Latchkey Home Book Reviews Essays Conference News Featured New Women
New Women: Who's Who GalleryThe Whine Cellar
Teaching Resources Bibliography
Contact us


Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)

By Kimberley J. Stern.

Christina Georgina Rossetti died in 1894, the very year in which Sarah Grand popularized the term “New Woman” in her North American Review essay, “The New Aspect of the Woman Question.” 1 Given her historical placement and reluctance to advocate for the advancement of women, it might seem incongruous to include Rossetti alongside the politically vocal New Women of the 1880s and 1890s. Yet despite the tendency to treat the New Woman as an historically specific type, Sally Ledger observes that the label was in many ways a fluid term, which “prised open a discursive space” for debating the scope, disposition, and agency of modern women more generally (95). As Susan C. Shapiro puts it: “In reality, the New Woman was never new; those primarily aristocratic and upper middle-class women who reject traditional roles and strive for equality with men always have been labelled ‘new’ and have been ridiculed as a phenomenon of the moment, wholly unknown to ages past” (510). Seen this way, it becomes of vital importance that we recognize the long political and cultural history of the New Woman. Christina Rossetti is an important part of this history.

Christina Georgina Rossetti was born in London in 1830 to Gabriele Rossetti and Frances Polidori. Gabriele was a poet in his own right, as well as a founding member of the Carbonari, a secret society committed to the cause of Italian nationalism. When Ferdinand II revoked the Neapolitan constitution in 1821, quelling nationalist efforts and effectively reinstating autocratic rule, Gabriele and other members of the Carbonari fled the country. Gabriele passed three years in Malta and in 1824 removed to London, where he met Frances, daughter of Italian expatriate Gaetano Polidori and sister of John William Polidori (author of the 1819 tale “The Vampyre”). In 1826, the pair married and bore four children in quick succession: Maria Rossetti, an astute scholar who in later years became an Anglican nun; William Michael Rossetti, family biographer and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, noted poet and painter; and Christina.

By most accounts, the Rossetti children enjoyed a happy childhood, overseen by affectionate and devoted parents. Although Frances spoke English, Gabriele preferred to speak Italian at home, and the children were instructed in Italian by their maternal grandfather. Indeed, the Rossetti household was a site of pilgrimage for Italian expatriates, military officers, and writers. As William would later put it: “It seems hardly an exaggeration to say that every Italian staying or passing through London, of a liberal mode of political opinion, sought out my father” (Dante Gabriel Rossetti 46). The children were included in these gatherings, and family letters document that they were privy to often animated political discussions between their father and his guests. 2 Until the boys began attending day school in 1836, the children were educated chiefly by Frances, who instructed them in reading, writing, Scripture, and French. Despite an early disposition to poetry (her first documented poem, “A Birthday,” was reportedly composed when she was twelve), Christina regarded herself as an inattentive student. Jan Marsh remarks that “though she did not neglect her lessons, she lacked application and her education was limited, if not desultory, with a thorough grounding in reading, French and religion, but little serious study and no understanding of maths or science” (26).

Devotional literature, however, constituted an important part of Christina’s upbringing. Owing in large part to his support of Italian unification, Gabriele was vehemently anti-papist, and the children were duly baptized and raised according to Anglican precepts. Christina is known to have studied John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) and Isaac Williams’s The Altar (1849), though these works were complemented by folk tales—Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales (1697) and One Thousand and One Nights, for example—as well as miscellanies and abundant “instructional rhyming” of the kind that would later feature in Christina’s Sing-Song (1872). 3 The writings of Dante Alighieri were frequently read and discussed in the Rossetti house. Gabriele produced extensive commentaries on Dante’s work, advancing the idiosyncratic view that Dante belonged to an occult society whose secrets are encoded in The Divine Comedy (1472). In 1871 Maria published A Shadow of Dante: Being an essay towards studying himself, his world, and his pilgrimage, a work Christina herself studied and admired. 4 Although deprived of the formal schooling enjoyed by her brothers, Christina was raised in a home that valued the political, moral, and spiritual power of words.

