Sunday, 15 November 2015

#PRB Day: Christina Rossetti, the Unlikely Flapper


Happy PRB Day, hosted by the Pre-Raphaelite Society and a jolly good excuse for enjoying the many facetted wonder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers. If you are on Twitter, add #PRBDay to your tweet and tell everyone about your favourite painting! This year we are also talking about poetry too and so I thought I would talk about the original Pre-Raphaelite Sister, Christina Rossetti...
Christina Rossetti (1857) John Brett

If you remember this recent post I did regarding the rise and fall of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's reputation in the twentieth century, you'll know that the Pre-Raphaelites as a whole suffered from a drop in favour following the First World War. There are no doubt many, many reasons for this: a general desire for a clean sweep in taste, the death of many of the children of people who loved the PRB (see my post on The Souls for example), or people simply forgetting who they were. Whatever the reasons, you'd think that Christina Rossetti would suffer the same fate as her brother in the eyes of the modern world. When I came to investigate I was actually surprised by the results...


Christina Rossetti and her mother Frances (1863) Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)

When Christina Rossetti died in 1894, she was survived only by her brother William Michael. Her obituaries drew notice to her gifts as a writer, the strange Rossetti genius and her ability to combine her religious conviction with exceptional literary powers. She was likened to Blake in her poetry, a rare poet who can bring Christianity to life in verse, and it was bemoaned that she was no offered the Laureateship. Although, as the Pall Mall Gazette insisted, there were few women who distinguished themselves in poetry, Christina Rossetti 'so easily o'ertopped the rest'. She was exceptional at the time of her first collection of poetry, when she was just 16, and despite ill-health, she remained brilliant to the end.

Christina Rossetti's burial, January 1895
Her funeral was described in detail in the new year papers in 1895. The church in Woburn Square was full of mourners, and the lady herself was encased in an elm coffin with an oak cross atop it. The base of the cross held a plaque with her details. Chief among her mourners was her brother and his family. I have to admit a sly humour at the descriptions of the Rossetti family, how the press talked of the artistic genius of Dante Gabriel, the literary prowess of Christina, the amazing devotion of Maria, and William, who was still alive.


The Rossetti Family (1863) Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
Her Will amounted to £13,000 which primarily went to William apart from some small bequests to other family members. The Western Daily Press of 16 February 1895 describes how the 'testatrix' left William her books, furniture, plate and household effects in gratitude for his giving her a home in the past. William went on to posthumously publish her final volume of poetry and Mackenzie Bell published a mediocre biography of Christina within a year or so of her death. The Dundee Advertiser of January 1898 easily puts its finger on the problem with Christina Rossetti's posthumous modern reputation - all we know of her is her poetry, because that is all that there is. Bell struggled to write a biography because there seemed to be no moments of drama in her life that reflected in her work. We know more now but in 1898 Christina's life remained veiled and she had no rampant love affairs, nor tragedies, nor scandal. All she had was her quiet life and her poetry.


Christina Rossetti Trashes the Joint (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(Okay, it might be called 'Christina Rossetti in a Tantrum')
Scroll forward to the centenary of her birth in 1930. If you remember William Kerr's wonderful piece I quoted in the Rossetti post, about the birth centenary being an interesting point to review a great person's life, then Christina should have been available for dissection from all corners, but instead she had found a very interesting position in British cultural life. You would be forgiven in thinking that the words of a young, mid-Victorian poetess had no relevance in a world which had been ripped apart by War but her poetry had taken on a strange new significance. Take for example one of her most famous poems, 'Remember' from 1862...

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.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

If ever a poem could be transported from one time period and be equally relevant to another, then Christina Rossetti's 'Remember' found its place beside First World War poets, all telling of stolen futures. Christina wrote of a woman dying but the poem is gender neutral and found readers, left alone after their lovers had died in battle and all they had left was their memories. In 'Song (I saw her; she was lovely)', she again speaks of a bride losing her loved one and rising again 'without a tear' to face the future, at once both religious and secular. One newspaper wrote in their centenary piece entitled 'The Woman Who Wouldn't': 'In a world with millions more women than men, when the eternal appeal of woman to man and man to woman is thwarted by economic conditions antagonistic to marriage it is worthwhile noting that long ago a woman phrased the tragedy of hopeless love.'

Christina Rossetti (1866) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
In a piece in the Lancashire Evening Post of December 1930, it was stated that 'Christina Rossetti's appeal is not likely to diminish' as she lived on in popular Christmas carols, and 'Goblin Market' which seemed to be constantly performed at girl's schools in the first half of the twentieth century.  The story that she managed to write at a corner of her washstand, one of the few biographical stories that endured, suddenly came to life when illuminated by Virginia Woolf's assertion that women had to have a space of their own to write, no matter how small that space was.  Christina, the pinnacle of single womanhood, the pioneer of female writing, had found an unlikely audience, but one who embraced her just as they began to neglect her brother.
 
Christina Rossetti (1877) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
There are many reasons to celebrate to work of Christina Rossetti, but I find it fascinating that she found a natural place in the post-war society, filled with eternal spinsters and the struggle between the ephemeral and the spiritual.  She was held up as a paragon of virtuous living, an antidote to the 'chocolate-coffee-cigarette-courtship' mentality of butterfly living in the 1920s (a marvellous phrase from the Dundee Courier of December 1930) and a role model for flappers. She slipped into Virginia Woolf's ideal of a woman writer who succeeded as her brothers succeeded, despite the obstacles of gender. She captured the stolen futures of war brides and gave it to them in verses as brief as their love affairs. Somehow, thirty years after her death, Christina Rossetti had found her moment. 


3 comments:

  1. Hi Kirsty. I tutor kids in reading at a learning centre and Christina Rossetti's nursery rhymes are used sometimes in our content. Interesting that she published a whole book of them. They work wonderfully well for teaching young children because of the simple rhyming.

    ReplyDelete

Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx