CHRISTINA ROSSETTI: A Divided Life by Georgina Battiscombe


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An unassuming but uniformly excellent biography. The average reader with modernist tastes probably thinks of Rossetti's life and work (with the exception of ""Goblin Market"") as rather faded, feeble, and melancholy. Yet she was no mere invalid sister in a pre-Raphaelite chapel of her own construction. As Battiscombe (Shaftesbury, Queen Alexandra) amply demonstrates, Rossetti's passive, plaintive femininity was matched and supported by her tough, unsentimental integrity. The point of Battiscombe's subtitle and the book's central argument is that ""Of all the tensions which tore her apart and shaped both her character and her poetry by far the most acute, and the most fruitful, was the tension between the two loves, human and divine."" This eros-agape conflict is seen most clearly in Rossetti's abortive relationships with the two suitors she rejected, James Collinson (she broke their engagement when he returned to the Roman fold) and, in a much more painful case, Charles Cayley. Cayley was turned down, in part, because he was only a nominal believer, but also because Rossetti wanted something better than human love, as she says in her remarkable (and boldly erotic) poem, ""The Heart Knoweth its Own Bitterness."" Battiscombe admits that Rossetti's piety can be irritating, that her religious poetry has little to say to non-Christians, that her prose is weak and her fiction worse. And Battiscombe perhaps spends too much time praising or blaming, as opposed to analyzing, Rossetti's verse. But she handles her subject with so much sympathy, intelligence, and balance (unlike her one recent predecessor, Lona Mosk Packer) that anyone interested in Rossetti should now turn first to Battiscombe.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1981
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston