Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Christina Rossetti and the Leveson Inquiry

Dinah Roe

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.


  1. I laughed out loud reading this blog, something I suspected was entirely impossible on this type of day. I think more public inquries should include poetry. In fact, it should become a requirement.

    Jennifer Y responded at 02:21pm on 12/01/2011
  2. Great idea. It could be part of a wider cultural literacy campaign. You can’t start a public inquiry unless you can pronounce ‘Rossetti’.

    Dinah responded at 07:28pm on 12/01/2011
  3. I agree Jennifer Y - more poetry might just brighten this gloomy period! Lovely blog. Strange how poetry makes people seem strange. I love poetry, but if I see someone reading it on public transport, I assume they are pretentious or strange. Unless it is me of course!!!

    Alex responded at 09:43pm on 12/03/2011

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.