Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Category: 2018 Blog Post (page 1 of 7)

This isn’t what we meant by “Knights need to be chivalrous”

Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott  (not to be confused with an onion lady) is one of his more famous poems, and another one that touches on Arthurian mythology. While not directly about the Knights of Camelot, their most famous knight, Lancelot is central to the heart of this story.

It is because of Lancelot that the titular lady, who is trapped in a tower unable to leave or look at the outside world, ends up turning her head in a moment of weakness and giving into the curse, trying to follow the knight back to Camelot.

It is kind of interesting that this temptation happens because of Lancelot, as later Arthurian stories all have his affair with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, be one of the major reasons for the fall of Camelot. In particular this reminds of me of one such modern adaptation: Fate/Zero’s rendition of Lancelot and Arthur and how this affair happens.

For context, King Arthur in Fate is a woman and thus didn’t really care for Guinevere romantically. She was also emotionally distant and only cared about the outside world and the wellbeing of Britain and Guinevere turned her attention to Lancelot in much the same way The Lady of Shalott did. In both these stories, a woman is tempted by the knight, a symbol of loyalty and Christian values, but in almost opposite ways. Fate’s Guinvere is tired of Arthur’s obsession with the outside world and seeks away from it, while the Lady of Shalott wants to head into the outside world and is lured into it.

Both these stories share the same values of female temptation and how it brought about their respective ruins (Guinvere helping cause the fall of Camelot, the Lady of Shalott’s death by curse), and both have one of the most important knights in Arthurian mythology who is normally a symbol of virtue cause this. I found it very interesting that both stories have very similar themes despite being very wildly far apart in terms of time period and medium, and just goes to show how influential and varied a broad work of fiction like Arthurian mythos be interpreted by others.


Fig 1: Lancelot from Fate/Zero. Hard to blame either lady for being tempted if he was actually this good looking.

A Safety Poem

Almost all the Victorian authors we have read challenge gender roles. Bram Stoker allowed Dracula to be the most powerful character in his story, but also painted him as one of the most feminine characters, Mary Elizabeth Braddon made her most beautiful character, Lady Audley, the most treacherous one, and finally Christina Rossetti, who in No Thank You John addressed the idea of saying no to a marriage, so that someone may wait for love. While these three authors may have presented new ideas to challenge Victorian social norms, they all reinstall the normal with their endings or a less radical piece. As I mentioned in my former post “Beating the ’95 Bulls Without Michael Jordan” Stoker allowed the finally battle of Dracula to be fought without Count Dracula, Mary Elizabeth Braddon kills Lady Audley, and writes a short chapter reassuring her readers that the story was fictional and apologizing for any fright she may have given them, lastly Christina Rossetti wrote less radical poems too, ones that didn’t seem to challenge any Victorian Norms like “A Triad”.
A Triad expresses 3 different women, who are character types of how women could live their lives and view marriage. Rossetti describes the first women in a lustily manner. With lines like “Crimson, with cheeks and bosom in a glow” here she is described as a whore, the crimson red represents an impurity, similar to the voluptuous red lips, Lucy and the three female vampires had in Stoker’s Dracula. The second woman is the ideal Victorian lady. She is described as singing “soft and smooth as snow” a direct contrast to the first lady, the second is compared to white snow to show how pure and innocent she is. The third singer married but married the wrong person and now lives desolate life. This poem does not give Victorian women many freedoms, if they choose to live a life expressive life of any kind they will end up dead like the first woman. They could strive to be like the perfect second women, but if they choose the wrong husband by they may end up as a lonely spinster. By giving the audience such bleak options Rossetti may be pointing out how unfair women’s choices are, but overall I find this to be a poem to calm the masses. Rossetti presents no radical claims she rather states the truth.

