Adolescence and early adulthood: 1846-1860


At the age of 14, Rossetti suffered an emotional breakdown. This has been attributed to various causes and influences. It is likely that its onset was caused by combination of factors linked to her family, her fears regarding her faith and her anxieties about her writings.

Poverty and ill health

In the 1840s, Gabriele Rossetti’s health suffered and the family’s financial security collapsed. As a consequence, Maria left home to become a governess.

More on the governess: A governess was a female who was employed to teach school-age children within a family home. She occupied an ambiguous social position. She neither belonged to the family for whom she was working, nor was she considered an equal to the servants of the household. Literary representations of the Victorian governess can be found in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (see Texts in detail: Jane Eyre), Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

In the early 1850s, Frances, with the help of Christina (then in her early twenties), attempted to establish a day school. However, this endeavour never succeeded and the school closed after a year. It was also at this time that Christina began to suffer from the ill health that would continue to torment her for the rest of her life.


In 1848, at the age of 18, Rossetti became engaged to Pre-Raphaelite (see Literary Context > The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) artist James Collinson. She broke off the engagement in 1850 because he converted to Roman Catholicism.

More on Roman Catholicism in Victorian England: Following the conversion of leading Tractarian, John Henry Newman in 1845 (see Religious / philosophical context > Tractarianism > John Henry Newman), many Anglicans, unhappy with the current state of the Church of England followed his example. Christina Rossetti was very eager to avoid the devotion to the Virgin Mary that Roman Catholic doctrine encourages and was not happy with the idea of looking to the Pope as the Head of the Church.

In 1866, Rossetti rejected the proposal of marriage she received from the poet and translator Charles Bagot Cayley. She felt unable to marry him since he was an agnostic. However, they remained good friends until his death in 1883. In fact, Rossetti helped him with some of his translations of Dante (see The life and times of Christina Rossetti > Birth, upbringing and education > More on Dante).


Rossetti subsequently remained single, living with her mother and aunt for most of her life. Some biographers have attributed the heartbreak, expressed by many of the speakers of her poems, to her own broken engagements. This type of reading, however, often moves away from an appreciation of her poetry as works of imaginative art.

Brothers and sister

Rossetti was close to her three siblings throughout her life and was in frequent correspondence with each:

  • Maria (1827-1876) was a devout Christian believer and became a nun in 1874. She was also the author of The Shadow of Dante: Being an essay towards studying himself, his world and his pilgrimage, which she published in 1871
  • Dante Gabriel (1828-1882) was a Pre-Raphaelite poet, painter and illustrator (see Literary Context > The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). He is famous for his sonnet sequence The House of Life which he published in 1881 and his paintings, Beata Beatrix which depicts Dante’s Beatrice and Girlhood of Mary, Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini which both portray the Virgin Mary
  • William Michael (1829-1919) was a critic and editor. After her death, he edited an edition of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. He also worked for the Inland Revenue.