After the decline in Gabriele’s health in the 1840s and his resignation as Professor of Italian at King’s College London, William completed his term at King’s College School and took a position at the Excise Office to support the family. While Dante Gabriel pursued his studies at Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy, Maria supplemented the family income by working as a governess, and Frances taught lessons in Italian and French. In the 1850s, Frances would attempt twice, unsuccessfully, to found her own day school; on both occasions, Christina assisted her mother’s endeavors, though she was reluctant to adopt teaching as her chief métier. 5

Throughout this period, Christina served chiefly as caregiver to her invalid father. Although it is difficult to assess precisely what her daily experience was like at this time, biographers characterize it as a turning point in her personal and professional life; henceforward, the previously animated girl became withdrawn, reserved, and disposed to illness. Supposing that this change was wrought by an escalation of religious sentiment, William notes: “Her temperament and character, naturally warm and free, became a ‘fountain sealed’ (“Memoir” lxviii). Jan Marsh speculates that Christina’s physical and emotional symptoms mark her as a victim of sexual abuse, possibly at the hands of her father. Still others, like Diane D’Amico and Constance Hassett, note that the melancholy verse of this period perhaps reflects the influence of the female poets she so admired, especially Elizabeth Laetitia Landon and Felicia Hemans. To be sure, if adolescence was a period of difficulty and transition for Christina, it was also at this time that she began to pursue poetry in a deliberate way. Even as she attended to her father’s health, Christina incorporated writing into her daily practice. William Bell Scott, Scottish artist and longtime family friend, recalls entering the Rossetti home during this period:

An old gentleman sitting by the fire in a great chair, the table drawn close to his chair, with a thick manuscript book open before him and the largest snuff box I ever saw beside it conveniently open. […] By the window was a high narrow reading desk at which stood writing a slight girl with a serious regular profile, dark against the pallid wintry light without. (247)

In this rendering, Christina appears as her father’s constant attendant, while also visibly inhabiting the role of poet. Although congenially acknowledging his entrance, Scott remarks, she was likely “writing poetry of some sort and might wish me far enough” (248). The vignette underscores the very dilemma that would feature so prominently in works like the posthumously published novella Maude: how to reconcile traditionally female responsibilities (as deferential hostess or sympathetic nurse) with literary ambition. As Margaret Linley rightly observes, the category of “poetess” at this time was not as stable as we might presume and became “a site not only for the ongoing interrogation of what it means to write as a woman, but also for the development of strategies that might in fact undo the gender of women’s writing” (287-88). At the outset, the publication of Christina’s literary work was lauded and even facilitated by her family circle. Christina’s first volume, Verses, was printed for private circulation in 1847 by her grandfather, who had procured his own printing press. In 1848, she published two poems in The Athenaeum (“Death’s Chill Between” and “Heart’s Chill Between”), and two years later she published seven poems in the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ. As editor of the magazine, William himself crafted the pseudonym that would accompany Christina’s contributions: “Ellen Alleyne.” It was not until after her father’s death in 1852 that Christina committed herself to life as a published writer. 6 “Goblin Market,” perhaps her most famous poem, appeared in 1862 and featured woodblock engravings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She would subsequently produce several additional volumes of poetry, including The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866) and A Pageant and Other Poems (1881). In later years, she produced volumes of devotional writing: Seek and Find (1879), Called to Be Saints (1881), and The Face of the Deep (1892). She also explored her capacities as a writer of fiction in Commonplace and Other Stories (1870), Speaking Likenesses (1874), and the aforementioned Maude (presumably written in 1850 but published posthumously in 1897). According to David A. Kent and P. G. Stanwood, the reviews of Commonplace and Other Short Stories were somewhat “mixed,” a fact that may have contributed to her decision to attend more to poetry in future years (220).

Today, Rossetti has emerged as central to the study of Victorian literature, though Alison Chapman and Tricia Lootens note that her incorporation into the literary canon has come at significant cost. 7 Lootens suggests, for instance, that Rossetti’s reception was shaped by nineteenth-century ideas about the category of “poetess”: in short, to “become so fully identified with the shifting but always secondary literary virtues of her sex […] was to lose out as a writer” (13). In her own lifetime, Rossetti’s work was frequently described as “deep and true and womanly,” thus aligning her with an established and culturally sanctioned tradition of women’s writing (“New Poems” 373). Isobel Armstrong acknowledges a spirit of dissidence in her work, citing especially the eponymous subject of her poem “Maiden May” who stays in her bower “Half content, half uncontent” (69). Nevertheless, Armstrong avers, Christina’s legacy among female critics of the 1880s and 1890s was ambivalent: “If New Woman critics responded to her work with uncertainty, she portrayed herself as equally distrustful of their politics” (25). To put it plainly: “Rossetti was no New Woman” (25).

