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By Robert M. Kachur


Abusing Christina

"Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life"

By Jan Marsh

Viking

634 pp.; $27.95

Twelve years before she died, Christina Rossetti--a fervent Christian as well as one of Victorian England's finest poets--chastised those who would slander the dead: "It is no light offense to traduce the dead, to blacken recklessly their memory, to cultivate not tenderness for them, helpless and inoffensive as they now lie." Given the rising number of sensationalistic biographies then being written about well-known families like her own (the flamboyant pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was her brother), Rossetti had reason to be concerned.

As it turns out, no such biography about Christina Rossetti emerged in the years immediately following her death in 1894--but recent decades have witnessed a revival of scholarly interest in her work, which has laid Rossetti open to labels that would, no doubt, have pained her. On one hand, she has been cast as a fanatically pious and reclusive Christian; on the other, as a socially engaged feminist who necessarily, perhaps even reluctantly, used biblical language as a resource. Readers from different corners, it would appear, have had a stake in defusing either her Christian or feminist identities.

Although such polarized portraits may have dismayed Rossetti, they represent an improvement over how she was treated for much of this century. Rossetti enjoyed literary acclaim in her own day, but early twentieth-century critics, put off by her "simple" expressions of faith, largely neglected her work. About 30 years ago, when her poems again began to be studied more seriously (her devotional prose work has only recently begun to be reread), the complex artistry of her verse was acknowledged more widely. Yet she often suffered the same humiliating treatment as Emily Dickinson and other unmarried female artists: literary critics and biographers characterized her as a lovelorn spinster whose lyric cry was motivated by sexual frustration.

With the advent ...

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