One of the problems for right-wing promoters of ideal family life is that there is no way of predicting its outcome. It is as if those who confidently assert that absent fathers spell delinquency for the children, inadequate mothers addiction, divorce an incapacity to hold onto relationships or to love in a sustained way, never stop to ask why it is that the most stable and long-lasting of family unions can produce offspring who run wild, turn to drugs, contract out of loving, who seem, often perversely and inexplicably, to be committed to the most extreme forms of gratifying and/or punishing themselves. The union of Frances Polidori and Gabriele Rossetti, parents to Maria, William, Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was by all accounts harmonious, affectionate, enduring. Eccentric, not without drama (he was a poet and revolutionary in exile from Italy), it nonetheless offered in terms of devotion, engagement and cultural stimulation a model that might still pass today as a middle-class ideal of what the family should give a child. And yet of the four children, only William was able to enter, let alone sustain, an attachment even vaguely resembling that of his parents. Maria became a nun, Gabriel the painter and poet descended, after the suicide of his wife, into drugs and breakdown, Christina the poetess lived as an ascetic, her religious devotion powerless to assuage the self-loathing which seems to have dominated so much of her adult life. (According to more than one account, she died raving at her own perdition.) ‘Why, one wonders,’ as Jan Marsh puts it, ‘did the four siblings have such difficulties when their parents’ marriage was so happy?’ And on the diametrically opposed nature of Maria and Christina’s religious experience (respectively utmost contentment and utmost pain): ‘Why two sisters, growing up in the same environment, should respond so differently to the same religious influences is a question not easily answered.’ This is a biography which often has recourse to such questions, and it is at its best, as in these examples, when it is least certain about the answer.
Maybe the question to ask is not why the members of the same family are so different from each other but what it is that they are carrying for each other. Reading this story one cannot fail to be struck by the similarities with other creative families (the Jameses most obviously), in which one member seems to suffer so that another can write, or one collapses at home so that another can be a citizen of the world, or one starts to fail at the very moment when another begins to recover and achieve. Gabriel was Christina’s closest mentor, encouraging, editing and promoting her work, but he started his decline into paranoid mania the year after she began to surface from one of her most debilitating periods of illness. ‘Thus,’ writes Marsh, ‘with something approaching normality, the worst period of her adult life closed.’
The most immediately striking of these distributions is sexual. Christina and Maria both lived a life of cloistered virtue (literally in Maria’s case). In the formula of the Victorianist Angela Leighton, the faith of the women redeemed the doubt of the men. Place the sisters alongside Gabriel and the contrast between ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’ could not be bolder. But Christina, in the words of Virginia Woolf, was no ‘pure saint’. As a poet, she used her writing to examine what was unbearable, even unreasonable, about her own restraint. If the brother carries the renegade part of the family on the surface, the sister bears her share of it in the heart. It isn’t clear whether Gabriel, all fire and fury, or Christina, apparently locked into seamless piety, was the more powerful spokesperson for the unconscious of their age.
In her earliest story, ‘Maude’, the heroine says to one of her cousins: ‘Have you been very gay lately? I begin to acquire the reputation of an invalid; and so my privacy is respected.’ Rossetti herself was an invalid, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the predecessor to whom she felt she owed so much. As with many Victorian girls, the debility began seemingly without warning or explanation in her teens. Maude’s remark, however, hints at the extent to which physical weakness could be a cover: a caricature of the requisite female passivity which created a hermetically sealed, imaginatively untrammelled space for a woman’s mind. In that space, Rossetti could explore the lives she never lived, the pleasures she refused, the cost of her own severity, the oppressive, even sadistic face of the deity to whom she was so devoted. It is because the writing is in such fierce tension with the lived decorum that she is now increasingly recognised as one of the major poets of her time. But that tension makes the task of the biographer particularly difficult. To write this life, it is crucial not to take the day-to-day narrative at its word.
Like more than one of Freud’s early hysterical patients, Christina found herself as an adolescent girl bound to the care of an invalid father, seemingly without protest, until her body – registering its objections – starts to speak: chest spasms, constriction, feelings of suffocation, palpitations, extreme weakness, lassitude. It was ‘as if’, she wrote, ‘my body were not such as others are’. Fifteen years later, Maria is struck down with erysipelas (an inflammation of the skin associated with ‘violent passions or exertions of the mind’). In a sense Christina’s suffering – or, rather, her secrecy – is as much the subject of this biography as her writing or the way she passed her days (‘What,’ Marsh asks, ‘made the younger Miss Rossetti so distant and her poems so mournful?’). Described by her brother William as a ‘fountain sealed’, Christina returned repeatedly in her poetry to a form of suffering which seemed to call out for understanding while stubbornly refusing to be named:
Weep, for none shall know
Why sick at heart thou weepest ...
For none shall guess the secret
Of thy griefs and fears.
