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  • Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History
  • Elizabeth Gargano (bio)
Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. By Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Athens: Ohio UP2002

In 1979, R. W. Crump published the first installment of the three-volume Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ultimately completed in 1990. Along with The Letters of Christina Rossetti (the first volume of which appeared in 1997), this impressive work signaled a new era in Rossetti studies. While her flamboyantly controversial poem Goblin Market never ceased to attract readers both inside and outside the academy, Rossetti's literary reputation had suffered from years of critical neglect. Once overshadowed by her illustrious brother, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this neglected female "pre-Raphaelite" has emerged as a talented writer for children and adults, a shrewd critic of the gender roles and class assumptions of her day, and a versatile figure who bridges gaps between "popular" and "literary" modes of writing.

In her comprehensive Christina Rossetti and Illustration, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra traces the history of Rossetti's changing literary fortunes over the last two centuries, offering a fascinating portrait of Rossetti's career, as well as the economic realities and aesthetic assumptions that have fostered changing attitudes toward her work. Kooistra describes her book as "a case study" of Rossetti's writing within the context of Victorian and twentieth-century publishing practices (2). She also details the impact of such practices on our assumptions about texts and textuality.

Kooistra's analysis offers an additional focus, investigating Rossetti's texts as visual objects whose perceived meaning may be altered by their design and illustrations. The "premise" of her exploration, she emphasizes, "is that...image, text, and book...must be studied relationally" (7). Examining Rossetti's writings through the lens of her "materialist aesthetic"(8), Kooistra acknowledges her debt to Jerome McGann's 1991 work, The Textual Condition. McGann's seminal analysis challenged the once traditional view of literary texts as fixed entities whose "content" is determined solely by the "best" version of an author's work. His argument typified a changing critical climate, as scholars moved away from the notion of a single definitive text toward an acceptance of multiple "variants" reflecting the historical and material conditions that produced them.

Kooistra's methodology illuminates in previously unexplored ways the complexity and range of Rossetti's achievement. Rossetti's highly cultivated visual imagination led her to plan her books as exquisite artifacts. For more than a year, Kooistra notes, she delayed the initial publication of her narrative poem, The Prince's Progress, in order to include the woodcut illustrations promised by her brother, Dante Gabriel. Whenever possible, Rossetti selected and collaborated with her illustrators in order to shape her books' final appearance.

Foregrounding links between Rossetti's publications over the course of two centuries, Kooistra organizes her subject matter into two parallel sections. "Victorian Productions" details the creation, publication, and reception of Rossetti's works in the nineteenth century. "Twentieth-Century Reproductions" tracks later incarnations of Rossetti's writings—most notably Goblin Market—not only in illustrated editions, but also in theatrical productions that Kooistra sees as "a new form of illustration operating live in three dimensions" (270). She also devotes her attention to the digital images that create a "Virtual Christina" on numerous Rossetti websites (252). Each section of her book examines three major categories of Rossetti's work: volumes of poetry for adults (often collectors' items featuring beautifully produced artwork), children's books, and devotional writing. This categorical approach is undoubtedly useful to readers with a special interest in one aspect of Rossetti's varied oeuvre. It does, however, necessitate a certain amount of repetition, as some genre-straddling works appear in more than one section.

Kooistra's analysis of two works for younger audiences, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book and Speaking Likenesses, is of special interest to students of children's literature. While both works were illustrated by the talented Arthur Hughes, the resulting books differed dramatically. When composing poems for Sing-Song, Rossetti had sketched rough illustrations that contextualized her brief and sometimes cryptic rhymes; her sketches later served as the basis for Hughes' evocative and amusing illustrations. Pleased by the...


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pp. 182-183
Launched on MUSE
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