Sex Makes Women Mad

Comparing Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market with Michael Fields’ The Faun’s Punishment with each other through a lens of “sexuality” and “gender” raises interesting questions.


In Goblin Market, the young girl Lizzie is abused by a group of goblins that want to force her to eat the forbidden fruit. It becomes clear that this scene can be read as sexual abuse when the goblins torment her as she disagrees to open her lips. The goblins would keep trying to “cram a mouthful in”. Through the lens of sexuality, this could mean that the goblins want to force her to practice oral sex. However, Lizzie remains resistant and in the end, the fruit’s juices are all over her body. Lizzie describes the fruit juices as “goblin pulp” and “goblin dew” which could be an analogy for semen. This scene can be read as (attempted) gang rape and Lizzie trying to resist it.

In The Faun’s Punishment a group of maenads, abuse a faun because he was looking at them. The poem alludes to a painting from 1531. In the picture, we can see naked women sitting around a naked man, tearing on his skin, blowing a reed into his ear, preying on his helplessness. While this poem (and the picture) does not seem to be about rape, it does show signs of sexuality and violence. The nudity combined with images such as the woman playing the flute is very suggestive.

What is striking, is that the action seems very similar but it is performed on people of opposite genders. In Goblin Market the victim is a young girl and the goblins do not have a gender (or seem rather masculine), The Faun’s Punishment has a male victim and female abusers. Therefore, both of the poems mirror each other from a gender perspective. However, what both of the poems have in common is that the women are portrayed as mad, either in the position of the victim, or as the people driving men crazy. In Fields’ poem, they are “maenads”, which is a term that directly translates into “madwoman”. Maenads are known for their animalistic and sexual behavior. Laura, in Goblin Market is the first victim of the goblins’ abuse and she gives in to their form of seduction. As a consequence, she falls into a depressive state. Depression, in the Victorian Era, might have been seen as “hysteria” or “madness” as well as the opposite behavior of the maenads. Thus, according to the poems, the consequence of sexual activity, either as the product of abuse or as the active part, is always a mad woman.

No Ugly Women in Paradise

Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market tells the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. They looked at the goblin market where the little creatures would sell their fruit and cry “come buy our orchard fruits, come buy, come buy” (Rossetti 1). Although both, Laura and Lizzie, are aware that they should not buy the fruit, Laura eventually gives in and exchanges a lock of hair for the goblins’ fruit. She consumes it quickly and when she wakes up she finds that her hair has gone gray and that she feels burnt out (8).

This is interesting to observe because we can find multiple themes: We can find the Victorian focus on hair and Laura using it as a payment method. Furthermore, we can see strong parallels to the story of Adam and Eve. In paradise, Eve was convinced by a snake to eat an apple which resulted in Adam and Eve having to leave paradise. In Goblin Market it was the goblins who convinced the girl to eat the forbidden fruit. They lured Laura in until she finally could not resist anymore. As a consequence, Laura has lost all of her beauty. In this parallelism, Laura equals Eve and the goblins equal the snake. What is interesting, though, is that Laura’s loss of beauty can be seen as her not being in paradise anymore. Vice versa, being beautiful is paradise.

To put it into relation with our Trout Gallery visit: Women who are not beautiful (or old) are usually disregarded. Out of the exhibits that we looked at, only two featured women who are not young, white, and beautiful. And those images were put in a satirical context. The women in those pictures were portrayed as undesirable. They would kiss a goat or treat their own illnesses. To look at it through the lens of Rathbone: If you’re not marriageable as a woman, your life is not worth living and you are an “existence manquées” and unfulfilled existence (157).



Lurking in the Background, Ready to Attack!

“The Greek Captive” by Ilman & Sons is a mezzotint that depicts two people: A woman sitting in the foreground, dressed in white, and a man standing in the background, dressed in black. He looks at her controllingly with his hand close to his dagger, ready to draw it if she makes a move. The woman’s facial expressions do not seem scared or sad but rather indifferent. Moreover, she has a very pretty face and a slim silhouette, whereas the man hides most of his bodily features behind clothes and his face behind a long, dark beard. Nevertheless, his facial expression suggests that he his furious and not pleasant to be around.

What stands out here is the choice of colors. The innocent girl, the victim, is dressed in white, whereas the evil person is dressed in black. In relation to “The Woman in White”, we could parallel the people in the picture with Laura/Anne and Fosco.

Laura and Anne are both characterized as fragile young women and one of them only wears white (like the woman in the picture). Marian describes Laura as “sweet-tempered and charming” and claims that “she is an angel” (61). Unlike Marian herself, Laura and Anne are both portrayed as inferior to men. This becomes evident when Marian describes “female” characteristics such as being “inattentive” and “inaccurate” (60-61). Like in the picture, they are below male characters. The male character in the picture, like Fosco in the novel, is always around even if nobody pays attention to him. He is lurking in the corner and ready to take action when nobody looks. In the novel, Fosco did a similar thing: He would reside in the house and wait for the right moment to take Laura captive, to send her to an asylum. That the picture has the word “captive” in its title, is also a detail that fits “The Woman in White” very well.