Would there be any cause to weep, these lines seem to ask, if anyone understood why?
On this basis, and drawing explicitly on the Freudian analogy, Jan Marsh argues that Rossetti was abused by her father as an adolescent girl. What – she fairly asks of her own hypothesis – could this father, ageing, debilitated, demoralised, actually have done? (Mutual masturbation is her suggestion.) No one would argue that the weak are incapable of abuse – it may be their only form of affirmation. It is nonetheless a problem when the reputed aggressor is so manifestly, as in this case, in the process of losing all his powers. Marsh is supported in her speculation, however, by the theme, unmistakable in the poetry, of something traumatic, invasive, phallic even, which broke Rossetti’s quiet, shattered her life and which, above all, can never be told:
First the shattering ruining blow
Then the probing steady and slow ...
Dumb I was when the rain fell
Dumb I remain and will never tell.
If I sleep, he like a trump compels me
To stalk forth in my sleep:
If I wake, he rides me like a nightmare;
I feel my hair stand up, my body creep:
Without light I see a blasting sight there,
See a secret I must keep.
Marsh’s theory has been dismissed and even mocked by some reviewers. What gives it plausibility is not something dramatically offered by the poetry, but the opposite. Beyond memory and consciousness, something is being withheld; there is ‘a shrinking in the memory/From some forgotten harm’. In the same way, before discarding the seduction theory, Freud answered those of his early detractors who insisted that only his suggestion led his hysterics to believe they had once been abused by arguing that what convinced him was not the pain with which the memory emerged, but the tenacity with which it was held back. Rossetti’s poetry works over this patch with enough regularity to make me feel that Marsh is on to something.
Were I to speculate along similar lines, however, I would have gone, not for the father but for Gabriel, given the kind of desperate, at times self-defeating attachment that seems to have bound him and Christina to each other. ‘I have gone through the same ordeal,’ she writes to Gabriel of his sufferings in the last year of his life, ‘I have borne myself till I became unbearable to myself.’ (This is empathy, clearly, but it could also be read as tracing for his remembrance a pain or burden which she is suggesting they might share.) And even without the theory of abuse, it is worth noting the peculiarity of passion, by no means untypical at this time, which tied the members of this family to each other. At the age of 45, in a poem dedicated to her mother, Rossetti declared herself her ‘least last valentine’ (the last child left at home, she cared for her mother until her death).
The problem with this line of reasoning is, however, rather different: not whether something happened to Christina – Marsh concedes that we cannot know, although at other moments she over-insists and stretches the credibility of her case – but what the hypothesis does to Rossetti’s writing and to the process of biography. If a poet has (perhaps) been abused and then goes on to write, what are we doing when we run the poetry back into the trauma? Or to put it another way, if the poetry tells us about the trauma, what, if anything, can the trauma tell us about the poetry? Rossetti’s writing at times suggests that something momentous and awful took place; but look again and it has as much to say about thwarted sensual longing (‘I long for one to stir my deep’), about the teasing pleasure of secrecy as well as the pain; about just how far writing can take you if there is something in the life you want to transform or even leave behind. Abuse and secrets are perversely connected in another way: one forces on you what you don’t want; the other makes you want what it won’t let you have. Critics agree that Rossetti was the mistress of tantalisation; it is the theme of her most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’. ‘Winter: My Secret’ opens with the lines:
I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.
Writing this life in terms of a secret to be uncovered, Marsh picks up the bait and is oddly faithful to Rossetti’s project, although at times the density of rhetorical questions goes way over the top: ‘Was it a real dream or half-waking vision, or an actual experience of fear, graphically rendered? Why did William’s rhyme words’ – verses written to a prescribed rhyme-scheme – ‘prompt such a macabre scene? What was the pitiful monster with its clammy fin, and why did it so frighten her?’ The trouble with the theory of abuse is not just that it closes the door on its own questions but that it takes the pleasure out of the writing.
Reviewing two 1930 biographies of Rossetti in her essay, ‘I am Christina Rossetti’, Virginia Woolf had this to say about biography:
The old illusion comes over us. Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures – for they are rather under life size – will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different.
