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Christina Rossetti's secrets.

HOW MIGHT a Focus on Christina Rossetti's poetry recast the relationships among secrets, subjectivity, and gender? Studies of nineteenth-century literary subjectivity have tended to follow one of two tracks: either exploring the limits to and the possibilities for self-determination or developing theories of the subject as the product of various ideological discourses. Secrecy has often held a privileged place in each of these approaches. The secret has been seen either as an essential feature of a psychological subject who possesses the inchoate possibility for self-determination or, more recently, as a sign of the inherent entrapment of the subject within a matrix of ideology. Indeed, the assumption that secrecy is "a mode whose ultimate meaning lies in the subject's formal insistence that he is radically inaccessible to the culture that would otherwise entirely determine him" has come under increasing pressure. (1) Whereas, according to Charles Dickens, "every human creature was, that profound secret and mystery to every other,' recent Foucauldian criticism has argued that the nineteenth-century subject does not produce secrets but, rather, secrets produce the subject. (2) That is, secrets are the internalization of the very mechanisms of a disciplinary order that the secret is supposed to be a strategy against.

The poststructuralist challenge to the depth model of subjectivity and to the notion of a subject who is not ideologically interpellated has called into question the value of studying conceptions of literary subjectivity at all. Yet, as James Eli Adams has pointed out, "a central weakness of Foucauldian machinery" is its failure to account for the communal role of secrets. A secret in this view can serve as a social tie, positioning people with regard to a secret that they desire to maintain. Preserving the secret is akin to sustaining that connection. Or the secret could be the social bond itself, when the relationship of two or more people is kept secret for whatever reason. "A sense of shared secrecy," Adams persuasively argues, "is often central to establishing or reinforcing social bonds, particularly those which define a subgroup within a larger society: hence the widespread Victorian fascination with secret societies or brotherhoods, not only as paranoid constructions, but as appealing forms of an imagined solidarity"' (3) The function of the secret, therefore, cannot simply be reduced to that which, in a society of surveillance, becomes the object of (juridical, medical, psychological) procedures of power intent on producing the "truth" of the individual. (4) Extending Adams's insights beyond the confines of his inquiry into Victorian masculinities, I will argue that during the late 1850s and early 1860s, a period in which Rossetti's social concerns seem particularly discernible, the poet uses the Tractarian doctrine of reserve in order to formulate different models of explicitly female subjectivity. (5)

Of course, by now it is a commonplace in Rossetti criticism to note the prominence of secrecy in her work. Her poetry reveals the multitudinous uses of the secret as a literary device; whether framing, conveying, resisting, or querying, concealment is ever present in her work. Scholars have, however, largely focused on Rossetti's use of this device as it illuminates the link between the secret and the individuated self. In this account, the poet conceptualizes selfhood as autonomous and posits secrecy as generative of that self's multilayered interiority. Jerome McGann has therefore argued that secrecy in Rossetti's poems is "a sign of the presence of individuality." (6) While most critics conclude that Rossetti's speakers use secrecy as a strategy to retain their autonomy--thus exemplifying the Foucauldian disciplinary thesis--I suggest that the strategy itself is, on occasion, less a mode of resistance than it is of enticement. Focusing on reserve as a mode of enticement, as Adams has pointed out, calls attention to secrecy's communal dimensions: "the mete assertion, or intimation, that one has a secret may be offered to an outsider as an enticing invitation to... community." (7) Because Adams focuses on various rhetorics of masculinity, be has little to say about women, and since much scholarship focuses on the private nature of female identity in the period, relatively little attention has been paid to the shared dimension of female subjectivity. As Adams himself notes, however, the Tractarian doctrine of reserve, which required an acquiescent attitude toward religious mystery and restraint in one's expressions of theology, was frequently seen as the quintessence of femininity. Thus, one potentially fruitful area of investigation is the role played by the doctrine of reserve in communal conceptions of a female self. (8) To be sure, religious believers more generally constitute a community of shared belief and practice. But many churchwomen in particular found new forms of self-understanding in the doctrine of reserve, especially through its poetic instantiation, and in the opportunities that Tractarianism, or the Oxford Movement, enabled for female communal life. (9)

I will return to the communal dimension of secrecy as it is represented in some of Rossetti's poems. This essay begins, however, with "The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children," which can be read as offering a proto-Foucauldian critique of the secret's role in the disciplinary processes of individuation and subjectification. By juxtaposing "Winter: My Secret" and Tractarian writings on reserve, I then proceed to recover an alternative theorization and practice of secrecy. This poem, I contend, highlights the authority that accrues to women as exemplifiers of the doctrine of reserve's central tenets, including the capacity to determine community membership. By way of conclusion, I argue that "Goblin Market" further develops the collective dimension of secrecy and reserve in order to hypothesize a communal subjectivity for women of faith. (10) Taken together, these poems can be seen as offering another way to think about both the subjective importance ascribed to secrecy and the contemporaneous models of religious selfhood and communality. Indeed, they do not simply offer themselves as test cases for a larger problematic in literary criticism but may themselves be seen as theories in the capacious sense of offering critical reflection and imagined possibility. (11)


"The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children" is written in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by a young woman named Margaret whose aristocratic mother had years earlier disavowed her illegitimately born daughter. Its opening lines emphasize the sense of humiliation the speaker feels in discovering her origins: "Oh the rose of keenest thorn! / One hidden summer morn / Under the rose I was born" (1-3). Unbeknownst to her, Margaret was raised by a nurse within the home of her own mother:
   I often sat to wonder
   Who might my parents be,
   For I knew of something under
   My simple-seeming state.
   Nurse never talked to me
   Of mother or of father,
   But watched me early and late
   With kind suspicious cares:
   Or not suspicious, rather
   Anxious, as if she knew
   Some secret I might gather
   And smart for unawares.

