Christina Rossetti was born in Charlotte Street (now Hallam Street), London, to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, Italy, since 1824 and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron's friend and physician John William Polidori. She had two brothers and a sister: Dante Gabriel became an influential artist and poet, and William Michael and Maria both became writers. Christina, the youngest and a lively child, dictated her first story to her mother before she had learnt to write.
Rossetti was educated at home by her mother and father, through religious works, classics, fairy tales and novels. Rossetti delighted in the works of Keats, Scott, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. The influence of the work of Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and other Italian writers filled the home and impacted Rossetti's later writing. Their household was open to visiting Italian scholars, artists and revolutionaries. The family homes in Bloomsbury at 38 and later 50 Charlotte Street were within easy reach of Madame Tussauds, London Zoo and the newly opened Regent's Park, which she visited regularly. Unlike her parents, Rossetti was much of a London child and seemingly a happy one.
In the 1840s, Rossetti's family faced financial troubles due to a deterioration in her father's physical and mental health. In 1843, he was diagnosed with persistent bronchitis, possibly tuberculosis, and faced losing his sight. He gave up his teaching post at King's College and though he lived another 11 years, suffered from depression and was never physically well again. Rossetti's mother began teaching to keep the family and Maria became a live-in governess, a prospect that Christina Rossetti dreaded. At the time her brother William was working for the Excise Office and Gabriel was at art school, leaving Christina increasingly isolated at home. When she was 14, she suffered a nervous breakdown and left school. Bouts of depression and related illness followed. During this period she, her mother and her sister became absorbed in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England. Religious devotion came to play a major role in her life.
In her late teens, Rossetti became engaged to the painter James Collinson, the first of three suitors. He, like her brothers Dante and William, was a founding member of the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, established in 1848. The engagement ended in 1850 when he reverted to Catholicism. In 1853, when the family had financial difficulties, Christina helped her mother keep a school in Fromefield, Frome, but it did not succeed. A plaque marks the house. In 1854 the pair returned to London, where Christina's father died. She later became involved with the linguist Charles Cayley, but declined to marry him, also for religious reasons. A third offer came from the painter John Brett, whom she likewise refused.
Rossetti sat for several of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings. In 1848, she sat for the Virgin Mary in his first completed oil painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, and the first work he inscribed with the initials "PRB", later revealed as standing for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The following year she modelled for his depiction of the Annunciation, Ecce Ancilla Domini. A line from her poem "Who shall deliver me?" inspired a painting by Fernand Khnopff called I lock my door upon myself. In 1849 she again became seriously ill with depression, and around 1857 had a major religious crisis.
From 1842 Rossetti began writing out and dating her poems. Most of them imitated her favoured poets. In 1847 she began experimenting with verse forms such as sonnets, hymns and ballads, while drawing narratives from the Bible, folk tales and the lives of saints. Her early pieces often meditate on death and loss in the Romantic tradition. Her first two poems published were "Death's Chill Between" and "Heart's Chill Between", in the Athenaeum magazine in 1848. She used the pseudonym "Ellen Alleyne" in the literary periodical, The Germ, published by the Pre-Raphaelites from January to April 1850 and edited by her brother William. This marked the beginning of her public career.
Rossetti's more critical reflections on the artistic movement her brother had begun were expressed in an 1856 poem "In the Artist's Studio". Here she reflects on seeing multiple paintings of the same model. For Rossetti, the artist's idealised vision of the model's character begins to overwhelm his work, until "every canvas means/the one same meaning." Dinah Roe, in her introduction to the Penguin Classics collection of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, argues that this critique of her brother and similar male artists is less about "the objectification of women" than about "the male artist's self-worship".
Rossetti's prime collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862, when she was 31. It was widely praised by critics, who placed her as the foremost female poet of the day. She was lauded by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne and Tennyson, and on the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861 was named her natural successor. The title poem, one of her best known, is ostensibly about two sisters' misadventures with goblins, but critics have seen it in various ways as an allegory of temptation and salvation, a comment on Victorian gender roles and female agency, and a work of erotic desire and social redemption.
Rossetti worked voluntarily in 1859–1870 at the St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate, a refuge for ex-prostitutes. It is suggested that Goblin Market may have been inspired by "fallen women" she came to know. There are parallels with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in religious themes of temptation, sin and redemption by vicarious suffering. Swinburne in 1883 dedicated A Century of Roundels to Rossetti, as she adopted his roundel form in a number of poems, for instance in Wife to Husband. She was ambivalent about women's suffrage, but many have found feminist themes in her work. She opposed slavery in the United States, cruelty to animals in prevalent vivisection, and exploitation of girls in under-age prostitution.
Rossetti kept a wide circle of friends and correspondents. She continued to write and publish for the rest of her life, mainly devotional work and children's poetry. In 1892, she wrote The Face of the Deep, a book of devotional prose, and oversaw an enlarged edition of Sing-Song in 1893
In her later decades, Rossetti suffered from a type of hyperthyroidism – Graves' disease – diagnosed in 1872, suffering a near-fatal attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer. The tumour was removed, but there was a recurrence in September 1894.
Christina Rossetti died on 29 December 1894 and was buried on New Year's Day 1895 in the family grave on the west side of Highgate Cemetery. There she joined her father, mother and Elizabeth Siddal, wife of her brother Dante Gabriel. Her brother William was also buried there in 1919, as were the ashes of four subsequent family members.
There is a stone tablet on the façade of 30 Torrington Square, Bloomsbury, marking her final home, where she died.