A New Role for Women in A Pause of Thought

The poem entitled A Pause of Thought by Christina Rossetti details the feelings of a poetic voice that longs for something yet feels as though she may not ever have it. The voice states that she is “foolish” for continuing to endure the pain of not having what she wants (Rossetti, 33). Despite the suffering caused by wanting something that may be impossible to have, the narrator remains hopeful and continues to want that which she cannot have. The object of desire is not made explicit, and may be unrequited love or a sense of agency, which were two of the most important things that women during the Victorian era longed for yet could rarely have. The idea of marriage for love was a relatively new idea for women during this time period, as women were supposed to marry for good financial and social standing instead of for love. As well, women were not thought to have the agency of men during this time period, and so the idea of a woman longing for true love and having such freedom in her life was an unpopular idea. The narrator states “And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth: But years must pass before a hope of youth / Is resigned utterly” in the first stanza of the poem, which contains the idea that knowing that the pursuit of agency and love may be fruitless is repeated throughout the poem, as is the narrator’s unwillingness to abandon hope (Rossetti, 32). The poem may be thought to acknowledge the difficulties of a woman’s position during the Victorian era with a sense of doubtfulness that things would change for the better, however it also includes a sense of hopefulness about the status of women in the future. The poem may express the idea of women having their own freedom and agency in love and in life much like the exclusive status of freedom and brotherhood held by the men that Rossetti knew during this time period.

Unrequited Love in Christina Rossetti’s “A Triad” and “A Pause of Thought”

In Victorian England, a woman’s desire to marry for love was discouraged and shunned as a part of the society’s standards and expectations for women. It was more important for a woman to properly present herself in the marriage “market” than to choose her husband by means of love or passion. In Christina Rossetti’s “A Pause of Thought,” the speaker of the poem yearns for “which is not, nor can be” in a society that restricts women to the role of being a suitable wife (Rossetti 32). She longs for the person she loves, but she feels hopeless the longer she waits for her love to be returned. In the last verse, the speaker claims that she is “foolish” for her feelings of longing, as she is “unfit / for healthy joy and salutary pain” simply due to the fact that she is a woman (Rossetti 33). She claims that the “chase (is) useless,” suggesting that a woman’s pursuit after love is hopeless and cannot be fulfilled within the Victorian Society’s restrictions on women. Rossetti’s “A Triad” has a similar message, as it describes three women who are fooled or disappointed after falling in love or feeling no love at all: “One shamed herself in love; one temperately / Grew gross in soulless love, a sluggish wife; / One famished died for loved” (Rossetti 18). Rossetti suggests that, for a Victorian woman, love only leads to disappointment. Furthermore, this implies that it is hopeless, and even foolish, for a woman to fall in love in Victorian society, as her longings and desires are constrained, and only men are granted to choose someone to marry and love.

“No Thank You, John” -> “Thank U, Next”

Something about the poem by Christina Rossetti called “No Thank You, John” reminded me of Ariana Grande’s new song, “Thank U, Next”. The poem and the song are closely related in their meaning and empowering language for woman towards men. But the thing that really stood out to me is the possible differences in the reaction of today’s society to Ariana Grande’s lyrics and the reaction that someone may have had to Christina Rossetti’s poem. Both the poem and the song center around woman empowerment and women’s courage to push against what society expects of them. In many articles and blogs that have come out following Ariana Grande’s song, they praise her for having the courage to move on, to break an engagement even when it is expected of her by millions of fans to follow through on  it. In a post by Erica Hawkins, she says, “It takes courage to control your own narrative, particularly as a woman… everyone… wants a hand in writing (or re-writing) your story” (https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/music/ariana-grande-thank-u-next-breakup-empowering/). Both of these woman took charge in telling their own story, just written in two different time periods. In todays society, in the 21st century, if people are still saying how courageous it was for Ariana to say no to a man, focus on friends, and love herself, then Christina Rossetti must have really received push back against her poem written in the Victorian era when she writes about doing something similar. In this poem, she isn’t talking about her breaking an engagement like Ariana but she is saying “I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns, than answer “Yes” to you” (Rossetti). Rossetti is being courageous, pushing against the Victorian era’s societal norms that said you needed a man, for economic purposes and because you were expected as a woman to marry and uphold the domestic/motherly space.

