Maria Francesca Rossetti was without doubt the least well known member of her family: and this probably suited her very well. Born in 1827, she was the eldest sibling of Dante Gabriel, William Michael and Christina, and was by general consent the most gifted of them all. Taught at home by her mother, she and her sister were denied the opportunity to learn Latin and Greek, which frustrated Maria, as she adored Homer in translation.
But she was bilingual in English and Italian – her father, Gabriele, was (like Sir Anthony Panizzi) a political exile from Italy, as was her mother’s father. (Her uncle, by the way, was John William Polidori, Byron’s physician, and one of the group who famously created spine-chilling stories one evening in 1816 at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva.) She became a governess briefly, out of the necessity of earning her own living, but (like the Brontës) hated being away from home, and turned to private tuition, especially in Italian, for which she devised and later published her own system.
Along with her mother and sister, she was a follower of the High Anglican movement of the mid nineteenth century, and became a ‘lay associate’ sister of the Anglican order of All Saints, Margaret Street, in 1860. She taught Bible classes, and was also responsible for the education of Ford Madox Brown’s daughter Lucy, who eventually married her brother W.M. Rossetti. But in the midst of all this quasi-domestic activity, appropriate to the spinster daughter of a Victorian middle-class home, she continued to pursue her intellectual interests, and it seems probable that her expert knowledge of the Italian language and its history, her interest in epic poetry, and her profound religious faith combined to inspire her scholarly A Shadow of Dante – ‘being an essay towards studying himself, his world and his pilgrimage’.
Dedicated to ‘the beloved memory of my father’, the book was published in 1871, two years before Maria took the decision to become a full member of the community at Margaret Street, where she died of cancer three years later. It was recorded of her that she was a cheerful and contented person, full of humour and unafraid of death. It is a pity that neither her brother nor any of his artist friends seem to have drawn or painted her: the surviving photographs show a plain, moon-faced woman with the severe expression so typical of Victorian photographs, where the pose had to be held for a long time, and smiling was not thought appropriate.
The book is a useful and practical introduction, which acknowledges the difficulty of Dante’s language and allusions, even for native Italian speakers. As Maria says in her introduction, ‘Any acquaintance with a work so sublime must needs be better than none. A shadow may win the gaze of some who never looked upon the substance.’ She begins, after explaining her intentions and her methods, with a clear exposition of ‘Dante’s universe’, complete with diagrams, which is the only one I have read which has even begun to make sense; and then gives a brief account of ‘Dante’s life-experience’. The following analysis of the three parts of the Divina Commedia takes a dyad form: a description of what Dante the writer is telling us about the three spheres of the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, followed by a more detailed account of what Dante the witness saw on his journey. Prose summaries are interspersed with verse translations – that of W.M. Rossetti for Inferno, and the famous rendering by Longfellow for Purgatorio and Paradiso.
It is the translations which if anything let the work down: they are ‘line-for-line blank verse translations’, and inevitably they cannot deal with the deliberate ambiguity of many of Dante’s passages – footnotes frequently expand the text. But the real problem (from my point of view anyway) is the deliberate archaising: there is altogether too much of ‘because that’, ‘there-adown’, or ‘what booteth it to butt against the fates?’ These are all Rossetti: Longfellow is easier (and more beautiful) on the whole, but how about ‘The second, tinct of deeper hue than perse’? I have enough problems with the text, a prose translation and an Italian dictionary, without needing an English one as well.
However, my struggles to get out of the selva oscura will definitely be assisted by Rossetti’s enthusiastic, detailed explanations of Dante’s world- (and heaven-) view – the geography, astronomy (and astrology), history and theology. Self-effacing and undemanding, she seems the antithesis of her selfish, narcissistic brother Dante Gabriel, but what they clearly had in common was a profound sense of the beautiful, both in language and in the physical world – a sense which, in very different ways, they both tried to communicate.