The secret, at least initially, serves not as a bond between mother and daughter but rather as a form of painful division. Margaret's mother, described as "grave and pale" (110), shows a fervent desire to reach out to her daughter and yet cannot assume a greater role than that of the lady of the manor: "'Almost her child'/She said and smiled / Sighing painfully" (302-5).

When Margaret determines that the lady of the manor is really her mother, she decides not to confront her. "But you must drop the mask, not I" she says to herself in an imagined dialogue (430). While yearning for the possibility of a reunion and the removal of the social mores keeping them apart, Margaret also recognizes the stigma that would follow:
   My Lady, you might trust
   Your daughter with your fame.
   Trust me, I would not shame
   Our honourable name,
   For I have noble blood
   Tho' I was bred in dust
   And brought up in the mud.
   I will not press my claim,
   Just leave me where you will:
   But you might trust your daughter,
   For blood is thicker than water
   And you're my mother still.

She refuses to press her claim because, in an economy that separates women into angels and whores--vividly captured in Rossetti's "Cousin Kate"--and, therefore, from each other, a reunion between them, which can be facilitated only through divulging a secret, would result in social exclusion for them both: the lady for abdicating the moral rectitude she was imagined to possess and Margaret for being the product of an illegitimate sexual union.

Margaret lays the blame for her suffering, however, not on her mother, whose actions she chalks up to "foolish youth,' but rather on social mores that are unevenly applied:
   Why did he set his snare
   To catch at unaware
   My Mother's foolish youth;
   Load me with shame that's hers,
   And her with something worse,
   A lifelong lie for truth?

While expressing anger toward her father, who has abandoned them both, she also singles out male religious authorities, whom she sees as perpetuating the initial injustice:
   "All equal before God"--
   Our Rector has it so,
   And sundry sleepers nod:
   It may be so; I know
   All are not equal here.

Margaret can be no savior to her mother, as Lizzie famously is to Laura in "Goblin Market," because unlike the female sphere constructed around redemption and forgiveness in that poem, the social world Margaret and her mother inhabit is governed by strict but hypocritical rules governing female propriety.

Seeing herself as inextricably intertwined with her mother's shame, Margaret insists at the end of the poem on assuming the stigma of illegitimate, or unmarried, sexuality:
   I'll not blot out my shame
   With any man's good name;
   But nameless as I stand,
   My hand is my own hand.

Yet, in her renunciation of marriage, which is cast here as a sincere refusal to clothe her shame in the (wedding) dress of respectability, Margaret also recognizes that secrecy functions less as a form of individually concealed knowledge than as a social technology. Through Margaret, therefore, the reader can glimpse a proto-Foucauldian critique of secrets as both the internalization of publicly held values and an internalized mechanism of surveillance.

Whereas secrecy takes on a negative valence as the poet explores the association of concealment with shame in "The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children": "Winter: My Secret" and "Goblin Market" imagine a different role for secrecy as either a means for women to accrue religious authority or a way of protecting a shared mystical experience. It is to this alternative theorization, which responds to a theological representation of secrecy, that I now turn.


Conceptualized by Isaac Williams in the late 1830s, the doctrine of reserve was, first and foremost, an attribute of God. According to Williams, "there appears in God's manifestations of Himself to mankind, in conjunction with an exceeding desire to communicate that knowledge, a tendency to conceal, and throw a veil over it, as if it were injurious to us unless we were of a certain disposition to receive it." (12) Reserve, therefore, ensured the preservation of God's manifold mysteries. This attribute was, in turn, a fundamental theological principle which held that revealed truth should always be adapted according to the perceived capacities of the receiver. Indeed, not all religious knowledge, Tractarians believed, should be imparted to every audience. Certain features might be emphasized to one audience, other features imparted to another, so that religious knowledge in its totality is never fully revealed--something is always held back. According to William Copeland, the doctrine of reserve reinforced this point in its insistence that "true piety lies too deep to be always in the tongue, and is too sublime to be talked about" (13) In contrast to evangelical fervor, the subject's withholding of religious knowledge in dealing with unbelievers was premised on the belief that they were neither worthy of such knowledge nor capable of truly apprehending religious truth.

Indeed, as a quality of God's own being, reserve had implications for the Tractarian conception of individual identity. According to John Henry Newman, the interior depths of one's being were to be cultivated not through social exchange but in an intimate communion of self and scripture. Seemingly comparable to Victorian liberalism's ideal subject enlightened by rationality or Wordsworth's solitary individual in the landscape, Newman's conception of the self apparently eschewed intersubjective dynamics altogether. Each individual was "his own centre" according to Newman: "No one outside of him can really touch him, can touch his soul, his immortality." (14) This center was characterized by "hopes and fears, desires, judgments, and aims" that constituted an "unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence." (15) In Newman's account, the self is thus a hermetically sealed, self-contained entity. Certain aspects of the self are held in abeyance depending on the context of interpersonal relations at any given moment.

