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It is widely believed that Christina Rossetti had lesbian inclinations, although it is unclear whether she ever acted on them.

In several places, I have seen references to the fact that her brother, William Michael Rossetti, destroyed a handful of her poems after her death because they were love poems written to women. For example, the essay "The Suppression of Lesbian and Gay History,” by Rictor Norton, claims that

When Christina Rossetti’s brother edited her poetry for publication, he apparently destroyed some half-dozen of her poems, not because they were explicitly ‘erotic’, but simply because they were love poems addressed to women.

and a snippet view from Google books: The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets by Jeni Couzyn (1985):

When he edited her collected poems, it is significant that her brother William Michael Rossetti extracted from the work half a dozen poems which, from their titles, appear to have been love poems addressed directly to women.

However, I can't find any solid reference for this fact, and Rictor Norton doesn't explain where he learned this fact, or give any explicit references.

What is the evidence that this actually happened, if there is any? What were the titles of these poems? And if there is no such evidence, who was the first person to describe this “event”?

William Michael Rossetti may actually admit to doing something like this in the introduction to the posthumous collection, New Poems by Christina Rossetti. He says

I have reprinted everything by my sister which I find already published, not in volume form. I omit the more unsuccessful items in her early book of Verses and I omit also a certain — not large — number of compositions in MS., whether in the notebooks or otherwise, which appear to me to represent her less than well.

But the quotes I found are oddly much more specific than this — they say that half a dozen poems which were love poems addressed to other women were omitted, and imply that their titles are known.

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William Rossetti’s The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (1904) contains an appendix listing the titles of poems that were neither printed in Works nor in New Poems (1896):

Appendix B.—Poems by Christina Rossetti, extant in ms. (a few in print also), but not used in the present edition, nor in the New Poems printed in 1896.

William Michael Rossetti (1904). The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, p. xli. London: Macmillan.

This list is surely what Jeni Couzyn was referring to in her 1985 introduction to the Bloodaxe Book: her phrasing “from their titles” suggests that she had access to the titles but not to the text of these poems, which suggests that she was relying on this appendix. I find that only one of the titles in the appendix is clearly a “love poem addressed directly to a woman”, not the “half a dozen” claimed by Couzyn:

50. Song (I have loved you for long long years, Ellen) (1852)

Two more titles suggest love poems, but referring to women in the third person:

24. Song (I saw her, she was lovely) (1846)
40. Zara (The pale sad face of her I wronged) (1848) — the speaker here is a man: De Courcy, the protagonist of Charles Maturin’s novel Women, or Pour et Contre (1818)

And if you believed that William had suppressed his sister’s lesbian poems, some other titles might have suggested love poems addressed directly to women, in particular:

3. Rosalind (1843) — a narrative poem in the style of a ballad, not a love poem
26. Eva (1846) — the speaker here is Eva Wentworth, a character from Maturin’s Women
37. Ellen Middleton (1848) — the speaker here is the protagonist of the novel Ellen Middleton (1844) by Lady Georgiana Fullerton.

Note that none of these poems were destroyed as claimed by Rictor Norton. They all appear in Christina Rossetti: the Complete Poems (2001), edited by Betty S. Flowers, and I have linked each title to its appearance in that collection.

I suspect that there has been a game of whispers here. Couzyn wrote that “her brother William Michael Rossetti extracted from the work half a dozen poems”, where “extracted” is ambiguous: Couzyn meant “omitted from the collected works” but perhaps Norton understood it as “removed from the manuscript notebooks and destroyed”. This misunderstanding could have arisen because there is one instance where we know that Dante Gabriel Rossetti destroyed part of one of Christina’s poems. However, the reason was not to suppress his sister’s lesbianism, but to censor an unflattering pen-portrait of himself:

Portraits, p. 423.—This warm-hearted though light effusion is meant for myself in the first stanza, and for Dante Gabriel and myself in the last. There used to be an intermediate stanza, characterizing him; it is torn out† (by his rather arbitrary hand, beyond a doubt), and I do not remember its terms. Many readers now will agree with me in thinking this a great pity.

William Rossetti (1904), p. 491.

† Helen Moffett, who examined the notebook, which is in the Bodleian Library, says that “part of the page itself had been cut away”, not “torn out” as described by William, though maybe this is a distinction without a difference. (Helen Moffett (1993). Rewriting Christina Rossetti: Cross-Gendered Sibling Rivalry, Fraternal Intervention and the Counter-Poetics of Dissidence, p. 3. PhD Thesis. University of Cape Town.)

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  • Ellen Middleton was a 1844 novel by Georgiana Fullerton. Presumably the poem is written from the viewpoint of the title character of this novel, as she is dying.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 22, 2023 at 12:38
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    Great work! Wonderful answer!
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 22, 2023 at 12:43
  • Thanks for explaining "Ellen Middleton"; I've added that to the answer. Aug 22, 2023 at 12:44
  • The only one of these poems that could be seen as shedding light Rossetti's sexuality is "I saw her, she was lovely," which it does if you think the speaker is Christina Rossetti. "I saw her, and I loved her, // I loved her for my pain, // For her heart was given to another // Not to return again."
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 25, 2023 at 12:36
  • "I have loved you for long, long years, Ellen" is clearly written from a man's point of view, because he offers Ellen a coronet, which he could only give her by marrying her. And in the others, the speaker is either a character from a novel, or they aren't love poems at all.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 25, 2023 at 12:41

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