Christina and the Sid

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life by Georgina Battiscombe
    Constable, 233 pp, £9.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 09 461950 6
  • The Golden Veil by Paddy Kitchen
    Hamish Hamilton, 286 pp, £7.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 241 10584 6
  • The Little Holland House Album by Edward Burne-Jones and John Christian
    Dalrymple Press, 39 pp, £38.00, April 1981, ISBN 0 9507301 0 6

Christina Rossetti wrote ‘If I had words’ and ‘I took my heart in my hand’ and ‘If he would come today, today’ and ‘What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through’ and:

I bent by my own burden, must
Enter my heart of dust.

Her poetry she described as ‘a genuine “lyric cry”, and such I will back against all skilled labour’. Biographers, though not Christina herself, feel themselves obliged to explain where the passion came from, how it was restrained, and what ought to have been done with it. Then they have to face her preoccupation not only with death but with the grave, and the sensation of lying, remembered or forgotten, under the turf. There was, too, a sardonic Christina, whose comment on art and life was this:

The mangled frog abides incog,
The uninteresting actual frog:
The hypothetic frog alone
Is the one frog we dwell upon.

But she was also, and this was central to her whole existence, twice-born. At the age of about thirteen she became, in company with her mother and sister, a fervent High Anglican. The keynote which Pusey and Keblehad set was self-sacrifice. To find enough to sacrifice and to suffer for, ‘not to keep back or count or leave’ – the same impulse as Eliot’s ‘Teach us to care and not to care’ – became her prayer in extremity. She saw herself as a stranger and a pilgrim in this world, waiting for release.

She was born the youngest of a family of happily-settled Anglo-Italian exiles: a pedantic, sentimental, slightly cracked father, an impeturbable mother, Italian visitors and refugees in and out at all hours. The children had their grandfather’s fruit-garden near Amersham for a paradise, poverty to keep them from contact with the outside world, admiring relatives to pet them and their mother to educate them. Dante Gabriel and Christina were the ‘storms’of the family, and, when in a rage, Christina could be a ripper and a smasher. The elder sister, Maria, and loyal William Michael were the ‘calms’. On ‘My heart is like a singing bird’ William’s editorial comment was: ‘I have more than once been asked whether I could account for the outburst of exuberant joy evidenced in this celebrated lyric; I am unable to do so.’ Christina needed both the saintly narrow-minded sister and the ‘brothers brotherly’, and there they were: ‘wherever one was, the other was, and that was almost always at home.’

Like Emily Brönte, Charlotte Mew and Eleanor Farjeon, she knew the greatest happiness of her hushed life-drama very early on. No wonder that the most radiant of her lyrics are the children’s verses of ‘Sing-Song’, or others that children readily understand (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, ‘Does the Road Wind Uphill?’) or half-understand and can’t get out of their minds, like ‘The Goblin Market’. It is easy to remember this luscious and suggestive temptation poem not quite as it is – or perhaps one remembers it wrong on purpose. ‘The central point,’ as William insisted, is that ‘Laura having tasted the fruits once, and being at death’s door through inability to get a second taste, her sister Lizzie determines to save her at all hazards; so she goes to the goblins, refuses to eat their fruits, and beguiles them into forcing their fruits upon her with so much insistency that her face is all smeared and steeped with the juices; she gets Laura to kiss and suck these juices off her face, and Laura, having thus obtained the otherwise impossible second taste, rapidly recovers.’ It is a story of salvation, which Christina, for what reason we can’t tell, dedicated to her sister Maria.

As it turned out, she never left the family’s shelter. She became a fountain sealed, a Victorian daughter aging in the company of her aunts and her beloved mother. Dante Gabriel described her ‘legitimate exercise of anguish under an almost stereotyped smile’. She broke off two engagements to be married on religious grounds – not, surely, as Maurice Bowra thought, because she was afraid of ‘the claims of the flesh’, but because she had twice found a sacrifice that was worth the offering.

Of the dozen or so biographies of Christina, the latest, by Georgina Battiscombe, is the most readable and certainly the most judicious. As an Anglican who has written lives of both Keble and Charlotte M. Yonge, Mrs Battiscombe understands the well-spring of Christina’s religious experience, and she explains it admirably. She is very good, too, on the dutiful day-to-dayishness of the outer life. With calmness and accuracy she counters earlier interpretations which seem to her out of proportion – by Lona Mosk Packer (obsessed with the idea that William Bell Scott was Christina’s lover), Maureen Duffy (engrossed in the phallic symbolism of ‘The Goblin Market’), Maurice Bowra, Virginia Woolf. She has, of course, her own explanation. She sees Christina as a warm-blooded Italian conforming through strength of will to a strict Anglicanism – an awkward fit. The poetry’s tension arises ‘when her thwarted experience of eros spilled over into her expression of agape; but to explain her intense love of God simply in terms of repressed sex is too cheap and easy an answer. Love is none the less genuine because it is “sublimated”.’ The subtitle of the book is A Divided Life. On the technique of the poetry, as apart from its subject-matter, she has less to say, and she doesn’t do much about relating it to the Tractarian mode, as Professor G.B. Trevelyan has done in his recent Victorian Devotional Poetry. But the story itself could not be more clearly told.