Another aspect that is important in regards to the man in the background, is the danger that is associated with foreign people during the Victorian era. The man has a beard and clothes that are not western-looking and he is clearly supposed to be the evil person in the picture. Fosco is also foreign, which becomes especially evident in his accent, and it turns out that he also was the sinister person plotting something evil. Consequently, both, “The Greek Captive” and “The Woman in White” clearly show the fear of the foreign in the Victorian Era.

She’s insane but at least she’s pretty.

“She was between ten and eleven years old then, slow at her lessons, poor soul, and not so cheerful as other children – but as pretty a little girl to look at as you would wish to see” (Collins 494).

This quote refers to Anne Catherick and was said by her mother when she describes her daughter. Not only does it touch on mental illness and physical appearance but also about gender and the perception of women in the Victorian Era. A trope that I recognize in the character of Anne is the beautiful-but-crazy woman. Throughout the novel, it is emphasized multiple times that Anne does look pretty (because she looks so much like Laura) but that she is also not mentally healthy. This reminds me of other “mad” female figures in Victorian novels, such as Lady Audley’s Secret or Jane Eyre. Gilbert and Gubar’s essay about The Madwoman in the Attic explores this in greater detail but it is striking that the women who are put into asylums in these stories are usually attractive. The quote underlines that attractiveness is of great importance when it comes to women in the Victorian Era. Negatively connated adjectives, such as “slow”, “poor”, and “not so cheerful” seem to be balanced out by prettiness. It also underlines that the wellbeing of the child is unimportant, as long as it is pretty. While this passage seems to be about mental illness and beauty, it is also about the superficiality of Victorian society.

This raises the question to me why that is and which effect attractiveness in incaptured women causes in the reader. Is it because the reader would be intimidated by “crazy” femme fatales and happy when they end up in an asylum? Comparing the sensation novel to contemporary forms of entertainment, maybe they share the feature that they often use very attractive characters because it is more appealing for the recipients.

Another aspect that bothers me about the “madwoman” trope in Victorian literature is that it reproduces the idea that there are many women who are legitimitally crazy and who belong in an asylum. As we discussed in class, many women were sent to mental institutions for a variety of reasons, including what was known as “hysteria” and I am under the impression that sensation novels use that trope only to bring a shocking factor into the story. Since the female characters in the stories are often portrayed as crazy, they do not feature those women who are falsely accused of madness and sent to asylums. I was positively surprised when Collins incorporated it in The Woman in White.

However (unfortunately, I could not find a second source to confirm this, but)…

… I read online that Wilkie Collins was strongly inspired for The Woman in White by the case of Louisa Nottidge who was the blue print for the character of Laura Glyde. She was sent to a lunatic asylum by a man named Henry James Prince who would financially profit very much from the situation. With the help of others, Nottidge was freed and she successfully sued Prince for sending her to the asylum. It was very scandalous at the time and the online article said that Collins tried to profit off of the attention this case received by incorporating it in his novel. If this is true, his intentions maybe were not of the feminist kind.


*Penguin Classics Version from 1974

Wilkie Collins = Mansplaining Misogynist?

“You see, I don’t think much of my own sex, Mr Hartright […] no woman does think much of her own sex, although few of them confess it as freely as I do” (Collins 60*).

This quote was said by Marian Halcombe, shortly after she met Mr. Hartright. There are a few things that we can gather from this quote. We have learned about Mariam’s appearance which, in the novel is described as “masculine” and “ugly” (58). Therefore, as we discussed in class, she can be friends with Hartright because there is no risk of him falling in love with her.

In this passage, it seems as if she wanted to elevate herself from other women by bringing them down and generalizing that other women dislike each other but she talks “freely” because she is not like the other women. It seems as though Wilkie Collins wanted her to be more likable than other female characters because she is “just like one of the boys”. It also stands out to me that she is “natural” (60), “confident” (60), and generally quite quirky which none of the feminine women in the novel seem to be. Are these tributes that are reserved for “masculine” characters?

But why would women dislike each other? One reason could be that they see each other as competition. Taking William Rathbone’s writing and The Norton Anthology into account, there was a “surplus” of women and they were “redundant” (Rathbone 157, Norton Anthology 992). Because there were significantly more women than men in Great Britain, many women remained unmarried. There must have been a huge desire for women to marry, thus they stood in direct competition with each other. Maybe they were taught from early on to dislike other women. This could especially be the case with the Darwinist idea of “survival of the fittest”. “If you want to survive as a woman you must hate other women”. This leads to an internalized misogyny that (sub-)consciously accompanies them their whole lives.

Another reason why women dislike each other in the novel could be that “The Woman in White” is written by a male author. Nevertheless, it is directed at a predominantly female readership. It is an interesting reflection of the Victorian gender roles that a male author would make so many generalized assumptions about what women think, desire, and feel. In modern language, we might use the term “mansplaining”, here. Other examples from Collins’ “mansplaining-through-Mariam”-collection:

“Women can’t draw – their minds are too flighty, and their eyes are too inattentive” (61).

“I am as inaccurate as women usually are” (60).

“I will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-bye) to hold my tongue” (60).



*Penguin Classics edition from 1974