Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Christina Rossetti
and Illustration (Ohio University Press, 2002)
Where are the songs I used to know,
Where are the notes I used to sing?
I have forgotten everything
I used to know so long ago...
Christina Rossetti's 'The Key-Note'
One has to love university presses, as they publish books that the more profit oriented presses can't afford to even consider. This work, Christina Rossetti and Illustration, amply demonstrates why this is so; this is very much a 'specialist' work that will have an appeal only to specific audiences. Oh, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth knowing about!
And who was this writer? She was without doubt one of the most important of English woman poets, the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement who was both a poet and a painter. Most of us remember her for her poem tale, The Goblin Market, but she was a prolific and well-regarded writer who did much more than just work intended to be read by children. But it won't surprise you, me readers, that she was not a happy person. After a rather serious illness in 1874, she rarely received visitors or ventured outside her London home. Her favourite themes became, I kid you not, love gone bad, death, and premature resignation to one's fate. Her later works deal with somber religious feelings a subject covered in detail in Christina Rossetti and Illustration.
Christina Rossetti was born in London, one of four children of Italian parents who had emigrated to England. Her father was the Pre-Raphaelite poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), professor of Italian at King's College from 1831 'til he resigned in 1845 because of blindness. All the four children in the family became writers, and Dante Gabriel was also quite well-known as a painter. Christina was educated at home by her mother, Frances Polidori, a former governess and an Anglican of devout evangelical bent which would, in part, explain later Christian work. She shared her parents' interest in poetry and was portrayed in the paintings and drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Christina was the model for her brother's picture The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849), which was the first picture to be signed P.R.B.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was started in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt as a reaction against what they saw as the conservative and overly commercial nature of work produced by painters 'vetted' by the Royal Academy. John Ruskin, one of their group, in The Leader of the 23rd of August 1851 coined the name of the group:
'We begin by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet original manner: that is to say, he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one third of the same; that no two people's heads in the picture are to be turned the same way, and that all the personages represented are to have ideal beauty of the highest order...'Pompous, eh? It was certainly true that there opinions of themselves as better than the average group of painters/writers/lovers was, errr, egotistical in the extreme, but they were right, as their work and lives were brilliant.
Most of the work done on the PRB focuses on the male members, so this is a welcome examination of one of the female PRB members. Now I do find it more than a bit ironic that this work, as the title reflects (Christina Rossetti and Illustration), deals with the mostly male illustrators that, in large part, helped make her a household name. As the press release notes, 'Readers do not always take into account how books that combine image and text make their meanings. But for the Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti, such considerations were central.' Like Charles de lint's The Seven Wild Sisters or Neil Gaiman's illustrated Stardust (both with illustrations by Charles Vess) which were enhanced by the illos, just think of your first encounter with Rossetti's The Goblin Market. Did the illustrations give you nightmares? Good, I would think so. But do you remember the text? Ahhh, I thought not.... Here's a sample of it:
MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."
Not exactly the stuff that nightmares are made of!
So what Lorraine Janzen Kooistra does in Christina Rossetti and Illustration is give us the first in-depth publishing history, including the production and reception, of Rossetti's devotional prose, illustrated poetry, and children's work, both in the author's lifetime and in the myriad posthumous twentieth-century reprints that have, in me opinion, oft times made her a cliché in the world of popular culture. She has, as the author notes, become a commodity: her 'life and work were bound up with illustration. This intimate relationship continued after her death, as her texts were reproduced in illustrated formats for a variety of audiences throughout the twentieth century. Combining pictures and words in printed form may therefore be seen as an important element in the production of the commodity known as Christina....'
The press release says that 'Lorraine Janzen Kooistra is Professor of English at Nipissing University in North Bay, Canada. She is the author of Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History and The Artist as Critic: Bitextuality in Fin-de-Siècle Illustrated Books and co-editor, along with Mary Arseneau and Antony H.Harrison, of The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts. She is currently working on a book-length study of Victorian Poetry and Illustration.' As such, she has the professional creds to undertake this work. The work, as a publishing history, though more than a bit dry for the most part, is stunning in the level of detail that it presents. Like the new Maurice Sendak history I reviewed quite recently, it's chock full of unexpected details, i.e., I had not a clue that The Goblin Market had in England became the source material for a popular play, but Kooistra includes reproductions of the posters for some of the more recent productions. Now how that work was fleshed out 'nough to be a play is 'nother matter altogether!
Ok, 'tis true that Green Man is, as one writer on the Mythsoc listserve so correctly noted, a generalist publication. We are not aimed at the patrons of an art research library nature, nor would I expect us to be so. So who should purchase this book? If you've got a serious interest in the PRB, it's a must, as Christina Rossetti is oft times neglected in the more 'conservative' looks at this group. If you're interested in how a fair to middlin' writer who might otherwise have been forgotten by now stayed well-known, it's a fascinating read. And if you're interested in how text and illustration come to be used in a symbiotic manner as they were in the de Lint and Gaiman novels, it's worth looking at, though prolly not worth purchasing.