Saturday, June 19, 2010
Commonplace - Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti is one of my favourite poets. She was a member of a talented family. Her brother, Dante Gabriel, was a founding member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young Victorian artists who wanted to revolutionise the staid world of the Royal Academy. Christina was a model for Gabriel in several paintings but I prefer the beautiful chalk drawings he did of her like the one above.
Her most famous poem, Goblin Market, is an extraordinary poem about sisterhood, love & temptation. She also wrote very movingly of love & loss, especially in the Monna Innominata sonnets. Christina also wrote children’s stories & fables with a religious theme as well as a few other pieces of short fiction. Commonplace is one of these, & Hesperus Press has reprinted it in a beautiful edition with yet another of their stunning cover designs. Commonplace is the story of the three Charlmont sisters, Catherine, Lucy & Jane. They’ve lived in Brompton-on-Sea all their lives. Their father went missing in a boating accident when Catherine was 12 & Jane not yet born. Their mother died in childbirth after making Catherine promise that one of the girls would always be at home to welcome back their father when he returns. Of course, he never does return & by the time Jane is 18, the three sisters are entrenched in their comfortable, middle-class existence in Brompton-on-Sea.
Catherine, in her early 30s, has been a mother to Jane & Lucy & feels the responsibility of her position. Lucy is a gentle soul who has loved & lost & is almost resigned to spinsterhood. Jane is dependant financially on her sisters (her father made no provision for her in his will because he didn’t know his wife was pregnant when he died), spoilt, wilful & determined to marry comfortably to escape her dependency. She hasn’t a romantic or sensitive bone in her body. In these three women, Christina Rossetti explores the options for middle-class women in Victorian England. There are some very funny scenes, especially when Jane decides to marry a pompous name-dropper, much older than herself. This man, Mr Durham, has a daughter, Stella, who has married Alan Hartley, the object of Lucy’s unrequited love. Lucy surprises herself by becoming very fond of Stella & finally seeing through Alan’s shallow charms. All is not lost for her though as an old suitor reappears on the scene.
Rossetti packs a lot into just 60pp. Many other Victorian writers would have found enough plot here for a three volume novel. Commonplace is a slight story, a bit of a curiosity from an author better known for her poetry, but I found it an interesting exploration of the constraints on middle-class women of the time.