The Many Portraits of Christina Rossetti

The Many Portraits of Christina Rossetti

It took a while for me to come up with a subtitle for my upcoming novel The Dove Upon Her Branch. Perhaps one wouldn’t be necessary if my authorship of it was enough to entice readers. I decided it was wiser to rely more on its protagonist’s lure.

She sometimes struggled with titles for her writing, often with her oldest brother’s opinion of her choices. Usually, she surrendered to his suggestions.

I hoped, as with the main title, the perfect words would appear out of the prolificacy of her poetry. Instead, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti was what I settled on. It was what I felt I had accomplished.

A Little Teaser of the Cover
Artwork Copyright 2022 by DM Denton

There are many drawings and paintings of the Victorian poet and youngest sibling of the remarkable Polidori-Rossetti family. From her girlhood to middle-age, Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, literally and lovingly captured the delicate beauty of his youngest sister’s youth, moods of her evolving temperament, and altered appearance due to age and disease.

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A few other artists put their hands to immortalizing her, two out of romantic interest, James Collinson’s unflattering, and John Brett’s never finished.

Christina Rossetti by James Collinson
Christina Rossetti by John Brett

A sketch of Christina Rossetti as a child by William Bell Scott from Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, 1892 edition.

Above, intriguingly sulky, is the youngest portrait of Christina that I have come across. The artist was Scotsman William Bell Scott (1811 – 1890), who was also an art teacher and poet. The drawing was included in his Autobiographical Notes published posthumously in 1892, two years before Christina died at the age of sixty-four. He actually didn’t set eyes on her until she was almost eighteen, the drawing seemingly a copy of one Filippo Pistrucci did of her 1837.

Signore Pistrucci did another in 1839.

Christina Rossetti by Filippo Pistrucci

“Such a pretty little Christina. Such a perfectly still and dull Christina has never existed.” By the time he was eighteen and at Henry Sass’ Drawing Academy, Gabriel didn’t doubt he was the bona fide artist in the family and, therefore, the opinion that mattered.

      “He caught her wide-eyes and the softly determined jut of her chin, I think.”

      “Unimaginative work, Will. Where is the thought in her eyes? The words on her lips? The breath from her nostrils? He didn’t capture her truth. Realism without imagination is like religion without spirituality.”

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

In response to a letter Dante Gabriel had sent to him, Mr. Bell Scott began a lifelong association with the Rossettis – and, arguably, a significant place in Christina’s affections – in a December 1848 visit to London and the Rossetti family home on Charlotte Street, meeting Christina and her ailing father in the parlor.

In Mr. Scott’s words:

By the window was a high narrow reading-desk, at which stood writing a slight girl with a serious regular profile, dark against the palid wintry light without. This most interesting of the two inmates turned on my entrance, made the most formal and graceful curtsey, and resumed her writing …

The girl was Christina, who had already at seventeen written, like her brother, some admirable lyrics, nearly all overshadowed with melancholy. Melancholy I call it, but perhaps the right words would be pious sentiment. At least in her mind, piety and sadness went together, and have done all her life.

Christina Rossett by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

And in my words:

     The man brought to the parlor was tall, his face flushed, eyebrows bushy, and chin square, his jacket, cravat, waistcoat, and trousers artistically mismatched and well-worn. He seemed expectant then confused, his searching, sapphire gaze scanning the room. He removed his green-velvet, feathered hat, implying his impression of Christina with a broad smile and slight bow. She felt and probably appeared cross because she was unprepared to greet anyone she didn’t know.    

     Christina lowered her face and hurried back to her desk.

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll*, used a camera to portray a heavily costumed but relaxed thirty-three-year-old Christina with her beloved mother, older sister Maria, and older brothers William and Dante Gabriel on the back steps of the latter’s grand London house in Cheyne Walk.

     Compared to sitting for an artist, photographers were too busily burdened by the paraphernalia and processes of their trade to indulge in fostering relationships with their sitters. After a little bashful artistry, in few words Mr. Dodgson positioned Christina and, as soon as possible, escaped to concentrate on focusing the shot before he disappeared into his portable darkroom to prepare the plate. Ten or fifteen minutes of model patience was required for the time it took until he appeared rushed, holding his work away from the flaps of the tent, his cuffs, and anything else he might brush or bump it against. He did a final check with the darkening cloth over him and his magical machine, shut the lens, slid in the plate holder, pulled something up, and stood to the side.

     “You may blink but don’t otherwise move.” After removing the lens cap, Mr. Dodgson counted slowly to ten, and put it back.

     He hurried into the tent to confirm that Christina had been caught, as William described, first with “an intellectual profile” and then “a bantering air.”

