Your browser does not support JavaScript!
Mini-Biospowered by ZigZag Education

Rossetti, Christina

Early childhood
Born in 1830 in London to an immensely talented and artistic family, Christina Rossetti was a prodigy with poetic verse. The youngest of four children, she wrote her first rhyming couplet at just five years old. Her family described her as: ‘bright and lively’, ‘curious… sharp, whimsical’ but also ‘fractious and miserable’1. Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, nicknamed the four children ‘two storms’ and ‘two calms’, Christina being one of the former.

Her father, an Italian exile, was obsessed with the medieval writer Dante Alighieri, whose texts constituted an almost supernatural presence in the house. Her mother, Frances (née Polidori), homeschooled both Christina and her sister, Maria, after Christina’s first breakdown.

As an adolescent, Rossetti was often left to care for her father as his health declined. She became obsessed with death, especially the deaths of saintly women, and began displaying psychosomatic symptoms of what Victorian doctors called ‘hysteria’ and ‘religious mania’. It is a gross understatement to say that Rossetti held strong religious beliefs. The idea that she was irredeemably unworthy of Christ’s sacrifice plagued her with guilt throughout her lifetime and is evident in much of her poetry. The influence of biblical imagery and allusion is at the very core of her work as a poet.

Recognising her natural aptitude for writing, Rossetti’s grandfather published her poetry by the time she was just 17 years old. At the age of 20, Rossetti wrote Maude, a quasi-autobiographical book of prose in which the central character experiences ‘religious mania’.

Adult life
Brothers Dante Gabriel and William were founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, while her sister, Maria, became a governess. Rossetti declined membership to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but did model as the Virgin Mary and for other paintings for the group.

Despite research, much of Rossetti’s life is still a riddle. Her journals, letters and poetry were meticulously edited, and some she destroyed during her lifetime. She shied away from the public eye and was extremely introverted and isolated. We know of just three romantic relationships. James Collinson, the most significant, decided after a two-year engagement to enter the priesthood, but later on Rossetti found out that he had rescinded and married another woman. John Brett was a brief love interest resulting in little more than a half-finished painting and the poem ‘No, Thank You, John’. Rossetti called off her third and final relationship, with Charles Cayley, due to his agnosticism, which could never compete with her love for God.

Although an independent woman for the duration of her life, Rossetti was far from a feminist and actively campaigned against suffrage. 2 However, this is often contradicted in her writings, which explore gender ideology and subvert them. She spent 11 years as a volunteer for the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary, an institution rehabilitating ‘fallen women’. Rossetti’s experience working with prostitutes and unwed mothers influenced a range of her work, which explores the social and cultural perspectives of sex, morality and values.

Final years
Later in life, Rossetti battled Graves’ disease, which accounts for her bulging eyes. In 1894, just four days after Christmas, a reoccurrence of breast cancer claimed her life at the age of 64. In typical Rossetti fashion, she had already prepared (and scrupulously edited) her own memorial service.

1Thomas, Frances. Christina Rossetti, Virago Press, 2011, p. 22.
Show / hide details

Christina Georgina Rossetti born

Rossetti was born to Italian immigrant parents in London.

Father became ill

Gabriele Rossetti’s health deteriorated and he could no longer provide financially for the family. Mother Frances Mary went out to work as a governess while young Christina was left to look after her father.

Christ Church

The Rossetti family began attending Christ Church and ascribed to the Tractarianism movement there. High Anglicanism became an integral part of Rossetti’s poetry.

First breakdown

Rossetti suffered her first nervous breakdown and left school (she was subsequently homeschooled).

First poems published

Rossetti’s grandfather published her first poems in Verses.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed

Brothers Dante Gabriele and William, along with six other men, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Depression and somatisation

Rossetti sank into a serious depression. Doctors were baffled by her symptoms of heart problems and breathing difficulties. She was labelled a hysteric with religious mania.

Engagement to James Collinson

Rossetti became engaged to James Collinson, but after two years he decided to become a priest, and, with Rossetti in poor health, the engagement was broken.

Father died

After years of suffering and increasing blindness, Gabriele Rossetti passed away.

Major religious crisis

Rossetti suffered a major religious crisis. Her persistent belief that she was unworthy of Jesus’s sacrifice and that she would bring only shame plagued her.

Relationship with John Brett

Rossetti had a very brief relationship with John Brett. The poem ‘No, Thank You, John’ is believed to have a direct connection to him.

Volunteer work

Known as Sister Christina, Rossetti volunteered for two weeks at a time to work at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for fallen women. Rossetti carried out this work for 11 years.

Death of Lizzie Siddall

Elizabeth Siddall, Rossetti’s sister-in-law, passed away from a laudanum overdose. There is speculation about whether the death was accidental as suicide was illegal at the time.

Goblin Market published

The collection Goblin Market and Other Poems was published. Lizzie, the protagonist in ‘Goblin Market’, may have been inspired by Rossetti’s late sister-in-law.

Relationship with Charles Cayley

A brief relationship with Charles Cayley broke down because his agnosticism contrasted with Rossetti’s very strong Tractarian views and connection with High Anglicanism.

The Prince’s Progress published

Rossetti’s second poetry collection, The Prince’s Progress, was published.

Graves’ disease

Rossetti suffered from fever, exhaustion, hair loss, violent headaches and bulging eyes, and had a near-fatal attack of Graves’ disease. The threat of relapse remained for the next 24 years.

Brother’s nervous breakdown

Rossetti’s brother Dante Gabriel had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

Rossetti’s religious writings

Over the next 20 years, Rossetti wrote and published a range of religious devotionals on saintliness and Benedictine prayers, notably The Face of the Deep.

Brother died

Dante Gabriel Rossetti passed away.

Mother died

Frances Mary Rossetti passed away.

Breast cancer

Rossetti suffered from breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.

Breast cancer reoccurrence and death

Rossetti’s breast cancer came back. She died not recover and died peacefully with a nurse holding her hand.

Posthumous poems published

Her brother William published Rossetti’s collection of New Poems, including ‘From the Antique’.