouen, Normandy (especially Coutances), and Jersey. 1862, death of Lizzie Rossetti, the wife of Dante Gabriel. After this loss Dante proposed that the family, amalgamating with him, should seek a new residence. There would have been our mother, all her children, and our somewhat invalided eldest aunt, Margaret Polidori, who as yet occupied separate apartments in my house in Albany Street: she would have continued separate to a like degree. Dante wished also that Mr Algernon Swinburne should be in the house - for, as he truly said, he himself required some amount of intellectual incitement and diversion beyond what the family could minister to him. To this proposal Christina, with the rest of us, assented; but it was soon set aside, as Dante came to prefer a different arrangement. 1865, Christina's second and last foreign trip, in the same company as before, to North Italy (Como, Pavia, Brescia, Verona, Milan, etc.), going out by the St. Gothard route (no tunnel was then in existence), and returning by the Splgen route, Schaffhausen, Strasbourg, etc. 1867, death of Margaret Polidori, a very diligent religionist and church-goer; and removal of Christina, with our mother, Maria, and myself, to No. 56 Euston Square (now called 5 Endsleigh Gardens), a much more commodious house than any we had previously occupied. 1873, in view of my impending marriage to Lucy, daughter of the painter Ford Madox Brown, Maria resolved to carry at once into execution a project she had long entertained, that of entering the Anglican Sisterhood of All Saints. 1874, my marriage: my mother and Christina continued to reside with us, but they not infrequently spent a week or two with my mother's two sisters, Charlotte and Eliza Polidori, who (after my wedding and their consequent removal from 56 Euston Square) had taken a house, 12 Bloomsbury Square. Oliver Madox Brown, who was godson to Maria (only son of Ford Madox Brown), died in November; and in the same year Christina's cousin, still under thirty, Henrietta Polydore. 1876, family considerations led to the dividing of our household: my wife and daughter, with myself, remaining in Endsleigh Gardens, while my mother and Christina moved off at Michaelmas to No. 30 Torrington Square. Hardly were they settled there when the illness from which Maria had been suffering for many weeks took a fatal turn, and she died in November. 1882, death of Dante Gabriel at Birchington-on-Sea, 9 April, after several weeks affectionate nursing by our mother and Christina. 1883, death of my infant son Michael. As his end approached, Christina implored me to allow her to baptize him; to this I raised no objection, and she performed the rite unwitnessed, and I doubt whether any act of her life yielded her more heartfelt satisfaction. 1885, death of our mother, a loss to Christina which I forbear from dwelling upon. 1889, death of Franz Hueffer, the man of letters and musical expert and critic, husband of my wife's half-sister. 1890, death of Charlotte Polidori, aged eighty-seven, after some years of confinement to her bed, a most amiable good woman, less out-of-the-world than other Polidoris, but not less religious; also death of our friend ever since 1847, William Bell Scott, a man whom Christina viewed with great predilection. When in 1892 his Autobiographical Notes were published, containing (as I informed her) several unkind and not too accurate passages about Dante Rossetti, she refused to look at the book, swayed, I think, as much by respect for Scott's memory as for her brother's. 1893, death of Eliza Polidori, aged eighty-three, after an ilness still longer than Charlotte's, and more wearing to herself, and to Christina as her constant attendant; also death of Ford Madox Brown. With the decease of Eliza Polidori, her last relative of the elder generation, the income of Christina (which had been tolerable enough since 1886) increased, and henceforward she had more than what sufficed for her very moderate requirements. At all periods of her life she had been `a cheerful giver,' as far as her means allowed. Until a late date these means allowed but little: when they allowed ten-fold, she gave (I dare say) twenty-fold. 1894, April, death of my beloved wife. This is a long mortuary catalogue; but many other deaths took place afflicting to Christina, few more so than those of her early and unfailing friends - Dr. Adolf Heimann, who had been Professor of German at University College, London; and Canon Burrows of Rochester, who had for many years been the Incumbent of the church -- Christ Church, Albany Street -- which she frequented from about 1843 to 1867 or later.
