Historical and Literary Fiction / Essays / Poetry / Reviews /Book Cover and Interior Illustrations / Pet Portraits and Other Commissioned Artwork … "Prose may be the lowest order of the rhythmic composition, but we know it is capable of such purity, sweetness, strength, elasticity, as entitle it to a place as a sister art with poetry." Thomas Hall Caine (1853 -1931) from his firsthand "Reflections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti"
“How many children could say their home hosted the humblest and highest at the same time, on any given evening invaded by expatriates their father never hesitated to invite in? Un cercatore or un seccatore, beggar or bore, Papa satirized them. Through the back door he welcomed a bookseller, organ grinder, biscuit maker, vagrant macaroni man, and one called Galli who thought he was Christ. Others entered that way with a Masonic knock and handshake. Through the front, disgraced Italian counts and generals made as officious an entrance as a small house on Charlotte Street afforded. Mama blushed every time she spoke of the visit from Nicolò Paganini, ‘all in black, without his violin but boasting the long hair he tossed about when he performed.'”
Christina Georgina Rossetti is the youngest of four siblings in a close-knit, creative Anglo-Italian family. A spirited child like her brother, Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in adolescence she struggles with being sickly and depressed, believing she would “be part of the statistic of girls who never made it to womanhood”. She emerges and matures, “a solitary dove upon her branch”, realizing her voice through poetry, “composed out of remembering while trying to forget.”
Her respectable Victorian life teeters on the edge of a bohemian one. “A raucous entrance by artists Holman Hunt, John Millais, George Stephens, and sculptor Thomas Woolner, was hardly quietened by Gabriel who never doubted his family needed livening up.” London is Christina’s beginning and end. Travels, possibilities and impossibilities for love and marriage, ambivalent ambition, piety, charity, illness, and bonds of blood, heart, and soul tell her story. Journeys through reflection and imagination create her legacy.
The Dove Upon Her Branch A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti by DM Denton
Preview book trailer for DM Denton’s fictional account of the 19th century poet, Christina Rossetti, youngest sister of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder, painter, and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Excerpts from poems by Christina Rossetti (in the Public Domain) Music by Mendelssohn: no 1 Songs Without Words, Opus 30 (Public Domain piano from MusOpen)
Too late for love, too late for joy, Too late, too late! You loiter’d on the road too long, You trifled at the gate: The enchanted dove upon her branch Died without a mate; The enchanted princess in her tower Slept, died, behind the grate; Her heart was starving all this while You made it wait.
But as above that mist’s control She rose, and brighter shone …
from Fluctuations by Anne Brontë
January 17, 2023, marks 203 years since Anne Brontë was born in Thornton, West Yorkshire, England, youngest of the six children of Maria Branwell from Penzance and Irish clergyman Patrick Brontë.
My novel Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit is my love letter to Anne. Not Anne, the ‘less gifted’ sister of Charlotte and Emily … nor the Anne who ‘also wrote two novels’, but Anne herself, courageous, committed, daring and fiercely individual: a writer of remarkable insight, prescience and moral courage whose work can still astonish us today. ~ Deborah Bennison, Bennison Books
Of course, honoring Anne can be done at any time by reading her poetry and prose and what others have been inspired to write about her; also, (perhaps, a way that would please her the most) by following her example of good and purposeful living achieved through resilience, faith, honesty, compassion and – invaluable during an isolating pandemic – self-containment, patience, and flexibility.
Anne’s two novels and unfinished ‘Portrait of a girl with a dog’
Anne thought of … a word, more than a word, a philosophy, simple but profound, out of the mouth of someone who spoke simply and succinctly, not unlike Tabby, or, in the old days, Nancy and Sarah Garrs, who sometimes shared wisdom with just a comment on the weather.
Copyright 2017 by DM Denton
Now it was a title for a poem …
Anne stroked Flossy’s ears as she began to quietly read out loud, “‘Fluctuations. What though the Sun had left my sky—’” Her doe-eyed companion looked up, understanding nothing and everything, wagging his tail and letting it drop limply, whining because he didn’t like it when his mistress was upset. “Shh, shh. It’s all right, sweet pup. ‘To save me from despair the blessed Moon arose on high, and shone serenely there.’”
It was all right. It would be all right. Perhaps not every moment, not when she thought of who she must wait until she died to see again, or how there was less heartache but more frustration in believing she would never feel fully useful in society or even at home unless she accomplished something meaningful. Still, it could be worse if she was without the resolve to make her life fruitful, pursue a well-cultivated mind and well-disposed heart, have the strength to help others be strong, or, especially, the faith to endure and rise above endurance.
