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Learning Not to be First: Life of Christina Rossetti (Oxford Lives Series) Paperback – 5 Mar 1992
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Christina Rossetti was the youngest of four children. Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she suffered the tyranny of a loving family, being restrained by the "police surveillance" of her sister Maria and the goodness of their mother. Although she and her brother Dante Gabriel were known as the "two storms", she curbed her passionate nature, and a love of life was replaced in her work initially by the bitterness of the lonely and ultimately by the conviction of the religious. Comparing her situation with that of contemporaries Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, this biography examines the effects of Victorian social and religious convention on the life and work of the "High Priestess of Pre-Raphaelitism".
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But above all it's the poetry that comes first in Kathleen Jones' treatment of the poet's life, and reading the biography made me want to go straight back and read the poetry itself. Highly recommended.
Most interesting, was the extent to which Christina's reputation has been conditioned by our and historical views of women's writings: as Jones points out, women who write in a so-called 'feminine' style (simply, directly, about emotions, nature etc) are only ever rated as 'women writers' who cannot compare with real (i.e. male) poets. On the other hand, an 'intellectual' woman such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a contemporary of Christina's, are tainted by a kind of muscularity in their writing ("falsetto muscularity" in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's memorable and disdainful phrase). Jones puts Rossetti back into her rightful place as a creative artists, despite her gender.
Ultimately this is a hugely sad story of a Victorian woman who loves twice but never marries because she cannot bear to marry a man who's religious faith and belief is less than hers, and so she goes through life, alone, lonely, frustrated. The violence and sexuality which she struggles so hard to conquer erupt from her writing. Reading her life in 2007, really brings home the extent to which so many female C19th maladies may have been psychosomatic, the result of such intense and life-long repression.
Altogether this is a well-written, sensitive and revealing book: and if it sends more people (back) to Christina Rossetti's work, then it will have done it's job extremely well.
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