Friday, 9 January 2015

“I am Christina Rossetti” by Virginia Woolf.

Christina Rossetti and her Mother Frances Rossetti,
7th October 1863,
by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).
This week for the Deal Me In Challenge I read Virginia Woolf's 1930 essay "I am Christina Rossetti", which she re-wrote for her 1932 book The Common Reader Second Series. Christina Rossetti (1830 - 1894) is, of course, the Victorian poet, author of The Goblin Market, Remember, and In the Bleak Midwinter among many other poems, and sister to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, and Maria Francesca Rossetti.

The original essay from 1930 was written in the centennial year which saw the publication of The Life of Christina Rossetti by Mary F. Sandars (also the author of Life of Balzac, 1904). I've written recently about Virginia Woolf's opinions on biographical writings in my post on Orlando, but some of it bears repeating for this post. She was, as I've written before, the daughter of Leslie Stephen KCB, the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (1885 - 1891), and the granddaughter of Sir James Stephen, editor of Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography (and also a key figure in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833). Woolf rebelled, however, writing in Orlando (1928),
The true length of a person's life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter for dispute.
She was interested more in the inner life of individuals and felt 'facts' and certain key events could not paint a whole portrait. In "I am Christina Rossetti" she goes further, arguing that biographies aren't simply inadequate  but also unnecessary and even unwelcome.

She begins first by acknowledging how seductive biographies are (as she did in her essay on George Gissing, also in The Common Reader Second Series) -
Let us begin with the biography — for what could be more amusing? As everybody knows, the fascination of reading biographies is irresistible. No sooner have we opened the pages of Miss Sandars’s careful and competent book (Life of Christina Rossetti, by Mary F. Sandars. (Hutchinson)) than the old illusion comes over us. Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures — for they are rather under life size — will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different.
Christina Rossetti painted by Dante
Gabriel Rossetti in Ecce Ancilla Domini!
(The Annunciation), 1849-50.
Woolf goes on herself to write a little of the life of Christina Rossetti, the Rossetti's home in Hallam Street, Portland Place, London, her family, their poverty, and her religion. Here Woolf writes, 
Her sixty-four years might seem outwardly spent in Hallam Street and Endsleigh Gardens and Torrington Square, but in reality she dwelt in some curious region where the spirit strives towards an unseen God — in her case, a dark God, a harsh God — a God who decreed that all the pleasures of the world were hateful to Him.
This may be the essence or inner life of Christina Rossetti, but this quote is also the essence of the essay by Woolf, that objective facts tell us little of the person. She goes on to imagine what Christina Rossetti herself would say of the attempt to pin down facts:
Here you are rambling among unimportant trifles, rattling my writing-table drawers, making fun of the Mummies and Maria and my love affairs when all I care for you to know is here. Behold this green volume. It is a copy of my collected works. It costs four shillings and sixpence. Read that. 
And from there Woolf writes of her poetry.

It is a very short essay - in my edition it was eight pages long. It can also be read online here. I think, to anyone who has not read any of Virginia Woolf's essays and would like to know where to start, I think this may be the one I'd be tempted to recommend first. I think it's very typical of Woolf's writing, and very accessible too. 

Further Reading

 Next up for Deal Me In 2015 is the Ace of Hearts, which is Anelida and Arcite by Geoffrey Chaucer. There's also a translation by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so I'll be reading that too!


  1. I have always thought of C. Rossetti as a more modern poet. I had no idea she was Victorian. I learned something new today.

    1. I knew she was Victorian, but I thought she was a little later than she was, I must admit :)

  2. I like Christina Rossetti's poetry and a very interesting family. Thanks for the link - I shall go and read what else VW has to say.

  3. I enjoyed reading this very much. I have a lot of time for Woolf. I feel like she knew Strachey? The introduction to his Eminent Victorians is one of my favourite bits of writing about biography and history. I haven't read Orlando although I feel like I saw a very good film of it a long, long time ago.

    1. I'm really looking forward to Eminent Victorians! I want to read it this year :)


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