I do not typically write historical fiction.
However, my current English Lit class posed such an assignment. I am fairly happy with the outcome, so I thought I would share it.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was a famed poet in the Victorian Era of literature. During such times, many writers found inspiration from other forms of art (in this case paintings). The assignment called for a fictional dialogue between the poet and their subject to touch on why a writer would use other art forms as their subject, what motivated one to do so and to what literary benefit.
For the story, I chose to highlight the themes and meanings behind the Rossetti poem, “In An Artist’s Studio”. This is a fictional account of how the poem came to be. Let me know what you think.
Ms. Christina Rossetti removed her gloves as she entered the studio of the renowned painter. She had heard of his marvelous work from her charity ball, in which his paintings depicting women of all lifestyles were graciously donated to be auctioned for her cause. She had traveled days to thank the gentleman in person for his generosity, but when she walked into the dusty loft, she was met with a troubling realization.
“Pardon me,” Rossetti addressed a younger woman cleaning paint brushes in a back corner of the open room.
“Me, madam?” the girl did not look Rossetti in the eyes but kept her head bowed in case she had not been the subject of her conversation.
“You. This is you in these paintings, is it not?” Rossetti motioned to the dozens of canvases that hung on the walls and the forest of easels she navigated through to close the gap between her and the busy women.
“Oh, madam, I am just the assistant here. The artist should be questioned about his work, not me,” the girl turned back to her labor but led the way with searching hands as if the very room they stood was pitch black.
“My dear woman, are you inflicted?” Rossetti maintained an objective tone as to not offend the woman with her pity.
“Only just, madam. I promise you I am a competent assistant,” the woman said continuing to work.
“Without a doubt,” Rossetti said masking her heartbreak.
It was not because the girl was blind, that struck Rossetti. It was the irony that every single beautiful painting in the room held a woman as its subject. Though each in its variance of time and place, the face, the eyes especially, were all the same. It was the same woman who blindly tended to the studio chores. It was this irony that moved Rossetti so much that she felt she must articulate the beauty and admiration that was apparent in the artist’s work to this capable woman.
Then, Rossetti mused, would the enlightenment of the woman remove all romance from the entire scene? The paintings she blindly cares for, are that of her likeness; a likeness she has never seen herself.
The tragedy, Rossetti thought to herself, is in and of itself a work of art. If I remove the veil of mystery for this woman, would her admirer, in turn, lose his attraction? I shall not rob a man of his muse, but I cannot merely keep this a secret. His exploitation of this woman through his works, while she is none the wiser, is not a crime. But how much of a god does this artist feel in placing her in every imaginable fantasy he has?
As Rossetti passed each painting, she filtered through mixed emotions on the matter. Her duty, as a fellow woman as well as a poet, to articulate such metaphors as man’s unapologetic puppet mastery of women wrestled with the beauty of her situation. While the paintings were exquisite, as were the ones donated for her charity, their subject was unknowingly a captive.
“Can I help you find something in particular?” a man’s voice broke through her thoughts.
“What is all this?” she asked before considering with whom she spoke.
“Well, if you’ve made it this far through the showroom and up the stairs to my studio, one can assume these are paintings. Now if you don’t mind, miss…?”
“Rossetti. Christina Rossetti. My apologies. I’ve traveled days to thank you in person for your donation.”
“Miss Rossetti,” he emphasized the Miss, “pardon my assumption, but your inquisition betrays your appreciation. Have you found something disapproving?”
“Perhaps. May we speak alone?” she requested, motioning subtly toward the feminine muse who still kept busy with the brushes.
“Mary, can you see to the showroom floor? The wind has made quite a nest of leaves in the corners.”
“Yes.” And she was gone.
Rossetti, only then, regretted her request. It was not proper for a woman to be alone with a man, but she swallowed her apprehension and began.
“She has no idea does she?”
“I am afraid I do not follow,” the artist seemed to grow annoyed.
“She is the subject of your art. All of your paintings are of her. No matter the setting, it is obvious maybe only to someone who has been here and has seen her in the flesh. I admittedly did not notice in the three pieces sent on your behalf as they were markedly differing in scenes. But now I see who she is.”
“Well, what is it then that has you in such a troubled state, Miss Rossetti? If my donations earned their weight in the auction and in turn served their purpose to you. Why then do you have such an apprehension to my muse?”
“Keeping secrets is a form of lying, would you agree? So she works for you day in and day out, unknowingly lending herself to your intrusive imagination.” At the word intrusive, Rossetti pointed out a bare-breasted whore in a tavern, seated on a man’s lap. “It would appear, to me and maybe others with this inclination, that you watch this woman in her most vulnerable state. Spying on her.”
As she spoke, she referred to another painting of the same woman undressing behind a screen; however, her body was exposed by a strategically placed mirror that no other woman would dare position in such an angle knowingly revealing herself to anyone on the other side. The thought sickened her stomach.
“Do you, at the very least, appreciate her? If she does not know, and you wish to keep it this way, do you have a care for her as a person?”
The man stood awkwardly, liking to that of a child confronted by a Sister of an infraction during mass. He walked to an easel holding a canvas in mid-work. In this painting, the woman wore a regal dress with her shoulders exposed and her belly swollen with child. After touching a brush to it once or twice, he finally put it down.
“She is my sister, born minutes after me and without her sight. Our mother died in childbirth and our father when we were fifteen. I have taken care of her since we were just children.” The artist paused for a moment before starting again. “I understand how this may appear, but please know, Miss Rossetti, my sister, means more to me than anything and I would appreciate your discretion in this matter.”
Christina Rossetti politely bowed and left the painter in his studio. She saw his sister on her way back through the showroom, and though her conscious fought with her, she remained silent in her exit. With her heart so disturbed, yet reverent to the sensitivity of the matter, Rossetti pulled her parchment from her bag and sat on a quiet bench.
Rossetti felt the powerful duty to give voice to her discovery in this art. In her heart, it mixed within her an injustice. Aside from the tragedy in which she had only just removed herself from, there was still something to be said of the manipulation the art portrayed in society. His sister was his sister in the means of blood and duty; however, she was not his sister in the ways that he painted her. She was anything but a sister. And in this realization, Christina Rossetti wished the world to know how paradoxical and metaphorical the experience.
So moved by the very heart of the matter she penned:
“One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel;— every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”
Dacia M Arnold
Want behind the scenes sneak peaks at Dacia’s work? Become a patron at Patreon.com/daciamarnold
If you like reading, please subscribe here!