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Recovering Christina Rossetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics
Mary Arseneau
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£47.50, 227 pages, ISBN 0-333-68395-1.

Elisabeth Lamothe
Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux III


Recovering Christina Rossetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics is a dense, well-written volume documenting the influence that the Anglo-Catholic doctrine had on Christina Rossetti’s spiritual and artistic life, as well as the oft-overlooked role played by Rossetti’s female relatives on her literary and religious evolution. Convinced that the female community surrounding Rossetti has been too hastily dismissed, Mary Arseneau chooses to downplay the impact of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and of her male siblings on the poet’s aesthetic strategies, and endeavors to demonstrate, with the help of a dozen photographs, that her art was firmly rooted in the theological and interpretative methods she shared with other women. We may nonetheless question the choice of illustrations included in the book, as most of them do not seem to add much to the critic’s argument; indeed, photographs were reserved to special occasions at the time, which accounts for their solemn postures. In order to drive her argument home, Mary Arseneau could have limited her choice to the photograph illustrating the cover, that is a picture focusing on mother and daughter engrossed in reading, with Christina sitting on the ground and leaning on her mother’s lap in a posture denoting intimacy and translating the pair’s common love of reading. Apart from this, Mary Arseneau’s book is an innovative study of Rossetti, comprising abundant notes, a selected bibliography and a useful index. The critic must be praised for conducting careful research on the Rossetti family’s unpublished correspondence, which is quoted in the volume, and for patiently scanning the books owned and annotated by Christina Rossetti. The analysis of her personal library enables Arseneau to demonstrate that an active dialogue was thereby established by that most insightful reader, which adds depth to our understanding of the poet’s interpretative method.

Acknowledging her debt to feminist scholarship on Christina Rossetti in the introduction, Mary Arseneau announces her ambition to extend and revise aspects of the Victorian poet’s familial, theological and literary heritage. Recovering Christina Rossetti owes its existence to Arseneau’s wish to go beyond the usual conclusion that Rossetti’s expression is at its best when she challenges and transgresses the strictures and boundaries of her patriarchal religious faith. Dissenting from such interpretative tradition, Arseneau suggests that Rossetti’s most "assertive, most feminist, most political and most egalitarian statements" [3] are expressed when the religious impulse drives her poetic creativity. Such an innovative agenda deserves recognition indeed, for the influence of the Rossetti brothers was so overwhelming that it has been easy to forget the less colorful female personalities supporting the demure poet. Mary Arseneau is intent on recuperating primary familial, literary, intellectual and religious material; since precious little is known of the specifics of daily life in the Rossetti household, she mines all possible evidence (letters, essays etc.) to assess not only the formative influence of Rossetti’s mother and sister in the poet’s artistic development, but also the way she solved the dilemma between poetics and theology by relying on the Tractarian legacy they shared.

Pointing out the existence of a clutter of biographies dedicated to Rossetti, Mary Arseneau underlines the biases and omissions of those critical records, and devotes the first chapter, "Biography and Bias: Envisaging a Female Community," to women, domestic work and Tractarian doctrines. Claiming that women’s formative influence on Rossetti’s life has been overshadowed by her famous male siblings, Mary Arseneau demonstrates the importance that the intelligent and religiously-committed Maria and Frances Rossetti had on the poet’s writing. In doing so, she redresses the biased, male-authored record of Rossetti’s development as an artist, drawing on the work of Nina Auerbach1 to shed light on the female community informing her inspiration. Although that first chapter may sound like a somewhat vain attempt to retrieve exclusive information from very few extant documents, Arseneau does manage to construct a convincing argument out of minute details. After documenting the Rossetti women’s involvement in volunteer work and their commitment to religious orders, Arseneau stresses the impact that the theology and aesthetics of the Tractarian movement had on mother and daughters. Thanks to such apt sketches of a formerly obscured aspect of Rossetti’s life, it appears that, not one to shun intellectual debates, Christina was indeed politically-minded, involved in the defense of numerous causes and guided by her religious faith all along.

The second chapter deals with the idea of literary community. Having assessed the political and religious agenda of the Rossetti women, Mary Arseneau proposes to examine the intellectual and literary influence that Frances and Maria had on Christina. She finds that field of inquiry to be replete with indications that the female authors they read had a greater influence than the andocentric Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Frances Rossetti steadfastly supported her daughter’s artistic endeavors and introduced her to the work of numerous female novelists and poets, while Maria encouraged her to study the classics, before investing much time and effort in reading and editing her younger sibling’s poetry and prose.

