Want-of-Tin and Want-of-Energy

Dinah Birch

  • The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years 1835-62: Charlotte Street to Cheyne Walk. Volume One edited by William Fredeman
    Brewer, 464 pp, £95.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 08 599152 X
  • The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years 1835-62: Charlotte Street to Cheyne Walk. Volume Two edited by William Fredeman
    Brewer, 640 pp, £95.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 85991 637 5
  • William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis by Angela Thirlwell
    Yale, 376 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 300 10200 3

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.

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