Much of the literature of the 19th century grew out of sibling relationships. Tennyson’s first publication was a family project, with contributions from three brothers. The Brontës’ fiction emerged from the closed world of Haworth parsonage. Harriet Martineau’s writing was shaped by complicated feelings for her brother James. The work of the Rossetti family is among the most conspicuous examples of this pattern. Four children were born in consecutive years in the late 1820s: Maria, Gabriel Charles (later to call himself Dante Gabriel), William and Christina. Their father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a political exile, driven out of Italy as a result of his activities as a nationalist. A poet, an ardent Dante scholar and the centre of a group of expatriates, he became a professor of Italian at the newly founded King’s College in London, a post which brought more prestige than income. Like Tennyson’s despondent father, or the fiery Patrick Brontë, Gabriele Rossetti was a displaced figure. His thwarted ambitions shadowed and deepened the lives of his children. All four took it for granted that they would not be ordinary. It was the children’s responsibility to justify their father’s life and to perpetuate his dogged ideals. They interpreted their inheritance in different ways. Maria resisted convention by joining an Anglican sisterhood, and Christina, who never married, became the finest poet of the Tractarian movement. Dante Gabriel and William were equally resolute in their rejection of Christianity, but while Gabriel’s stormy bohemianism perpetuated his father’s stubborn refusal to conform, William, who was always closest to his mother, submerged his aesthetic aspirations in decades at the Board of Inland Revenue.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti dominated the circle. His preoccupations emerge only in piecemeal fashion from his letters. He did not write with a public readership in mind, habitually made light of his most personal concerns, and shied away from any discussion of his practice as an artist and poet. Nevertheless, the first two volumes of this meticulous new edition are absorbing and enlightening. Their editor, the formidable Pre-Raphaelite scholar William Fredeman, died in 1999. The appearance of this work is the most fitting monument that could be conceived.
One of the earliest letters, written when Gabriel was seven, records his ‘reading Shakespeare’s Richard the 3rd for my amusement . . . I, Maria, and William know several scenes by heart. I have bought a picture of Richard and Richmond fighting, and I gilded it after which I cut it out with no white.’ This self-assured mixture of literature and art prefigures the preoccupations of Gabriel’s life. It is a medievalist text that draws his attention, and he responds first by acting parts of it out with his siblings and then by constructing a picture. In his early teens, he was already attempting to publish a lurid pseudo-medieval ballad, appropriately illustrated:
He took her up into his armes,
And his lockes were blacke as deathe,
And he dashed her downe from the windowe
highe, To the moate which rolled beneath.
The delights of sex and fatal violence are combined in a context which could hardly be further from the urban respectabilities of London. At around the same time, Gabriel was sending his aunt exotic drawings for a charitable bazaar (‘the Turk, the Pigmy, the Brigand’), eagerly requesting to be informed ‘how many & which of my drawings were sold, & the price which they fetched’. Pocket money was meagre, but any that came his way was immediately spent on books and prints, to be learned from and imitated. The four teenagers were soon pouring out pictures and poems of their own, as Gabriel cheerfully reported to their approving mother:
The Illustrated Scrap-book continues swimmingly. It improves with every number. Of the number on which William and myself are at present employed I am particularly proud. It contains some of my choicest specimens of sketching. Its pages are likewise adorned with poetic effusions by Christina, the one entitled ‘Rosalind’ and the other ‘Corydon’s Resolution’ both of which are very good . . . Maria has also authorised me to insert in the victorious Scrap-book her Vision of Human Life . . . William has written an enormous quantity of Ulfred the Saxon.
This high-spirited pride in creativity never quite disappears from Gabriel’s letters. Nor does the pleasure in collective enterprise. Alongside his fecklessness runs a persistent current of domestic feeling, and a liking for company. Writing and painting are lonely activities, but this never suited Rossetti, and throughout his early years he made strenuous efforts to work alongside others.
It would be too simple to see the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 as nothing more than an extension of the Rossetti home. But there is no doubt that its curiously intimate family feeling was one of the primary attractions for Gabriel, who was its driving force. William, not yet quite confirmed in his identity as a careful civil servant, was a member. Christina was not, but remained closely associated with it, and for a while seemed likely to marry James Collinson, one of its more distant associates. Meetings took place in an atmosphere of convivial high seriousness. Gabriel remained the leading influence, and his insistent melancholy fused with the defiant boisterousness of the Brotherhood’s creative experiments. The results were occasionally comic. William Holman Hunt was his closest rival in reforming zeal, and also in the black clowning that allowed both men to rehearse and deflect anxiety:
Apropos of death, Hunt & I are going to get up among our acquaintance a Mutual Suicide Association, by the regulations whereof any member being weary of life, may call at any time upon another to cut his throat for him. It is all of course to be done very quietly without weeping or gnashing of teeth. I, for instance, am to go in and say, ‘I say, Hunt, just stop painting that head a minute, and cut my throat’; to which he will respond by telling the model to keep the position as he shall only be a moment, and having done his duty, will proceed with the painting.