The Canon died at an advanced age in a year - perhaps 1890 - when Christina's own health and energies were little fitted to bear any strain. She was invited to write a biography of him, and would have felt much pleasure in doing so, but she found it imperative to decline. Another project which miscarried, at a slightly later date, was the proposal made by our admirable painter, George F.Watts, the recorder of so many faces of pre-eminent men and women, that Christina should sit to him for her portrait. She was worthy to do so, and, spite of her life-long shrinking from any sort of notoriety, was anything but indifferent to the distinction thus offered her; but here again considerations of health and rapidly- ebbing life interposed an insuperable barrier. If any one thinks that Christina was not the only loser by the failure of this project, I share his opinion.
It does not seem necessary, in this brief Memoir, to dwell upon any of the other incidents of her life - all in themselves insignificant. It was a life which did not consist of incidents: in few things, external; in all its deeper currents, internal.
I am now approaching the end. To a chronic affection of the heart, with a recurrent sense of suffocation (but this had not of late seemed so formidable as at some earlier periods), were added towards the close of 1891 uneasy but not exactly painful sensations, which required to be explained. Medical advice being taken, the explanation came: the case was one of cancer - a word which had always been pronounced in the family with a certain shrinking. Christina took the announcement most bravely. In May 1892 an operation of a very severe kind was performed by the distinguished surgeon Mr Lawson -- skilfully and successfully performed. After rallying from the shock to the system, Christina went on in comparative ease for some months, although it was too clearly foreseen that the malady would return. It did so towards the autumn of 1893: no further operation was then practicable, and only palliatives could be applied. Dropsy of the left arm and hand complicated her other illness. In August 1894 she took finally to her bed, in a calm and resigned mood, but, as the time advanced, with troublous agitation, both of the spirit and of the bodily frame. Not that she was ever abashed by pain, or craven-hearted - far indeed from that; but the terrors of her religion compassed her about, to the overclouding of its radiances. At the close of a week of collapse and semi-consciousness, she died without a struggle, in the act of inarticulate prayer, on the early morning of 29 December 1894 -- her attached nurse alone being present at the moment.
She was buried in Highgate Cemetary, in the same grave to which had been successively consigned her father, her sister-in-law Lizzie, and her mother. A reredos-painting, as a memorial of her, has been set up by subscription in Christ Church, Woburn Square. The design of it was supplied by an old acquaintance of hers, Sir Edward Burne-Jones; the actual painting is by Mr T.M.Rooke. It is a very appropriate and fine design, -- Christ uttering the words of consecration of the eucharist elements, and the four Evangelists as recorders of the event.
A question has sometimes been raised as to the amount of good looks with which Christina Rossetti should be credited. She was certainly not what one understands by `a beauty'; the term handsome did not apply to her, nor yet the term pretty. Neither was she `a fine woman.' She has sometimes been called `lovely' in youth; and this is true, if a refined and correct mould of face, along with elevated and deep expression, is loveliness. She was assuredly much nearer to being beautiful than ugly; and this, in my opinion, remained true of her throughout her life, for in advanced years her expression naturally deepened, although the traces left upon her by disease, as well as by time, marred her comeliness. However, there are several portraits of her which can be appealed to to settle the question of her good looks; and, as I can speak of the matter with knowledge, I will give a list of them -- they are in my own possession, unless otherwise notified.
[ Here follow, on pp. lx to lxv of William Rossetti's Memoir, a list and detailed descriptions of 25 paintings and drawings, either directly of his sister or reminiscent of her, by various artists, and of six or seven photographs or sets of photographs showing her either alone or in a group. The descriptions are omitted here, and this transcription continues at page lxvi of the Memoir. ]
As yet I have said very little as to my sister's character, except that she was religious and affectionate in an eminent degree. It is time to proceed to some further detail.
In innate character she was vivacious, and open to pleasurable impressions; and, during her girlhood, one might readily have supposed that she would 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. In this result ill-health and an early blight to the affections told for much; for much also an exceeding sensitiveness of conscience, acted upon by the strictest conceptions in religion. Of society (as one uses the term to mean fashionable or quasi-fashionable society) she saw nothing; of amusements practically nothing. She was, I suppose, barely eighteen when she determined never again to enter a theatre, dramatic or operatic; not perhaps that she considered plays and operas to be in themselves iniquitous, but rather that the moral tone of vocalists, actors, and actresses is understood to be lax, and it behoves a Christian not to contribute to the encouragement of lax moralists. In all such matters Chrtistina was an Anglo-Catholic, and, among Anglo-Catholics, a Puritan; and yet she looked without hardness of heart upon any individual who might have lapsed from virtue. As well as theatres, she gave up at an early age the game of chess, of which she was rather fond, and this simply because she thought it made her too eager for a win. Cards however she never relinquished, finding no sort of harm in them; and, up to the death of our mother, or probably even later, she would take a hand at whist, cribbage, or bézique, playing for no stakes whatever.