Others have proposed that Christina’s gender politics simply adopt a different form, one that was shaped largely by the theological readings of her youth. Lynda Palazzo, for instance, suggests that Christina’s understanding of devotional culture is decidedly female and domestic, and Mary Arseneau persuasively leverages this approach in order to establish that it is not despite but rather because of Christina’s theological investments that we might regard her as a mouthpiece for progressive political and social ideas. 8 To be sure, if she refrained from openly advocating for the advancement of women, Christina was directly involved in some of the social campaigns also supported by proponents of women’s rights. She was a passionate supporter of the anti-vivisection movement, for example, and in 1859 began volunteering at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary at Highgate, which promoted the rehabilitation of young prostitutes. Her investment in social activism, that is to say, brings her at least in proximity to the progressive politics of the New Woman writers.

Yet Christina was reluctant to advocate for higher education or suffrage for women, as Kathryn Burlinson observes, and in her public and private writings offered curiously inconsistent views on these subjects. 9 Writing to Augusta Webster on the question of suffrage she admitted to being somewhat divided on the question:

[…] the highest functions are not in this world open to both sexes: and if not all, then a selection must be made and a line drawn somewhere. On the other hand if female rights are sure to be overborne for lack of female voting influence, then I confess I feel disposed to shoot ahead of my instructresses, and to assert that female M.P.’s are only right and reasonable. (qtd. in Bell 111-12)

Here, Christina insinuates that “the whole structure of female claims” is just as tentative and contingent as her own position (qtd. in Bell 111). Her rhetoric might well call to mind Ann Heilmann’s insistence upon the “semantic instability of the term ‘New Woman,’” which cannot be easily aligned with any specific political platform, aesthetic, or professional narrative (2). If Christina vacillates — often within the space of a single page — between conservative and progressive gender politics, it is worth remembering that the New Woman was herself the product of a transitional moment. Seen this way, Christina Rossetti’s connection to the New Woman may have less to do with her historical placement or political agenda than with her interest in the precarious position of the nineteenth-century woman who must balance ambition and humility, indulgence and restraint, poetry and devotion.

Kimberly J. Stern is an Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specializes in Victorian literature and culture. She has published an edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (Broadview Press, 2015) and is the author of The Social Life of Criticism: Gender, Critical Writing, and the Politics of Belonging (University of Michigan Press, 2016) and Oscar Wilde: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Her work has appeared in such venues as Victorian Literature and Culture, Victorian Review, and Prose Studies. Stern currently serves as co-editor of Nineteenth Century Studies.


1  In 1892, Rossetti was diagnosed with breast cancer; a mastectomy was performed in an effort to combat the disease, but the cancer returned two years later. For a poignant discussion of Rossetti’s final illness, see Diane D’Amico, “Christina Rossetti’s Breast Cancer: ‘Another matter, painful to dwell upon’.”
2 See Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, pp. 25-26. Artist William Holman Hunt suggests that the children regarded these conversations as mere happenstance, noting that “when it was impossible for me to ignore the distress of the alien company, [Dante] Gabriel and William shrugged their shoulders, the latter with a languid sign of commiseration, saying it was generally so” (Hunt 155).
3 Marsh 6. Christina Rossetti’s reading diary, Time Flies (1895), reveals that devotional reading constituted an important element of her daily life well into adulthood. As Dinah Roe observes, the content seems in large part to have been shaped by her reading of Keble and Williams, though the text itself consists of poetry and prose fragments composed by Rossetti herself (131).
4 Mary Arseneau notes that Christina “clearly read carefully her copy of A Shadow of Dante shortly after its presentation to her and probably was reading with an editorial eye charged with making corrections for subsequent editions.” Two existing copies of A Shadow of Dante, discussed at length by Arseneau, feature extensive marginal notes and pencil illustrations by Christina. See Arseneau’s essay, “May My Great Love Avail Me: Christina Rossetti and Dante,” pp. 31-35.
5 William Michael Rossetti observed that although Christina was “ready to undertake any sort of educational drudgery to which circumstances might relegate her, and to perform it unrepiningly,” she was already setting her sights at this time on poetic work, assisting her mother chiefly out of a sense of filial duty (Some Reminiscences 109).
6 Although twice involved in serious romantic relationships, Christina never married. In 1848, Christina became engaged to Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson. The engagement ended when Collinson recommitted himself to the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1860s, Christina became involved with Charles Cayley, a noted translator of Dante; after rejecting his proposal in 1866, presumably also on religious grounds, the two remained friends until Cayley’s death in 1883.
7 See Alison Chapman, The Afterlife of Christina Rossetti and Tricia A. Lootens, Lost Saints, 158-82.
8 The extent to which Christina endorsed the devotional readings of her youth is certainly open to debate. Palazzo’s study treats Christina as a resistant reader of Keble and other male theologians, treating her as a forerunner to contemporary feminist theologians. Building upon Palazzo’s work, Arseneau seeks to “complicate the assumption that freedom and individuality are expressed primarily against conventional discourses by suggesting that Rossetti’s most assertive, most feminist, most political, and most egalitarian statements are formulated not in resistance to her religion, but rather are firmly grounded in it” (Recovering Christina Rossetti 3).
9 Burlinson, pp. 32-36.