Self-mockery of this kind was companionable and comforting. Rossetti’s affection for Hunt, from whom he was later painfully estranged, was indispensable to his fragile security in these years. His distress on learning of Hunt’s proposed departure for the Holy Land was deeply felt, and his immediate impulse was to go with him. ‘For indeed, should this not happen at all, of which I have thought so much, I feel that it would seem as if the fellowship between us were taken from me, and my life rejected.’ Rossetti’s enmities could be vicious, and his dealings with friends thoughtless (particularly when it came to returning the loans he regularly extorted), but the capacity for ardent devotion was essential to his nature.
He required devotion in return. Some was forthcoming from younger friends, or appreciative women. But his family was the most reliable source. William seems to have understood from the first that his own part in the family drama was to be a secondary one. He had demonstrated some aptitude as both artist and poet in his early days, but his talents remained undeveloped. There was a living to earn – and not just for himself. Gabriele Rossetti was increasingly frail, and had lost his sight. Gabriel’s brilliance excused him from supporting his family. Maria earned money as a teacher, as did, intermittently, Christina and their mother, Frances. But they couldn’t bring in much. It was up to William to provide a steady and substantial income. He began his career as a clerk at the age of 15, and was a dependable breadwinner for fifty years. There was time left over for other interests, and William was never actively miserable: he had an unquestioned role, and a kind of status. Nevertheless, a suggestion of pained unfulfilment lingers around his life. Something similar might be said of the woman William married – Lucy Madox Brown, the daughter of Ford Madox Brown and his first wife, Elizabeth Bromley. Lucy seems to have been pushed to the side when Elizabeth died. Relations with Brown’s second wife, Emma, and her children were always tense. As a young woman, Lucy worked as an apprentice in her father’s studio. Her work was competent, and might have improved, but her health was always fragile. Despite the steady encouragement of her husband, marriage and motherhood put a stop to her progress as a painter. She struggled with tuberculosis for years, and died in San Remo at 50. It was not an unhappy life, nor an unproductive one. But Lucy, like William, suffered from her proximity to creative artists, a reminder that her own early ambition had come to little. Angela Thirlwell’s joint biography of this frustrated pair has a peculiarly disjointed and sometimes repetitive approach, but it is rich in visual material, and it illuminates their steadfast commitment to the entwined ideals of art, literature and family duty.
William and Lucy were part of a cultural movement built on a reinterpretation of the past, not just of the medieval period, but of the Romantics. William was a passionate admirer of Shelley, ‘decidedly the greatest figure and phenomenon in English poetry since Milton’. He edited Shelley’s poetry and was chairman of the Shelley Society; Lucy wrote a biography of Mary Shelley. In his ever useful capacity as family banker, William played a small but crucial part in promoting the reputation of William Blake. Gabriel bought a major Blake manuscript as a 19-year-old, with ten shillings borrowed from his younger brother. The notebook’s juxtaposition of poetry and drawing gave new impetus to Gabriel’s own work and was valuable later when he edited Alexander Gilchrist’s posthumously published Life of Blake. It also figures in Swinburne’s seminal critical essay on Blake, and William’s Aldine edition of 1874. The brotherly ten shillings had been indispensable. But it was Gabriel’s precocious enthusiasm that led to the revaluation of Blake, crucial to the development of aesthetic thought in the period. His allegiance to Robert Browning, recipient of several deferentially adoring letters in these volumes, was comparable, and became yet more fervent after his first meeting with ‘the glorious Robert’ in 1851. Gabriel was among the few to see the worth of Pauline, Paracelsus and Sordello on their first appearance. Browning’s radical transformations of Romantic diction could not easily be adapted to Gabriel’s compulsively emotional and Italianate writing, yet it was the active performance of ideas in Browning’s work that rescued him from the languor that might otherwise have drowned his poetry. Browning taught him to put an edge of thought into his work.
