Learning Not To Be First, by Kathleen Jones, has many admirable qualities - moderation, decency, clarity of expression - but its imagined audience seems to consist of members of a parish young wives' group or adult education class (conscientious folk with a detached and rather generalised interest in literature) rather than those of us who are in love with Christina, as well as with her poems.
There is much that is unlovable in Christina Rossetti's verse. To read even a selected edition of her poems from cover to cover in a single sitting is a most dreary experience, -so oppressive is the imagery of 'withering', 'fading', 'winter' and 'frost'. The much anthologised Up-Hill has been called a horror poem, more creepy that anything by Edgar Allan Poe. And the 'slow, dim, clay-cold verses of her religious life' (Edith Sitwell) are enough to dampen the zeal of the most ardent gladiator.
She was born in 1830, the youngest of four children. Her father was a political refugee from Italy, who had come to England in 1824 and earned his living as a professor of Italian at King's College, London. As a child Christina was volatile - her nickname was vivace - and in one incident she slashed her own arm with a pair of scissors. The four brothers and sisters were great card-players and each adopted a suit characteristic of their childish temperament - Christina's suit was diamonds.
Something happened to this sparkling, volatile nature in adolescence. She grew grave and sickly. One of the doctors who treated her at this time noted a tendency to hysteria and there were hints of the onset of religious mania. Although Jones cites a quotation from Edmund Gosse comparing the influence of Christina's older sister, Maria, with that of Newton upon Cowper - the oppressive influence of a hard, convinced mind over a soft and fanciful one - she does not probe or elaborate. But Gosse's proposition is far more interesting than her own attempt to explain Christina's ill health in terms of the sexual politics of the Victorian family - an argument which is anyway rather undermined by the eccentricity and liberality of the Rossettis' upbringing.
Whatever Maria's influence upon her, Christina clearly played second or third fiddle, in different ways, to her two brothers - the agnostic, workaholic William, and the bohemian Dante Gabriel. It is impossible to extricate her life from theirs, and it is arguable that it is silly to try. Stanley Weintraub published a family biography entitled Four Rossettis in 1978, and the biographical picture of Christina given there is every bit as vivid as in this new treatment.