Pre-Raphaelites in The City: New Book On Christina Rossetti!

Dinah Roe

New Book On Christina Rossetti! An Interview With the Author, Dr Serena Trowbridge

Those of you who are fans of Christina Rossetti will be as delighted as I am to learn that there is a brand new book exploring Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, an area of study that is screaming from a crumbling turret for the greater attention it deserves. Its author, Dr Serena Trowbridge, has very kindly agreed to be interviewed about Christina Rossetti’s place in her own writing life.

You can learn more about Serena and her work by reading her blog, Culture and Anarchy, which I highly recommend, as it often features the Pre-Raphaelites. She is a Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Her research interests include:poetry, particularly of the nineteenth century; women’s history and writing; Gothic literature; nineteenth-century Anglican theology; Ruskin; children’s literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Pre-Raphaelitism in art and literature; literary theory. She is also editor of the Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society. You can follow her on twitter @serena_t.

Q: When did you first become interested in studying Christina Rossetti?
A: I’ve been interested in the Pre-Raphaelites for a long time now, and wrote my MA dissertation on The Germ. When I starting thinking about a Ph.D., I spent some time researching different Pre-Raphaelite writers, particularly thinking about how views of them have changed over the last century. For Christina Rossetti, this has been quite dramatic – though some of her poems have remained fairly popular (particularly ‘Goblin Market’, ‘A Birthday’ and some of the other shorter lyric poems), many of them had been virtually ignored. She was often seen as a sweet and gentle poetess, perhaps a bit too feminine, until in the mid-1970s she began to be examined by feminist critics who often endeavoured to ‘reclaim’ her as a closet feminist. Later, there was a resurgence of interest in her religious work and ideas, and all of these movements went some way towards re-establishing her reputation as a major Victorian poet, but I felt there was more work to be done.

Q: What made you want to focus on the gothic in Rossetti’s work?
A: I suppose I was looking for a different angle, and when reading her poems it seemed to me that the gothic just jumps out of the page! When I discovered that she had read a lot of gothic novels and was very interested in the gothic, I felt this was an excellent way to look at a ‘different’ Rossetti; one who doesn’t fit the mould of Victorian women, but who was a literary innovator, drawing on her antecedents but rewriting them for her own ends and in unusual and dramatic ways. Many studies have been devoted to looking at how the Victorians appropriated and rewrote gothic, and Rossetti participated in this but in entirely her own, unique way.

Q: Can you explain what you mean ‘fractured’ gothic (which was the title of your PhD)?
A: This is my way of trying to indicate that gothic is not one monolithic entity which can easily be identified, and which manifests itself in one coherent body. In my book I use Walpole’s giant knight in The Castle of Otranto as a metaphor for gothic itself – sprawling, incoherent, only visible in parts, and firmly rooted in history, religion and domestic settings. Gothic was fractured from its very conception, coming from many sources: earlier literature, religion, history, architecture, social unease, etc. Rossetti’s interest in reading the gothic permitted her to rework tropes and ideas from it in her poems, but not always in a consistent way: she experimented with the forms and styles as well as the aesthetics and preoccupations of gothic – thus fracturing the form even further. Ultimately, I concluded that her form of gothic also owes a lot to the Bible, in particular the book of Revelation, where the preoccupation with boundaries, thresholds, transgression and evil combine to form an ancient template for many gothic forms. For Rossetti, the world was fractured, and gothic, because it was fallen, and could only be restored by God.

Q: Which particular poems have you concentrated on?
A: Quite a range! An early chapter looks at her early poems which responded directly to gothic novels she had read, writing monologues for the heroines, for example. These poems have some value as juvenilia but are also useful early indicators of the preoccupations of her later work. There is also a chapter on her ‘ghost’ poems, including ‘After Death’, ‘The Hour and the Ghost’ and ‘The Ghost’s Petition’. Of course, there is a chapter on ‘Goblin Market’, looking at gothic themes within this poem, including vampirism and the gothic goblins! I also consider some of her ballads of ‘fallen women’, such as ‘Maud Clare’, and a range of poems which draw on the concept of the grotesque.