“‘I thought such wan and lifeless beams could ne’er my heart repay, for the bright sun’s most transient gleams that cheered me through the day. But as above that mist’s control she rose and brighter shone—’” Flossy looked up at her again. “‘I felt a light upon my soul!’”
Anne knew life couldn’t fail her as long as she acknowledged the blessings of animals and nature, music and prayer. She also valued family and friendship, which, of course, could be one and the same. At times it was stifling back at the parsonage, as though all the windows and doors that held her to being the smallest, quietest, last and least likely to surprise were kept locked by those who loved her for their own conclusions. Anne could never think of home as a prison, but once she flew the nest and realized she had the wherewithal to, if not quite soar, make survivable landings, she knew it was restrictive. She had always suspected being overly protected was as dangerous as being unguarded, like enjoying the rose without noticing its thorns. It wasn’t as though her family was unaware of the world and its ways. Daily and weekly doses of newspapers and magazines initiated lively discussions, mostly between Branwell and Charlotte with Emily grunting, about religion and revolution and parliamentary reform, potato famine and, closer to home, the plight of the wool laborers and sick in their father’s parish.
Anne was afraid responding to political, social, and moral issues through the amusement of fantasy was more about outwitting these realities than addressing them. She even felt some shame at having gone along with the juvenilia that made believe the world was at her fingertips, its maneuverings entertaining, romantic, and escapist, although she could almost forgive the child she was then. Halfway through her twenties, having lived most of the last four years away from her family, she was finally fully-fledged, the nature she was born with at last standing up for itself, wanting its voice to be heard, with the courage to admit she was meant to wear truths not masks.
In or away from Haworth, the best companionship was often with herself alone: the best being the reflection that wouldn’t falsely flatter for the sake of avoiding hard feelings, wasn’t eager to congratulate in order to keep her friendship, and didn’t encourage self-pity because it was wanted in return. Anne had long since decided to be honest with herself even when it meant facing a harsh reality, like the prospect of never marrying and having children. Whatever God’s will, she hoped a few of the schemes in her head, humble and limited as they were, might come to something. She could hear Emily guffawing. Why shouldn’t they? You worry too much. Yes, she did, a correction that was one of the most difficult to make if she thought she must choose between passion and dispassion.
The Rossetti clan met the New Year of 1850 with excitement and trepidation over a risky venture: a periodical put out by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to circulate its work and ideas through poetry, prose, and art. At first all offerings were anonymous but on the second printing the names of the authors and artists were admitted, except for the only female contributor, Christina Rossetti.
“Who was there?”
“Everyone, I think. All the official PRB set, as well as Maddox Brown, Cave Thomas, Deverell swiveling his chair the entire evening, Hancock repeating ‘Guardami ben, ben son Beatrice’ to goad Gabriel, and too much coffee drunk.”
“At least they settled on a name.”
“Thoughts Towards Nature?” Christina hoped. “I like its simplicity.”
“Oh, dear. They didn’t choose The PRB Journal?”
“No. And not The Scroll, The Harbinger, The Seed, The Sower, First Thoughts, The Truth-Seeker, or The Acorn.”
She did, remembering Gabriel’s preference, and liked it, almost as much as her first choice, after all, just an elaboration on it: The Germ: Thoughts Towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art.
Ellen Alleyn appeared and disappeared through her words, warbling melodically and melancholically, a songbird heard but never seen except perched on a page, and then by so few. Her engagement in life was meant to be sweet and safe, a natural movement from branch to branch towards the inclination of nesting. Instead, she was senselessly shot down by naïve expectations, which the afterlife would relentlessly look back on as bad judgment.
It is an empty name I long for; to a name why should I give the peace of all the days I have to live.
It was a name Gabriel invented after the first printing of The Germ, so, when it was decided not to risk presenting further issues as the work of one, Christina, unlike the other six male contributors, could continue to conceal her identity. She should have argued she wasn’t afraid of owning her poems, that it might be what she needed to do to grow stronger as a writer. From far away in wintry Wiltshire, where she was visiting Aunt Charlotte, a disagreement with Gabriel, via letters he was unlikely to answer, was unwinnable.
Christina was at home for the New Year’s Eve delivery of fifty copies of the first issue to Charlotte Street by the printer, George Tupper. Throughout that last day of 1849, its contributors arrived. Papa was delighted with the complicated company, while Mama panicked at the lingering of so many hungry, thirsty men eager for a new decade and the wild ride of rebellion. She sent Betsey to the shops with the week’s allowance for food, Gabriel convincing her that the success of the magazine would repay her hospitality and “make a little starvation worth it.”