Reserve required circumspection, restraint, and modesty in one's social interactions so that one's inner mysteries, like God's, would remain veiled. The individual exercise of reserve would ensure a "humble, secret, unaffected, unaspiring practice of piety." (16) The religious subject thus separates off some form of knowledge from the rest of the world, in the form of a secret, and claims it as the subject's own. Even eventual critics of the Oxford Movement found this conception of the self persuasive. In The Nemesis of Faith, published in 1848, J. A. Froude articulates an understanding of interiority that encompasses much more than the mental processes associated with memory. (17) Yet Froude, drawing on John Henry Newman's explications of selfhood, argues that "our own risings, fallings, aspirings, resolutions, misgivings ... are our hidden life, our sanctuary of our own mysteries." (18) The inner world, according to Froude, comprises not just memories but also fantasies, longings, and aspirations. Froude, like the many Tractarians with whom he ultimately disagreed, establishes a dichotomy between the social world as unreal--signified by talk--and the interior depths of one's being as a conspicuous bur mysterious reality. (19)

Yet the doctrine of reserve, unlike other contemporaneous models of subjectivity, did not so much eschew intersubjective relations as reconfigure the basis for them. Rather than simply claiming religious knowledge as one's own and burying it "deep" within, thereby generating a multilayered interiority, the subject used this mode of concealment as the basis for a different kind of relationship: withholding from the many enabled the believer to enjoy an intense connection to the One. While a believer's relationship with God is always individual, it takes place within the context of a community. As Peter Nockles explains, the concept of reserve, formulated against the Evangelical emphasis on individualism, "became a distinctive element of the Tractarian spiritual ethos" by uniting Tractarians around a theological principle. (20) Reserve, as G. B. Tennyson further points out, "made possible a concept of the Church that is peculiarly Tractarian." Tennyson concludes, "The sanctity of the house of God, the sacraments, Church ordinances and practices: all of these are part of a system of Reserve." (21) Secrecy, therefore, constituted the social matrix within which church members defined themselves and their relations to those within and outside the church. It functioned as a bond among the laity whose structures of feeling and thinking--indeed their very epistemological patterns--were similarly shaped according to theological belief and collective praxis.

In "Adherence to the Apostolical Succession the Safest Course" or the fourth tract, John Keble, a leading figure in the Oxford Movement, argued that the ministry of the church and the pastoral duty of the clergy are part of God's "ineffable mystery":

Look on your pastor as acting by man's commission, and you may respect the authority by which he acts, you may venerate and love his personal character, but it can hardly be called a religious veneration; there is nothing, properly, sacred about him. Bur once learn to regard him as "the Deputy of Christ, for reducing man to the obedience of God" and everything about him becomes changed, everything stands in a new light. In public and in private, in church and at home, in consolation and in censure, and above all, in the administration of the Holy Sacraments, a faithful man naturally considers, "By this His messenger Christ is speaking to me; by his very being and place in the world, he is a perpetual witness to the truths of the sacred history, a perpetual earnest of Communion with our Lord to those who come duly prepared to His Table. (22)

Reaffirming the theological principle of mystery, Keble argues that the social unit of the parish is part of the mysterious communion of saints. The mystery of that communion, which binds together the faithful in spiritual solidarity and shared belief, depends on recognizing profound and fundamental distinctions between the clergy and the laity. It preserves the pastor's elevated spiritual position and, in contradistinction to a culture of religious argumentation, the lay believer's submissiveness and obedience.

The Tractarian emphasis on mystery, secrecy, and reserve made the Oxford Movement especially appealing to women insofar as it aligned with Victorian conceptions of femininity, even as it generated considerable anxiety among the populace toward what was considered the valorization of unmanly characteristics. As Emma Mason has noted, the "quiet and restrained approach to theological study" resonated with the "passivity and sensibility" so often ascribed to women. (23) According to Keble, women, in fact, chiefly possess "modest reverence" or the "beautiful trait of reserve." (24) Submission and restraint, therefore, were seen as the key characteristics of reserve, which women were believed to best exemplify.

Ironically, for female poets the doctrine of reserve also provided special opportunities for self-fulfillment and the assumption of forms of authority typically held by men. Oblique and often elusive, poetic language was celebrated by the Tractarians as an ideal vehicle for the expression of religious knowledge. (25) It was seen as potentially drawing readers or listeners closer to God. Women writers of poetry, therefore, could assume pastoral duties typically held by male clerical figures.

I want to turn now to a discussion of "Winter: My Secret" as a way of demonstrating how Rossetti began exploiting Tractarian conceptions of interiority and reserve to theorize forms of female subjectivity. On its most obvious level "Winter: My Secret" is concerned with a speaker who conceals some bit of knowledge from the reader. Any further delimitation (or perhaps reduction) of the poem's "meaning" to a definitive reading proves difficult, however, because of the lack of both contextual and linguistic clues. The secret, never revealed, is an ambiguous referent throughout. So, too, is the identity of the person to whom the speaker's words are addressed. Certainly, someone appears to be the object of the speaker's address C And you're too curious: fie!"; emphasis mine [4]), but the poem never clearly delineates the relationship between speaker and listener. The secret appears to be inextricably intertwined at both the intra- and the extratextual levels with a conception of self (either an imagined self in control of its "own game" or Rossetti herself). Jerome McGann has argued that this interrelationship between the intra- and extratextual is indicative of "personal independence." This independence, he contends, is one of the "central subjects" in Rossetti's work. (26) Personal independence is symbolized, then, by the secret, which functions, according to McGann, as an indicator of individuality.