Excerpts from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Christina Rossetti from a photograph by Charles Dodgson

*It is thought that Christina’s poem Goblin Market was one of the inspirations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

From ‘The Annunciation-Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
From The Girlhood of
Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina also sat for a number of paintings in which she was portrayed as someone other than herself. The two most famous are above, Dante Gabriel depicting her as the Virgin Mary.

… “Mary’s daisies”. They were everywhere around her grandparents’ cottage, across its lawns and creeping through its pathways, opening to the sun, closing to the rain. Mama had shown her how to weave them together in chains for her wrists, hair, or around her neck, Gabriel promising to paint a portrait of her “adorned with them.”

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

She also modelled for Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, her head an inspiration for Jesus’, although another model, her eventual sister-on-law, Elizabeth Siddal, supplied the copper-colored locks.

From The Light of the World
by William Holman Hunt

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

From In the Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti

During her first visit to Penkill Castle in South Ayrshire, Scotland, Christina sat for several murals William Bell Scott was painting on the walls of a newly built large spiral staircase. He posed her as Lady Jane, the heroine and distant love of King James I in The King’s Quaire, a Medieval poem and courtly romance.

From Illustration by DM Denton © Copyright 2022

    “… I’m under no illusions that is a likeness of me. An artist sees pieces of a model, not the whole. They use what they want to: the color of her hair and eyes, shape of her face, length of her neck. They maneuver her to find the necessary position of her head, droop of her shoulders or outstretch of her hand. They imagine what they want to, such as turning the discomfort even pain of staying in one position for so long into a pining for love.”

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Mural at Penkill Castle by William Bell Scott Christina posed for

Mural at Penkill Castle by William Bell Scott Christina posed for

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1877

The chalk portrait above, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, of Christina in her late forties, is one of my favorites. It evokes something of her truth for me, a woman more herself as she grew older, not merely pretty in features and form but beautiful in the thought in her eyes, the words on her lips, the breath from her nostrils, the dishevelment of her dreams, the light and the shadow of her.

I think it also appeals to me because, like Christina, I’m of English and Italian descent, and this drawing certainly brings out the latter in her, more evident as she aged.

Her sister Maria always had a dark complexion and plumpness to portray her plain and foreign.

Christina didn’t have her sister’s complaint. She grew paler and slimmer, her hair sleeker, her eyes more clearly blue, as English as she was anything.

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Of course, looks were and continued to be deceiving. Six days after Christina returned from her one trip to Italy, she wrote the following poem inspired by ‘a very agreeable, bright-natured, eminently Italian in manner and character’ woman she had been introduced to. Enrica Filopanti was obviously enjoyed and, perhaps, even envied a little, but only in a poem to be emulated.

Enrica
by Christina Rossetti

She came among us from the South
  And made the North her home awhile
  Our dimness brightened in her smile,
Our tongue grew sweeter in her mouth.

We chilled beside her liberal glow,
  She dwarfed us by her ampler scale,
   Her full-blown blossom made us pale,
She summer-like and we like snow.

We Englishwomen, trim, correct,
  All minted in the self-same mould,
  Warm-hearted but of semblance cold,
All-courteous out of self-respect.

She woman in her natural grace,
  Less trammelled she by lore of school,
  Courteous by nature not by rule,
Warm-hearted and of cordial face.

So for awhile she made her home
  Among us in the rigid North,
  She who from Italy came forth
And scaled the Alps and crossed the foam.

But if she found us like our sea,
  Of aspect colourless and chill,
  Rock-girt; like it she found us still
Deep at our deepest, strong and free.

From Illustration by DM Denton © Copyright 2022

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Summer Begins; A Novel is ‘Finished’

Summer by Christina Rossetti

Winter is cold-hearted,
Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weathercock
Blown every way.
Summer days for me
When every leaf is on its tree;

When Robin’s not a beggar,
And Jenny Wren’s a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing
Over the wheat-fields wide,
And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
Swings from side to side;

And blue-black beetles transact business,
And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
That no time be lost
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive

Before green apples blush,
Before green nuts embrown,
Why one day in the country
Is worth a month in town;
Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
That days drone elsewhere.

 

summer-solstice-resized

Copyright 2022 by DM Denton

 

My next novel The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti will soon be out of my hands and in my publisher’s queue!

Over five years in the researching and writing, this novel has been a tough journey, but a life changing one I’m so glad I somehow stayed on track with.
 
I came across this quote from an out of print book published by G.P.Putnam’s Sons in 1900. I wholeheartedly agree! (It gives a hint to the challenges I faced.)
 
