Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 323-326
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The Letters of Christina Rossetti
The Letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. Antony H. Harrison. Vol. 2, 1874-1881. Pp. xliv + 331. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1999. $60.00.
Like so much of her poetry and prose, Christina Rossetti's letters are marked by control and restraint. The result, as Antony Harrison admits in his note on "Editorial Procedures," is that her "epistolary style is less animated and discursive than that of the magnificent letter writers of her century: Keats, Byron, Carlyle, Barrett Browning, and Swinburne, for example" (p. xxiv). In addition, besides making it a principle to destroy incoming letters once they had been answered, Rossetti was often obliged to write letters that are documents of purely social etiquette and niceties. For example, The Rossetti Family Letters to the Heiman Family (Princeton University Library) are a large accession of correspondence that became available just in time for Harrison to include them. However, Rossetti's long friendship with Amelia Heiman does not yield the intimate admissions that might be expected. When she is not politely and dutifully reporting on family activities, Rossetti simply omits giving news since she would soon be able to have "a full chat" (p. 212) with Amelia. As a result, as reviews of volume 1 in Harrison's edition of The Letters of Christina Rossetti demonstrated, Rossetti's guarded "epistolary style" disappointed readers who had evidently been anticipating disclosures, secrets, or confessions. There are discoveries and moments of self-revelation in these letters, but Rossetti is not the kind of writer readily to oblige voyeuristic interest.
Rossetti's life was dominated by recurrent rhythms and these are evident in her letters: the discipline of liturgical life in her Anglo-Catholic parish church; Christmas visits to Dante Gabriel; summer vacations, preferably by the sea; regular outings to the Heimans; and games of backgammon, dominoes, and cribbage with the older women in the evening. The astonishing productivity of Rossetti's writing life remains largely hidden, except when she speaks directly with her publisher, receives advice from her brothers on negotiating a contract, or debates with Dante Gabriel about revisions to the texts of poems. Yet during these seven years of letters [End Page 323] Rossetti published several books, including a book of prayers, Annus Domini (1874); children's stories (Speaking Likenesses, 1874); the reissue of her first two books of poetry, somewhat augmented (Poems, 1875); two books of religious prose, Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite (1879) and Called to be Saints (1881); and a new collection of poetry, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881). Fortunately, the letters occasionally give us important glimpses of her working methods, "those mysterious literary avocations" (p. 204), and also of her concern with how her publications were critically received.
The shadow of death hangs over this volume of letters. In 1873-75, Rossetti was herself recovering from Graves's disease which had threatened her life. Her sister Maria (after her father in 1854) was the first close family member to die (1876); there were also the deaths of her friend Henrietta Polydore (1874), Oliver Brown (Lucy's brother, also 1874), Dr. Adolf Heiman (1874), and Henrietta Heiman (a suicide in 1877). After Maria's death and the consolidation of the female members of the family in one household (a development prompted by William's marriage), the twin claims of sororial and filial duties dominated her life on the social level. After his serious illness in 1877, her dear brother Dante Gabriel's death is imminent as the volume concludes in 1881. By Christmas, 1881, the women have begun the death watch commonly found in Victorian diaries and letters.
Rossetti rigorously controlled her social life, using both her posture of semi-invalidism and her role as spokesperson for her mother as ways of rebuffing unwanted impositions. She knew, she told Alexander Macmillan, "the privileges & immunities which attach to semi-invalidism" (p. 154), and, as she reached middle age, she deliberately "contracted her radius" (p. 282). While Rossetti...