If money had not been a constant problem, poetry might have mattered more than painting to Gabriel. As a young man, he was certainly a better poet than a painter, but William’s generosity could not take care of every bill. Poetry, as Leigh Hunt warned, ‘is not a thing for a man to live upon while he is in the flesh, however immortal it may render him in spirit’. These letters are punctuated by Gabriel’s resolve to renounce writing in order to focus on ‘my real career as a painter’. Yet he could never quite bring himself to give it up. He wrote to William Allingham in 1854: ‘I believe my poetry & painting prevented each other from doing much good for a long while – & now I think I could do better in either, but can’t write for then I shant paint . . . Your plan of a joint volume among us of poems & pictures is a capital one – and how many capital plans we have!’ This note of frustration and defeat is increasingly apparent as Gabriel leaves the heady days of the Brotherhood behind. He is constantly troubled by ‘Want-of-Tin’ and ‘Want-of-Energy’. Self-reproach becomes a keynote of his correspondence (‘I am quite vexed with myself’; ‘I am quite ashamed’; ‘What a criminal I feel’). He repeatedly accuses himself of procrastination and laziness, but uncertainty about his work seems to have been the real difficulty. Painting could solve his financial problems, though Gabriel had no real interest or competence in the kind of work generated by Millais’s proficiency, Hunt’s increasingly fanatical dedication or Ford Madox Brown’s fastidious application. He felt an obligation to illustrate contemporary social problems, but discovered that such work was not his metier. Found (1854), his ambitious and tender picture of a prostitute discovered by her lost sweetheart, makes an attempt to translate compassion into paint. Letter after letter refers to his grim struggle to complete this picture. Precisely the right brick wall to support the woman’s crouching figure was located in Chiswick. A calf (symbolically netted in a cart) to accompany her rustic lover was donated by a kindly farmer in Finchley, where Ford Madox Brown had rooms. Rashly, Brown invited Rossetti to stay. He toiled ineffectually for weeks, until his host’s patience finally gave out (‘Gabriel not having done his cart & talking quite freely about several days yet . . . moreover making himself infernally disagreeable besides my finances being reduced to £2.12s’).
Lessons on canvas were not the point of Rossetti’s art. What he could paint was his own world. The watercolours of the 1850s are preoccupied with moments from Dante’s poetry, and with the iconography of courtly love and knightly heroism. Here the obstinate resistance to the rules of perspective that so hampered his efforts to paint nature in the open air became a distinctive strength. The illusion of depth is persistently refused, as the eye is brought up short by the recalcitrant flatness of surface. Rossetti’s figures can neither accept nor resist their own restraint, their entrapment reflecting his own sense of enclosure: ‘One feels again within the accursed circle . . . Meanwhile to step outside the ring is death and damnation.’ Over and over again, he painted the destructive pleasures of desire. The haunted pictures of the 1850s revolve round his love for Elizabeth Siddal, the milliner’s assistant who was to become his wife. Lizzie was graceful, intelligent and available. She soon learned to reflect what her protector wanted, and became the embodiment of his consuming passions. Christina’s acute ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ recalls the early days of this relationship:
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.
At first she was no more than another ‘stunner’, a model with the right kind of heavy-lidded face. He saw her ‘not as she is, but as she fills his dream’. But Lizzie at last brought Rossetti to recognise the reality of someone else’s existence, and the experience was a chastening one. He wrote to Allingham:
It seems hard to me when I look at her sometimes, working or too ill to work, and think how many without one tithe of her genius or greatness of spirit have granted them abundant health and opportunity to labour through the little they can do or will do . . . How truly she may say, ‘No man cared for my soul.’ I do not mean to make myself an exception, for how long I have known her, and not thought of this till so late – perhaps too late.
Lizzie wilted under this concentrated gaze, and her courageous efforts to answer his paintings with art of her own seemed to exhaust her still further. Never strong, she was clearly fading before Rossetti at last committed himself to marriage. A baby was stillborn, and Lizzie died of an overdose of laudanum soon after.
Rossetti had painted and written about death with disconcerting relish since he had been able to hold a pencil. One of his more chilling letters asked a medical friend: ‘Are there any opportunities at the hospital of seeing such a thing as a dying boy? Consequent emotions in bystanders desirable – mother especially so. If you have any youth in such a position, and he is accessible, I wish you would let me know.’ But the mournful gratifications of death on paper were a different matter from the bleak actuality. Companions such as Walter Deverell (a fellow painter in the early days of the Brotherhood), the volatile William North (a novelist and translator) and Alexander Gilchrist (who shared Rossetti’s veneration for Blake), all died as young men. Lizzie was 33 when she took her overdose. The event scarcely figures in his surviving letters, as though words could not contain his desolation. She was buried with the manuscript volume of his poetry. Later, notoriously, he had her body exhumed in order to retrieve the poems, an act which seemed a wilful confirmation of the guilty and possessive intimacies that characterised their relations.
The period covered in these letters ends in 1862, the year of Lizzie’s death. It was the turning point in Rossetti’s life and in his work, marking the beginning of the slow years of decline in Chelsea. Yet in the months that followed his bereavement his correspondence continues largely unchanged. He painted, negotiated sales, arranged to meet friends, worried about debts. No man tried harder, or with more lasting effect, to fill his life with a dream. His defeat, and also perhaps a measure of salvation, lay in the fact that it could not be done. The final letter in these volumes is addressed to William Rossetti, asking for another loan: ‘Meanwhile there is £50 rent to pay.’