Alison Chapman, however, has taken a different view. What if, she asks, "there is no secret to tell, and no subject to disclose"? (27) The second stanza of "Winter: My Secret" raises this very possibility: "Or, after all, perhaps there's none: / Suppose there is no secret after all, / But only just my fun" (7-9). According to Chapman, if there is no secret, it follows that there might not be a subject--an interiority predicated on secrecy--either. This persuasive argument, however, does not fully consider the implications of the word suppose: "Suppose there is no secret after all, / But only just my fun:' Suppose is both conditional and denotative of an element of imagination. If readers suppose that there is, in fact, a concealed motive and that motive is "my fun," we have not yet left the logic of the secret. Tricking the reader with a secret is simply a different form of secrecy. In other words, rather than suggesting the absence of interiority, these lines prove its presence; pretending interiority verifies interiority in the pretense. In these lines the poem discloses a kind of truth even as (indeed because) it withholds the speaker's secret. The secret itself assures interiority. Rather than reading the poem as a disavowal of interiority, therefore, we might consider it as gesturing toward community by generating, through its use of a strategy of enticement, the conditions in which the reader or auditor longs to share in the speaker's furtive knowledge.

Most studies focus on this lyric as an exchange between two possible lovers in the courtly tradition: "I tell my secret? / No indeed, not I" (1). Beginning in medias res, the poem leaves the reader to imagine the speaker responding to a question that has been asked, say, something along the lines of "I know you have a secret. Why don't you tell me what it is?" The forcefulness with which the second line is uttered suddenly gives way to a playfulness in the third and remaining lines of the stanza:
   Perhaps some day, who knows?
   Bur not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
   And you're too curious: fie!
   You want to hear it? well:
   Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.

This alternation between a persona that is both bold ("I tell my secret? No, indeed, not I") and coy ("You want to hear it?"), hinting that a revelation is near, yet withdrawing at the very moment when confession is expected, suggests, Isobel Armstrong has argued, a sort of "coquetry" running throughout the poem. (28) For the stanzas set out such a series of conditions and rules that must be met before the speaker will divulge what has been concealed that the secret becomes more inaccessible, and hence more fascinating, with each line.

But in situating the poem too firmly within the courtly love tradition, we miss Rossetti's use of the secrecy of poetic language as a way of establishing female religious authority. Indeed, Emma Mason argues that "Winter: My Secret" which has often perplexed critics because it seems far more indebted to the courtly love tradition than to nineteenth-century religious beliefs, should be read as an explication of the Tractarian doctrine of reserve. She focuses on the speaker, however, as a stand-in for God. I am suggesting instead that the poem be read as an assertion of female religious charismatic authority. In the first stanza the poem gestures toward a day on which the secret might be revealed ("Perhaps some day, who knows?"). The fourth stanza returns to this issue of the secret's temporality:
   Perhaps some languid summer day,
   When drowsy birds sing less and less,
   And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
   If there's not too much sun nor too much cloud,
   And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
   Perhaps my secret I may say,
   Or you may guess.

The day that might be ripe, like the fruit of which the poem speaks, for confession must meet a series of conditions. On this day in the indeterminate future, birds "sing less and less,' there is neither too much sun nor are there too many clouds, and the "warm wind is neither still nor loud" The language is rich bur not descriptive, and without much descriptiveness the date cannot be firmly established. In the very act of expanding the possibilities for revelation, the speaker also contracts them. (29) By denying the reader access to the secret, Rossetti's poem elicits a fascination that, as Adams points out about this strategy more generally, invites a readership to invest a text "with secrets of its own, secrets that may be far more 'special" more 'mysterious or marvellous" than anything the author actually possesses, or might convey in less arcane forms. (30) Such a strategy of enticement was in keeping with the Tractarian emphasis on reserve as essential to establishing religious authority. (31) Since, according to Newman, "tradition in its fulness is necessarily unwritten," it can only be conveyed, as Adams points out, through the overwhelming influence of individual contact. (32) Assigning charismatic authority to a female speaker who has the power to admit or deny communality to the auditor, Rossetti might be seen as suggesting that writing religious poetry provided women with opportunities akin to those experienced by their male counterparts who held positions of priestly or theological authority and embodied, in their interactions with the laity, God's "ineffable mystery." (33)


Whereas "Winter: My Secret" focuses on the role of secrecy in establishing authority and, hence, in proffering an invitation to community, "Goblin Market" can be read in terms of the Tractarian emphasis on pastoral duty. Shortly after composing "Goblin Market," Rossetti began a lengthy period of lay service at Saint Mary Magdalene's Penitentiary, Highgate. (34) According to Elaine Showalter, Rossetti saw "Anglican sisterhoods as models of female community that offered meaningful work to women" through charitable practices. (35) These institutions also offered, Martha Vicinus has suggested, opportunities for focusing on "regular prayer, penance, and retreat from the world" largely without the mediating role of men. (36) Tractarians were particularly strong proponents of sisterhoods, or institutionally sanctioned forms of relationships among women, and efforts to establish them were part of a wider Tractarian campaign to revivify notions of community within an increasingly secular culture. (37)