Something about the disparity between the minimalism of Rossetti’s life and the intensity of her achievement brings into particularly sharp focus the way biography creates meaning out of nothing, compulsively filling in the gaps and silences between words (abuse could in this sense be seen as the natural trope for biography, instead of as a shocking surprise). But this might also be because one equally crucial strand of Rossetti’s poetry runs so keenly across the surface of suffering – ‘self stabbing self with keen lack-pity knife’ – that reductive explanations, even if they are correct, seem out of place. Why – to reply to Marsh’s question with a question – must there always be a reason for suffering? Although she allows on the very first pages of the book that sorrow can come from nowhere, and later that many of Rossetti’s symptoms remained without explanation, the whole drift of the biography goes the other way. If dissatisfaction can be ‘unfocused’ when ‘powered by indefinite or inadmissible cravings’ – the reference is to ‘The Heart Knoweth its Own Bitterness’, one of Rossetti’s most desolately yearning poems – why must pain be given so much more tangible shape? ‘The meaning of the verses,’ Marsh remarks of ‘A Pause for Thought’, ‘lies precisely in the not-naming of the thing desired, which thus stands for all such hopes’ – as if desire could be left empty, but pain had to be filled. ‘Death hangs, or damage, or the dearth of bread’ – you don’t have to choose; in these lines suffering is out looking for its mate. Or to put it another way, if suffering is not always within reason, it is because suffering has reasons of its own. ‘Only the heart,’ writes Rossetti, ‘its own bereavement knows.’
By her own account, and following a well-trodden religious path, Rossetti was a miserable sinner. The spiritual burden which the Puseyite tradition she adhered to placed on its followers was immense. In a wonderful moment, Jean Ingelow writes to Rossetti: ‘Surely it is a fine thing that we are never satisfied with ourselves’; no need for so much ‘compunction and contrition’, since ‘it is agreed we are nothing’ – ‘Let us cast this care too upon Him’ (this would be to make our sense of unworthiness His problem, so to speak). But Rossetti’s spiritual and psychological journey took her deeper and deeper into her own ‘evil’. It was relentless: ‘I pursuing my own evil from point to point find that it leads me not outward amid a host of foes laid against me, but inward within myself ... It is I who undo, defile, deface myself.’ In this context, to deprive Rossetti of her own spiritual accountability would be an affront to her belief, not least because this ‘equal susceptibility to sin’, in Marsh’s phrase, releases the poet into her artistic freedom, her ability to identify, whatever the circumstances, with God’s creatures in the world. When Gabriel objects to one of her poems about a woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child, Rossetti replies: ‘While it may truly be argued that unless white could be black and heaven hell my experience (thank God) precludes me from hers, yet I don’t sec why “the Poet mind” should be less able to construct her from its own inner consciousness than a hundred other unknown quantities.’ This is to issue another caution to the abuse theory. Poetry, she is arguing, has no necessary connection to a life. It allows you to make everybody else’s life – above all the lives you would never dream of living – your own. When Marsh suggests we ‘read incest for illegitimacy’, she seems to have missed the whole point. Nothing, it turns out, need have happened; the God of her faith will ‘visit you for an unholy thought as much as for an unholy deed’.
Jan Marsh is best on Rossetti’s religious poetry and beliefs, especially in the later part of her life, partly because this period, often dismissed as her final flight into wretched piety, is, as Marsh convincingly argues, the one in which Rossetti came most fully into her own: ‘I am not what I have nor what I do/But what I was I am, I am even I.’ Paradoxically perhaps, it was within the confines of the religious spirit that Rossetti could most widely, and assertively as a woman, extend herself. Early on, Marsh notes the way she would use the female mode of humble submission to get somewhat different messages across (‘Meek compliances veil her might’). But when Rossetti asserts that Christ and even God were made in woman’s, not man’s, image – ‘one of the tenderest of divine promises takes, so to say, the feminine form: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” ’; when she hands Eve the moral victory (‘a feminine boldness and directness of aim combined with a no less feminine guessiness as to means, her very virtues may have opened the door to temptation’); when she defies warnings against independent witness by publishing her prayers, she is doing far more than laying claim to the Protestant tradition in which ‘each woman could be her own theologian.’ Though dotty at moments, she is also perspicacious: did the serpent ‘stand somehow upright? did he fly? what did he originally eat? how did he articulate? ... Fix the botany of Jonah’s gourd.’ This is Rossetti as spiritual guide without apology, pushing self-authorisation to the limit, throwing her own sexual-political cautions to the winds (she had refused to sign a petition in support of women’s suffrage).
It may, however, be that Jan Marsh is best on Rossetti’s religious writing because it was in this sphere that Rossetti herself issued what we might read today as the strongest warning to the literal-minded biographer. It was in her commentaries on religious texts that she made her most explicit bid for hermeneutic freedom, her boldest defence of readings that follow the heart: ‘If some points of my descriptions are rather flights of fancy than lore of modern science, I hope that such points may rather recall a vanishing grace than mislead from a truth.’ And, she continues, should anyone object that ‘if I have fancied this another may fancy that ... till the whole posse of idle thinkers puts forth each his fresh fancy, and all alike without basis; I frankly answer, Yes.’ In a much earlier poem, Rossetti wrote:
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be.
Love lies in the guessing, in granting your loved one the greatest possible freedom, the widest imaginative and spiritual reach. That she famously let both her suitors go and died a spinster could perhaps be read more positively in some such terms. But it is not clear how one would go about writing a biography in such a spirit.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.