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Book Title: Christina Rossetti|
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Reader ratings: 3.1
The author of the book: Jan Marsh
Edition: Viking Books
Date of issue: July 1st 1995
ISBN 13: 9780670835171
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 8.68 MB
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I have just finished reading Jan Marsh’s monumental biography of the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, entitled, “Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography,” and all I can say is “Bravo!” This extremely well written biography leads the reader through Christina’s interesting and complicated family life, as well as providing significant insight into the development of her poetic craft, and the intellectual stimulus behind much of her work. Christina, born in 1830, was the youngest of four children, and wrote her first poem as a birthday present for her mother when she was eleven. Her elder siblings, Maria, Dante Gabriel, and William were also accomplished writers; and in Dante’s case, he was an incredibly talented artist as well.
I read Marsh’s biography of Christina concurrently, in a side-by-side fashion, with the Penguin Classics edition of “Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems,” and it made the experience ever so much richer. It would be easy to pigeon-hole Christina Rossetti as simply a religious poet, but that would be very short-sighted. Yes, she was very pious, and was incredibly devoted to her faith and the High Anglican church she was raised in. Her poetry though, while complex, lyrical, and imaginative, reflects the trials and tribulations of a young woman’s feelings whilst growing up in Victorian England. Over the course of her life, Christina wrote more than 1,000 poems that weave together her fantasies, experiences, feelings, moral upbringing, social conventions, and her deep and abiding faith together in a body of work that is virtually unparalleled among poets, including those that preceded or followed her.
It was also interesting to learn just how involved she was with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s creation, in 1848, with his friends, of the avant-garde artistic movement that became the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). This initial group included William Holman Hunt, James Collinson, John Everett Millais, and Christina’s other brother William Michael Rossetti. Several of the artists, including Dante, also wrote and published poetry, and Christina was invited to publish her early poetry in the PRB periodical, “The Germ.” The young Christina also sat as a studio model in several of Dante’s beautiful paintings. More importantly, while Christina did not always approve of the life-styles and activities of many of the members of the PRB, she was intellectually challenged and stimulated by the round-the-clock philosophical and artistic discussions that the members engaged in. Both of her brothers, especially Dante Gabriel, were fully committed and active supporters and promoters of her poetry and provided extensive literary and critical advice over the course of her career.
I found it fascinating to learn that during Christina’s lifetime, because of her own talents, and the literary connections of her family, Christina met and spent time with Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Jean Ingelow, Adelaide Proctor, Charles Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), and a whole host of other poets and writers. The biography also includes several photographic family portraits taken by Charles Dodgson, as well as numerous sketches and paintings of Christina and other family members by her brother, Dante. She was known to be a prolific reader and letter writer, and wrote scores of short stories and essays, both secular and religious; and Ms. Marsh has drawn upon much of this prose and correspondence in fleshing out the details of Christina’s life.
Ms. Marsh’s biography provides one of the most detailed looks into the day-to-day life of women in Victorian London, and the dependence that many single or widowed women had on the men in their family for their support. After the death of Christina’s father in 1854, her brother William essentially became responsible for the care of his mother and his two unmarried sisters. Christina, over the course of her life, rejected two serious proposals of marriage; the first from James Collinson, of the PRB; and the second from Charles Bagout Cayley. It appears that the reasons for these rejections were that neither man shared the same religious beliefs that she adhered to. While both of her brothers had complicated relationships with women and did eventually marry; neither Christina, nor her older sister, Maria, ever married. That lack of a long-term romantic love is a topic that Christina’s poetry returns to time and time again.
As Christina’s poetic voice matured, she began to submit her works for publication. Her first substantial book-length publication was “Goblin Market and Other Poems” in 1862. “Goblin Market” was immensely popular and well-received by the critics, and seems to have established her as a poet of some note in both Britain and the United States. This brought her wide-spread fame and allowed her to contribute to the Rossetti household income and support her charity work. In fact, upon the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861, Christina became the natural successor to the informal title of 'female laureate.' Over the course of Christina’s literary career she was able to have published several books of collected poems; including “Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book” for children, a delightful collection of short poems and riddles that recalled her days as a little girl in the rambunctious Rossetti family.
Ms. Marsh’s biography does a terrific job of illuminating the personality and character traits of this woman, her interactions with her immediate family, and the wide network of friends that she had. Marsh also sheds insight on Christina’s many years of charity work at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate. While it was not a prison, but a ‘home’ with a fairly structured routine, she worked with women who had had children out of wedlock, or had been abandoned, or were active prostitutes coming off of the streets of London. Again, much of her poetry seems to reflect many of the life experiences that she would have become aware of during the course of her work with these women. Finally, in middle-age her declining health became much more of an issue for her. For years she battled ‘Graves Disease’ (a thyroid condition); and later, the breast cancer that ultimately claimed her life in 1894 at the age of 64.
The most important aspect of Jan Marsh’s biography is that the reader comes away with an understanding behind Christina’s most powerful works -- the muse behind the words. The reader has a better sense of the role that her life experiences and her faith played in the development of her major poetic works. In that vein, I really want to recommend some of my very favorite poems of Christina’s that really illustrate what a technically and lyrically accomplished poet she was, including the following: “Goblin Market,” “The Convent Threshold,” "The Prince’s Progress,” “The Ghost’s Petition,” “The Months/A Pageant,” “Monna Innominata” (a sequence of 14 sonnets), “An Echo from Willowwood,” “The Dead City,” “Ruin,” and “In an Artist’s Studio.”
In conclusion, Jan Marsh’s many years of researching and writing about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the women associated with that movement (she also wrote a book entitled, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood”) has eminently prepared her to write this superb biography of one of the greatest poets of the Victorian Era – Christina Georgina Rossetti. In many respects, the book reads like a novel, is well illustrated, and includes a prodigious amount of Christina’s eloquent poetry that reinforces the connections, and relationships that Ms. Marsh believes motivated Christina’s poetic muse. This was an important book for me, and has caused me to appreciate Miss Rossetti’s poetry all the more.
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