Q: Do you discuss her short stories or devotional prose? Why or why not?
A: I don’t discuss her short stories; I would have loved to, especially ones such as ‘Speaking Likenesses’, which have wonderful gothic resonances, but I simply couldn’t fit any more into the book! There is certainly scope for more work on these, though. The last chapter of my book concentrates on the devotional prose, however, as I think it is in these books, surprisingly, that Rossettian gothic really comes into focus: by locating her gothic writing in her faith, it’s possible to see her work as much more coherent than when dividing it up into ‘juvenilia’, ‘poems’, ‘religious poems’ and ‘devotional work’, as William Michael Rossetti’s edition of her work encourages us to do.

Q: Do you know whether Rossetti had any particular favourite gothic writers?
A: Yes, she was particularly keen on the novels of Charles Robert Maturin, including Melmoth the Wanderer and The Wild Irish Boy. She wrote a number of poems responding to these novels, and I cover this engagement with Maturin’s work in some detail in the book. She also enjoyed the novels of Ann Radcliffe, though she never specifically wrote poems based on these, though there are some of her early poems which may well have been inspired by Radcliffe without being acknowledged as such. In fact, Rossetti was at one stage intending to write a biography of Radcliffe, but found insufficient information. Rossetti also read and liked the novels of Bulwer-Lytton, some of which have a distinctly gothic flavour. I have always wondered if she read Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, and if so, what she thought of it!

Q: To what extent do you think her family influenced Rossetti’s gothic tastes?
A: I think they certainly must have done. The four siblings all read and enjoyed the novelists mentioned above, and of course the family was saturated in the work of Dante, which also has gothic affinities. I think Pre-Raphaelitism also owes a lot to gothic, in many of its settings, its medievalism and its religious affinities, for example, so this family interest clearly affected Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, too.

Q: Which other Pre-Raphaelite writers were interested in the gothic?
A: Dante Gabriel Rossetti certainly was; I don’t know about the rest of the PRB in terms of what they read, but their paintings that respond to Tennyson, Keats and Shakespeare, for example (I’m thinking especially of Millais here) seem to me to owe a great deal to gothic aesthetics.

Q: Do you teach Rossetti or the Pre-Raphaelites in your work as a Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University?
A: I do, happily: in a first-year poetry module I devote a week to Pre-Raphaelite poetry, as students always respond well to this, and it’s wonderful being able to illustrate the lectures with Pre-Raphaelite paintings and discuss the significance of the interaction of text and image. I also have a week on Christina Rossetti in a second-year Victorian literature module, and manage to work some of her poems into other modules I teach, too!

Q: You write a blog and maintain a twitter account. Why did you begin, and how does publishing online compare with the experience of academic writing?
A: The blog began many years ago as a way of keeping a record of plays, exhibitions and books I enjoyed! I fill notebooks with ideas from these things, and thought that reviewing them for a blog would be a good way for me to use these notes. However, as it’s developed, it’s now more about my research and the books I read, and is a useful and enjoyable way to disseminate my work, get feedback from others, and connect with people with similar interests. I’m currently reviewing the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize as a way of reading some good contemporary fiction! The twitter account was initially used just as a feed for my blog posts, but as social media for academics has become more common, it’s now a great way to keep up-to-date with colleagues, to network and to find out what else is going on in my field.
Q: What’s next for you / What are you working on at the moment?
A: Quite a lot! A collection of essays, which I co-edited with Amelia Yeates, on Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities, is due to be published by Ashgate in 2014, and I am working on another edited collection with Thomas Knowles, Insanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century, to be published by Pickering & Chatto in 2015. Related to this, I am also doing some research for Avoncroft Museum, who have acquired an airing court shelter from a lunatic asylum, on the history of the asylum. I’ve also just organised a conference on Russian and British literature in the nineteenth century, and we hope an edited collection will come from this, too. I’m working on Elizabeth Siddal’s poetry, which I think tends to be overlooked in favour of her short but dramatic life, and am slowly writing proposals for a book about the Graveyard Poets. I’m also developing a new module on Gothic literature for teaching at BCU.


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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.