Learning not to be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti by Kathleen Jones - review by Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn

Pierce Me, Probe Me

Learning not to be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti


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If you are male, and attracted to the quiet and reticent representatives of the opposite sex, it is difficult to read Christina Rossetti – as it is Emily Dickinson, the poet with whom she is most often compared– without falling in love with her. F L Lucas, writing about her in 1940, claimed that ‘this Mariana of Albany Street was born to have been one of the great lovers of history’– but she never met her gladiator. With her centenary approaching in 1994, it is time she did, in the form of a gladiatorial biography.

Learning Not To Be First, by Kathleen Jones, has many admirable qualities – moderation, decency, clarity of expression – but its imagined audience seems to consist of members of a parish young wives’ group or adult education class (conscientious folk with a detached and rather generalised interest in literature) rather than those of us who are in love with Christina, as well as with her poems.

There is much that is unlovable in Christina Rossetti’s verse. To read even a selected edition of her poems from cover to cover in a single sitting is a most dreary experience, so oppressive is the imagery of ‘withering’ , ‘fading’, ‘winter’ and ‘frost’. The much anthologised ‘Up-Hill’ has been called a horror poem, more creepy that anything by Edgar Allan Poe. And the ‘slow, dim, clay-cold verses of her religious life’ (Edith Sitwell) are enough to dampen the zeal of the most ardent gladiator.

She was born in 1830, the youngest of four children. Her father was a political refugee from Italy, who had come to England in 1824 and earned his living as a professor of Italian at King’s College, London. As a child Christina was volatile – her nickname was vivace – and in one incident she slashed her own arm with a pair of scissors. The four brothers and sisters were great card-players and each adopted a suit characteristic of their childish temperament. Christina’s suit was diamonds.

Something happened to this sparkling, volatile nature in adolescence. She grew grave and sickly. One of the doctors who treated her at this time noted a tendency to hysteria and there were hints of the onset of religious mania. Although Jones cites a quotation from Edmund Gosse comparing the influence of Christina’s older sister, Maria, with that of Newton upon Cowper – the oppressive influence of a hard, convinced mind over a soft and fanciful one – she does not probe or elaborate. But Gosse’s proposition is far more interesting than her own attempt to explain Christina’s ill health in terms of the sexual politics of the Victorian family, an argument which is anyway rather undermined by the eccentricity and liberality of the Rossettis’ upbringing.

Whatever Maria’s influence upon her, Christina clearly played second or third fiddle, in different ways, to her two brothers, the agnostic, workaholic William and the bohemian Dante Gabriel. It is impossible to extricate her life from theirs, and it is arguable that it is silly to try. Stanley Weintraub published a family biography entitled Four Rossettis in 1978, and the biographical picture of Christina given there is every bit as vivid as in this new treatment.

The single focus of Jones’s book does allow more room for an analysis of the poems. This she does well, in terms of elaborating her title – Learning Not To Be First – and showing that the primary key to interpreting Christina’s life is an understanding of Christian forbearance. However, this approach to her life is convincing only after a certain point – namely, the onset of Graves’ disease at the age of forty, the consequent disfigurement of her facial features and the realisation that her gladiator had waited too long.

One of the ironies of Christina’s life is that the big mystery confronting a biographer is whether she was a two-man or a three-man woman. Her engagements to first Collinson and then Cayley are well-documented but in the Sixties enormous excitement was generated by L M Packer when her comprehensive biography dared to suggest that Christina had been involved with a married man, William B Scott, and that this had been the great love of her life. Can Scott have been her gladiator, her ‘strong man from the north/Light-locked, with eyes of dangerous grey’? Jones dismisses the suggestion (as have most subsequent commentators) but without a fair and adequate assessment of Packer’s case.

Ten years ago a biography of similar length and scope, written by Georgina Battiscombe, found room to explain as well as dismiss the case of the third man. It also had more to say about the fascinating outpouring of erotic poems during Christina’s prime. Poems like ‘Goblin Market’ and ‘My Dream’ invite spurious and stupid comment. The first of these was once dubbed the ‘all-time hard-core pornographic classic for tinytots’ by (imagine the cheek of it) Playboy. And its appeal to ‘lovers’ of Christina has been explained by Maureen Duffy in terms of ‘the heterosexual male desire to see blue films about lesbians’. Such excesses ought to provide good fuel for the lively biographer, but the focus of Kathleen Jones’s book is always external, not internal – always on sexual politics, not on the sexual imagination. And still the poet says:

You scratch my surface with your pin,
You strike me smooth with hushing breath:-
Nay pierce, nay probe, nay dig within;
Probe my quick core and sound my depth.


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