As some of you may know, Christina Rossetti, Victorian poetess, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter and poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is the subject of my next novel WIP.
Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I relate to much about Christina, being myself of an Italian and English background, experiencing the contradictions of the combination in almost every aspect of my life, sometimes frustrated but mostly grateful for how I am affected by them. Also, because of Christina’s own childhood and adolescence, which have occupied the early days of my research and writing, I have been reminded of something my mother had heard and shared with me: that we are most ourselves at the threshold of puberty. Having lost her own mother at the age of ten, my mom knows how deeply that tragic event affected and shaped her.
If I look back to myself around that time, I do find my essence, my dreams, my goals, my core beliefs—all on the verge of what will happen to nourish or disparage them.
Christina Rossetti as a child, by William Bell Scott
Christina’s maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, said of her as a child: “Avra piu spiritu di tutti” (she will be the most spirited of all).
Based on her second brother William’s reflections, I wrote this in my budding manuscript: He was looking for the little sister who was vivacious, couldn’t help opening her heart or saying what was on her mind, and was only ever upset for childish reasons. The one who filled the house with sudden impulses and notions, questions and expectations, who never thought about growing up and yet promised to be self-confident and engaging, a bright star in society when she did.
As William realized: “… what came to pass was, of course, quite the contrary.”
Gabriel and Christina by Max Beerbohm
“Well, Christina, your heart may be like a singing bird,
but why do you dress like a pew-opener?”
Christina Rossetti, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
There is a gap in Christina’s story. Just before she turned 13, “towards the end of 1842”, as one of her biographers, Georgina Battiscombe writes, “darkness falls upon this attractive, open-hearted child. For years she vanishes from view, to emerge again in 1847 changed almost beyond recognition.”
There are supposed reasons for this transformation of Christina: including a change in family circumstances (that affected its optimism and finances) when her father became ill, the normal physical and psychological alterations of an adolescent female, and a religious crisis nor unlike the one Anne Brontë (the focus of my novel Without the Veil Between) had at a similar age.
There is proof that during this time Christina began to seriously develop her poetic voice and to realize writing, especially poetry, as her true calling. By sixteen she was considered the poet of the family, even her sometimes jealous sister Maria pronouncing her so and diligently and—although she might not outright admit it—proudly copying Christina’s poetry into a journal.
Illustration for the original publication of Goblin Market by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
~ from Goblin Market
by Christina Rossetti
Another thing for certain occurred during the dark tunnel Christina traveled between the ages of 13 and 17 to emerge so altered: melancholic reflection, observation and appreciation of nature, religious devotion, a gift for lyricism and a deceptively simple use of language was seeded, germinated, and burgeoned into an ever-increasingly beautiful field of poetry and other writings very evocative of the indomitable spirit her grandfather had early on recognized in her.
Not, after all …
O happy rosebud blooming
Upon thy parent tree,
Nay, thou art too presuming
For soon the earth entombing
Thy faded charms shall be,
And the chill damp consuming.
O happy skylark springing
Up to the broad blue sky,
Too fearless in thy winging,
Too gladsome in thy singing,
Thou also soon shalt lie
Where no sweet notes are ringing.
And through life’s shine and shower
We shall have joy and pain;
But in the summer bower,
And at the morning hour,
We still shall look in vain
For the same bird and flower.
~ Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti, age 18, by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti
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