Christina Rossetti


by Jan Marsh.
Viking, 640 pages, $29.95.
Christina Rossetti’s maternal ancestors included Grandpapa Polidori, a scholarly type who had witnessed the storming of the Bastille, and Uncle John, physician to Lord Byron, author of The Vampyre, and a suicide. Her father was a political reformist and poet who had settled in London as a teacher of Italian after fleeing the kingdom of Naples with a price on his head. There were four Rossetti children, raised in the ambiance of their father’s frustrated hopes for Italy and their mother’s intense devotion to the Church of England. Maria became an Anglican nun. Dante Gabriel became a painter, a poet, and the most spectacularly bohemian of the Pre-Raphaelites. William became a sensible minor bureaucrat and an unbeliever. Christina, a lively, gregarious, tantrum-prone child, abruptly became a shy, morose adolescent who required treatment for what was presumably a nervous collapse. She also became a poet, compared in her day to Elizabeth Browning and Matthew Arnold. Her poetry leaned heavily toward death, prayer, unexplained guilt, and demon lovers, although that last item may have resulted from early exposure to the gothic school. Ms. Marsh would not agree. She makes a brave effort to account for all of Christina’s preoccupations, but her subject remains enigmatic, except as an intensely devout and literalminded Anglican spinster who refused to be published in a magazine that included the work of, in her opinion, heretics. She lost, possibly on purpose, at least two suitors. She worked—irregularly, because her health was always poor—for an enterprise devoted to “saving” young prostitutes by converting them into dutiful domestic servants. Her antiquated clothing provoked a cartoon by Max Beerbohm. She took fond care of her mother in Mrs. Rossetti’s old age. She learned—very slowly—to deal with publishers. To attribute all this to nineteenth-century notions of proper female behavior, as her biographer does, is not a satisfying explanation, even with the added fashionable suggestion of sexual abuse, for which Ms. Marsh concedes there is not an atom of evidence. George Eliot and George Sand were near contemporaries of Christina Rossetti’s, and unhampered by prissy rules. Of course, they were novelists. Rossetti was a poet—at her best, a fine one. In the end the reader must settle for that.