Christina Rossetti and the Leveson Inquiry The Unusual Suspect
‘Christina Rossetti became a brief star of the Leveson inquiry this morning’, the article began. When I saw a story about Christina Rossetti in my Evening Standard ‘Londoner’s Diary’ for 28 November, I thought I was hallucinating. I am not accustomed to seeing one of England’s greatest poets featuring next to photos of Lily Cole and ‘Mollie King, of girl group “The Saturdays”’. At first I reasoned that writing, teaching and blogging about Christina Rossetti had finally brought on some sort of nerdy breakdown. But then I read on, and realised that in fact Christina Rossetti was part of the collective consciousness today.
Once again, the media have delighted in pointing out the spurious connection between Christina Rossetti’s poetry and suspected murder. Innocent landlord and English teacher Chris Jeffries was originally under suspicion for the murder of Jo Yeates, basically because he had an unfashionable haircut and enjoyed reading Rossetti. If you think I’m exaggerating, google ‘Rossetti and Chris Jefferies’ and see for yourself.
If more members of the press had read Christina Rossetti to begin with, they would have had a hard time suspecting Jefferies of murder. Sure, the poet explores dark material, but always with a Christian conscience, and generally with a great deal of sympathy for women’s plight in a male-dominated world. Media observers noted that she wrote about death a lot. Had they been paying attention in class, they might have realised that we would be hard pressed to find a Victorian poet who did not write about death. A lot.
Had people at the time focused on, oh, I dunno, the actual murderer, who enjoyed not sonnet sequences or Christmas hymns but viewing internet pornography depicting sexual violence against women, they might have got their man sooner.
Chris Jefferies has been vindicated, but will always be linked to this tragic event. No matter what the Leveson inquiry finds, it is a sad, sad indictment of our culture that reading poetry is viewed as a suspicious (and potentially homicidal!) activity.
Jefferies is once more in the headlines because he testified in the Leveson inquiry, whose purpose is, according to its website, to ‘make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.’
Rossetti came up in today’s inquiry, but this time Jefferies was quick to rubbish suggestions that he was a fan. According to the Daily Telegraph, he said ‘If I have anything that could remotely be described as an obsession, it would be my dislike of Christina Rossetti’. He added, ‘I never taught it and I would never dream of encouraging other people to read it.’
Okay, I admit my sympathy for the man took a hit.
But overall, I give Jefferies a gold star for his appearance today. Apparently, when QC Robert Jay asked Jefferies about the press linking him to Christina Rossetti, Jefferies rather splendidly responded by correcting Jay’s pronunciation of ‘Rossetti’. Once an English teacher, always an English teacher.
Mr. Jefferies, I may disagree with your taste in poetry, but I applaud your daring display of pedantry and chutzpah. There endeth the lesson.