A recent cataloguing project has made a significant collection of 19th-century letters available.

Special Collections holds over 700 letters written by members of the Rossetti family. Some letters were part of the original Brotherton Collection, acquired during the 1920s, with other material added to the collection over the years. Previously inaccessible, the collection has now been catalogued thanks to generous funding from the Strachey Trust, and the letters are available for research.

The largest group of letters were written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and offer insight into both the beginning and end of his career. Early letters reveal a humorous correspondent. One letter written from a deluged Kent describes him sketching ‘with my umbrella tied over my head to my buttonhole – a position which you will oblige me by remembering, I expressly desired should be selected for my statue. (N.B. Trousers turned up.)’

These are in direct contrast to later letters to (Walter) Theodore Watts-Dunton, who acted as Rossetti’s advisor. The volume and regularity of Rossetti’s letters to Watts-Dunton, their paranoia and requests for advice show Rossetti’s great dependence on his close friends in later years. Much of this correspondence has been published elsewhere, but individual letters were not previously accessible to researchers at Leeds.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti photograph
Dante Gabriel Rossetti photograph. Image credit Leeds University Library.

The collection includes 30 letters written by Christina Rossetti. Project work uncovered a previously unknown letter, written to her sister-in-law, Lucy Maddox Brown Rossetti. This brief letter gives Rossetti’s assessment of an unnamed poem: ‘The fact is I think it diabolical. Its degree of serene skill and finesse intensifies to me its horror…’

Extract from Christina Rossetti letter. BC MS 19C Rossetti. Image credit Leeds University Library.

150 letters by William Michael Rossetti (WMR) were also catalogued during this project, the majority are unpublished. His letters include a long series addressed to John Lucas Tupper, a close associate and contributor to ‘The Germ’, the journal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The letters to Tupper, whose writing and career he promoted, highlight professional opportunities and networks of editors and journals available during this period. They give an interesting glimpse of the kind of life afforded to a literary Victorian gentleman employed by the Civil Service. During certain periods of his life, Rossetti travelled abroad, visiting the continent and even Australia. Having been robbed on one occasion in Italy, he discusses the advisability of carrying a pistol with Tupper, who travelled with him in 1869. Other letters cover wide-ranging topics, from discussions of Ruskin and Browning to the politics of the day, spiritualism, and lycanthropy.

The collection is now available for research.  This project would not have been possible without the support of the Strachey Trust, and Special Collections is grateful to it for its generosity in funding work on this significant collection.