“In the case of the Rossettis, the biography of any one individual may very well seem ‘only an episode in the epic of the family’ … “
~ from The Rossettis: Dante Gabriel and Christina by Elizabeth Luther Cary
 
 
800px-Kelmscott_Manor_News_from_Nowhere
 
 
Here is an excerpt from later in the novel when Christina and her mother spend a few weeks at Kelmscott Manor in Gloucester where Dante Gabriel Rossetti is staying much of the time while he is still co-lease holder with William Morris and others.
 

From The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti

There was nothing to do in that pretty boat but slip through sparkling water and watch George live up to Gabriel’s praise that the young man “kept everything going”. Christina lost all sense of time, especially as it was a thief, and could finally enjoy going nowhere. Mr. Morris was right; Kelmscott was heaven on earth. It offered serenity, an oasis outside of the world, and immortality in the rhythms of its nature. It belonged to those who had eyes for its beauty and faith in its purpose. It required a willingness for transition. For Christina, it meant emerging from the self-absorption of severe sickness to enjoy simple pleasures again.

     She and her mother had been on many journeys together, but one to a remote corner of south-west Oxfordshire rivaled the significance of all, except Italy, which was as necessary but much less leisurely. They were as close as they had ever been, in spirit and heart and a small boat, their feet side-by-side in opposite directions, their silence filled with water lapping and the song of swallows bringing the summer and bringing the sun.        

     Eventually, the punt passed beyond a long stretch of willows weeping. Have you no purpose but to shadow me beside this rippled spring? George brought the ride to a stop where the riverbank met a meadow of hay-harvesters choreographed for toil, mostly women looking lovely in their plain cotton dresses and bonnets. Mama insisted George share in the basketed snack of buttered bread, strawberries, and cider. As was true for most of the outing, there was more observation than conversation, and it was well rewarded.

A singing lark rose toward the sky,
Circling he sang amain;
He sang, a speck scarce visible sky-high,
And then he sank again.

Copyright © 2022 by DM Denton

Vintage engraving of young women and a man punting on the river, 19th Century

Vintage engraving of women and a man punting on the river, 19th Century

 
 

Happy Summer Solstice
and 
Winter Solstice, for those in the southern hemisphere  

 

donatellasmallest©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Maiden May Revisited

My apologies for not posting for a while. I have been working furiously to finish my novel, five plus years in the making, about the poet Christina Rossetti (youngest sister of Pre-Raphaelite founder, painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti), The Dove Upon Her Branch. Within the week the 1st draft should be done! Then another month for me to self-edit it before I send it to the publisher of my previous three novels, All Things That Matter Press, in hopes they will accept it. After that, I look forward to some time to complete the cover art and interior illustrations.

Maiden May sat in her bower;
Her own face was like a flower
Of the prime,
Half in sunshine, half in shower,
In the year’s most tender time.

Her own thoughts in silent song
Musically flowed along,
Wise, unwise,
Wistful, wondering, weak or strong:
As brook shallows sink or rise.

From Maiden May by Christina Rossetti

(Marsh) Marigolds by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I’m acknowledging May Day in a less frolicsome manner than I have in the past, considering how the world continues to suffer evil and cowardice, but, also, is blessed with the beauty of spring that encourages generosity, open-hearted-and-mindedness, courage, and hope.

During her late twenties and thirties, Christina Rossetti volunteered at London’s Highgate Penitentiary for fallen girls and women. Besides supervising them and teaching Bible Studies, another of her responsibilities was to review letters the inmates wrote to family and friends before they were sent out, mainly to make sure they weren’t corresponding with anyone or in any way that had contributed to their fall in the past and might jeopardize their improvement for the future.

Detail from The Beloved by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For the last few years, she had regularly gone to north London and the St. Mary Magdalene home in a mansion at the top of Highgate Hill. Spacious and airy, run by strict rules but kind intentions, kept meticulously clean by volunteers and residents, it could have been a most pleasant place. At times it was, its girls and young women encouraged to embrace decency in their leisure as well as training and work. *

Their letters were mainly to mothers, sisters, aunties, and cousins, now and then to brothers and fathers, some who undoubtedly cared for their sisters and daughters, others who needed convincing, which irritated Christina. She suspected they were culpable for the very transgressions they hesitated to forgive. *

She sat by one of the open windows, the scents and sounds of May just beyond, no time like Spring when life’s alive in everything, a good time to be married, if ever there was for Gabriel and Lizzie. A ten-year engagement had hardly made a difference to him, while Lizzie’s heart and health had suffered for it. The twelfth of May, Gabriel’s birthday, was supposed to be the day he gave into the commitment his illusions longed for and his behavior sabotaged.

Christina only had one letter left to read. After so many with nothing to report, she was not prepared for it to be disturbing and not just because the Warden would have to insist on changes before it could be sent. That morning, May twenty-fourth, eighteen-sixty, just as Christina was leaving home for the Penitentiary, the post delivered news that Miss Siddall had finally become Mrs. Rossetti at Hastings’ St. Clement’s Church, Gabriel and his new wife to travel to Boulogne and Paris and stay in France for the entire summer.