If A Divided Life is deliberately subdued in tone, Paddy Kitchen’s novel The Golden Veil is flat. The subject is Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (or Siddal, as Rossetti preferred to spell it), the milliner’s apprentice who became Beatrice to Dante Gabriel. Beatrice, or the Sid, was a ‘delicately organised creature’ who died of a nasty miscarriage and chloral poisoning when she was – how old? – not 28, as she told Gabriel, but 30. Paddy Kitchen hasn’t taken note of this pitiful detail, which has recently come to light, and yet much of Lizzie’s pathos is there. She had to be young, as the other Stunners were, she had to have a child (in her last few months she tried to adopt an eight-year-old) – just as she had to paint spectral watercolours and write verses, as Gabriel did. And yet she had character. In her rickety leanness, her refusal to be put upon, her tenderness to her idiot brother and her self-willed absences and reappearances, she was true to her upbringing as a valiant South London working girl. She used to lie in bed and ‘laugh in the midst of illness’. She laughed when she found that Swinburne had golden-red hair like hers, so that when they went to the theatre in the same party the attendant was terrified, muttering: ‘Good God, there’s another of ’em!’ That was one of Lizzie’s own stories: she liked telling them. Given a chance, she could have been somebody’s Old Dutch. And still, even in death, she never failed her image as Beatrice.

Professor Fredeman, the present editor of Rossetti’s correspondence, once showed me a lock of Lizzie’s hair which he had recently acquired for his collection. It was fine and straight, as in the pencil drawings of the 1850s, and in colour unmistakably ‘the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams’. This phrase from Rossetti’s Hand and Soul provided the title of Paddy Kitchen’s novel, but any reader who expects romance has come to the wrong counter. It is probably hard to write fiction about someone who was obliged to live as a fiction anyway. The book gives a conscientious description of mid-Victorian Bermondsey, but it misses the reality of poor Lizzie as well as her mystery. The author’s heart seems not to be in the subject – as it was, for example, in her life of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This listlessness is most unfortunate in the dialogue. What is the use of Ruskin making an appearance to say, ‘All right, then, temporarily I will pay for a suitable room large enough to accommodate her needs,’ or Gabriel adding, ‘Perhaps John and I should talk it over. See if we can come up with a plan that will please you,’ or (about his model Annie Miller): ‘I merely want to state that I have not seen her since you came to Bath and other than inadvertently will not do so in the future’? There is hardly any sense here of the rich-voiced ‘great Italian’, who dominated everyone who had the least sympathy with him, or of the warmth of genius and love which (so the Burne-Joneses thought) acted as a forcing influence on his Sid until her strength gave way.

These princely powers of Rossetti, exerted quite carelessly and even unintentionally, made the young Burne-Jones his disciple. ‘I would have been chopped up for Gabriel,’ he said. Rossetti supervised him, tried to jolly him along, and introduced him everywhere. In the July of 1857, when Burne-Jones was 24: ‘Gabriel took me out in a cab – it was a day when he was rich and so we went in a hansom, and we drove and drove until I thought we should arrive at the setting sun – and he said, “You must know these people, Ned; they are remarkable people: you will see a painter there, he paints a queer sort of pictures about God and Creation.” ’ The painter was Watts, and they had arrived at Little Holland House. This was a kind of manor farm in the middle of South Kensington, where Mrs Sarah Prinsep and her sisters held an unconventional salon every Sunday. Artists and philosophers lingered there, particularly during the delicious strawberry season. The house, with its airy high-mindedness, was part of the century’s protest against its own materialism; Mrs Prinsep was a powerfully maternal woman, well able to put the protest into effect.

In the hot summer of 1858, the year of the ‘great stink’, when Parliament was at last obliged to legislate against the condition of the Thames sewerage, Burne-Jones fell ill at his lodgings. He was in an agony of frustration over his long engagement, and too poor even to raise the fare back home to Birmingham. Mrs Prinsep appeared, and carried him off bodily to Little Holland House. Here he was nursed, and, in surroundings where beauty was taken for granted, rapidly recovered. Watts, who was working on his fine Countess Somers, took him in hand, and taught him – as Rossetti had never done – the importance of good drawing. ‘I learned,’ Burne-Jones said later, ‘that painting is really a trade; the preparation and tools are so important.’

By way of a thank-you present he began to make a book of illustrated poems, which he gave, not to Mrs Prinsep, but to the youngest and gentlest of her sisters, Sophia Dalrymple. The book survived, and is now published in facsimile for the first time. The poems are medievally Romantic: there are three by Rossetti, others by Browning, Poe and Tennyson, with four verses from ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, and although there are no decorated capitals, Burne-Jones attempted to make the whole delightful thing look like an illuminated book. All the methods of work and related designs are traced in the notes, and the introduction shows how the last unfinished illustration reflects the influence of Watts. Burne-Jones continued to work on this kind of gift-book, wherever a pretty woman was concerned, throughout his life.