I just had to share this charming little poem by Christina Rossetti, which I came across in my research for my novel about the Victorian poetess. It was written, when Christina was about fourteen, for Elizabeth Read who was one of the girls her older sister Maria was governess to. Christina met “Bessie” when she went to visit her sister while the Reads of Finsbury Pavement, Islington, London were summering in the country. Although Bessie was a couple of years younger, she and Christina became fast friends.
This friendship came at a particularly lonely and gloomy time—the tunneling years—for the adolescent Christina, as she was mostly isolated at home in London with her ailing, nearly sightless, cantankerous father Gabrielle Rossetti (once a vibrant, charming, cheerful man). While her oldest brother Dante Gabriel pursued his art studies, her mother, sister, and brother William were forced to go out to work to make up for the severe drop in income the family experienced when its patriarch became sick.
The poem was written to accompany a package of stamps (one hundred humble servants … their livery of red and black) Christina had saved for Bessie’s collection.
It immediately warmed my heart with its simple, gentle, clever expression of affection and support of one young woman for another, especially when both may well have needed it most. You need to look beyond that dreary house, and Bessie can only benefit from acquaintance with you—I have Maria write to Christina in my novel.
The pure, generous, uncomplicated expression of friendship Christina gave to another girl made me think how the bonds between women come early. They are not always preserved, too often interrupted and put aside, but, hopefully, are eventually valued again.
With the past and present in mind, I say: “They should be. They must be!”
To My Friend Elizabeth
by Christina Georgina Rossetti
Sweetest Elizabeth, accept I pray
These lowly stamps I send in homage true;
One hundred humble servants in their way
Are not to be despised, though poor to view.
Their livery of red and black, nor gay,
Nor sober all, is typical of you,
In whom are gravity and gladness mixed.
Thought here, smiles there; perfection lies betwixt.
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