The letter by Helena—not her real name but one she was given at the Reformatory—was brief, obviously in response to news of an approaching marriage. I hope my brother will be happy, but I also hope I never have to meet his wife. I don’t know why I have such a prejudice against her, I just do.

Christina wanted to confidentially speak to Helena, to share something of her own similar situation and feelings. Instead, she complied with the limitations of her position and gave the offending correspondence to Reverend Oliver. *

*Excerpts from The Dove Upon Her Branch © by DM Denton

Christina Rossetti, photograph by Charles Dodgson AKA Lewis Carol

There is but one May in the year,
And sometimes May is wet and cold;
There is but one May in the year
Before the year grows old.
Yet though it be the chilliest May,
With least of sun and most of showers,
Its wind and dew, its night and day,
Bring up the flowers.

by Christina Rossetti

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Come back, dear Liz

John Everett Millais
Ophelia (1851–52)
Model, Elizabeth Siddal

On February 11, 1862, the model, muse, and wife of Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, an artist and poet in her own right, died at the age of 32 from an overdose of laudanum the night before.

Regina Cordium
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1860 marriage portrait of Siddal

With Valentine’s Day nearly here, I’ve decided to mark this sad anniversary with a poem Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote years earlier, possibly in 1855, in a much lighter spirit than he doubtlessly had on those fateful, sad days in February 160 years ago.

It was posthumously published in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pre-Raphaelitism by Dante Gabriel’s younger brother, William Michael Rossetti (London, George Allen 1899).

I do not know which year this belongs to. It speaks of Miss Siddal as being absent, but (seemingly) as if she could enter any moment. This would exclude from count the year 1856, when she was away in Nice. The verses are amusing, and though they were not suited for Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they may come here.
[William Michael Rossetti 1899]

YESTERDAY was St. Valentine.

Thought you at all, dear dove divine,

Upon the beard in sorry trim

And rueful countenance of him,

That Orson who’s your Valentine?

He daubed, you know, as usual.

The stick would slip, the brush would fall:

Yet daubed he till the lamplighter

Set those two seedy flames astir;

But growled all day at slow St. Paul.

The bore was heard ere noon; the dun

Was at the door by half—past one:

At least ’tis thought so, but the clock—

No Lizzy there to help its stroke—

Struck work before the day begun.

At length he saw St. Paul’s bright orb

Flash back—the serried tide absorb

That burning West which it sucked up,

Like wine poured in a water cup;—

And one more twilight toned his daub.

Some time over the fire he sat,

So lonely that he missed his cat;

Then wildly rushed to dine on tick,—

Nine minutes swearing for his stick,

And thirteen minutes for his hat.

And now another day is gone:

Once more that intellectual one

Desists from high—minded pursuits,

And hungry, staring at his boots,

Has not the strength to pull them on.

Come back, dear Liz, and looking wise

In that arm—chair which suits your size

Through some fresh drawing scrape a hole.

Your Valentine & Orson’s soul

Is sad for those two friendly eyes.

Here is an excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, my upcoming novel portrait of the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Christina did and didn’t want to meet Gabriel’s first true love “radiant with the tresses of Aurora”, his obsession with women’s hair often overlooking the unreliability of their virtue and intellect. Christina hoped Miss Siddall was a woman of moral repute, steady faith and, despite William’s assessment, interesting thoughts. She anticipated feeling dark and dumpy around her but was determined not to mind as long as Miss Siddall urged Gabriel into serious work and a settled life. Christina also expected to like her, not spontaneously or securely like with Amelia or Henrietta, but, protectively, forgivingly, sometimes resentfully.

     Years would go by before Christina and Miss Siddall met, despite Gabriel’s often expressed intention of introducing her to his mother and sisters. William explained it by Miss Siddall’s talent for coyly refusing invitations and avoiding introductions, disappearing at the announcement of an intrusion, or, if caught off-guard, escaping eye contact, a word, a nod, a smile at a kind greeting, even a compliment. That other William whose opinion Christina always welcomed confirmed Miss Siddall’s behavior with first-hand experience, when “in the romantic dusk of an apartment” he found Gabriel and a lady he didn’t know and could hardly see.

     “I waited for Gabriel to introduce her. He didn’t. She rose. I made a little bow. Without acknowledging my presence, let alone courtesy, she went into another room and never returned for the duration of my visit.”

     “How did you know who she was?”

     “I guessed. But, according to Gabriel’s silence, I might’ve imagined her. Later, William assured me I hadn’t.”

