3 May


Proto-feminism viewed through the poetry of  Bronte and Rossetti





  The social and political upheavals of the nineteenth-century reverberated through all strata of Victorian society. Science and reason were replacing inherent irrationality and religious doctrine. Contemporary revelations in theory and invention drove a forced adaptation to modernity, the tempo and like of which had never before been experienced. A “Brave New Britain” was being forced upon the public whether they desired it or not. What had once been considered self-evident was systematically eroded by the forward march of what some described as progress. London itself was metamorphosing from a medieval city into a modern megalopolis, a Victorian Babylon with the demolition of the old allowing for the creation of the new. The development of the railroads, the introduction of coal-gas, and modern sewers were some of the improvements to which the Victorians had to quickly adapt. Cultural concepts were changing, the old theologies replaced by the new sciences. Ideas that before had been heretically unutterable were now under careful consideration, the old gods replaced by scientific revelation.

               This change was not without comment, and the backlash and resistance to it can be found in the poetry of the day. The polemic was undergoing an identity crisis and for the first time the complainant wasn’t singularly male. The rise of the female voice, a new point of view previously dismissed by the patriarchal society, was an unfamiliar concept. Although much of the female poetry of the era is questionable in its complexity and sophistication, the first of these voices were none the less beginning to emerge.

               Due to disparity in gender equivalency, women were expected to fulfill designated roles and had limited or no access to formal education. Their poetry, although constrained and subject to societal conditioning, was a medium of female expression, and a window on the Victorian era and their role within it. Whether by restraint, geographical location, or social obligation the female voice, although barely audible, was pitched differently than that of their male contemporaries. In particular the poetry of Anne Bronte describes physical and societal isolation, and is more personal in its lament, revealing as it does her desperate position rather than a unified voice for female liberation. Gabriella Rossetti on the other hand, although subjected to patriarchal constraints, provided illumination into female thinking, and offered the spark of optimism that women would eventually be on a par with their male counterparts. Rossetti’s poetry is a chink of light in the oppressive darkness, suggesting a different point of view and an alternative way forward, whereas Bronte’s is a subliminal lament from the shadows.

               By comparing and contrasting the poetry of Anne Bronte and Christina Rossetti it’s possible to analyze the position and perspective of Victorian women towards themselves and their own situations. The poetry of Bronte records the isolated, desperation of women; Rossetti exhibits tentative steps towards equality and the prospect of female assimilation. Although both poets were yoked by societal convention, their dissimilar voices attest to the universality of the female plight and the necessity for change.

               Anne Bronte hailed from Haworth on the Yorkshire Dales, a God-forsaken, windswept, rain- lashed wilderness where the enlightenment of the Victorian age struggled to make its mark. Housed in a vicarage overlooking the church where her didactic father was the pastor, Anne’s daily view was of a grave yard replete with a labyrinth of tomb stones. Confined by weather, parental attitude, and religious duties the metaphor of the grave yard was an all-encompassing idea that featured regularly in her verse. Considering the bleakness of her situation it’s little wonder that she sought solace on the local moors, which by contrast to her living arrangements, and as evidenced in her inspired poetry, was a liberating experience. Her awareness of intrinsic beauty is reminiscent of the earlier Romantics; her attitude towards the sublimity of raw nature juxtaposing the harsh realities of everyday life.

               Anne Bronte describes both the geographical loneliness of her upbringing as well as the societal isolation brought about by inherent attitudes towards Victorian women. Her poetry screams “escapism” her only recourse was to take flight on her poetical imaginings. In “My Soul is Awakened, My Spirit is Souring,” her verse offers what at first appears to be a pastoral Arcadian reflection, but which is actually a lament. The poem is a metaphor for female subjugation, the barren isolated moor of which she writes representative of the female outlook and their muted, universal desire for more. Her imagery is strong, but her message stronger.