Works Cited and Consulted

Armstrong, Isabel. “Christina Rossetti in the Era of the New Woman and Fin de Siècle Culture.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 3, 2004, pp. 21-48.

Arseneau, Mary. “May My Great Love Avail Me: Christina Rossetti and Dante” in The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts, edited by Mary Arseneau, Antony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ohio UP, 1999, 22-45.

---. Recovering Christina Rossetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics. Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2004.

Bristow, Joseph. “‘No Friend Like a Sister’?: Christina Rossetti’s Female Kin.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 33, no.2, 1995, pp. 257-81.

Burlinson, Kathryn. Christina Rossetti. Horndon, Northcote House Publishers, 1998.

Chapman, Alison. The Afterlife of Christina Rossetti. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

D’Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Gender, Faith, and Time. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State UP, 1999.

---. “Christina Rossetti’s Breast Cancer: ‘Another matter, painful to dwell upon.’” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 12, 2003, pp. 28-50.

Grand, Sarah. “The New Aspect of the Woman Question.” North American Review, vol. 158, no. 448, 1894): pp. 270-76.

Hassett, Constance W. Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style. Charlottesville, U of Virginia P, 2005.

Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester, Manchester UP, 2004.

Hofland, Barbara. The Daughter of Genius. London, John Harris, 1826.

Hunt, William Holman. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. London, Macmillan, 1905.

Kent, David A. and P.G. Stanwood. Selected Prose of Christina Rossetti. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester, Manchester UP, 1997.

Linley, Margaret. “Dying to Be a Poetess: The Conundrum of Christina Rossetti.” The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts, edited by Mary Arseneau, Antony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ohio UP, 1999, pp. 285-314.

Lootens, Tricia A. Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization. Charlottesville, U of Virginia P, 1996.

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. London, Jonathan Cape, 1994.

Mermin, Dorothy. “Heroic Sisterhood in Goblin Market.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 21, no. 2, 1983, pp. 107-18.

“New Poems by Christina Rosetti.” Review of Reviews, vol.14, no. 3, Jun.1896, 373.

Palazzo, Lynda. Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theology. London, Palgrave, 2002.

Rappaport, Jill. “The Price of Redemption in ‘Goblin Market.’” Studies in English Literature, no. 50, no. 4, 2010, pp. 853-75.

Roe, Dinah. Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination: The Devotional Poetry and Prose. London, Palgrave, 2007.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market and Other Poems. London, Macmillan, 1865.

---. “Maiden May.” A Pageant and Other Poems. London, Macmillan, 1881, pp. 69-73.

---. Speaking Likenesses. London, Macmillan, 1874.

---. Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895.

Rossetti, William Michael. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, vol. 1, Roberts Brothers, 1895.

---. “Memoir.” The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, Macmillan, 1906, pp. xlv-lxxi.

---. Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.

Scott, William Bell. Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, vol. 2, Harper and Brothers, 1892.

Shapiro, Susan C. “The Mannish New Woman: Punch and its Precursors.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 17, no. 168, 510-22.