© 2022 DM Denton

Lizzie Siddal
at Chatham Place, Blackfriars London
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In the Artist’s Studio
by Christina Rossetti

One face looks out from all his canvases,

One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden just behind those screens,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

A saint, an angel — every canvas means

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:

Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;

Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Photograph of Lizzie Siddal

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Today Marks the 202nd Birthday of Anne Brontë

Already two years beyond her bicentennial, my novel portrait of Anne Brontë, which entailed years of research and writing, is the best way I have of proving my affection for her and devotion to bringing her out of the shadows …

a  portrait … that resonates in a way that suspends years and centuries and lets us feel the joys and sadness of a writer whose unflinching look at life, especially in her novels, rings with the authenticity of who, inside, she really was.

Thomas Davis, Four Windows Pressauthor of In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams

Above all, through the well-measured words of Denton, a young Anne emerges more and more. She frees from the web of religiosity with which she traditionally is painted, [and] tries to leave something good in the world through her measured but deliberately targeted writing. A different Anne at the beginning of the book, timidly in love; then resigned to accept her own death with dignity and fortitude. A meaningful homage to the memory of Anne Brontë.

Maddalena De Leo, Italian Representative of The Bronte Society

Thanks to her dear sister Emily, who is reported to have been a wonderful baker, Anne’s birthday is celebrated in Without the Veil Between.

It was years since Anne was home on her birthday. Emily baked an oatmeal and treacle cake a couple of days ahead of the teatime designated for its consumption to soften it in a tin.

“I’ll allow no one to refuse a piece of Annie’s parkin.” Emily, unusually, looked very pleased with herself. “I mean to give my bet’r sen some happy thoughts.” She even sang some lines from an old ballad supposedly from the time of Robin Hood. “‘Now the guests well satisfied, the fragments were laid on one side when Arthur, to make hearts merry, brought ales and parkins and perry.’”

“‘When Timothy Twig stept in, with his pipe and a pipkin of gin,’” Branwell followed on singing.

“Always the spoiler.” Emily didn’t look at him.

“Well, part of a song doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Anne briefly escaped their argument to take a piece of cake out to Tabby in the back kitchen. Easily wearied and hard-of-hearing, the old servant was trying to nap in a straight-backed chair positioned in the draft from the back door.

“Where’s your shawl?” Almost as soon as she wondered, Anne found it draped over the handle of a broom leaning against a wall.

“Eh? What yer fuss?”

Anne gently laid the loosely-knit shawl around Tabby’s shoulders and gave her the plate of cake.

“Dear angel-lass.”

I allow she has small claims to perfection; but then, I maintain that, if she were more perfect, she would be less interesting.
~ Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

And that which shall be was.

Christina Rossetti died December 29, 1894, from breast cancer, just three weeks after turning 64. My novel about her – The Dove Upon Her Branch – is nearing completion …

Remembering Christina through her words and mine.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti (1877), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Passing and Glassing
by Christina Rossetti

All things that pass
    Are woman’s looking-glass;
They show her how her bloom must fade,
And she herself be laid
With withered roses in the shade;
  With withered roses and the fallen peach,
  Unlovely, out of reach
    Of summer joy that was.

    All things that pass
    Are woman’s tiring-glass;
The faded lavender is sweet,
Sweet the dead violet
Culled and laid by and cared for yet;
  The dried-up violets and dried lavender
  Still sweet, may comfort her,
    Nor need she cry Alas!

    All things that pass
    Are wisdom’s looking-glass;
Being full of hope and fear, and still
Brimful of good or ill,
According to our work and will;
  For there is nothing new beneath the sun;
  Our doings have been done,
    And that which shall be was.

Drawing of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina knew how it felt to have her appearance altered, in an even harsher way than had happened to Fanny who would look out appealingly from more canvases yet. Mirrors would never again return loveliness to Christina.

     “I see no difference in you.” Charles was either lying, which up until then she hadn’t thought him capable of, or blinded by a devotion that perplexed but still pleased her.  

Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

     At times, Christina felt frantic, the curtain closing too soon. She wouldn’t accept she was performing her final scene with so much left undone, unseen, unsaid, and, especially, unwritten, before her nursery rhymes were in print—in America, too—and she could surprise Charles with their dedication to his baby nephew. Having lived beyond her youth, survived the interruptions of love and other sicknesses, matured into measured accomplishment, and made it through the dark forest with a little income and integrity, growing old was an ending to look forward to.

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch
Copyright 2021 by DM Denton

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Not the Birthday Planned

To-day’s your natal day;
Sweet flowers I bring

from To My Mother by Christina Rossetti

Today, December 5th, marks the 191st anniversary of the birth of Christina Rossetti, poet and subject of my upcoming novel, The Dove Upon Her Branch.