               Although the heathland around her appears to be dead there’s an understanding of innate beauty, “The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing/…The bare trees[…] tossing their branches on high.” Her personal realization of unfulfilled ambition and her plaintive regret “I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing, /..The foam of it billows to whirlwinds of spray.” Bronte illustrates unbounded, savage nature, a composition of excitement and tumult that’s obviously not representative of her own experience. There’s an isolated, imaginary omniscience, both with regard to her life experience and her limited world view. Her inspiration is drawn from a finite aspect, and yet she maintains a forlorn desire to be as free as the wind that buffets the granite escarpments of her native Yorkshire, “My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring, and carried aloft on the wings of a breeze.” The recognition that Britain is changing, that the Victorian age is ushering in new ideas and opportunities encapsulated within, “Far above and around me the wild wind is roaring / Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.” Standing alone on a fell-side, and yet aware of world changing events and societal repression, a young woman frustratingly dreams of more. Earth bound and shackled by society, she’s forced to endure the mundane. Even Anne’s imagination is limited in its scope. Simplistically she dreams of anywhere but the heath, or perhaps yearns simply for a fulfilling life. Anne’s plaintive cry is that of sequestered womankind, desperate to be rescued from unrelenting subjugation. A poetical improbability as her poem concludes.

               Christina Rossetti offers a different view of Victorian womanhood, her perspective much broader than that of Anne. An immigrant to Britain she was raised in the hubbub of London and educated by her scholarly father, their home the haunt of exiled intellectuals and artists. Growing up in the city with the luxuries of the capital was a far cry from the bleak and austere moors that were the haunts of Anne, and therefore engendered a completely different view of life. Rossetti witnessed Victorianism in all its affected glory, both the good and the bad, and rather than being subjected to the rural quotidian was the product of an enlightened, urban family. Still, as a woman in Victorian Britain this was not enough to liberate her, and just as in Bronte’s poetry there are similar allusions to oppression and repressed desire. Hers is a voice that although recognizing the limitations of nineteenth century females, projects a desire to change their intolerable position and lack of opportunity.

              “Goblin Market” is probably Rossetti’s most famous poem, an amalgamation of social commentary, repressed passion, and a polemic on the patriarchal system. Dependent upon the reading, one is able to recognize her dissimilar poetical allusions; underlying eroticism gives voice to female desire, the goblin market men to endemic patriarchy, and the richness of literary visualization to a Utopia beyond the reach of her sex.

               The poem begins with a blazon of delicacies, a cornucopia of fruits that are offered by the goblins to the unwary sisters; rich, vibrant alliteration that suggests mouthwatering abundance. Rossetti seems to be showcasing the unattainable, a smorgasbord of earthly delights, “Rare pears and greengages, damsons and bilberries, taste them and try.” In reality the choices offered to women were limited, with the affluent constrained to hopeful fulfilment through marriage, and the lowly to menial labor on the factory floor or the ignominy of prostitution and the status of fallen women. “Goblin Market” provides a dreamscape of opportunity, the experience of the sisters striking the bell necessary to awaken womanhood.

               This allusion offers the briefest glimpse of an alternative social order that was beyond the grasp of ordinary women unless they were prepared to compromise themselves and their bodies. “We must not look on Goblin men, we must not buy their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry thirsty roots,” advises the older sister to the younger. Having no money, Laura offers the Goblins exactly that, her most precious asset, the very essence of herself, “She clipp’d a precious golden lock, she dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl, then sucked their fruit globes fair or red.” Acquiescing to the demands of the Goblin men Laura epitomizes stereotypical Victorian women, having no choice but to accept the high price she must pay for a taste of freedom. Rossetti’s imagery of fruit is reminiscent of original sin and an inability to save oneself from temptation or male dominance.

               The sister succumbs to the will of the Goblins and under the influence of their produce falls sick. With only her sister to save her from ignominy and the certain death, an allusion to fallen women and prostitution, a bond of true unity is created. This implication to sisterhood and proto-feminism is buried in what could easily be misconstrued as fairytale-esque. Famous as Rossetti was for her child’s verse “Goblin Market” contains a much stronger message than simply good versus evil; it offers an optimistic rendering of a possible future. The women aren’t just liberated from both the Goblins and death, they’re recognized within the verse as strong independent women – true sisters. Predictably Rossetti ends her poem with a cliché marriage, but then again what else could she do being but Victorian chattel herself?

