Reviewed by Dennis Hamley
It’s salutary to look back to the nineteenth century and realise the plight of so many talented, brilliant women – usually poets and novelists, seldom working in the more public arts such as painting or music – who would today, even with all its imperfections, be recognised as great artists in their own right, independent of the fact of their gender. Like Emily Dickinson, like the Bronte sisters, they were victims of a male-dominated society suffocating in its strength. Some, like Lizzie Siddall, married to Christina’s brother Dante Gabriel, and Effie Gray, unfortunate enough to marry John Ruskin, paid a high price – Lizzie’s suicide, Effie’s annulment of her marriage through non-consummation. Others – Emily Dickinson and Christina herself - lived frustrated lives of self-abnegation. Kathleen Jones’s title, Learning not to be First, exactly expresses their situation. It is good to have this fascinating, moving biography, first published in 1992, now available on Kindle.
Christina was born in 1830, the fourth child of Gabriele, an Italian political refugee and Professor of Italian at Kings College, London, and Frances, sister of Byron’s doctor, whose maiden name was Polidori. Christina’s eldest brother was the mercurial Dante Gabriel, who some might say had a venal influence on her life and career even though he would insist that he was only trying to help. Of the two sisters, the elder, Maria, was the stronger character: it may be, as Kathleen Jones suggests, that a hard and positive mind triumphed over one as soft and pliable as Christina’s. Her elder brother William was a workaholic; a writer and member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, he kept the family financially afloat by working at the Inland Revenue.
The atmosphere in which Christina grew up was heavily Italianate. This caused an interior tension which she never lost. She was drawn to the south, to the sun and freedom and disliked the greyness of English weather and society. Yet, through her domineering mother, she adopted a steadfast High Church Anglicanism which caused her to reject the two men we are sure she loved, James Collinson the Pre-Raphaelite painter and George Cayley, a minor poet. Collinson reverted to Roman Catholicism, Cayley was an agnostic. Religious scruple decreed she could marry neither. Some commentators believe she secretly loved W B Scott, but he was married already and she kept her feelings to herself.
Christina was a sparkling, happy child. Life and circumstance changed her. In adult life she was variously treated for hysteria, Grave’s disease and, finally, breast cancer. Her life exemplifies the great female trap of the nineteenth century (and not entirely eradicated even today): the near-genius trying to find an individual voice in a society which seemed expressly designed to frustrate her.
Kathleen Jones presents this complex character expertly, in flowing prose of great clarity. Yet for me the most attractive, absorbing feature of the book is her account of Christina’s poetry, which is sometimes heavily religious. Yet there is also evidence that she was an outgoing, affectionate woman, not only capable of deep love but also actively longing for it. She often wrote for children. Ironically, her most famous poem ostensibly for children, Goblin Market, seems to be a concealed warning about the dangers of sexual temptation, expressed in imagery which enacts both its attractiveness and a longing to accede to it. The Convent Threshold expresses the anguish of the passionate woman giving up her love and her life. Remember ends with the bleak
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
This just about sums up both her capacity for love and the suppression of self which prevented her from fulfilling it.
The strengths of Christina’s wonderful poetry in all its moods, sad, passionate, submissive, joyful, are beautifully caught and expressed in this biography. Kathleen Jones is good also at demonstrating her subtle use of language, her frequent rhythmic daring, her use of internal and half-rhyme. Even such a radical linguistic innovator as Gerard Manley Hopkins acknowledged her influence.
I really enjoyed this biography. I knew I would even before I started it. The first book I read by Kathleen Jones was A Passionate Sisterhood, about the women unlucky enough to become attached to the Lake poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. I found its combination of detached observation and angry concern very attractive, as I did with Katherine Mansfield: the Story-Teller. Learning to be First has the same qualities, as a finely observed story, a good critical examination of an important poet and an eloquent account of the frustrations of able women in an inimical society. An important, even vital, theme which nobody does better than Kathleen Jones.