Rossetti's commitment to Anglican sisterhoods reflects a more general concern with the possibility of and the limits to an abstract form of female collectivity, one that would unite women by virtue of their gender. Indeed, Victorian gender ideology tended to separate women in order to ensure "that they relate only through men." (38) This separation made ir difficult for women to coalesce around a coherent category of sisterhood. One of the effects on individuals subjected to a hierarchal social system is their tendency to devalue one another. Many of Rossetti's poems focus on female competition for male love and its concomitant breeding of betrayal and jealousy. (39) Throughout the period in which Rossetti was composing and publishing "Goblin Market" she had resumed her friendships with the Langham Place feminists, including Barbara Bodichon; she also began ministering to the needs of the inmates at Highgate; supporting antivivisection efforts, and counting among her acquaintances the organizers of a Factory Girls' Club. Thus, forms of female friendship and solidarity during this period were at the forefront of Rossetti's mind. (40)

Regardless of whether it is seen as a story of spiritual salvation or earthly love, "Goblin Market" has often been read as opening a space for women to relate to one another without the triangulating role frequently played by men in the wider culture. The poem alternates between representations of public and private spheres, between female domesticity and the male marketplace: moving from pastoral childhood scenes of sisterly relations to the interruptions by the goblin men to reunion between the sisters, Laura and Lizzie, before concluding with the celebration of marriages that irrevocably separate the two. I want to suggest, however, that Laura and Lizzie possess a secret that, following High Anglicanism's emphasis on collective concealment, generates a shared interiority that persists beyond their physical separation.

In the days that follow Laura's purchase of the forbidden fruits with a lock of hair, perhaps a synecdoche for her body, she begins to show the very symptoms that plagued the fallen Jeanie--first, she expresses longing ("I ate and ate my fill, / Yet my mouth waters still" [165-66]), then her body begins to deteriorate ("Her hair grew thin and gray; / She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn / To swift decay and burn / Her fire away" [277-80]). Laura's hunger for the luscious fruit might be read in terms of gluttony--that is, as a temptation away from spiritual communion. "It was the desire of food that spawned disobedience; it was the pleasure of taste that drove us from Paradise," wrote Abbot Nilus. "Luxury in food delights the gullet, but it breeds the worm of license that sleepeth not," (41) As an accurate assessment of Laura's condition as well, Nilus's comments point toward hunger as a mark of human vulnerability. Sisterhood, by contrast, is figured as a source of strength in which the hungry are satisfied by spiritual nourishment:
   "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."

Determined to save her sister, Lizzie searches for and finds the goblin men. When they refuse to take her money, insisting that she must eat the fruits with them, Lizzie asks for her coin back and is then subjected to verbal and physical abuse. They taunt her and attempt to force her to eat their magical fruit; Lizzie, however, stands firm. Despite the persistence of the goblin men, she refuses to taste the forbidden fruit. Instead, they smear it across her face and body, at which she "laughed in heart to feel the drip / Of juice that syrupped all her face ... And streaked her neck" (433-34, 436).

After the goblin men throw back her coin and retreat, Lizzie returns from the market covered in fruit juices and offers up her body to Laura. In "making much" of Lizzie and curing the insatiable longing, Laura, the poem notes, "Kissed and kissed and kissed her [Lizzie] ... She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth" (486, 492). Clearly, the orality of the moment is overdetermined; the juices of the fruit become inseparable from Lizzie's body until, perhaps, they replace them. The effect of these juices on Laura is that "Swift fire spread thro' her veins, knocked at her heart, / Met the fire smouldering there / And overbore its lesser flame" (507-9). It is, of course, easy to read these lines as erotically charged. Yet, as Sean Grass notes, "Rossetti's intense sacramentalism and devout Christianity render rather hollow any strictly sexual or homoerotic interpretation." (42) A more plausible explanation might be that Rossetti draws on medieval religious beliefs about the curative power of women's bodies. In the Middle Ages, as Caroline Walker Bynum points out, "Women were not only followers, manipulated and circumscribed in their religious ideals by powerful clerics, they were also leaders and reformers" (43)--an understanding that would have accorded well with the Tractarian emphasis on institutionalized forms of sisterhood. In rendering aid to the physically and spiritually malnourished, these women were associated with the powerful image of a nursing Christ: "Eat me, drink me, love me." [TM] Within this sphere, therefore, women assumed a role that was at least as powerful as the religious offices held by men.

Precisely because the satiation of worldly hunger is an intensely mystical experience, it cannot be conveyed in words to those who have not experienced it. (45) The story Laura tells her children, therefore, replicates the structure of the poem itself but elides Lizzie's administering of the antidote to Laura:
   Would talk about the haunted glen,
   The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
   Their fruits like honey to the throat
   But poison in the blood;

   Would tell them how her sister stood
   In deadly peril to do her good,
   And win the fiery antidote.
   (552-55, 557-59)

The first line refers to the goblins' morning and evening cries of "Come buy, come buy" heard by so many "maids" and ultimately by Lizzie and Laura themselves; the second, to the conflicting responses each sister has to the merchant men on spotting the goblin market; the third, to Laura's consumption of the fruits; and the fourth, to her deterioration. The last three lines refer to Lizzie's bravery in obtaining the antidote. Laura's story, however, stops at the moment at which the administering of the antidote starts. The poem withholds one or more lines describing the process by which Laura is cured. Indeed, a couple of the stanzas suggest her liminal status between life and death. A summary line could very well have referred to the period in which the antidote is both administered and begins to take effect leading to Lizzie's "night long" bedside vigil (525). But to provide a rational or summary explanation for the transformation of fruits that had the power to harm into a lifesaving elixir would detract from what is essentially a shared, mystical experience withheld from the children receiving the lesson at the end of the narrative. Despite their differences, in the end both "Winter: My Secret" and "Goblin Market" retain their secrets--a retention, I want to suggest, that is necessary to Rossetti's conception of communality.