               Female dependence upon male philanthropy and benefaction is an obvious subject in “Maiden Though Wert Thoughtless Once.” Marriage for many Victorian women was the only possibility for financial and domestic stability hence the emphasis on the Victorian values, chastity and maidenhood. A fallen woman or one who’d strayed in sexual experimentation outside of wedlock was considered, if discovered, a social pariah and therefore doomed. There were few chances or even occupations for women during the period, and given that they weren’t for the most part formerly educated stood little chance of professional success and were therefore constrained to motherhood and matrimony. Bronte put this paradox to verse, describing a salon in which several women are gathered, where the subject of the poem is obviously dressed to impress whilst engaged in a piano recital. Clearly the lady without being too obvious is trying to make an impression, much to the amazement of her associates. “Maiden though were thoughtless once, of beauty and of Grace simple…homely…careless of form and face.” A woman doing her best to attract the attention of a man by wearing and looking her finest, whilst appearing to adhere to that most Victorian of ideals, industriousness. The voice is diminutive but her attitude serious, “They could not read my secret thoughts nor see my throbbing heart.” Intones a living, breathing, sexual human being, a woman with hopes and desires and yet obviously hopeful of the attentions of the man alluded to in the poem. A man approaches known to the subject, “We heard without, approaching steps of one well known to me.” And although she lives in optimism and hopes of male attention shows no outward sign of desperation. Bronte engenders the plight of Victorian women walking a tightrope of wanton chastity in an attempt to be a man’s heart’s desire; quiet desperation and the pretense of aloofness at the realization that her moment has past. Anne’s is a voice, understanding of the game and the societal requirements demanded of her sex. Although not a complaint the poetry imbues hopelessness and despair. The footsteps pass by; her love unrequited. “The anguish of my drooping heart the bitter aching woe.” Anne demonstrates a strategy of “by any means necessary,” including giving her heart to a man who clearly has no designs upon her, who ignores and leaves her to her Northern fate. Bronte declares a feminine position rather than a personal one, and although not offering a solution does highlight the predicament of women. What could women become, she asks, if not solely dependent upon men? Bronte’s voice although subdued is one of audacious awakening, a voice that demonstrates plight rather than optimism in dealing with an impossible situation. Her message depicts a contemporary nineteenth century enigma, one which would’ve been eye opening and quite controversial should the average Victorian have considered the lack of options described within the framework of her poetry.

               “No, Thank You, John” juxtaposes Bronte’s “Maiden.” Rather than the accustomed passive we are offered instead an aggressive stance by a woman who seemingly knows her own mind. Not for Rossetti the demure supplicant, rather the forthright, modern women declaring her position and refusing the charity of marriage. “You know I never loved you John, no fault of mine made me your toast.” Given Victorian female dependence upon male benevolence the poem is understandably ground- breaking. The idea that a woman had more common sense than her male suitor must have been both amusing and eye opening. “But then you’re mad to take offence../ ..use your own common sense.” The poem is a polemic on marriage or rather of marriage upon demand, a visceral attack on the dependence of women upon men. “I’d rather say no to fifty Johns than answer “Yes” to you.” Rossetti lampoons the idea that any woman should sit quietly in the hope of a marriage proposal. She herself had several suitors and although pursued did not marry two of the men to whom she was engaged. Although this seems to indicate a woman with particular requirements, her broken engagements were due to social and religious affinity rather than strength of character. Strong will did not define Rossetti’s romances but her voice in “John” is that of a woman who’s come to understand the value of choice and independence. The imagery is of a persistent, foolish man who doesn’t seem to understand that his attentions are neither solicited nor desired. A high-minded voice is used to admonish the suitor for his stubbornness believing that his inquiries may be welcomed elsewhere. “I dare say Meg or Moll would take pity on you if you asked.” A strange position taken by Rossetti hinting that she alone is an independent spirit, and an admonishment perhaps to fellow females not prepared to resist male hegemony, “Here’s friendship if you like; but love – No, thank you John.” Rossetti makes it very clear who’s in charge and in the traditions of “fin-amors” requites romance and perceived stability.

               Although both poetical voices are different in context they highlight the plight of Victorian women and therefore are invaluable in understanding the complexities of patriarchal dominance. Although one is from the wilderness of Yorkshire and the other from the artistic, societal ranks of the city, it’s the plaintive isolation of an oppressed female voice in both instances which is so important in illuminating the inequity of Victorian gender politics. Without their collected works it would be impossible to survey the extent of female subjugation and missed opportunity. Anne Bronte was an everywoman whereas Christina Rossetti had the good fortune to write from a more privileged position. Despite that, their observances embellished what must have been a ubiquitous feeling of hopelessness, their poetry helping to promote and recognize the universality of the female plight and the necessity for change. Two separate yet distinct voices drawing attention to the injustice of Victorian gender roles.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s