The Rossettis

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1855)
watercolour on paper

The Tate Britain’s Rosettis exhibit has come to the United States: specifically, to the Delaware Art Museum. This exhibit brings together Rossetti paintings, drawings, photographs, and other objets d’art from across the close-knit artistic Victorian family’s two decades of influence on British culture. Unlike previous Rossetti retrospectives, this one awards at least equal prominence to the Rossetti women, including poet Christina Rossetti, artist, and model Elizabeth Siddal (later Rossetti), and artist Lucy Madox Brown (later Rossetti).
This is a positive development. In popular culture, the Rosettis are, as some of them said, resolutely a brotherhood. The television miniseries Desperate Romantics pictured Gabriel, John Everett Millais, and Henry Holman Hunt swaggering down the street in a line like a kind of artistic Ocean’s 11 and completely ignored Christina. In contrast, the Tate’s curation largely makes convincing its argument that Christina’s writing and Siddal’s art should matter as much as their respective brother and husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s iconic images. Elizabeth Siddal’s compositions, not all exhibited at the Tate or at the Delaware Art Museum, especially Two Men in a Boat, show that her control of anatomy and composition was very good. Her Pippa Passes is a dramatic composition replete with melodramatic poses. Her Lovers Listening to Music (c. 1854, graphite and ink on paper) depicts a creative family like her own. Alongside the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a powerful sisterhood.
It is intriguing that many of the Siddal compositions in this exhibit, and in general, survive because after her death, her widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti preserved them in photographs. By the 1860s, photography had existed for about a generation. Critic Nancy Armstrong has argued that Victorian literary realism is inextricably intertwined with the development of photography in the 1830s. In the Rossetti corpus, photography makes hand-drawn art visible.
Less successful is the Tate’s other major contention, that all the Rosettis, men and women, born-Rosettis and marital ones, were radicals or revolutionaries. In some ways, this was true. Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents offended much of the bourgeois authorities, including Charles Dickens, because he made Christ’s human father the carpenter too much like an actual working-class carpenter, specifically of the disaffected English industrious classes. It was almost a Chartist theological fable. Siddal’s Two Men in a Boat and a Woman Punting shows the woman doing the muscular work of moving the boat, something that in English Heritage film and television glimpses of Oxford and Cambridge never happens, even today. The woman punting has pre-Raphaelite hair and appears to be a self-portrait but also has intense eyes. It’s a far cry from the stereotype of Siddal as the anorexic, drug-addled muse pretending, in the bathtub as Ophelia. Christina, a Tractarian convert to Catholicism, offers up some useful commentary on the social prescription of women in poems such as Goblin Market and all the Rossetti women pity prostitutes and other women exploited by men for artistic or other exigencies. In A Royal Princess, Christina tried to help workers affected by the ‘Cotton Famine’ and, as the catalogue states, ‘explores the disorientating effect of sheltering women from social realities’ (51). They also inspired feminism. Florence Harrison’s illustration of A Royal Princess,for Christina’s Poems (1910) suggests a feminist message as an angry woman armed with a complicated rosary confronts a vicious male crowd intent on persecuting her. The rosary suggests that Christina’s Catholicism could serve as a powerful weapon against sexism and mob rule. At the front of the crowd is a man with flowing Pre-Raphaelite red hair, just like the Siddal-like ‘Princess.’ In short, Harrison’s interpretation of Rossetti shows, sexism is self-hatred in disguise.
The Tate makes the Rossettis seem more radical than they were, however. The catalogue concedes the racism inherent in the composition of The Bride, in which the typical, white-skinned red-haired pre-Raphaelite muse is encircled by women of an assortment of ethnicities, depicted as subalterns or handmaidens, including an apparently nude African girl. ‘Love in Christina’s poems is gentle and kind, but also radical and transformative,’ the catalogue text contends, ‘resisting the conventions of her time while operating within them.’ This might be true of Goblin Market, but some of her poetry was explicitly counter-revolutionary.  One example is In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857. This is another story of loving self-sacrifice, but it celebrates the suppression of a revolution: the Indian Revolt of 1857-9. On that fateful summer day, a detachment of the Indian rebels, led by the charismatic 28-year-old Laxmi Bai, Maharani of Jhansi, attacked a British garrison known as the Round Tower, in the Indian queen’s own city. The British were clearly the occupiers. The Rani of Jhansi, as the British press typically called her, was a legitimate ruler and indigenous rebel. Some London-based observers even understood these points. The newspaper publisher and popular novelist George W.M. Reynolds, for instance, supported the revolt, at least at its beginning in the summer of 1857. So did Karl Marx, writing for the New York Tribune.

Rossetti, N05064, 10.08.2022, © Tate

To return to Jhansi in June 1857, the Round Tower garrison was kept by a Scottish officer, Captain Alexander Skene, accompanied to India, as many colonial officers of British India were, by his wife. Christina Rossetti’s poem, knowingly reminiscent of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), narrates another all too real tale of glorious military defeat:

A hundred, a thousand to one; even so;
Not a hope in the world remained:
The swarming, howling wretches below
Gained and gained and gained.

Skene looked at his pale young wife:–
‘Is the time come?’–’The time is come!’–
Young, strong, and so full of life:
The agony struck them dumb.

Close his arm about her now,
Close her cheek to his,
Close the pistol to her brow–
God forgive them this!

‘Will it hurt much?’–’No, mine own:
I wish I could bear the pang for both.’
‘I wish I could bear the pang alone:
Courage, dear, I am not loth.’

Kiss and kiss: ‘It is not pain
Thus to kiss and die.
One kiss more.’–’And yet one again.’–
‘Good by.’–’Good by.’

In short: brave Captain Skene and his angel wife are besieged by the rebel troops, who are subhuman (‘swarming, howling wretches.’) Christina Rossetti treated her pet wombat more like a human being. In The Round Tower, the Rani of Jhansi isn’t even mentioned, rendered invisible by the poet. The Rani was fighting this war after her beloved husband was killed in it, which makes Mrs. Skene her reluctant doppelgänger, but Christina Rossetti does not choose to play up this aspect of the historical moment. Perhaps she does not because Mrs. Skene is so obviously less heroic than the Rani, or because, while one British rationale for imperialism in India was to stop suttee, widow self-sacrifice, the Rani chose to outlive her husband and fight back, while Mrs. Skene didn’t–or, rather, isn’t really offered a choice. According to both poem and 1857 journalistic rumor-mill, Captain Skene indeed shot his wife, then himself.
Incidentally, although the British press and melodramatic theatre accused the Indian rebels of rape of British and Eurasian women (and one such woman, Ulrica Wheeler, was probably rescued by and subsequently married an Indian warrior), there are no reliable records of that happening, so Captain Skene’s murder of his wife cannot be characterized as saving her from any fate worse than death. (Why God needs to forgive ‘them,’ when only he employs free will, is unclear: Mrs. Skene does not commit suicide.)
They die to maintain empire–a corporate empire because the entire mess was begun by the East India Company, incorporated in 1601–and to put down a largely popular, broadly supported indigenous self-determination with a significant female leader. What is feminist or revolutionary about that?
If you like Pre-Raphaelite art and want to see Siddal rescued from musehood, go see this exhibit. If you’re hungry for Victorian artistic revolutionism, you might find that some of the Rossettis have pulled a diabolical bait and switch.