Christina Rossetti – philosophical questions within her poetry & life

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Christina Rossetti disclaimed being a feminist, for religious reasons, but had a lot in common with the feminists of her day.

 This is a follow-up post to the my previous post about lesson ideas based on Christina Rossetti. These are the deeper topics I found while reading about Christina, and I felt the deserved a separate page rather than be mixed in with the previous posts ideas. These are things I’ve been discussing and will continue to discuss with my children, and they are questions I wonder about in my every day life.

Feminism

Christina Rossetti lived during a time when politicians were concerned about the number of single women (according to William Rathbone Greg in 1851 only 57% of women over 20 were married, 12% were widows and 30% spinsters). Working class women could work in factories or shops, be a servant or seamstress. Middleclass women could work as governesses, and Florence Nightingale was starting to open up the potential for women to do nursing work. Christina’s mother ran a day school which Christina helped with. Then too Christina volunteered with the Park Village Sisterhood working with “fallen women.” While people were still uncomfortable with the idea of a middle class woman making her own way in the world the possibility was opening up for women to be “angels” in society instead of just at home.

Christina was acquainted (through her brother Gabriel Dante initially) with a group of women who formed the Langham Place Group. These women were feminists, or in the language of the day “strong minded women.” They advocated for a married women’s property act to allow married women to keep their own earnings, and then (when that seemed unobtainable for the moment) for the right to divorce. Christina was acquainted with them, but never quite identified with the group.

Christina supported the idea that females could be MPs, and believed that married woman should be allowed to vote. (Interesting to note that she said married women, as she herself remained forever single.) She was also very concerned about the fate of women, volunteering at organizations working with fallen women. Some of her poems reflect these concerns, particularly a poem originally titled “Under the Rose,” telling of the fate of an illegitimate child and another titled Cousin Kate, showing how arbitrary (or at least, dependant upon the man’s whim) the division between “pure” and “fallen” women is, and calling for the “pure” women to stand in solidarity with the “fallen.”

But despite all this Christina denied being a strong-minded woman, writing that:

“Does it not appear as if the Bible was based upon an understanding of unalterable distinction between men and women, their positions, duties, privileges? Not arrogating to myself but most earnestly desiring to attain to the character of a humble orthodox Xtian, so it does appear to me; not merely under the Old but also under the New Dispensation. The fact of the Priesthood being exclusively men’s, leaves me in no doubt that the highest functions are not in this world open to both sexes: and if not all then a selection must be made and a line is drawn somewhere…” (quoted on page 193 of Learning Not to Be First)

 

Christina could perhaps be considered a maternal feminist, someone who believed that women were inherently different than men in some ways.

The book The Language of Exclusion: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christian Rossetti by Sharon Leder and Andrea Abbott identifies Christina as a reformer whose ideas gradually became more radical.

“The basic theoretical difference between the Langham radicals and the evangelical reformers was in the latter’s reliance on the church’s doctrine of self-denial as the major source of power for women. The ability to be self-denying made women superior, spiritual beings compared to men. The Langham feminists had, on the other hand, a rational and liberal belief in the essential equality of the sexes. For them, women under oppressive social and economic conditions needed to make their demands known in the public, political sphere without being restricted to evangelical codes of modesty and decorum.” (pg 81)

Was Christina Rossetti’s life public or private? She did a lot of reformist type activities, helping at women’s day schools, and in organizations helping fallen women. She was not averse to circulating petitions against vivisectioning of animals. Her poetry took political turns particularly before 1866. Leder and Abbott connects this move away from political poems to both family health problems and to Christina turning down a second marriage proposal. She suggests that “the question of whether she had violated her womanly nature by being an unmarried woman poet plagued her in her later years.”

