LEARNING NOT TO BE FIRST: The Life of Christina Rossetti by Kathleen Jones

LEARNING NOT TO BE FIRST: The Life of Christina Rossetti

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Pallid, unconvincing portrait of the doyenne of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the mid-Victorian art movement whose members--Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Holman Hunt--were as well known for their laudanum and license as for their innovative paintings. It seems to be true, as Jones (an English journalist) admits, that"" 'finding' Christina as a person is not an easy task...."" Primary sources about the neurasthenic and sexually repressed Rossetti are in extremely short supply, and her earliest biographers seemed intent on canonization. Jones, however, generally accepts her subject's explanations for her actions at face value, neglecting the revelations that the application of modern psychology to Rossetti's behavioral patterns might have produced. Many readers will suspect deeper motivations for Rossetti's rejection of Charles Cayley as a suitor than the stated fact that Cayley did not belong to the Church of England. Jones also seems unaware of the sheer oddness of much of Rossetti's behavior: When, for instance, a contemporary points out that Rossetti was in the habit of picking up scraps of paper on the street ""in case they had the name of Jesus printed on them,"" the author allows the information to pass without comment. Jones seems most intent on reestablishing Rossetti's reputation as a major Victorian poet and as a kind of protofeminist; but except for the gothic ""Goblin Market,"" few of Rossetti's verses rise above clichÉd sentimentalism, and Jones's comparison of Rossetti's work to that of Emily Dickinson is truly far-fetched. The author is only slightly more successful in depicting her subject as a victim of male domination. If anything, Rossetti played the ""frail blossom"" for all it was worth, especially in relating to her long-suffering brother, William. Disappointingly short on both drama and insight.

Pub Date: May 21st, 1992
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's