Yet the sisterhood that "Goblin Market" imagines is based on similarity rather than difference. Indeed, at the beginning of the poem Laura and Lizzie are depicted as banding together against the threat of the goblin men: "Crouching close together / In the cooling weather, / With clasping arms and cautioning lips, / With tingling cheeks and finger tips" (36-39). After Laura's "fall," the two again embrace:
   Golden head by golden head,
   Like two pigeons in one nest
   Folded in each other's wings,
   They lay down in their curtained bed:
   Like two blossoms on one stem,
   Like two flakes of new-fall'n snow.

Laura and Lizzie are described, in other words, in terms of wholeness and completion in which one cannot be represented without the other. Men twice disrupt this union--first the goblins, and then Laura's and Lizzie's respective husbands. In between these periods, sisterhood asserts itself as a trope of sameness. As Helena Michie has cautioned, sisterhood is a "distressingly utopian term" that does not take into account the varieties of relationships and attendant emotions between women, especially those charged with racial or class-based differences. (46) Ina social context that alienated women from one another, however, the trope of sameness offers itself as an alternative to division. (47)


If "The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children" appears to resonate with Foucauldian-inflected theories of subjectivity that reduce secrets to the internalization of the mechanisms of a disciplinary order, "Winter: My Secret" and "Goblin Market" focus on social structures that might rest on shared furtive knowledge. The shift in emphasis is both formal, and hence rhetorical, as well as thematic: from secrecy as a form of confessional knowledge in the dramatic monologue ("The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children") to secrecy as an enticement to religious community in lyric ("Winter: My Secret") to secrecy as the foundation of female religious community in narrative ("Goblin Market"). (48) Taken together, these poems reflect Rossetti's interest in understanding secrecy as social form.

That interest, I have argued, derives at least in part from and was nurtured by a movement in which Rossetti found a philosophical and theoretical model for understanding the individual and communal dimensions of selfhood. Against an Evangelical individualism that many saw as stripping mystery from theology, including undermining the distinctive relationship of the priest to the laity and disregarding the shared dimensions of faith (either parish boundaries or collective praxis), Rossetti emphasized both the continued inscrutability of religious knowledge and the essential role of secrecy as the foundation for female forms of spiritual communality. In so doing, she also imagined roles for women that extended well beyond those accorded to them by male clerical figures, even as the latter's insistence on seeing females as the embodiment of reserve and their encouragement of sisterhoods provided the very conditions in which to conceive of alternative possibilities.

Syracuse University


I am grateful to a number of individuals, known and unknown, for their comments on earlier versions of this essay, including Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Natalie M. Houston, and the exceptional PQ readers.

(1) D.A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (U. of California Press, 1989), 195.

(2) Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Oxford U. Press, 1998), 12.

(3) James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Cornell U. Press, 1995), 184.

The Foucauldian argument potentially falters on this point. On the society of surveillance see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). On Foucault's explication of the processes through which disciplinary powers both produce secrets and then reveal those secrets in order to determine certain social or individual "truths" see, among other works, History of Sexuality, Volume 1: Ah Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990).

(5) The links between Rossetti's poetics and Tractarianism have been much studied. For example, Betty S. Flowers, "The Kingly Self: Rossetti as Woman Artist," The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, ed. David A. Kent (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1987), 160, has argued that the "bulk of [Rossetti's] work reflects Tractarian" concerns, while P. G. Stanwood insists that "she was above all else an inheritor of Tractarianism in the supreme flowering of the Oxford Movement" ("Christina Rossetti's Devotional Prose," in Achievement of Christina Rossetti, 243). Indeed, Rossetti's early years of religious instruction took place at one of the more active Tractarian-affliated parishes, Christ Church, Albany Street, headed by Reverend William Dodsworth. There is highly suggestive evidence that Rossetti remained deeply influenced by the Tractarian movement from her first exposure to it around 1840: "Such evidence," Antony Harrison points out, "includes her elegiac sonnet on Newman ... her possession of his Dream of Gerontius; and her hand-illustrated and underlined copy of The Christian Year by [John] Keble." See Antony Harrison, Christina Rossetti in Context (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1988), 69. Jerome McGann, "The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti," Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 143, cautioned long ago that it is a "most misleading view (though not entirely wrong)" to see Rossetti solely in light of Tractarian doctrines. Similarly, Dolores Rosenblum, Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1986), has observed that in focusing too heavily on Rossetti's reserve, we miss her boldness. As I will shortly discuss, reserve could paradoxically embolden women writers, given the emphasis Tractarians placed on poetry as a vehicle for the expression of religious knowledge.

(6) Jerome J. McGann, "Christina Rossetti's Poems: A New Edition and a Revaluation," Victorian Studies 23 (1980): 247.

(7) Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints, 184-85.

