1.4.2 Education and Victorian morals

Christina Rossetti determined by education and Victorian morals but at the same time against it

Our personality is constructed mainly by the education we are given and the social environment which is around us.  In this case, Christina Rossetti wasn’t an  exception. But once again she  shows two personalities with a subtle way: on the one hand, she is a meek and conformist  woman according to Victorian Society of that moment but in some of her verses she shows rebelliousness and nonconformity with this society.

Christina Rossetti was the youngest child of  an Italian father, Gabriele, and Italian/English mother,  Frances (Polidori). The Rossettis had four children: Maria, Gabriel, William and Christina, all of whom showed a great deal of creative talent early on. Christina Rossetti’s ties with her family directly and profoundly influenced the formation of her identity as a child, and had a great effect on her adult life and her career, as well.



Mrs. Rossetti was a deeply religious woman who belonged to the Church of England, and raised her daughters, Maria and Christina, to be models of piety. Maria was 3 years older than Christina.  She joined an Anglican religious order in her 40s.

To get deeper into Christina’s character we have to understand the time she lived in: the Victorian Age. Queen Victoria was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901 and her mother tongue was German because her ancestors came from Hannover. In the Victorian Age the ideal of a woman was a very humble, modest and docile wife and mother, who stays at home, does the chores, educates the children and works hard almost self-sacrificing. Christina didn’t fit in this ideal at all. She was a temperamental, hot-blooded, combustible and spontaneous woman with a nice sense of humour.
She had to oppress her passions not only because she was a woman in the Victorian Era but also because she was a devout Anglican: She believed in God, read the Bible and went to church every Sunday. Although her childhood had been quite happy her youth turned out to be really bad due to her diseases.

So,the only thing that could free her from all the chains in her life was her writing.

This desire of freedom is seen in Goblin Market, too.

The very world of the poem – with its indefinite, dreamlike quality – is a liminal place, a place where boundaries between two realms are blurred and distorted, inviting invasion and transgression. These realms – the “real” world inhabited by Laura and Lizzie and the goblins’ haunted glen – can stand for a number of opposites: rural/urban, the domestic/the public, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/non-heterosexual. This blurring of boundaries, characteristic to the Gothic, is in stark contrast to the constitution of Victorian society, where the public and the private were explicitly gendered and kept strictly separate. A “public woman” was a most disconcerting being, threatening the very rules upon which the existence of that society depended, and no definite line separated her from the “fallen woman” – a term which was used predominantly in reference to prostitutes, but more generally associated with “illicit” female sexuality.

Blurred boundaries and the possibility of transgression, as many feminist critics writing on Gothic point out (see, for instance, Gilbert and Gubar, 1979), represent a special possibility for the archetypal entrapped heroine. In such a world, she can both clearly perceive the conditions of her oppression (enacted virtually exclusively by men) and find a means of liberating herself. “Goblin Market” exploits this possibility to the fullest, advancing a bold vision of breaking heterosexual male dominance in the economic and sexual spheres.

The goblins – consistently referred to as “goblin men” – are the symbols and agents of that dominance. In their presentation, again, Rossetti’s unique handling of Gothic themes and tropes demonstrates itself. Typical Gothic creatures – ghosts, monsters and so forth – are most usually meant to evoke terror and disgust; their appearance, an irruption from the world “beyond” or “outside” (and quite often from the past), can be properly called a haunting – a sublime or uncanny alien presence. The goblins’ first description, in contrast, is a spectacle of familiarity. The creatures are likened to numerous animals, and while a careful look reveals that none of these animals carry especially positive connotations (e.g. rat, snail, cat, wombat, ratel – the first two are obviously meant to be rather repulsive, the rest are predators), the
goblins are, at first glance, rather curious than otherworldly.

