Archive Project: “Jenny” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For my VQA project I looked at the lengthy, dramatic monologue Jenny authored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I specifically looked at stanza’s 22-24 which can be found in my archive post linked: here. The narrator of the poem is a customer purchasing services from the prostitute, Jenny, in the poem. Throughout the poem the narrator romanticizes and sympathizes with the role of the prostitute. The poem touches on a myriad of subjects regarding Victorian prostitution including: it’s prominence, venereal diseases, and social ostracism.  Jenny was first published privately in 1870 in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems but it is said that this version is vastly different from the original draft Rossetti wrote in 1847, that was heavily revised in 1858 and 1869.

A close reading of the section I chose: Rossetti simply equates the images of books to brains throughout the poem and makes a scathing insinuation that individuals, especially proper Victorian women, her prescribe to the Victorian mode of thinking (to hush sexuality of women in particular) cannot appreciate Jenny’s decency as a human being. Jenny’s heart becomes “a rose shut in a book/In which pure women may not look” (120) that cannot be understood or related to if one accepts the Victorian mode of thinking that prostitutes are merely fallen women, dehumanizing them entirely. Rossetti also comments that due to this harsh conceptual mistreatment of prostitutes, fellow women will be unable to sympathize with her on the level of womanhood “Only that this can never be:-/Even so unto her sex is she” (121).

Shortly after, the narrator also queers the gender binary when it comes to the occupation of a prostitute. While he just critiques the inability of others to see Jenny’s good heart and nature, he dehumanizes her as a woman by saying that she is “A cipher of a man’s changeless sum/Of lust past, present, and to come,” (121). When the narrator looks at Jenny the “woman fades from view” (121). What is interesting about this is that she is then just seen as a spiral of men’s lust, is seen as an object, but in Victorian times that concept is not very different for chaste, proper women, who are still the objects of their husband’s and subject to men’s lust. In this way Jenny almost has MORE freedom than the average Victorian woman which is what perhaps makes her truly more dangerous in the eyes of Victorian society.

Lust is also depicted as a “toad within a stone” (121) where the narrator is commenting once again that although lust and it’s discourse may be entombed in the stone of Victorian society, it is well and alive whether people wish to believe it or not. This relates to the fact that toads entombed in stone have often been found alive even when the stone is broken open. The narrator states that this lust “shall not be driven out/Till that which shuts him round about/Break at the Master’s stroke” (123) and “the seed of Man vanish as dust:-” (123). Without the help of God or someone of higher power like government officials, the Victorian societal tomb over lust will not be broken. The narrator also claims the “seed” or sperm of Man would also need to be eradicated to eradicate lust. In this way the poem almost speaks up for Jenny in that the narrator recognizes that the world of lust is not her fault but the fault of her society and the failure of the government or other high offices to regulate it’s sexual promiscuity. Insinuating that the “seed of Man” must “vanish as dust” also brings in some interesting pondering of eugenics. It is ironic, because the narrator himself is caught up in lust but equally recognizes the danger and social stigma lust has caused Jenny and her kind and insinuates that lust is a negative thing in general.

As stated in my close-reading above: I believe this text is a crucial addition to the Victorian Queer Archive for the push-backs it provides on the Victorian mirage and focus on hetero-normative relationships. The most prominent one being that the poem revolves around a prostitute, which strays from the traditional heterosexual marriage plot and brings in themes of polyamory as well as unrequited love. This text is particularly potent in this regard in that the narrator provides sympathy for the occupation as prostitute and a fundamental understanding of Jenny as a human not merely an object. This text also deserves to be put in the VQA due to its queering of the gender binary in that Jenny is merely seen as a novel of men’s lust and does not appear as a woman at all. In brings into question if not ALL women of the Victorian era are not truly seen as women but as a product of men’s lust. The fact that the narrator recognizes that lust exists and is unlikely to go away due to Victorian society’s “skirting around” it also helps the text stray from hetero-normative in that it accepts that heterosexual marriage is not just a morally and socially pure union but is more than often fueled by lust and most importantly, betrayed by lust.

Works Cited:

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Poems. London, Privately Published, 1870. British Library, Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

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