(8) I am not the first to draw attention to Rossetti's different construction of subjectivity. Mary Arseneau, Recovering Christina Rossetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2004), has recently explored the importance for Rossetti of a supportive literary community consisting of her mother and sister. At the heart of this community, Arseneau argues, was shared religious faith. Julie Melnyk has traced the ways in which Rossetti transfigures the Romantic literary subject--defined by "autonomy, individual creativity, and freedom from material conditions"--by placing it within the context of community. According to Melnyk, Rossetti "does not deny community, but rather inscribes it" into a poetic tradition that emphasizes individuality. See "The Lyrical 'We': Self-Representation in Christina Rossetti's 'Later Life,"' Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 11 (2002): 44. In Rossetti's poetry we find "the lyric voice of a different subjectivity," Melnyk continues, "one grounded in Christian ideology and the supposedly common experience of the Christian community: because Christians are assumed to share essentially private spiritual and emotional experiences, 'we' can be simultaneously lyrical and plural, expressing feelings at once individual and communal, private and public" (47).

(9) While the Oxford movement was a sustained presence in Rossetti's life, Tractarianism cannot be said to have been the only source for her interest in the relationship between secrecy and communality: she knew of her father's carbonari associations and lifelong scholarly interest in secret societies; witnessed her brother Dante's founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which in its earliest years functioned as a secret collectivity known only by the mysterious initials appended to member paintings; and was herself a lay helper from 1859 to 1870 at Saint Mary Magdalene's Penitentiary, Highgate. Run by the Diocese of London, Highgate ministered to fallen women whose stay at the institution was intended to redeem them through spiritual transformation; the female inmates were forbidden from speaking of their supposed sins. Charles Dickens, who supported institutions for fallen women, set this policy for Urania Cottage: "She is particularly admonished by no means to communicate her history to any of the other inmates: all of whom have in their turns received a similar admonition"; see "Home for Homeless Women," Household Words 7 (1853): 170. As Amanda Anderson glosses this passage, "Telling stories ... raises the possibility of actually 'communicating' one's history to another inmate in the sense that one communicates a disease"; see Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (Cornell U. Press, 1993), 72. Nevertheless, High Anglican ideas of a necessary, shared secrecy to religious life seem to have provided Rossetti with something of a conceptual model by which to formulate her own understanding of the female self as potentially communal.

(10) Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. R. W. Crump, 3 vols. (Louisiana State U. Press, 1979), vol. 1. All references to Rossetti's poetry come from this edition and volume, and are hereafter cited by line number within the text.

(11) As Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 174-75, compellingly argues: "Theory is an activity that does not remain restricted to the academy. It takes place every time a possibility is imagined, a collective self-reflection takes place, a dispute over values, priorities, and language emerges."

(12) Isaac Williams, "Tract Number 80: On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge," Project Canterbury: Tracts for the Times,

(13) Quoted in Peter B. Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857 (Cambridge U. Press, 1994), 199.

(14) John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, 8 vols. (London, 1838), 4:82-83.

(15) Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, 4:82-83.

(16) George Horne, Works of the Right Reverend George Horne, ed. William Jones, 6 vols. (London: 1846), 2:573.

(17) Memory and, more broadly, historical thinking were primary features of Victorian understandings of the self. Much has been written on the role memory played in Victorian understandings of self. For a starting point, see David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge U. Press, 1985). A. Dwight Culler, The Victorian Mirror of History (Yale U. Press, 1985), offers a helpful study focused more exclusively on history.

(18) James Anthony Froude, The Nemesis of Faith (London: Libris, 1988), 144.

(19) And, indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century, human exteriority and interiority were bound up with religious considerations. One of the many connotations of interiority during this period noted by the OED perfectly captures this distinction; W. G. Ward in 1879 used the term interiority as a way of differentiating between the pious and the irreverent, "between the interior and the worldly man."

(20) Nockles, Oxford Movement in Context, 198.

(21) G.B. Tennyson, Victorian Devotional Poetry: The Tractarian Mode (Harvard U. Press, 1981), 48.

(22) John Keble, "Tract Number 4: Adherence to the Apostolical Succession the Safest Course," Project Canterbury: Tracts for the Times,

(23) Emma Mason, "Christina Rossetti and the Doctrine of Reserve" Journal of Victorian Culture 7, no. 2 (2002): 205.

(24) John Keble, Keble's Lectures on Poetry, 1832-1841, trans. Edward Kershaw Francis, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912), 2:84.

(25) Along with typology and analogy, reserve held an important aesthetic function. "For the Tractarians" as Emma Mason points out, "the doctrine was inseparable from the genre of poetry, considered oblique and restrained as both [John] Keble and John Henry Newman pointed out in their various papers on poetics" ("Christina Rossetti and the Doctrine of Reserve," 197).

(26) McGann, "Christina Rossetti's Poems," 246.

(27) Alison Chapman, The Afterlife of Christina Rossetti (New York: St. Martin's, 2000), 7.

(28) Isobel Armstrong, "Christina Rossetti: Diary of a Feminist Reading," Women Reading Women's Writing, ed. Sue Roe (Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1987), 124.

(29) On the connection between expansion and contraction, see Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1996), 311-70.

