Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Christina Rossetti Spotted in Atlantic City

Dinah Roe

Christina Rossetti Spotted in Atlantic City ‘What Does the Bee Do?’ in Season 2 Episode 4 of ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Christina Rossetti’s children’s poem was recently recited in an October episode of the hit TV series, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (Season 2, Episode 4). The episode’s title comes from her poem ‘What Does the Bee Do?’, published in her collection of children’s verse, ‘Sing-Song’. You may recall Margaret’s daughter Emily reciting it in the kitchen at the top of the TV program. Christina’s poem presents a traditional portrait of Victorian domestic economy, where Father brings home the money and Mother manages the household expenses:

What does the bee do?
  Bring home honey.
And what does Father do?
  Bring home money.
And what does Mother do?
  Lay out the money.
And what does baby do?
  Eat up the honey.

Click here to see Arthur Hughes’s original illustration for this poem.

This balance was not achieved by Christina’s own family. Her father, Gabriele, was a teacher of Italian who lost many of his respectable English pupils following his publication of heretical writings on Dante Alighieri. His wife Frances and eldest daughter Maria were forced to work as governesses, while his youngest son William took a full-time job as a taxman at the age of fifteen. In the Rossetti family economy, it was the women and children in the family who brought home the money. 

‘Boardwalk Empire’ unsurprisingly gives this poem’s idealized family portrait the ironic treatment in its exploration of men and women’s roles as breadwinners. Click here for an episode summary.

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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.