The Color Red and Promiscuity

Christina Rossetti’s “A Triad” depicts the story of three women searching for love. The first woman was seen as too promiscuous for the time period. She was described as having “lips crimson” and “cheeks and bosom in a glow.” The physical description of her “crimson” lips insinuates that she has desires too forward and strong for those seen as acceptable for women in the Victorian time period, causing her to “shame herself in love.” We saw a similar description in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, where the wife was described as outwardly flirtatious and having desires. The husband, a powerful man with a strong 900 year old family name, was angered by what he believed was his wife having an affair, although he had no proof. It was in her face that her apparent affair was seen, as it was not “Her husband’s presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.” Similarly to “A Triad”, the description of the rosy, blushed cheeks is used to depict a woman as being too promiscuous and flirtatious for the time. During Victorian time, the color red was representative of sex, passion, and lust, which is why the emphasis on the rosy cheeks made the women seem too outwardly sexual. During Victorian time, women who had sexual desires were seen as undesirable and immoral, and they were condemned for their actions. This was in an effort to discourage other women from doing the same in order to maintain society’s order and rigid traditions.

Rosetti Questioning women and marriage

Christina Rossetti, like many other Victoria writers, seems to have complex and conflicting thoughts on the role of women. Many of her poems in Goblin Market and Other Poems center around women, or feature a female speaker. In one poem in particular, “A Triad”, Rosetti writes of three women, 2 of whom are not fit to be wives, and a third who is but dies. This poem ends with the line, “All on the threshold, yet all short of life” (Rosetti, 18). The word life stands out as a potential comparison for love and marriage. Without marrying this man, without him falling in love with each of these three women, they all fall short of having a life. It is so interesting that Rosetti writes about these women needing a man to have a true life, yet only a few pages later she published “No, Thank You John”. This poem is about a headstrong, independent who would, “rather answer “No” to fifty Johns Than answer “Yes” to you” (Rosetti, 31). In this poem Rosetti gives the women power in allowing her to say no to a mans proposal of marriage. Only a few pages before she was saying there was no life without marriage, yet now she is countering that argument. Without marrying a man in the Victorian era, a woman would have no income, no way to support herself, and would not be fulfilling her duty to reproduce and start a family. It truly was unheard of for women to reject a proposal, because they in general would have an easier life if married. The woman speaker in “No, Thank You, John” is clearly breaking the societal rules for women, as is Rosetti for writing about this. These two poems show two conflicting views that Rosetti has written about and may be thinking. We have seen time and time again that the views on women in the Victorian era are complex, and the intelligent men and women who write the novels and poems question the rules through their writings.

The Curse of Moral and Social Pressures

Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is an examination of the restrictions on unmarried girls during the Victorian era. By setting the poem in the familiar, fictional land of Camelot it is made distant in the acknowledgement that the situation recounted is decidedly impossible—the citation of Sir Lancelot, of fairies and curses, further emphasizes that the author is talking about a situation which is far enough from the reality of a modern, Victorian society to be safe subject matter. The poem’s main character, the Lady of Shalott, is cursed never to be able to look down on Camelot directly. Instead, she must look through a mirror, and the distorted, smaller version of the society that she is allowed to see is what she “weaves by night and day” (Tennyson, Part II, 1).
During the Victorian era, girls—especially those who were unmarried– were intentionally kept from much of society that was deemed dangerous or inappropriate (much like today). Even the restrictive clothing that they wore kept them from exploration or independence. Just like the reflection in the mirror, the slices of the world that English women were allowed to participate in was limited and often superficial. For the Lady of Shalott, this means literally only seeing the “shadows of the world” that the mirror can show (Tennyson, part II, 12). While the Lady of Shalott is in total isolation and supposedly cursed, she is a paradigm of morality, only weaving and working at an appropriate task all day, every day. Until, of course, temptation shows up.
For the Lady of Shalott, this temptation takes the form of Sir Lancelot (who was apparently a sexual temptation for every woman he encountered). Upon seeing his “coal-black curls” (part III, 31) amidst the bright glory of the young knight, she promptly forgets everything about the curse that has dictated her life and whips around for a better look. In doing so, she supposedly calls down the mysterious curse, but we don’t actually see any ill effects rooted in magic (unless you think that from the time she looks on Camelot and the mirror cracks she is possessed). She then commits suicide, by laying down in a boat and letting herself freeze to death on the river at night. By the time she arrives in Camelot and physically encounters Lancelot, she’s already dead. His comment that “’She has a lovely face’” (part IV, final) confirms where the encounter would have gone if she had still been living to give into her lust for him. This young woman, who becomes symbolic of all moral young women in Victorian society, is literally stuck so thoroughly between upholding societal moral standards and acting as human nature would have her, that she kills herself. The ending makes this a critique of the rigid moral standards that lead Victorian women to misery. Tennyson criticizes the social standards for girls and their negative effects, much like we regularly do today.

