Book Review: The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe

Year of Publication: 2011

Number of Pages: 412

Publisher: Haus Publishing Ltd.

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography

As you might have guessed by now from my profile picture or my list of “Blogs I Follow,” I sort of have a thing for Pre-Raphaelite art. I’m also a fan of the poetry of Christina Rossetti. So you can imagine my surprise when it finally dawned on me a few years ago that one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was the brother of the famous poetess. Not only that, but the two of them also came from an entire family of artists and writers. This was one family that I had to know more about, so I was excited to read The Rossettis in Wonderland, a biography of the family by university lecturer and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Dinah Roe.

The entire Rossetti clan (minus Gabriele) in an 1863 photo taken by Lewis Carroll. From left to right: Christina, Gabriel, Frances, William, and Maria.
The entire Rossetti clan (minus Gabriele) in an 1863 photo taken by Lewis Carroll. From left to right: Christina, Gabriel, Frances, William, and Maria.

The book begins with Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian-born professor and poet. After being forced to leave Italy during a time of political crisis, Rossetti started a new life in London, where he met and married Frances Polidori. The firstborn Rossetti child, Maria, ultimately found her calling first as a governess and then as a nun, though she would also write literary criticism and religious works. The next-oldest Gabriel—raised in the firm belief that he was the genius of the family—achieved fame both as a poet and as a painter, becoming one of foremost artists of his time. His brother William, though he wouldn’t become a known artist himself, nevertheless influenced the Victorian art world through his work as a critic. And lastly, there was Christina, once in the running to become the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and still considered today to be one of the greatest poets in English history.

As you can see, this story has rather a big cast. As in the case of Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship, which I reviewed in September, this book has to operate on two levels: on the one hand, it’s concerned with the lives of individuals and on the other hand, with the life of a group. Fortunately, Roe does a good job of capturing both ends of the spectrum, the unique individuality of each family member and the collective spirit of the family at large.

I also appreciated the insight and the objectivity Roe brought to her representations of each person. In reading and writing about the past, it’s always important to view people’s thoughts and actions in the context of their own lives rather than in light of how similar actions or beliefs might be interpreted today. One example of where this matters is Christina Rossetti’s faith. As most of her readers probably know, Christina was a devout Christian, an Anglo-Catholic whose faith informed much of her writing. It would be easy for a modern biographer to dismiss Christina’s religious zeal as just another example of the Victorians and their superstitious ways, or to portray it, as some have, as an impediment to her artistic and intellectual development. Roe, on the other hand, tries to understand Christina’s faith in light of what it meant to her, and not what it means to more recent spectators. She also points out how, far from stifling Christina, the Anglican church—and especially the “Tractarian” sect to which she belonged—encouraged education and intellectual accomplishment among its members, including women. I like that Roe took the time to point out just what a serious thing religion was for Christina, and how it shaped and inspired her work as a poet.

The title page of Christina Rossetti's 1862 poetry collection Goblin Market, illustrated by Gabriel Rossetti.
The title page of Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poetry collection Goblin Market, illustrated by Gabriel Rossetti.

For a person interested in any or all of the Rossettis, or in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, this is definitely a book that I would recommend. Still, there were a few glitches here and there:

First off, this book could have greatly benefited from the help of a careful editor. It’s not as if there are typos on every page, but where there are typos, they’re noticeable. For instance, there are a few places where Gabriele Rossetti’s name is misspelled as Gabriel, leading the reader to think that a passage about the father is really about his son. There are also a few places where Roe repeats herself, presenting information that she first introduced a few pages earlier as if this is the first time the reader is hearing it. Altogether, it made the reading experience less smooth than it could have been.

Second, I didn’t care for all of the speculation on the author’s part. There were points where she would suggest a number of things that a specific person might have been thinking or feeling at a certain moment, without pointing to any letters or diaries that backed her up. It felt like Roe was trying to create an emotional connection between the reader and her subjects in these moments, but it didn’t quite work. At least, not for me. Mostly, it just slowed the book down, I thought. Overall, though, it’s still a great biography, and heavily footnoted with a long bibliography in the back. Not all biographers take the time to add footnotes and bibliographies these days, so I was glad she did.

That about wraps it up for me. Do let me know in the comments if you’ve read this book, what you thought about it, and if you can recommend any other interesting books on the Rossettis or the Pre-Raphaelites.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe

  1. Good review! I also really enjoyed this book, though I thought one area where Roe could have shown more sympathy toward her subjects was in the area of women’s rights – her feminist perspective occasionally got in the way of her ability to understand especially Christina and Maria.

    I think my biggest hero after reading this book was Frances Rossetti – I was fascinated by how intentionally she set about nurturing her children’s artistic interests. She sounded like one of the best homeschooling mums ever, haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I didn’t know much about Frances Rossetti going in, but once I did get to know more about her, I was really impressed by her too. And the Polidori aunts all sound awesome. 😀


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