Certain facts from Christina Rossetti’s biography – especially her work at the St Mary Magdalene home for “fallen women” at Highgate Hill – will serve to elucidate the text’s moral stance. Rossetti spent some time working with “fallen women” at the Highgate home, which was funded and run by the Diocese of London. The inmates at Highgate were offered a stay of two years, during which they were taught skills other than selling their bodies (mainly housework, to enable them to at least secure employment as maids upon leaving the home), as well as received religious and moral education. Rossetti’s experiences at Highgate are a likely source of inspiration for “Goblin Market”, as well as a probable purpose for the poem – no doubt she would have read it to the women as a means of moral instruction. Prostitution – “the great social evil” – was a widely discussed and highly important issue in Victorian England. The demand for prostitutes in a society obsessed with sexual repression was extremely high. There were only four real career options available to women, barring marriage: becoming a maid, a governess, a factory worker, or a prostitute. Considering, however, that maids earned very low wages, that a governess had to be educated and “respectable”, and that factory work was extremely unsafe, even deadly, prostitution was quite a popular choice – and a profitable one. You must note that always within a community comprised exclusively of women, there is a “hidden patriarchy” that influences the women to “define themselves and their relationships to one another in terms of a male presence” being involved. At Highgate, the male presence was the warden, also a clergyman, who was the only man involved with the penitentiary. However, his existence was always palpable and sometimes had a negative effect upon the establishment as a whole, as it was run, maintained and inhabited by women. Rossetti was most sensitive of a male being causing disharmony. Her poetry is consistently reflective of the patriarchy that can be ruinous to a sister relationship, and “Goblin Market” is no exception, for its sole focus is upon the way that the relationship between Lizzie and Laura is threatened by the presence of the goblin men. Jeanie died from her craving for the once-sampled Goblin fruits — premature surrogates for the delights of the marriage bed. “For joys brides hope to have” Jeanie “Fell sick and died / In her gay prime” (Poems, 1:19; “Gay” was a familiar Victorian term applied to prostitutes).

Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘Goblin Market’, was written at a time of great social change in Europe. The Victorian era was often known for its prudish attitudes toward decency and sexual expressions. There were many other social and scientific changes taking place. The Victorian era certainly had two sides to its coin. On the one hand, it was commonly thought in bad taste to say leg’ among company. On the other, prostitution was widely practiced, though many were morally apposed to it. Goblin Market’ speaks directly to the duality of the Victorian era in reference to prostitution.

The Goblins of the poem represent those who accept and practice prostitution and further its evils in the Victorian era to Rossetti. The Goblins come with much to offer, many alluring fruits and vegetables. Prostitutes offer many carnal delights that seem wonderful. But we must look at them closely. The Goblins themselves are hideous creatures, dirty and animal-like. They move at slow methodical paces, selling their wondrous wares. Certainly, we can equate this with Rossetti’s view of prostitution. The pimps and prostitutes were dirty; more often than of mind than the body.

Laura and Lizzie both still carried on as things had been done for some time now. The two girls milked their own cows, made their own bread, and churned their own butter. Laura, though, longed for the night and the coming of the goblins. Ladies of the night is another term for prostitutes. Prostitution was something that the people of the Victorian era struggled with and Rossetti as well.

Laura wanting to be out at night to likens her to a prostitute. She wants to be out to see the Goblins and their wares. The goblins are Rossetti’s views of prostitution, which Rossetti sees as offering a lot of things that may seem wonderful, but the are ultimately evil.

After the Laura tastes the goblin’s fruit once, she craves it ever more. The more carnal delights people indulged themselves in the more they want. If one were to visit a prostitute, increasingly more often their desire would continue to grow. Also, a prostitute may become greedy as well. They may want more and more money, which pushes them to continue their work.
But as all who become too greedy, Laura pays the price. The goblins stop returning and she is left broken. Soon she becomes close to Death’s door.

