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New Historicism – Analysis

ALLEGED PUSEYITE PROCEEDINGS IN A PENITENTIARY. – Some remarks have been made upon certain alleged Puseyite proceedings in the recently established penitentiary for fallen women at Shipmeadow, near Bungay, Suffolk, It is reported that a ‘sisterhood’ has been established of the young ladies, who devote themselves to the unfortunate objects of the institution, and several of its influential supporters have withdrawn their patronage from it. A meeting is to be held shortly to consider the subject.

Christina Rossetti’s association with Highgate Penitentiary for fallen women intrigues critics who seek to correlate this with her most famous poem ‘Goblin Market’. Her assertion that her verse had no profound or ulterior meaning does not deter critics from interpreting her work in many and varied ways. The new historicist question is how does a poem supposedly written as a children’s fairy tale participate in the social and ideological power struggles of mid-Victorian England?  This short reading will attempt to provide one answer by analysing the poem’s depiction of sisterhood in light of tensions evident within the Anglican Church at this time.

‘Goblin Market’ was published at a time of widespread unease about the development and work of Anglican religious sisterhoods. In new historicist fashion, this essay opens with an extract from The Times newspaper dated 7 November 1856. Appearing here in its entirety, this short text or anecdote reveals a wealth of information about the problems besetting the Anglican Church at the time Rossetti was writing. The headline ‘ALLEGED PUSEYITE PROCEEDINGS’ refers pejoratively to the work of theologian and scholar Edward Pusey who, along with churchmen John Keble and John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman), formed what became known as the Oxford or Tractarian Movement. The Movement sought to establish ‘High Church’ traditions or a Catholic revival within the Church of England by making changes to ritual practices of sacrament and language. This satisfied some churchgoers’ need for increased formality in their worship, but met with fierce opposition from others who feared conversion to Catholicism. Significantly, Rossetti was a devout Anglican who worshipped at a church that had strong links with Pusey and the Oxford Movement.

Detractors of the Oxford Movement were suspicious of Romanist tendencies and a potential ‘return to Popery’. Specific fears centred on women’s role within the church prompting debates as to the extent to which women should be allowed to enter into religious life. As a leading promoter of Protestant sisterhoods, Pusey’s ideas provoked outrage from those who believed celibacy contradicted women’s ideological destiny as wives and mothers. The newspaper text refers to All Hallows Convent Chapel in Ditchingham, which was established as a House of Mercy in the 1850s to receive women of ‘unchaste lives’ from all parts of England. The report exposes a clash between the religious community and unnamed ‘influential supporters’ whose power lies in their financial control of the sisterhood. (The founder of All Hallows Community, Lavinia Crosse, struggled to take financial control of the sisterhood from the administrative lay council, but by 1870 she succeeded and went on to make a profit – something the council had failed to do).

‘Puseyite’ was commonly understood as a term of insult and the inverted commas enclosing the word ‘sisterhood’ emphasize dissociation from High Church ideals. In Foucauldian terms, the newspaper occludes the antagonists of the drama to indicate a form of ‘faceless’ surveillance’ that cranks disciplinary wheels of power into action. The report uses emotive terms to sensationalize rumours that women were banding together in sisterly solidarity for Pusey’s high church ideal.

Sisterly solidarity is the topic of Rossetti’s famous cautionary tale. A twilight world of market trade ruptures two sisters’ domestic ‘bright day’s delight’ prompting ‘wise’ Lizzie to recognize that the goblins’ ‘sugar-baited words’ pose a serious danger to ‘modest maidens’. Unlike her sister, Lizzie fully understands that the goblins’ market economy threatens their value in the marriage market, where virginity is currency. This knowledge dictates Lizzie’s reserved behaviour: she veils her blushes, covers or shuts her eyes, and runs from danger. She is a model of feminine restraint who repeatedly warns her heedless sister: ‘we must not look’; ‘we must not buy’; ‘you should not peep’. White and golden, upright and strong, Lizzie’s cool white imagery contrasts with the desiring fire that threatens to consume ‘curious’ Laura who falls to taste forbidden fruits.

As Laura’s insatiable and unsatisfied desire for more goblin fruits starts to wither her, Lizzie is driven to desperate heroism to save her ‘thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden’ sister. Lizzie can be seen to reflect the mission of a religious ministering sisterhood who provide rescue and refuge. Through sisterly care Laura’s fate is averted unlike unfortunate Jeanie who fell and died of starvation without a sister to rescue her.

Lizzie’s and Laura’s relationship reflects Pusey’s ideals of sisterhood. Lizzie’s power as sister saviour is emphasized with similes that describe her variously as a stronghold: ‘like a rock of blue-veined stone’; a provider of light: ‘like a beacon’; and also ‘like a royal virgin town’, which brings to mind a garrison of chaste women or majestic sisterly community. Lizzie’s ‘beleaguered’ virtue and fortitude are tested with metaphors of ocean battle, but she stands firm in a hoary roaring sea as the goblin fleet try and fail to conquer her. In possession of the ‘fiery antidote’ tricked from the ‘sly brotherhood’, Lizzie nurses her fallen sister back to glossy haired and sweet-breathed vitality with caring compassion. Silent when fallen, when rehabilitated Laura finds her voice to deliver the poem’s closing message:

‘For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands’. (ll. 562-7)

In new historicist terms, the ‘social energies’ revealed in ‘Goblin Market’ refract the same kind of issues and anxieties reported by the newspaper. The verse resonates with Pusey’s teachings to promote the rescue and enabling of women by other women. The weak can be ‘strengthened’ and rehabilitated by a wise, pure, and devoted sister. The poem’s depiction of women living harmoniously without men revises the term ‘sisterhood’ in positive ways. Yet Rossetti is careful to signal (if only fleetingly) that Lizzie and Laura eventually fulfil their conventional vocation as ‘wives/with children of their own’. Despite a subversive emphasis on female solidarity, the text therefore closes with a retreat into marriage and motherhood. In new historicist terms, the poem becomes ‘closed and circular’, with potential subversion contained or neutralized to reinforce the dominant cultural belief that Victorian women’s ‘natural’ role was a domestic one.