Jan Marsh's Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life is a biographical account of the melancholy poet who waged "a life long struggle with feminist desires" by constantly attempting to reconcile her own often conflicting ideals towards religion, ambition, familial obligation and the Victorian model of womanhood. Marsh divides her work chronologically into four convenient periods of Christina Rossetti's life:
- Part One: 1830-50,
- Part Two: 1850-60,
- Part Three:1861-70 and
- Part 4: 1871-94.
While Marsh completes a more than adequate job of chronicling both definitively major and seemingly minor events of Christina's life, her addition of psychoanalytic commentary and stylistic prowess combines with the facts to create a biography that reads as smoothly as novel. Her insistent reference to Gabriel and Frances Rossetti as Mama and Papa, respectively, aid in the creation of a story-like telling of Christina's life in which each historically relevant figure is transformed into a significant player on the stage of Christina's life.
Marsh depicts Christina's adolescent life as the continually developing scene of a precocious young poet who must establish her own identity from those of her three other siblings: Maria, the sometimes domineering yet always supportive older sister, William, a fellow conspirator, rhyming competitor and self-appointed scribe of the family and her equally precocious but far more gregarious brother Dante Gabriel. Marsh successfully illuminates the tremendous influence of the flamboyant painter-poet Dante Gabriel had on Christina. From his introduction of Christina to the artistically stimulating community of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to his involvement with her failed romance with James Collinson, Dante Gabriel embraced the integral role he played in his sister-poet's career from the moment he helped Christina publish her first poems in the Athenaeum.
Although Marsh is quick to point out how each family member played a pivotal role in Christina's development as poet and person, Marsh seems equally adamant in the role that religion played in Christina's life. While an apparent rejection of John Ruskin seemed to have little to do with religion and more to do with personal preference (in one poem she remarks, "Here's friendship for you if you like; but love — /No, thank you, John), it was Collinson's reversion to Catholicism and Charles Cayley's lack of religion that led to the demise of potential love and matrimony. Marsh also comments, "just as with James, Charles' unworldliness and lack of sexual presence may have been his most appealing features; for whatever reason, Christina seems to have been frightened by aggressive masculinity." Such masculine figures existed on the other side of the religious spectrum -- Edward Bouverie Pusey and William Dodsworth, contemporary Tractarian preachers, who helped to inculcate Christina's devotion towards the Anglican church. Their religious zeal may have also established deep seeds of religious guilt that continually surface throughout Christina's poems and may have played a significant role in her adolescent breakdown, officially diagnosed as "religious mania."
Perhaps the most significant achievement of Marsh's full-length study was to psychoanalytically penetrate some probable causes to Christina's seemingly incessant state of malaise and the repetitive melancholy that surfaced throughout her poetic achievements. Conflating biographical information, letters and writings concerning an untellable secret with her own Freudian analysis of some of Christina's more nightmarish poems, Marsh posits the notion that the religious mania/breakdown and the subsequent transformation of Christina's once lively personality into a more saturnine disposition was a result of an experience of sexual molestation. Her father emerges as the most probable culprit. She punctuates her conclusion with annotated references to the dark images of goblins and crocodiles in Christina's poetry in addition to Christina's self-mutilation as tell-tale signs of sexual transgression. Christina states, "I, too, had a very passionate temper. On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath." While Marsh concedes most of her analysis is conjecture, she opens up an entirely new possibility in the attempt to understand such masterpieces as Goblin Market. While Marsh does not deny the conventional references to Christina's deeply religious sentiment, her close knit relationship with her sister Maria and the social work with prostitutes Christina performed at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate as motivations for Goblin Market, she succeeds in establishing that there is much more going on than what Marsh's own exploration can provide and that there is more to be discussed than what has already been said.
Overall, I found Marsh's mixture of fact, fancy and poetry a successful interrogation of Christina's life and writing, although it does seem at times to have linked specific poems too neatly to actual events in the poet's life. For example, In an Artist's Studio is seemingly reduced to Christina's negative response to her brother Dante Gabriel's relationship with the model Lizzie Siddall. The following poem Song is also conveniently fitted to substantiate one of the many original claims made by Marsh:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
According to Marsh, this poem is poignantly directed to James Collinson, during the early stages of her hesitant love, and "the tender expressions of melancholy seem to reflect something of the current state of her heart." Other possibilities not explored by Marsh on this specific occasion include the possibility that this, like many other poems, surfaced as responses to the many works she was exposed to from the PRB, such as Dante Gabriel's "The Blessed Damozel." In any case, while many of her other poetic selections do seem to have strong correlations with specific biographical events, Marsh's matter-of-fact narrative almost precludes the consideration of other analytic possibilities and at times detracts from what is an essentially erudite example of scholarship.
Overall, Jan Marsh's scrupulous documentation and extensive quotations make for a completely thorough biography. Aside from a successful portrayal of Christina Rossetti as a Victorian Poet of significance, its personal style makes it extremely enjoyable reading and allows the reader to see the person of Christina emerge from the poems and life of Christina Rossetti. In its depth, scope, originality and accessibility, Marsh's biography should prove indispensable to anyone interested in the role of women and writing within Victorian culture.
Last modified 1997