In 1853, just before Christina’s 23rd birthday, beloved Nonno, her 89 year old maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, suffered a stroke at his home in London. At the time, Christina was living in Frome, Somerset with her parents, helping her mother run a girls day school and take care of her ailing father. Needless to say, it was not one of her happiest birthdays.

Poetry stone in Frome, Somerset to note Christina Rossetti’s connection to the area.

The inscription reads:

Love lights the sun: love through the dark

Lights the moon’s evanescent arc:

Same Love lights up the glow-worms spark …

from What Good Shall my Life Do me?

by Christina Rossetti

Fromefield’s peaking autumnal colors offered some consolation after Maria returned to London. November was dreary but, also, restorative, an adjustment and relief after months of visitors and daytrips. Once a week or every other Christina shopped in town, nature walks few and far between because of damp, chilly weather. As winter approached and came before it officially did, Christina morphed into an interior creature, knowing it was time to hide away and exist on what was stored within. School was winding down for the Christmas holiday, which promised four weeks of aristocratic leisure. Teaching was almost rewarding at times, as she had never expected it would be, the few girls still at the school quite comfortable with each other and their teacher, Mama, relinquishing that role more and more to her youngest.

     Christina finally had the opportunity to try out the new paint brushes William had sent along with Maria. Out of regret for complaining that two had split quills, she was determined to make good use of them—so far an inadequate portrait of Mama. Such a forgiving, if not forgetful, creature, William had given her a five-pound note for her birthday. She considered spending a few pounds on replacing worn items in her wardrobe, the remainder saved. When Mama returned, a trip to London might be considered good use of it; if after Boxing Day, at least to celebrate the New Year with her siblings. Another incentive was to show appreciation for Amelia’s gift of a pretty collar and sleeves by wearing them in her friend’s presence.

     Christina intended them to complement a frock other than black or gray, her azure-blue conservatively contrasting the crisp white of the butterfly-themed guipure lace.

     “I won’t stay until the twenty-fifth. Papa doesn’t want me to go at all, but there are things to be taken care of. Once they are, I’ll be back, and you can be on your way. ” Mama said wearily while they waited on the platform for her train.

     “I wish we could all live in London again.”

     “We will, dearest,” Mama squeezed Christina’s hand, “before too long.”

      How comforting it was to make plans in one’s head; in one’s heart, more foolish. A few days later Amelia’s present had gone from being impatiently draped over Christina’s vanity table mirror to storage in a deep drawer with a few other frivolous accessories.

from The Dove Upon Her Branch © 2021 by DM Denton

Christina Rossetti, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The sun nor loiters nor speeds,
The rivers run as they ran,
Through clouds or through windy reeds
All run as when all began.

from
Time Flies, A Reading Diary
by Christina Rossetti
December 5th entry
(First published 1885)

Sing, that in thy song I may
Dream myself once more a child

from Maud by Christina Rossetti

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Something Besides Her Own Fortitude and Segregation

July 30th marks the anniversary in 1818 in Thornton, Yorkshire of the birth of Emily Brontë, one of the most uniquely fearless, impassioned, enigmatic, and elusive poets and novelists of all time.

My novel Without the Veil Between, published in November 2017, focuses on Anne Bronte, but Emily is very present in it. Long after all the Brontë sisters had died, Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey wrote in Reminisces of Charlotte Brontë that “[Emily] and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.”

This closeness became more and more palpable as I progressed along the path of research and writing Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit.

Illustration by DM Denton from Without the Veil Between

Emily was as essential to Anne as Anne was to Emily, whether she and Anne were together at Haworth, on an excursion to York, or physically apart like when Emily was at school in Brussels or Anne was working as a governess. They invigorated each other’s imagination, offered a sense of belonging, and balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The ethereal essence of their connection was enough to overcome their growing apart when it came to the fantasy writing that had bonded them as children and adolescents.

Emily never stopped being an imaginative and liberating influence on dutiful, devout Anne, a constant and protective best friend who by example more than precept reminded her youngest sister to leave at least some of her spirit unfettered and even encouraged her to now and then step out of life’s responsibilities and live a little wildly.

O come with me, thus ran the song,
The moon is bright in Autumn’s sky,
And thou hast toiled and laboured long
With aching head and weary eye.

~ From O Come With Me by Emily Brontë

Anne’s influence on Emily was less obvious, easier to view Emily as more akin to nature and mystery than real people, floating untethered in her own self-created, solitary, independent, irreligious orbit. For me, all of that remains true while, at the same time, I feel Emily was deeply attached to Anne: that she admired her level-headedness and faith-filled, forgiving, moralistic, yielding yet strong nature, and valued her opinion, especially creatively.