Be desirable–just not too desirable

In Christina Rossetti’s “A Triad,” the first woman represents promiscuousness–a trait that was deplored by Victorians for its sexual implications. She, like the three Vampire women from Dracula with whom she has the color “crimson” in common, was too sexually aggressive for Victorian society, too forward with her vivacity and desires, and therefore “shamed herself in love” (18).  This is just like Lydia and Kitty, the two flirtatious sisters from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Lydia ends up bringing scandal and shame to her family when she runs off with a soldier who has no intention of marrying her. The implication–which is never stated because it was such “unpleasant” business–was that they were sleeping together out of wedlock. This “shame” is also linked with the muse, the titular woman in “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. Her husband, the narrator, a very powerful man of an ancient bloodline, grew jealous, as he believed she was having an affair, though he had no proof. He used words to describe her such as “alive,” “depth,” “passion,” “spot of joy” (blushing cheeks), “flush,” and “blush” (Browning 1). Most of these words have a connection to the color red, which, like in Dracula and “A Triad”, represents promiscuity and is reminiscent of sex, or they have to do with passion and vivacity. Like the first woman in “A Triad,” the Duchess “shamed herself” (Rossetti 18), and it ultimately led to her demise, though there was no proof of her affair; it is entirely possible that her husband was possessive and paranoid. Victorian society condemned and rejected promiscuous or forward women as they did not conform like the rest of society. Those who do not conform cannot be controlled, and therefore are made into pariahs. If they are social outcasts, they cannot influence others.

The Marriage Market in Victorian Society

Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” brought to surface many ideas and expectations that surrounded women in Victorian culture. Laura specifically resembles women who too easily give in to their sexual desires and take the fruit of these different men. Lizzie represents women who wait to have sex until marriage and who maintain their purity. Both sisters are  tempted by the calling of the goblin men but only one gives in too quickly and engages in sexual activities with the goblin men. This market represents the marriage market that Victorian women were prepared for in order to marry a prosperous suitor. Laura is no longer able to hear the calls from the goblin market because she engages inappropriately with the marriage market by having sex with multiple men. This implies that being promiscuous and having multiple partners calls for a woman to lose access to the marriage market and good suitors. After Laura can no longer hear the goblin men and their calls from the market she becomes incredibly ill, “sullen”, in “exceeding pain”, and “dwindled”. Laura also feels “as if her heart would break” (line 268) and it appears that “her hair grew thin and grey” (line 277). The inability to have access to the marriage market means Laura cannot have a husband and so this leads to her astonishing decay. This implies that women without husbands are infertile, ugly, and physically decayed. Without eligible bachelors then Laura might as well be dying because she has no future of husband and kids, which is what Victorian society expected from women. This poem exemplifies how women’s sexual desires were suppressed in Victorian society through the fear of imaging never finding a husband or having kids and slowly dying. Victorian society made the marriage market selective because it was only meant to be open to women who had followed the strict and constraining rules of society. Thus, promiscuous women, with no apparent chance of a husband,  were made to believe that they would receive life with pain and heartbreak since men were seen as the source to a woman’s happy future.

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