(30) Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints, 205. There have been many attempts to locate the source of Christina's secrets in the facts of her life. Margaret Sawtell, in her biography of Rossetti, reads "Winter: My Secret" as a "gay, teasing thing exactly descriptive of one with a happy secret"; see Christina Rossetti: Her Life and Religion (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1955), 53. "There seems" Sawtell explains, "but one possibility to explain this sudden exuberance ... By some means, of which we have no record, Christina had learned that [James] Collinson still loved her" (52-53). Collinson, who was a member of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's literary club and, later, of the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite artists, had briefly been engaged to Rossetti before religious differences took their toll. Similarly, Lona Mosk Packer's biography links secrecy with Rossetti and Collinson, building on Sawtell's assertion that the two actually hid their relationship for some seven years after the engagement was publicly broken: see Christina Rossetti (U. of California Press, 1963). The lack of any corroborating footnotes to either Sawtell's or Packer's claims--indeed in Sawtell's case her very admission that there is "no record" on which to base this assertion--renders them suspect. Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life (New York: Penguin, 1994), esp. 250-64, suggests, with a similar lack of editorial apparatus, that Rossetti might have been forced by her father to perform sexual acts with him during a period of convalescence in which she was his primary caretaker. These attempts to explain the source of Rossetti's fascination with secrecy indicate just how crucial a role this theme is seen to be in her work.

(31) Of course it is also essential to establishing the authority of the poet through what Angela Leighton calls an "aesthetics of secrecy, self-containment, and caprice"; see "'When I am dead, my dearest': The Secret of Christina Rossetti," MP 87 (1990): 376. As Mary Arseneau points out, the doctrine of reserve "is particularly suited to the woman poet, for this modesty allows the woman poet to cross ideological boundaries into public discourse" Reserve can thus be seen as "liberating" and "artistically controlled" (Recovering Christina Rossetti, 72).

(32) Quoted in Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 142; Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints, 88.

(33) Keble, "Tract Number 4."

(34) D.M.R. Bentley raises the possibility that "Goblin Market" was read aloud at the Diocesan Penitentiary. See Bentley, "The Meretricious and the Meritorious in Goblin Market: A Conjecture and an Analysis," The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, ed. David A. Kent (Cornell U. Press, 1987), 57-81.

(35) Elaine Showalter, introduction to Christina Rossetti: Maude; Dinak Mulock Craik: On Sisterhoods: A Woman's Thoughts about Women (New York U. Press, 1995), vii.

(36) Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920 (U. of Chicago Press, 1985), 49.

(37) Karen Dielman, "Christina Rossetti: The Communion of Saints, and Verses," Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 15 (2006): 27-49.

(38) Lenore Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (New York: Routledge, 1995), 107.

(39) Helena Michie in "The Battle for Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti's Strategies for Control in Her Sister Poems," The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 3 (1983): 38-50, has pointed out that Rossetti's "vision of sisterhood is often bleak and almost always rigidly unsentimental."

(40) Additionally, as Diane D'Amico has observed, Rossetti's "questioning of the Victorian celebration of marriage and motherhood" during this period "might lead to a reading of her convent poems as support for woman's political rights"; see Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender, and Time (Louisiana State U. Press, 1999), 60.

(41) Quoted in Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (U. of California Press, 1987), 36.

(42) Sean Grass, '"Nature's Perilous Variety in Rossetti's 'Goblin Market," Nineteenth-Century Literature 51 (1996): 374. Lynda Palazzo argues that focusing on the "erotic possibilities" of the sisters' relationship is symptomatic of the "male voyeuristic gaze"; see Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology (New York: Palgrave 2002), 22. Palazzo's conflation of the erotic with the sexual, however, seems highly problematic to me.

(43) Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast, 15. After completing a draft of this article, I heard Jill Rappoport make a similar point in her paper "Lizzie's Silver Penny: The Price of Redemption in 'Goblin Market'" (presented at the annual meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association, Victoria, British Columbia, 10-13 October 2007). I take this as further confirmation that medieval religious beliefs about the curative power of women's bodies may have served as a source of inspiration for Rossetti.

(44) On the curative powers of women's bodies, see Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast. On the links between Lizzie and Christ, see Marylu Hill, "Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me': Eucharist and the Erotic Body in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," Victorian Poetry 43 (2005): 455-73.

(45) On Lizzie's curative juices, see Catherine Maxwell, "Tasting the 'Fruit Forbidden': Gender, Intertextuality, and Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts, ed. Mary Arseneau, Anthony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra (Athens: Ohio U. Press, 1999), 75-102; Richard Menke, "The Political Economy of Fruit: Goblin Market," Culture of Christina Rossetti, 105-36; and Herbert E Tucker, "Rossetti's Goblin Marketing: Sweet to Tongue and Sound to Eye," Representations 82 (2003): 117-33.

(46) Helena Michie, Sororophobia: Differences among Women in Literature and Culture (Oxford U. Press, 1992), 8.

(47) Rossetti's alternative theorization of secrecy in both "Goblin Market" and "Winter: My Secret" could very well be read as part of the "silent rebellion" against Victorian gender ideology in which so many of Rossetti's poems seem to have participated. See John Shelton Reed, "A Female Movement: The Feminization of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Catholicism," Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 77 (1988): 229. Through the emerging concept of sisterhood, as Janet Galligani Casey, "The Potential of Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market,"' Victorian Poetry 29 (1991): 72, has noted, "women acquired a sense of themselves as an identifiable group with its own aims, talents, and capacities for social power"

(48) Rhetorically, confessional writing and the dramatic monologue have much in common, although the former is linked to authorial personae in ways that the latter is not.
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Title Annotation:'The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children', 'Winter: My Secret' and 'Goblin Market'
Author:Morrison, Kevin A.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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