Anne was a safe haven where Emily could rely on something besides her own fortitude and segregation. Anne was someone who understood her and had no wish to change her.

There was profound understanding and acceptance, truth and endurance in the love each had for the other.

What better way to enjoy time with Emily again than by resuming their habit of wandering west to meet only earth and sky. Their dogs, like themselves, with contrasting physiques and personalities, were intrinsically similar, especially in their need to frequently escape the stuffiness and limited amusement of being indoors.

“Flossy, come back,” Anne tried to command the impulsive spaniel off once more to chase sheep.

Emily had no trouble getting Keeper to lie down with a firm annunciation of his name while she pointed to the ground, although his whimpering implied he was still thinking about following Flossy’s example.

“Flossy. Bad boy, bad boy.”

“If you control your little Robinsons like you do that sassy mutt, I fear they won’t live long.”

As if it heard Emily’s prediction, a large ewe turned on Flossy, which brought the dog running back up the steep slope to his forgiving mistress.

On second thought, Anne tried to be tougher with a disciplinary tap on Flossy’s nose, then embraced him again. “Good boy.”

“Methinks he’s exactly what you always wanted … to be.” Emily was walking again, her direction declaring her destination. Their ascent to Top Withens would be delayed an hour or more, if Emily’s mood was more for reclining and swirling her hand in the water to stir up tadpoles.

When Ellen Nussey was with them, from crossing the slabbed bridge over Sladen Beck to climbing a rugged bank, navigating greasy stones and not minding a little dampening, there was always an echo of “watch your step”. With just Anne and the dogs following her lead, Emily didn’t have anything to say until they were at the best seat in view of the waterfall.

“No, you take it, Annie. I relinquish my throne to you.”

“Any of the other stones would do for me.”

“I insist on taking care of you.”

Anne didn’t mind Emily acting more like an older brother than Branwell ever did, or even a gallant lover, reminiscent of childish acting-out. In truth, she depended on it. In that small oasis of time, standing still where they were hidden from the world, their faithful companions conspiring to find something to occupy themselves, there was so much to enjoy and be grateful for. The sky was open in sight of heaven, high ground around and beyond them, the sun warming and a breeze cooling, the sound of water calming, and faintly fragrant moss glistening on the rocks with tiny white stars appearing between some of them.

Yet, more as if she was on a stormy ocean than in a quiet cove, panic overwhelmed Anne until she could hardly breathe.

Emily lightly rubbed Anne’s back and twisted up a strand of her hair loosened from its simple arrangement.

Anne cleared her throat, choking, Flossy pawing at her knees, Keeper barking.

“Go ahead and spit.” Emily helped her sister lean over to do so. “Other than me, there’s only the dogs, flies, tadpoles and, perhaps, God to witness it.”

Anne laughed and spoke hoarsely, “What would I do without you?”

“Better than I have done without you.”

From Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit

When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again:
Oh, my true friend! I am not lone,
While thou canst speak with such a tone!

~ From To Imagination by Emily Brontë

Continue reading

A Queen, a Nameless Girl, a Saint, an Angel

Elizabeth Siddall
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today I share another excerpt from my work-in-progress novel portrait of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, The Dove Upon Her Branch to mark the birthday – July 25, 1829 – of Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddall, muse and wife of Christina’s brother and Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Elizabeth Siddall
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

We found her hidden just behind those screens, that mirror gave back all her loveliness.*

     Miss Siddall was sitting slightly hunched, her arms reaching, resting between her knees, just below which her hands were clasped. Thick, mahogany hair was loosely ballooned on the nape of her neck, her chin stretched forward. Her waist, like most of the wicker chair she perched on, was lost in the bunching of her skirt, but even with her torso swallowed in billowing fabric and her shoulders slumped, there was no doubt she was tall.

         A queen in opal or in ruby dress, a nameless girl in freshest summer-greens, a saint, an angel — every canvas means the same one meaning, neither more or less.*

     Christina saw what Gabriel did. Although simply, somberly gowned in cotton and shawled in wool, this woman was fascinating, not as she was but meant to be.

     As Christina entered fully into her view, Miss Siddall stood and took a few sliding steps, her grey-blue eyes heavy-lidded, kind, and evasive. The hand she extended was warm in intention but cold in its flesh.

     Oh, she is not well. I must be kind to her. I must … not jump to conclusions about her. I must … not mind Gabe loving her.

     “Well, what do you think, Chrissy?” Gabriel blurted, immediately clarifying his question. “Of the Blackfriars crib? The way the rooms are built out over the river, windows on all sides, there’s plenty of light and from the balcony a magnificent view of the Tower, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey.”

     “If only there wasn’t such a stink from the river.”

     “I hardly notice anymore. During the day it’s busy and interesting. At night there’s the shimmering reflection of gas lamps on the bridge and wharf side.”

