From Critical Kit-Kats
by Edmund Gosse

Christina Rossetti

It will, perhaps, be not inappropriate for me to record here my few personal recollections of this illustrious lady. It was not my privilege to meet her more than some dozen times in the flesh, and those times mainly in the winter of 1870-71. But on most of those occasions I had the good fortune to converse with her for a long while; and up to a few months before her death we corresponded at not particularly distant intervals. She is known to the world, and very happily known, by her brother’s portraits of her, and in particular by the singularly beautiful chalk drawing in profile, dated 1866. I think that tasteful arrangement of dress might have made her appear a noble and even a romantic figure so late as 1870, but, as I suppose, an ascetic or almost methodistical reserve caused her to clothe herself in a style, or with an absence of style, which was really distressing; her dark hair was streaked across her olive forehead, and turned up in a chignon; the high stiff dress ended in a hard collar and plain brooch, the extraordinarily ordinary skirt sank over a belated crinoline, and these were inflictions hard to bear from the high-priestess of Preraphaelitism. When it is added that her manner, from shyness, was of a portentous solemnity, that she had no small talk whatever, and that the common topics of the day appeared to be entirely unknown to her, it will be understood that she was considered highly formidable by the young and the flighty. I have seen her sitting alone, in the midst of a noisy drawing-room, like a pillar of cloud, a Sibyl whom no one had the audacity to approach.

Yet a kinder or simpler soul, or one less concentrated on self, or of a humbler sweetness, never existed. And to an enthusiast, who broke the bar of conventional chatter, and ventured on real subjects, her heart seemed to open like an unsealed fountain. The heavy lids of her weary-looking, bistred, Italian eyes would lift and display her ardour as she talked of the mysteries of poetry and religion. My visits to her, in her mother’s house, 56 Euston Square, were abruptly brought to a close. On May 1, 1871, I received a note from her elder sister Maria warning me not to dine with them on the following Tuesday, as her sister was suddenly and alarmingly ill. This was, in fact, the mysterious complaint which thenceforth kept Christina bedridden, and sometimes at the point of death, for two years. She recovered, but the next time I saw her—she was well enough to be working in the British Museum in the summer of 1873—she was so strangely altered as to be scarcely recognisable.

By degrees, to my great satisfaction, Miss Christina came to look upon me as in some little sense her champion in the press. “The pen you use for me has always a soft rather than a hard nib,” she said, and in truth, whenever I found an opportunity of praising her pure and admirable poems, I was not slow to employ it. That I was not exempt, however, from an occasional peck even from this gentlest of turtle-doves, a letter (written in December 1875) reminds me. I had reviewed somewhere the first collected edition of her Poems, and I had ventured to make certain reservations. There are some points of valuable self-analysis which make a part of this letter proper to be quoted here:

“Save me from my friends! You are certainly up in your subject, and as I might have fared worse in other hands I will not regret that rival reviewer [Mr. Theodore Watts] who was hindered from saying his say. As to the lamented early lyrics, I do not suppose myself to be the person least tenderly reminiscent of them [I had grumbled at the excision of some admirable favourites]; but it at any rate appears to be the commoner fault amongst verse-writers to write what is not worth writing, than to suppress what would merit hearers. I for my part am a great believer in the genuine poetic impulse belonging (very often) to the spring and not to the autumn of life, and some established reputations fail to shake me in this opinion; at any rate, if so one feels the possibility to stand in one’s own case, then I vote that the grace of silence succeed the grace of song. By all which I do not bind myself to unbroken silence, but meanwhile I defend my position—or, you may retort, I do not defend it. By-the-by, your upness does not prevent my protesting that Edith and Maggie did not dream or even nap; Flora did; but have I not caught you napping? Do, pray, come and see me and we will not fight.”

It is difficult to speak of either of the Rossetti ladies without a reference to the elder sister, whom also I had the privilege of knowing in early days. She left upon me the impression of stronger character, though of narrower intellect and infinitely poorer imagination. I formed the idea, I know not whether with justice, that the pronounced high-church views of Maria, who throve on ritual, starved the less pietistic, but painfully conscientious nature of Christina. The influence of Maria Francesca Rossetti on her sister seemed to be like that of Newton upon Cowper, a species of police surveillance exercised by a hard, convinced mind over a softer and more fanciful one. Miss Maria Rossetti, who generally needed the name of Dante to awaken her from a certain social torpor, died in 1876, but not until she had set her seal on the religious habits of her sister. Such, at least, was the notion which I formed, perhaps on slight premises.

That the conscience of the younger sister was, in middle life, so tender as to appear almost morbid, no one, I think, will deny. I recall an amusing instance of it. In the winter of 1874, I was asked to secure some influential signatures to a petition against the destruction of a part of the New Forest. Mr. Swinburne promised me his, if I could induce Miss Christina Rossetti to give hers, suggesting as he did so, that the feat might not be an easy one. In fact, I found that no little palaver was necessary; but at last she was so far persuaded of the innocence of the protest that she wrote Chr; she then stopped, dropped the pen, and said very earnestly, “Are you sure that they do not propose to build churches on the land?” After a long time, I succeeded in convincing her that such a scheme was not thought of, and she proceeded to write istina G. Ros, and stopped again. “Nor school-houses?” fluctuating with tremulous scruple. At length she finished the signature, and I carried the parchment off to claim the fulfilment of Mr. Swinburne’s promise. And the labourer felt that he was worthy of his hire.

On the 6th of July, 1876, I saw Christina Rossetti for the last time. I suppose that her life, during the last twenty years of it, was as sequestered as that of any pious woman in a religious house. She stirred but little, I fancy, from her rooms save to attend the services of the Anglican church. That her mind continued humane and simple her successive publications and her kind and sometimes playful letters proved. Misfortunes attended her family, and she who had been the centre of so eager and vivid a group, lived to find herself almost solitary. At length, on the 29th of December, 1894, after prolonged sufferings borne with infinite patience, this great writer, who was also a great saint, passed into the region of her visions.