From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Rossetti was born in London and educated at home by her mother. In the 1840s her family was stricken with severe financial difficulties due to the deterioration of her father's physical and mental health. When she was 14, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown which was followed by bouts of depression and related illness. During this period she, her mother, and her sister became seriously interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement that was part of the Church of England. This religious devotion played a major role in Rossetti's personal life: in her late teens she became engaged to the painter James Collinson but this ended because he reverted to Catholicism; later she became involved with the linguist Charles Cayley but did not marry him, also for religious reasons.
Rossetti began writing at age 7 but she was 31 before her first work was published — Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). The collection garnered much critical praise and, according to Jan Marsh, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death two months later led to Rossetti being hailed as her natural successor as 'female laureate'." The title poem from this book is Rossetti's best known work and, although at first glance it may seem merely to be a nursery rhyme about two sisters' misadventures with goblins, the poem is multi-layered, challenging, and complex. Critics have interpreted the piece in a variety of ways: seeing it as an allegory about temptation and salvation; a commentary on Victorian gender roles and female agency; and a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Some readers have noted its likeness to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" given both poems' religious themes of temptation, sin and redemption by vicarious suffering. Her Christmas poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" became widely known after her death when set as a Christmas carol by Gustav Holst as well as by other composers.
Rossetti continued to write and publish for the rest of her life although she focused primarily on devotional writing and children's poetry. She maintained a large circle of friends and for ten years volunteered at a home for prostitutes. She was ambivalent about women's suffrage but many scholars have identified feminist themes in her poetry. Furthermore, as Marsh notes, "she was opposed to war, slavery (in the American South), cruelty to animals (in the prevalent practice of animal experimentation), the exploitation of girls in under-age prostitution and all forms of military aggression."
In 1893 Rossetti developed cancer and Graves' disease then died the following year due to the cancer on December 29, 1894; she is buried in Highgate Cemetery. In the early 20th century Rossetti's popularity faded as many respected Victorian writers' reputations suffered from Modernism's backlash. Rossetti remained largely unnoticed and unread until the 1970s when feminist scholars began to recover and comment on her work. In the last few decades Rossetti's writing has been rediscovered and she has regained admittance into the Victorian literary canon.