She had a very strong sense of duty and the most rigid regard for truth, in which indeed she resembled all the members of her maternal stock. That she was affectionate in her family I have already said, and she had, besides, a rather unusual feeling of deference for `the head of the family,' whoever he might be -- my father, Dante Gabriel, and finally myself. This might be accounted rather Italian than English. With several people she was extremely friendly, and no one felt more strongly than she the Christian obligation of being at charity with all men. This she found in the long run a pleasant duty; but it had not been exactly in her nature from the first, as she was certainly born with a marked antipathy to anything which savoured of vulgarity or `bumptiousness,' and with an instinctive disposition to `hold her head high,' though not to assert herself in express terms. In Christina's character there was great dignity tempered - or rather indeed reinforced - by modesty; and to this her bearing corresponded faithfully. I have already referred to her having been, and this from an early age, rather punctiliously polite; and it may be that some persons who knew her intellectual and literary standing in the eye of the world fancied that these was something of affectation or even of sarcasm in this, which, however, was not so. Her speech was often sprightly, or to some extent witty, as well as still oftener simple, earnest, and grave -- never abstract or argumentative. She was replete with the spirit of self-postponement, which passed into self-sacrifice whenever that quality was in demand. Such a spirit is, in fact, the spirit of chivalry, and noblesse oblige might have been her motto. Though shy, and even somewhat nervous, she was of unshaken firmness, making up her mind pretty easily in any crisis of her life, and abiding immovable. The narrow path was the only one for her, and a lion in the same path made no difference. With firmness, she knew fortitude also. A small point she was the first to concede; but, as soon as a jot of duty seemed involved in it, tenacity was in the very essence of her being. A marked trait in her character was gratitude, a quality which she inherited from both her parents. For the slightest attention or service she felt obliged; and for anything of a serious kind, deeply and permanently indebted. Although naturally of a rather indolent turn, disinclined to stick to an occupation, and often better pleased to be doing nothing than anything, she acquired habits of much assiduity, and neglected no household or other requirement which she perceived to have a claim upon her; and she was at once frugal and liberal. On self-indulgent luxuries, whether of the table or the toilet or aught else, she spent practically nothing at any period of life.
No precept of the Christian religion was more indelibly impressed upon her mind and her sympathies then `Judge not, that ye be not judged.' She never - not even in thought, so far as thought was under her control - imputed a bad motive to anyone; and to hear her talking scandal, or indulging in ill-natured gossip, would have been equally impossible as to see her putting on a pair of knickerbockers, or (as in Dante Gabriel's caricature afore-mentioned) smashing the furniture. None the less she had a large fund of discernment, and speedily fathomed defects in her acquaintances which she never announced. Another text which she constantly bore in mind is that one is not to do `anything whereby thy brother stumbleth or is offended or is made weak.' I have often thought that this trammelled her to some extent in writing, for she was wont to construe the biblical precepts in a very literal manner; and that she would in some instances have expressed herself with more latitude of thought and word, and to a more valuable effect, but for the fear of saying something which would somehow turn to the detriment of some timorous or dim-minded reader. She certainly felt that to write anything for publication is to incur a great spiritual responsibility.
