Christina Rossetti: Celebrating Her Natal Day

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

“A Vision of Fiammetta (detail)” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In April 1842, the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti, at the age of eleven, penned those opening lines to a poem actually written for her mother’s birthday.

Christina Rossetti and her Mother Frances Rossetti, 7th October 1863, by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll)

 

Christina is the subject of my work-in-progress next novel and today is the 188th anniversary of her birth, December 5, 1830.

She was part of a remarkable family of English-Italian scholars, artists, and poets, her older brother being Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

I thought I’d share a little excerpt from my novel that’s in its very early stages of creation. The following is from the first chapter, describing the intimacy between brother and sister, who, as children, were very similar in temperament and interests. They were called “the two storms”, while their sister Maria and brother William were called ‘the two calms”.

From a photograph by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carol)

In adulthood Gabriel’s hand revered and mocked her, in childhood it held hers on their long walks through the park and zoo, and sometimes even farther to the poor folks’ heights of London named prettily and nostalgically Primrose Hill. For children who didn’t mind being blown about, the broad meadowed mound was a welcome contrast to the grime and gridlock of the city. It offered the chase, not for wolves or boars or deer, but, as a Tutor King must have also enjoyed, the benefits of fresh air, exercise, escape, and a sense of being on top of the world.
Copyright © 2018 by DM Denton

 

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

from Maud by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti as a child, by William Bell

 

Happy Birthday, 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.

Sunday Short: Thought here, smiles there; perfection lies betwixt

I just had to share this charming little poem by Christina Rossetti, which I came across in my research for my novel about the Victorian poetess. It was written, when Christina was about fourteen, for Elizabeth Read who was one of the girls her older sister Maria was governess to. Christina met “Bessie” when she went to visit her sister while the Reads of Finsbury Pavement, Islington, London were summering in the country. Although Bessie was a couple of years younger, she and Christina became fast friends.

This friendship came at a particularly lonely and gloomy time—the tunneling years—for the adolescent Christina, as she was mostly isolated at home in London with her ailing, nearly sightless, cantankerous father Gabrielle Rossetti (once a vibrant, charming, cheerful man). While her oldest brother Dante Gabriel pursued his art studies, her mother, sister, and brother William were forced to go out to work to make up for the severe drop in income the family experienced when its patriarch became sick.

The poem was written to accompany a package of stamps (one hundred humble servants … their livery of red and black) Christina had saved for Bessie’s collection.

It immediately warmed my heart with its simple, gentle, clever expression of affection and support of one young woman for another, especially when both may well have needed it most. You need to look beyond that dreary house, and Bessie can only benefit from acquaintance with you—I have Maria write to Christina in my novel.

The pure, generous, uncomplicated expression of friendship Christina gave to another girl made me think how the bonds between women come early. They are not always preserved, too often interrupted and put aside, but, hopefully, are eventually valued again.

With the past and present in mind, I say: “They should be. They must be!”

To My Friend Elizabeth
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Sweetest Elizabeth, accept I pray
These lowly stamps I send in homage true;
One hundred humble servants in their way
Are not to be despised, though poor to view.
Their livery of red and black, nor gay,
Nor sober all, is typical of you,
In whom are gravity and gladness mixed.
Thought here, smiles there; perfection lies betwixt.

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – detail of the Bower Meadow

 

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She will be the most spirited of all

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 …

Gone Forever

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

 

©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.