     “He notices. In words I won’t repeat.” William stood before an easel-supported canvas. “You’ve made good progress.”

     “Which one is it?” Christina moved to have a look. “Oh, a watercolor,” she tried not to sound disappointed.

     “Beatrice Meets Dante at a Marriage Feast.” William glanced between his brother and Miss Siddall.

     “And denies him her salutation,” Gabriel added, not brave enough to look at his “Sid” sitting and slumping again.

     William leaned into the painting to examine it more closely. “He’s captured you for eternity, Lizzie.”

     “Sitting for him certainly can seem an eternity.” Christina thought she saw Miss Siddall struggle not to smile.

     “You didn’t refuse, even though Mama said you could.” Gabriel knew he was right. “I remember you begging to pose again.”

     Christina did, too. “Well, your memory fails you. But one thing doesn’t.” She stepped back from the painting, looking around at all other evidence of her brother’s current obsession. “Having your muse constantly close.”

     “I don’t live here,” Lizzie finally spoke, softly but emphatically.

Copyright © 2021 by DM Dentom

*From the poem In the Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddall Sketching Dante Gabriel Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In an Artist’s Studio

BY CHRISTINA ROSSETTI

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Christina Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Summer Days for Her

Illustration © by DM Denton

Summer
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Winter is cold-hearted,
  Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weathercock
  Blown every way:
Summer days for me
  When every leaf is on its tree;

When Robin’s not a beggar,
  And Jenny Wren’s a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing,
  Over the wheat-fields wide,
  And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
  Swings from side to side,

And blue-black beetles transact business,
  And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
  That no time be lost,
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive.

Before green apples blush,
  Before green nuts embrown,
Why, one day in the country
  Is worth a month in town;
  Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
  That days drone elsewhere.

The Strawberry Thief by William Morris

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch

my work-in-progress novel portrait of Christina Rossetti

“No, not yet,” nine-year-old Maria had insisted. “We must wait.”

     “Why, Moony?” At six Christina had been compelled to question everything.

     “They shouldn’t be picked until ripe.”

     “How long?”

     “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after.”

     “What if I ate one now?”

     “It wouldn’t be juicy … or sweet.”

     “How do you know?”

     “Nonno says they should be fully red … and soft to—”

     Maria’s firm grip thwarted the sudden plan of her little sister’s outstretched arm.

     The following day, on the same edge of their grandfather’s garden, Christina again burst into tears, this time denied the fruity feast wildly cascading down a hedgerow bank because slugs had invaded and wounded every finally ripened strawberry. There was no doubt it was those shell-less mollusks that had done the damage, a few still clinging to their victims.

     “We weren’t meant to have any. As Mama says, it never hurts to practice patience and self-restraint.”

     “Yes, it does.” Unlike Maria, Christina didn’t always look for sensible instruction in disappointment; certainly not at the time of the snail marauding. She decided she would never forgive her sister. Until Maria reminded her of the current bushes that grew upright and, therefore, less prone to slimy invasions. They could provide an alternative snack and, also, berries for a pie Aunt Eliza might be persuaded to make.

     Later they would smile about it, and cry, reminiscing bringing them the joy but also the pain of what was associated with Holmer Green holidays. While in its midst, childhood seemed endless, even for a girl as advanced and sensible as Maria. Traveling—the anticipation, adventure, amusement, and even exhaustion—what then seemed a world away from London was always something to look forward to. Maria and, eventually, William with her help, wrote down observations and impressions along the way: first stagecoach to Uxbridge, second to High Wycombe, local transport halfway to Amersham letting them off at the crossroads to Holmer Green. There it became apparent why they packed light, a long walk for short legs down a pretty lane into the village and another to “Nonno’s Cottage”, actually, a fair-sized house of less interest to the Polidoris’ grandchildren than its gardens, orchards, and copses, a pond and pig-sty, spaniel named Delta, and promises of days for wandering and discovery.

      Eventually, Christina would accept the grounds were small and quite ordinary, but while they belonged to her beloved Nonno and her imagination’s infancy she found them vast and full of uncommon experiences. Being able to step outside to pure air, bird song, a look up to the sky, the shifting of sun and shadows, a honeysuckle-scented breeze, even a soot-less splash of rain was magical for a city child. Her hands swinging free of the fear others had for her and her legs exercising their purpose of running to watch cows going out to pasture, frisky lambs defying their mothers, a shepherd lad waving as though he was waiting to see her again, was better than Christmas or her birthday or even Papa saying she was like the moon risen at the full.

     One day in the country was worth a month in town; certainly, Christina made the most of each one …

Copyright © 2021 by DM Denton

John William Waterhouse

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.