This introduces us to what I regard as the one serious flaw in a beautiful and admirable character - she was by far over-scrupulous. Scrupulosity may be a virtue: over-scrupulosity is at any rate a semi- virtue, but it has, to my thinking, the full practical bearings of a defect. It is more befitting for a nunnery than for London streets. It weakens the mind, straitens the temperament and character, chills the impulse and the influence. Over-scrupulosity made Christina Rossetti shut up her mind to almost all things save the Bible, and the admonitions and ministrations of priests. To ponder for herself whether a thing was true or not ceased to be a part of her intellect. The only question was whether or not it conformed to the Bible, as viewed by Anglo-Catholicism. Her temperament and character, naturally warm and free, became `a fountain sealed.' Not but that affection continued to flow in abundant measure, and the clear line of duty told out the more apparent from receiving no side-lights. Impulse and élan were checked, both in act and in writing, but the most extreme spontaneity in poetic performance always remained. The influence of her work became intense for devout minds of a certain type, and for lovers of poetry in its pure essence; but for a great mass of readers, who might otherwise have been attracted and secured, the material proffered was too uniform and too restricted, and was too seldom concerned with breathing and diurnal actualities - never with rising currents of thought.
I must however guard myself here against being supposed to say, what a great number of critics and readers or half-readers have said before me, that Christina's poetry is `morbid.' Morbid things are to be found in it - where are they not to be found ? and the fact that her feelings and perceptions were coloured by an infirm physical condition has been already stated, and was inevitable. But I cannot acknowledge that, for a person who entertained the belief which Christina really and deeply did entertain - the professed belief of all Christians - there is anything morbid in saying that this present life is far from satisfactory, that death is the avenue to a different life, which will be of eternal duration and may be made of ineffable bliss, and that therefore death is a transition to be rather wished for than shunned. No one would regard as morbid as person who, during this mundane life, should elect to pass from a condition of serious distress into one of extreme and lasting happiness, at the cost of a few minutes of physical pain; and this is a contrast infinitely smaller than that between life on earth and the promised life in heaven. As Christina's faith in these things was of iron solidity, so was her attitude of mind, consequent upon her faith, logical and sound; and to speak of morbidity in relation to it seems a decided misapplication of the term. It is open to any of us not to believe in her premisses, and thus to dissent from her conclusion, but the real morbidity would be to reject her conclusion while we admit her premisses.
I have said elsewhere, but may as well repeat it here, that her habits of composition were entirely of the casual and spontaneous kind, from her earliest to her latest years. If something came into her head which she found suggestive of verse, she put it into verse. It came to her (I take it) very easily, without her meditating a possible subject, and without her making any great difference in the first from the latest form of the verses which embodied it; but some difference, with a view to right and fine detail of execution, she did of course make when needful. If the thing did not present itself before her, as something craving a vesture of verse at her hands, she did not write at all. What she wrote was pretty well known in the family as soon as her impeccably neat manuscript of it appeared in one of her little notebooks; but she did not show it about as an achievement, and still less had she, in the course of her work, invited any hint, counsel, or co-operation.
It may be asked -- Did Christina Rossetti consider herself truly a poetess, and a good one? Truly a poetess, most decidedly yes; and, within the range of her subject and thought, and the limits of her executive endeavour, a good one. This did not make her in the least conceited or arrogant as regards herself, nor captious as to the work of others; but it did render her very resolute in setting a line of demarcation between a person who is a poet and another person who is a versifier. Pleadings in misericordiam were of no use with her, and she never could see any good reason why one who is not a poet should write in metre.
Christina was well versed in Italian and French; of German she knew some moderate amount; of Latin a mere smattering; Greek not at all. At no period of her life was she a great devourer of books, but the number of them which she had read in the course of her sixty-four years was necessarily considerable. Of science and philosophy she knew nothing, and to history she had no marked inclination; much more bias towards biography. Theology she studied, I think, very little indeed: there was the Bible, of which her knowledge was truly minute and ready, supplemented by the Confessions of Augustine and the Imitation of Christ. She also knew and liked Pilgrim's Progress. I question whether, apart from this one book of Augustine, she ever read any `Father,' Latin or Greek, or desired to read him. To novel-reading she had no narrow-minded objection. Scott she certainly liked, and in early youth Dickens and Bulwer: Thackeray may have appeared to her too worldly and `knowing,' but she understood his merits.