Today is the 192nd anniversary of her birth, December 5, 1830
A Birthday By Christina Rossetti
My heart is like a singing bird Whose nest is in a water’d shoot; My heart is like an apple-tree Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit; My heart is like a rainbow shell That paddles in a halcyon sea; My heart is gladder than all these Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down; Hang it with vair and purple dyes; Carve it in doves and pomegranates, And peacocks with a hundred eyes; Work it in gold and silver grapes, In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys; Because the birthday of my life Is come, my love is come to me.
Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch
Christina and William Rossetti posing for the painting of Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in November 1849
Another portrait to pose for offered an alternative, productive engagement, being the handmaid of the Lord a worthy occupation. William sitting for the Angel Gabriel completed a happy if draughty distraction of camaraderie and creation with her brothers.
At that time Gabriel worked on Newman Street above a hop-shop or Dancing Academy as its proprietor tried to improve it.
“Why is the painting tall and narrow?” Christina wondered with her first glance at the work in progress.
“It is one-half of a diptych. Its companion will depict the Virgin’s death.”
“Will you have both finished by spring for the RA?” William slapped his arms around himself in an attempt to warm his sleeveless, sheeted body. “Anymore coal for the grate?”
“Doubt it.” Gabriel urgently picked through the pile of brushes on the small pedestal table next to his easel.
Christina noticed they were all thin-handled and fine-bristled. “No wonder you take so long to finish anything.” She also looked at his pallet, noticing he wasn’t mixing colors, but using fresh daubs of unadulterated white, blue, and red paint.
“I hope you won’t get bronchitis again.” William repositioned the woolen shawl that had slipped off her shoulders.
“I haven’t even caught a cold.” Christina had resigned herself to shivering in her flimsy nightgown for the sake of Gabriel’s vision and to prove as enduring as any of the other models who sat for him.
“Interesting.” As he leaned forward, William put a hand on his brother’s back. “Even with as little as you’ve done, I see the perspective of Giotto. Yet, I also see Flemish primitive, what you and Hunt were so taken with in Bruges. Before you started, I noticed you had followed Van Eyck’s practice of preparing the canvas with white ground.”
Gabriel smiled. “I’m sure it will all seem a confused mess to those, like Ruskin, who think their opinions matter.”
“A risk worth taking. But you must enter both panels together.”
“I don’t paint to exhibit.”
“You must, Gabe, to make a name for yourself, a living. Your work must be seen. And critiqued.”
“Says the would-be critic.”
“Now I see why you want me contorted on a corner of that saggy cot.” Christina though it wise to change the subject. “And all wrinkly and looking about to jump up and run away.”
“I thank Collinson for your disquiet.” Gabriel was still brooding over Mr. Hunt falling into arrears with the rent on Cleveland Street and defecting to James’ studio in Brompton.
They had spoken of many things during the hours of posing and painting, breaking to eat and drink, and for Christina and William to wrap themselves in blankets long enough to feel their fingers and toes again. Not once, until that moment, had anyone mentioned the man Christina had, without good reason, agreed to marry. She was almost convinced the last year of his waxing and waning hadn’t happened; that somewhere out there was the face not seen, the voice not heard, the heart that not yet—
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
*It is thought that Christina’s poem Goblin Market was one of the inspirations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
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.”
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.
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.
“… 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.”
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.
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.
On the threshold of a test she might not pass, she opened the door of an area of the stable block converted into an artist’s studio. *
Too late for love, too late for joy, Too late, too late! You loiter’d on the road too long, You trifled at the gate: The enchanted dove upon her branch Died without a mate; The enchanted princess in her tower Slept, died, behind the grate; Her heart was starving all this while You made it wait.
from The Bride Song by Christina Rossetti
Christina began to believe she would, within a few years, be part of the statistic of girls who never made it to womanhood. She worked herself into a panic writing poems, obsessing over her failings of temperament and heart, and not having enough time to prepare herself for eternity. She might have given a passing thought to what she would miss of marriage and motherhood or the regret or relief of neither being granted her. Ambition to display her cleverness worried her more, not because she might never have a chance to fulfill it, but that she wanted to. So many things needed correcting before she was short-lived. For instance, she liked to hear her verses praised, but should not seek congratulations. Philippians 2:3: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Did she think too much of herself? She wasn’t very tolerant of other people, too little time left to spend irritated or, worse, bored by them. And what about her resistance to what was required of her? She was far too rebellious, and when she was, or, at least, tried to be obedient, often was resentfully so.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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. *
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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