I wonder whether Christina would have been willing to marry, had the option of a more equitable marriage been a possibility to her. The book The Language of Exclusion by Sharon Leder and Andrea Abbott says of her second marriage possibility that “it is obvious Rossetti was extremely fond of Cayley and valued his intellectual companionship, but she entered the relationship as one of equals and did not desire marriage as an endpoint.” (86)

Christina lived most of her life as a dependant upon a relative, first her father and then her older brother William. When her mother died and she inherited 4000 pounds she gave 2000 of it over to William as payment, she said, for twenty years of lodgings at 20 pounds per year. She had only moved out of William’s house when he married. Prior to that she had a period of time being in charge of his house, but once his wife, Lucy, arrived she and her mother were naturally demoted to being guests. The role of a single woman in that time was indeed a strange one but the question of owning and being a guest got funnier still as Lucy convinced William to move out of central London. They moved to a house that she obtained through a lease-to-own program, with William paying rent to her which she paid to the Nineteenth Century Building Society. When Lucy died she left the house to the children and only a picture of herself to her husband. He then became guest in his children’s house. The idea of dependency was a bit of a troubling one for Christina.

 

Poverty, charity and government aid

The poem “Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock” brings out the question of state verse private charity. In it a woman turns aside beggar after beggar saying that they can go to a nearby workhouse instead, eventually being confronted by the knowledge that it was God in other form who knocked and whom she turned away. Her relationship with God through caring for the poor cannot be met through the government’s caring for the poor. She must be available to help directly.

I am puzzled over how to respond to respond to the poem because on one hand I can see Christina’s point, and yet on the other hand I reject the way in which the modern Conservative would use that argument to take apart social assistance. That our relationship with God is mediated through how we interact with “the least among us” means it benefits us to be out there caring for the poor and having a personal connection but it does not mean the poor are best cared for through private charity alone.

On a personal level, I find it incredibly hard going out and talking with the homeless and then returning to my own home and children. I use politics to try to help the homeless, advocating for their right to shelter and for better social assistance, yet that never feels like enough when I say goodbye to a homeless person and walk away to warmth while they remain in coldness. What right have I to my warmth? What right have I to not invite them in? Yet for my family’s sake I cannot invite them home. It is a difficulty for me and I can imagine it being one Christina may also have struggled with given the radicalness of some of her poems.

In the poem The Royal Princess, a very much caged and limited princess finally breaks free of the restraints put upon her and bursts forth to offer all her jewels and wealth to a famished people:

They shall take all to buy them bread, take all I have to give; I, if I perish, perish; they to-day shall eat and live; I, if I perish, perish; that’s the goal I half conceive:

Once to speak before the world, rend bare my heart and show The lesson I have learned which is death, is life, to know. I, if I perish, perish; in the name of God I go.

This to me is the heart of Christianity, and what Jesus probably meant by saying people should take up their cross to follow him. But if it is, it also is a damning critique of myself, for I have been unable to take such steps.

Religious History

Christina’s first engagement (of over a year) was probably weakened his by decreasing financial situation but broke apart completely when he reconverted to Catholicism after the Gorham case where an Anglican priest Gorham had challenged the church’s refusal to appoint him to a parish because both a Bishop and then the ecclesiastical court had deemed his beliefs unsuitable. Gorham had appealed the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a secular court which ruled Gorham be appointed to the parish. When the church did not fight back a number of prominent (and untold number of nonprominent) people converted to Catholicism instead, rejecting the idea that a secular court should have say over religious doctrine. While Christina’s refusal to marry a Catholic could be looked at as simply a religious decision, it is likely she knew and understood the political implications of the situation.

There is still tension today around the role of the state with regards to restricting the acting out of religious beliefs. Periodically people call for the freedom for religious organizations to discriminate in whom they allow to work for them, or to adopt from them, or to be part of them. Yet most restrictions people complain about today would seem mild compared to telling a church that a particular priest’s beliefs do not conflict with the church’s beliefs. Courtrooms of today might say that it doesn’t matter what the religious beliefs are, anti-discrimination laws must be abided too, but they won’t try to say what the church’s religious beliefs are.

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