Lizzie went out to save her sisters life. This is Rossetti’s call for people to act. People of her time could sit around their drawing rooms and discuss the ills of prostitution over cups of Early Gray, but that does nothing to solve the problem. Rossetti is saying one must take the chance and help those caught up in the evils of prostitution.

Lizzie nearly dies after being attacked by the goblins. They try to force her to eat their forbidden fruits, but she resists. She saves her sister’s life by giving her the juices they goblins squeezed on her. Laura survives. Both women marry and have children. Laura tells her children that there is no friend like a sister. This shows how the people of the Victorian age can resist its evils and still live. There is only one way for them to truly succeed. The people must band together, like brothers and sisters, and resist the powers and evils of the age.

This poem was written during the Victorian age. It is nearly a perfect allegory of the age itself. The evils of prostitution were everywhere. It was easy to fall into their trap. But they could be combated. With brotherhood (and sisterhood), they could succeed and Rossetti knew this

Isobel Armstrong refers to Laura’s recovery as a “second innocence”, which is a revealing idea, for Laura does not recover her initial innocence, which emphasised absolute freedom:

Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone. [GM 81-86]

The portrayal of her “second” innocence is remarkably different, in that it is restricted to her outward appearance, giving no sense of the freedom and life she expressed before. She is redeemed because she seems outwardly to fall into line with what society expects of her: she appears passionless, and seeks no pleasure for herself. Yet beneath the apparently innocent sweetness, there lies a tantilising tone in Rossetti’s language: “Her gleaming locks showed not one thread of grey,/Her breath was sweet as May/And light danced in her eyes” (540-42). Laura’s innate passion cannot be denied, still reflected in the light dancing in her eyes, but it is carefully contained. It could be argued that while Laura awakes physically from her fever-induced coma, she does not fully recover spiritually or emotionally, as that very essence of her being — her overt passion — is not seen again. She is permitted the “fruit of her womb” — that is, her children — but not the fruit of her mind or her sexuality.

The implications of eating forbidden fruit are ambiguous in “Goblin Market,” just as Rossetti’s view is ambiguous concerning the role and status of women in her society. She addresses the restrictions placed on women, using biblical examples to reveal that these restrictions are incongruous with the will of God. In “Goblin Market” in particular, she pulls down the ideological boundaries of femininity, allowing women to escape from the extremes of classification: an angelic Virgin Mary, devoid of sexuality, or an Eve, punished for seeking knowledge. Rossetti puts her unswerving hope in Christ and heaven for the restoration of her society; a hope perhaps exemplified by the unconditional love Lizzie shows in both “saving” and accepting her sister. Without boubt, this was her real personality.

Lizzie’s subversiveness in seeking out the goblins is justified both through her reluctance and her sense of self-sacrifice. She is compelled to act in order to promote freedom for women within her society by confronting the goblins — and consequently the patriarchal system of ostracism. The resolution of the poem reflects Rossetti’s apparent ambivalence in regard to womanhood. The “willed confusion of fallen and unfallen” (Leighton, “Laws” 235) in “Goblin Market” shows that Rossetti was evidently torn between realising how blatantly her society seemed to disregard the biblical precedence for forgiveness and acceptance and actually being able to function effectively as an individual within that society. As D’Amico suggests, Lizzie is not the “pure unfallen sister” who saves the fallen woman (“Equal Before God” 70); neither does she function as the pure “opposite” of her sister — “the virginal woman is not set before the reader as an ideal” (76). Laura and Lizzie both eventually appear to conform to their expected roles as wives and mothers, yet in telling their children of the goblins, the moral of the story is not a warning against approaching strange men or sampling forbidden fruits, but a valorisation of female solidarity. The absence of any patriarchal figure or influence is conspicuous in the final image, giving the impression of a cloistered existence. The women become pure, but not virginal; and most significantly, they do not express any regret for their rebellious past.

Christina Rossetti’s personality appealed to feminity, to the women’s rights, to the women’s knowledge, to the women’s sexuality and to the women’s freedom.




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