She never, I think, looked into a book which was known or reputed to be `improper,' and her acquaintance with French novels must have been extremely limited. Any such author as Rabelais would have been beyond measure repulsive to her - indeed, heartily despised as well as loathed; and Boccaccio, wherever he assimilates to a Rabelaisian side of things, would have shared the same fate. But it is certain to me that she never opened the pages of either. In poetry she was (need I say it?) capable of appreciating whatever is really good; and yet her affections, if not her perceptions, in poetry, were severely restricted. The one poet whom she really gloried in was Dante: next to him perhaps was Homer, so far as she could estimate him in one or two English translations. Tasso entranced her in girlhood, and perhaps retained a firm hold on her afterwards. Among very great authors, none (making allowance for Dante) seemed to appeal to her more than Plato: she read his Dialogues over and over again, with ever renewed or augmented zest. For Shakespear her intellectual reverence was of course very deep, but how far she delighted in him may be a different question. In tragedy, in feeling, in insight, in splendour of poetic expression, she must have known him supreme; but all the comic or `Worldly Wiseman' side of Shakespear - except some bits of simple `fun,' such as Dogberry and Verges -- was certain to be distasteful to her. Humour, in its inner essence, she could enter into; but for any rollicking or cynical or unctuous aspect of humour she had no sort of relish. Sir Toby Belch and Falconbridge would simply repel her, and even Falstaff would find little indulgence and elicit only watery smiles. I say all this not as embodying and express remarks of hers, but because I understand her general habit of mind. Another great thing which she disliked was Milton's Paradise Lost: the only poems of his which she seems to me to have seriously loved were the sonnets. Among modern English poets, I should say that Shelley, or perhaps Coleridge, stood highest in her esteem; certainly not Wordsworth, whom she read scantily. As to Shelley, she can have known little beyond his lyrics; most of the long poems, as being `impious,' remained unscanned. Tennyson she heartily enjoyed and admired, and Mrs Browning; and Browning she honoured, without eager sympathy. The poems of William Morris were mostly unread by her - not unvalued. Of Swinburne she knew Atalanta in Calydon, and some few other things, including (I suppose) Erechthus; and she regarded Atalanta as -- what it is -- a stupendous masterpiece. For one work by a poetess junior to herself she entertained an exceptional admiration - the tragic drama, The Sentence (relating to Caligula), by Augusta Webster. It would be possible to extend these much, but here I may pause.
Christina had no politics; unless it be the rule `Honesty is the best policy,' acting upon a constitution of mind much more conservative than inclined to change. In childhood she had, of course, through the influence and associations of her father, been nurtured in an atmosphere of bold political advance, tending to the revolutionary: this may have lingered with her as a kind of antidotal savour against conservatism, but hardly as a practical counterbalance. I do not think, however, that she ever viewed an Austrian - the bugbear of our early Italian environments - as quite on the same footing as men of other races. The two nations that she really liked, apart from those of the United Kingdom, were the Italians and the French. At the time of the great American War of secession, she was (like myself) a steady adversary of the slave-holders. As in politics, so in the fine arts of form - painting and sculpture -- she had little fundamental opinion of her own, and no connoisseurship. She naturally adhered to what was high and noble in the arts, and would not have supposed that something inane and bad was good; but she neither possessed nor affected anything approaching to critical judgment in these matters. To music she was not insensitive; but she was ignorant, and it formed no part of her concern.
As to Christina Rossetti's poetry, I feel that it is my part rather to keep silence than to speak, especially when, as in the present instance, her poems are presented to the public, to be judged of as the public wills. I will however say thus much - that, fully conscious as I am of their limitations, I consider that on some grounds it is hardly possible to over-praise them. Her prose writings partake of the same qualities to a certain extent - of course a minor extent.
As I have given in my Preface a list of the volumes which have hitherto constituted her poems, I think it as well to add here a list of the prose volumes; and with that I terminate my summary account of a soul as pure, duteous, concentrated, loving, and devoted, as ever uttered itself in either prose or verse.
LIST OF PROSE WORKS
1. Commonplace, and other Short Stories, 1870.
2. Annus Domini, a Prayer for each Day of the Year, 1874.
3. Speaking Likenesses, 1874.
4. Seek and Find, 1879.
5. Called to be Saints, 1881.
6. Letter and Spirit, 1883.
7. Time Flies, 1885.
8. The Face of the Deep, a Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, 1892.
9. Maude, 1897.
[ Return to Notes on Christina Rossetti's Poems &c.]
(The Rejoice & Sing Enchiridion:edited by David Goodall; last amended 28/12/03)