After demonstrating that Rossetti’s poetic method was shaped by the religious values and literary interests of her female community, Arseneau turns to the literary material proper, beginning with Maude: Prose and Verse. The critic aptly theorizes Rossetti’s use of symbolism and her incarnational poetics, which allows her to give a new reading of Maude, singled out for its adaptation of the Tractarian principle of reserve, a "poetic method that resolves the woman poet’s anxiety over display and poetry" [67]. Arseneau suggests that the eponymous novella’s interest does not rest on the doomed heroine but on the way Rossetti uses the principle of reserve and gradual revelation to accommodate poetry to theology and gender ideology. Questioning the ideas expounded by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal The Madwoman In the Attic,2 she proves that the death of the female artist must not be read as the translation of the poet’s anxiety, but as an original contribution to "some developing and converging traditions in Victorian fiction" [74]. Arseneau thereby redresses flawed readings of Maude, which has drawn rather harsh criticism from scholars, traces the unstated theme of the novella—Maude’s artistic development—while analyzing the structure of the piece, which demands that the reader be able to discriminate among numerous poetic modes.

True to her determination to provide convincing reassessments of scholarship on Rossetti, Arseneau opens her fourth chapter, "Harmonizing Goblin Market and Other Poems" by stating that the volume yields new meaning when it is approached as a "continuation of the poetic and spiritual development cultivated among the Anglo-Catholic Rossetti women" [96] rather than as a work of art deriving from the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Arseneau shows that for Rossetti, all symbolism stems from the Incarnation and reads Goblin Market in the light of the Tractarian principles of analogy and reserve. The undertaking is fraught with difficulties, which make for sometimes tedious reading, for Arseneau is compelled to engage in a process of reading and rereading forward, backward and across the Old and the New Testament, in parallel to Goblin Market, in order to get her point across and demonstrate how the poems re-enact the Bible’s economy of gradual revelation. In spite of a few lengthy descriptions, Arseneau’s analysis emerges as a careful study of the volume’s aesthetics and lists scores of recurring metaphors useful to appreciate how Rossetti revived typological, analogical and sacramental ways of thinking about nature and art. All testifies to Rossetti’s command of the aesthetics of reserve, by which symbols discreetly appear and reappear to accrue meaning, lead to revelation and foster spiritual growth in the reader.

Having dealt with Rossetti’s handling of symbolism, Arseneau turns to a lesser-known volume of poetry in the penultimate chapter, "Interpreting The Prince’s Progress," and gives an overview of the poet’s mature work, showing how Rossetti measured her own method against that of her precursors and contemporaries. Arseneau’s scrutiny of The Prince’s Progress explores the artistic, moral and spiritual dimensions of symbolic interpretation. Although it has received considerably less critical attention than Goblin Market, the critic deems the volume worthy of great interest for its negotiation of intertextual references, its subtle criticism of her father’s interpretative methods and of her brother’s art. The critic stresses the poet’s enduring loyalty to the religious topoi and sacramental aesthetics gradually relinquished by the Pre-Raphaelites, interpreting it as proof of the poet’s increasing artistic assurance. Rossetti forged an early critical method by re-examining her father’s interpretation of Dante and her uncompromising orthodoxy set her at odds with her brother’s symbolic practice, which gives Arseneau the opportunity to prove that The Prince’s Progress can be read as Christina’s commentary on her brother’s spiritual wanderings: highly sensitive to Dante Gabriel’s shift in spiritual orientation, Christina makes a truly visionary comment on the tragic consequences awaiting the individual who misreads events and objects, foreseeing her brother’s latent agnosticism.

The reader finds much insightful analysis in the sixth and last part of the book, "‘Had such a lady spoken for herself’: Confronting the Legacy," which deals with The Divine Comedy and A Pageant and Other Poems. Stressing the fact that all members of the Rossetti family spent a great deal of time engrossed in Dantean studies, Mary Arseneau once again endeavors to demonstrate what characteristics set the Rossetti women’s critical appraisal of Dante apart from that of the men. The gendered, religious and generational dividing line separating the agnostic brothers’ interpretation of The Divine Comedy from the spiritual reading of the Rossetti women centered on the Beatrice theme, which was regarded by the former as an allegorical figure, whereas the latter focused on a symbolic reading of the persona. Betraying no anxiety of influence whatsoever in her interpretation of The Divine Comedy, Christina Rossetti expounded her views in two articles and departed from her father’s appraisal, underscoring all along the professed objective of the narrative, namely the progress toward enlightenment.

The last minor flaw the reader finds in Mary Arseneau’s book is a hasty conclusion, which comes as a surprise, especially after the inspired scholar has demonstrated her ability to tap minute details in order to draw very interesting conclusions about the importance of the female community in the Rossetti’s spiritual lives and work.

1. Nina Auerbach. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. back
2. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. London: Yale U.P., 1979.


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