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Christina Georgina Rossetti (1877), tinted crayon drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British Library).

Hastings’ PreRaphaelite poet: Christina Rossetti (1830-94)

Christina Rossetti, the renowned Victorian writer, had strong connexions with Hastings. Maureen Connett explains the enduring appeal of a mysterious figure.

Christina has the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite face: spiritual, brooding, inward-looking, beautiful with a halo of dark hair. In the British Library portrait (above), you would assume that the artist knew her very well, and he did. The artist was Dante Gabriel, her brother. They were part of a clever, literary, Bloomsbury family where all things Italian were revered. There were four children, whose parents were Italian political exiles who believed in the importance of art, poetry and high culture.

Unusually for the time, Christina was as highly educated as her brothers and no pressure was put on her to marry. She turned down three proposals, perhaps fearing that her vocation as a poet would be stifled by domesticity and child-bearing. In fact, her work is increasingly admired. In the Bleak Midwinter, Remember and Goblin Market are among the most popular of English verses. 

It is a tribute to this most subtle of poets that her work goes from the sensual to the sacred, from the seemingly childlike to the profound. Unusually she was also revered in her own lifetime. She published many volumes of poetry and prose, including two books for children and a collection of short stories. In the Bleak Midwinter is a favourite carol around the world.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti (1877) by D G Rossetti (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Hastings for health

Hastings was popular with the Pre-Raphaelite painters and people recovering from illness. Doctors recommended the sea air, prices were low and the coming of the railway meant that visitors could scurry back to London when they pleased. Christina came to the town in 1864 when she was convalescing. It became a special place to her, as it was to Gabriel. She made a prolonged visit, staying at 81 High Street, and wrote:  

Perhaps there is no pleasanter watering place in England . . . than Hastings and the Sussex coast . . .  The old town, nestling in a long narrow valley, flanked by the East and West hills, looks down upon the sea. At the valley mouth, on the shingly beach, stands the fishmarket, where boatmen disembark the fruit of their daily toil . . .

St Clement’s Church, where Christina worshipped (photo: Bernard McGinley).

One of her published stories was The Waves of this Troublesome World: A Tale of Hastings Ten Years Ago (in The Churchman’s Shilling Magazine, 1867).

Among her suitors was Charles Bagot Cayley, a skilled linguist and translator, who had relatives in St Leonards (probably No 23 Pevensey Road). She once sent him a (preserved) sea mouse, possibly a wry comment on his enthusiasm for science. He finally proposed to her in 1866 after a long courtship. She declined, because of their religious differences. Despite their broken romance, they remained devoted friends.  

In 1873, following serious illness, Christina returned to Hastings with her mother, to whom she was utterly devoted. (They stayed at 17 Robertson Terrace, the future Debenhams.) Profound affection for her  family rarely wavered. Indeed, profound affection for her parents and siblings and deeply felt religious faith were the driving forces of her life.

When she and her mother returned to Hastings once again, in 1884, it was in part to visit the grave of her one-time beau, at the Cayley plot (Section AD) in Hastings Cemetery. His death traumatised her and her poem One Sea-Side Grave is believed to record this sad event.   

A born poet

Disappointed affection, memory, and yearning, along with technical virtuosity, are features of her poetry, which also abounds in gothic themes, mediævalism, and Christian symbolism. She was a born poet and you can see this in her juvenilia which is startling in its maturity. Her themes are individual: she writes a Valentine to her mother, a hymn to God, the Eternal Majesty, to her Grandfather, to Mary Magdalene (1846). At the age of 16, Christina’s overwhelming preoccupation is love in all its forms and she writes of Mary:

Trembling betwixt hope and fear,

She sought the King of Heaven,

Forsook the evil of her ways,

Loved much, and was forgiven!

She was adept at writing sonnets, a demanding form of verse made popular by Shakespeare and Keats. Christina’s much-admired poem Somewhere or Other is regularly anthologised and requested. Its theme of mystery and regret has a haunting quality which draws in many readers. All her work is carefully crafted, and she said of it:

Perhaps the nearest approach to a method I can lay claim to is a distinct love of conciseness.  

When her sister pointed out that this sometimes led to obscurity, she expanded her thoughts when she thought it necessary. She read all her work aloud to her mother and her sister, Maria.

Such an idealistic, other-worldly girl was naturally perceived as shy but she had a wide circle of distinguished friends and was down-to-earth in life and occasionally in verse.

In No, Thank You John, she writes as to a would-be lover:

. . . Rise above

Quibbles and shuffling off and on: 

Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love

No, thank you, John.

Lewis Carroll (Charles  Lutwidge Dodgson), Portrait of Christina and Frances Rossetti, 1863. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.

She was adamant that her poetry was not personal in the sense of autobiographical. Its wide, imaginative range backs up this claim. In fact, she was far too reticent to write in a confessional way and the voice in the poems is a dramatic device and an effective one. Her religious impulses also found expression in the wider world however: against slavery, military aggression, imperialism, abuse of children and vivisection of animals. 

She died of cancer in 1894. Her poetry is far too individual ever to have become fashionable but after initial critical neglect, perhaps because of its spirituality.  For the centenary in 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote an affectionate essay on her, I am Christina Rossetti. She is now highly regarded, especially in America. Re-evaluation has been under way for some decades, anatomising the complexities of Goblin Market and her lyric skill. Let us hope that Christina Rossetti’s presence in Hastings Old Town will be acknowledged, along with that of her brother, Dante Gabriel.

[A different version of this article appeared in the U3A magazine.]

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Posted 16:14 Friday, Mar 5, 2021 In: History

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