Victorian Women in Literature

August 27, 1996
English 388

During the Victorian era, there was great controversy over the roles of women and what constituted the ideal woman. For the better half of the era, women were seen as pure, pious and innocent. They were treated like household commodities. In literature this view is best represented in Victorian poetry. Through the use of nature and color imagery, Victorian writers sought to sustain the image of women as being angelic and not having the desire to seek higher knowledge. Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” and Robert Browning’s “Women and Roses” are three such examples where writers try to define the position of the Victorian woman.

Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” define situations where women who try to attain some higher knowledge, only found in the “man’s world,” lose their ability to return to what they used to be and are seen by society as impure and raped of their woman-ness.

Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” compares the two main Victorian views of women. One construct is represented by Lizzie who despite the attempts of the men to entice her to fall remains pure of heart, and innocent. The other is represented by Laura who eats the “fruit of knowledge” given to her by the goblin men and loses the ability to return to innocence. Laura’s unappealing action of “buying from us with a golden curl,” likens her situation to that of a prostitute. Also by comparing Laura’s diminishing condition to that of Jeanie who died from the same conditions, Rossetti places fear into the readers by suggesting that seeking knowledge brings about death. In having Laura and Lizzie enter the marketplace Rossetti also alludes to women being consumed by the atrocity of man and his knowledge. From these examples, it is clear that Rossetti’s intentions were to create a world of vivid imagery to steer women in her time away from the “goblin men” and the fruits of their knowledge.

Imagery in this poem is intertwined around night and day. Victorians commonly associated women with the lunar phases of serenity and purity; whereas, men were identified with the creative forces of the sun. This view is most strongly seen in the inner calm Laura and Lizzie have. In the beginning, the women are described as being “veiled” and “crouching together,” small and weak having to rely on one another. When one is outside during the night hidden shadows and the quietness of the dark causes the mind to play tricks causing a person to become subdued and weak. Lines 145-146, “Should not loiter in the glen/ In the haunts of goblin men,” play upon the fear of Victorian women and its association with the darkness.

Rossetti also uses various imagery from the day to define times in which good events occur. The girls, before Laura’s fall, are placed in the daytime where “twilight is not good for maidens”(line 144). Rossetti also equates “righteous” work habits and playfulness in the daytime. To Rossetti, the sun and daylight represent goodness and the proper time to work. It also describes the time of day when no bad things can happen. The Goblin Men, on the other hand, only appear at night where “their offer should not charm us,/ their evil gifts would harm us”(lines 65-66). Here, during the night is when the image of monsters and harmful events happen. In Rossetti’s view women who partake in the daylight activities are more wholesome and obedient than women who flirt and hang around with men at night.

Traditional imagery associates women with the lunar cycles and men with the power of the sun. In her discussion of woman’s roles in the daylight hours, Rossetti really isn’t attempting to reverse these traditional views. She is trying to establish the proper “physical” elements in how women should be seen. She argues that women should be at home, during the day to tend to household chores and the children. In her view, no self righteous woman would be caught like a trollop during the night flirting with “goblin men.” Instead of there being two separate spheres, where men and women contain themselves, Rossetti argues that when these spheres join is where women get into trouble.

There are two instances where Rossetti uses the idea of crossing over into the other realm. The first is when Laura has eaten the fruits and during the “morning and evening,” The second instance occurs when the Goblin Men’s voices are audible to the women’s ears. These descriptions suggest that these are the only times of the day in which men and women have a general understanding of one another. It is during this connecting point where Laura and her naive curiosity gets her into trouble. She is tempted by the sights and sounds of the Goblin Men and this begins her transition into the other realm. When Laura has entered the realm of the man she is often described contrastingly with her sister. In stanza 10, Rossetti describes the two girls drawing water from a brook. “Lizzie most placid in her look,/ Laura most like a leaping flame,” (lines 217-218) shows this contrast between the silent calm of the women’s world and the constant movement of the men’s world and how the two can intersect.

Rossetti also uses nature imagery to allude to the almost biblical fall of Laura. In this case it’s not just apples that tempt Laura to the siren song of the Goblin Men. Lines 5-30 describe the multitude of fruits used to draw women into their circle of knowing. Lines 554 and 555, “Their fruits like honey to the throat/ But poison in the blood;” describes the sweetness of knowledge once tasted but shows their true effectiveness in the destruction of the innocent spirit of women. Once the fruit is eaten, Laura looses her innocence and becomes old and warn, “Till Laura dwindling/ Seemed knocking at Death’s door”(lines 320- 321). These lines describe the outcome to Rossetti’s message to Victorian women to not engage in attaining higher knowledge, things that they cannot begin to comprehend. Here, the fruit imagery represents the ideal of knowledge, and when a women has a taste it leaves a bad taste in her mouth. The idea of a “bad taste” alludes to the fact that women, in the Victorian age, were thought not to be able to comprehend most knowledge known to men. However, the poem does suggest that women do have sexual knowledge.

In order for Laura to return to the realm of woman-sight she must partake in sucking the juices, that the Goblin Men smashed on Lizzie, off of her. Lines 485-489, suggests that this is an almost sexual cleansing for the redemption of Laura’s innocence. The tone in which this whole matter is presented also suggests that this “lesbian affair” is no big deal, that “there is no friend like a sister.” The diction presented in stanzas 28- 30, describes in detail Laura’s act of redemption. The very fact that Laura “loathes the feast,” redeems her from all her desires to attain higher knowledge. It is as if by reverting to her (Laura’s) inner “lesbian” desire is the only way for her to return to youth and the world she once belonged to.

Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott,” also describes what happens to a woman when she steps out of her own world and enters the realm of man. His Lady is a weaver, who weaves a web from what she sees behind herself in a mirror. When the Lady sees Sir Lancelot’s image in the mirror, it causes her to turn around and ultimately lays the basis for her death. Here, the illusion of women’s lusty desire and the very fact that she feels passion and desire, two qualities thought to only be possessed by Victorian men, causes the death of the Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson uses nature to describe the Lady’s position in society. The Lady “weaves by night and day, a magic web with colors gay”(37-38). The image of a woman weaving by night draws ties with Rossetti’s poem of the realms of men and women. Line 10, “willows whiten, aspens quiver,” shows the monotony of the Lady’s days. Here, this imagery adds to the mood of dreariness that the Lady is trapped within. Although the Lady weaves throughout the daytime she has yet to be connected to the realm of man because what she weaves is indirectly seen, “shadows of the world” (line 48). It is when she desires to be within this world that, once again, causes her destruction.

The poem suggests the belief that women shouldn’t look into the faces of men other than their husbands or other “commanding” heads of households. The very idea that a curse of death shall fall upon her if she does, supports this belief. She is always weaving and is cursed to never look directly into men’s faces. Line 33, “And by the moon the reaper weary,” shows just how precarious the Lady of Shalott’s life is. The fact that the keeper of death, the Grim Reaper is standing over her, making sure she keeps to her work, adds to the imminent danger the Lady of Shalott faces. One short glance into the mirror and her life is ended. However, her inner desire for love isn’t scared out of her by this threat.

Upon seeing Sir Lancelot’s image in her mirror, she turns around and seals her fate. Knowing she can never be joined with him she travels down to the riverside to die, “through the wave that runs forever/ By the island in the river/ Flowing down to Camelot” (lines 12-14). The river is symbolic of the mother’s womb. It is believed that when a person dies they re-enter a state of being similar to being born. The river also symbolizes the connection between the isle where the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned to her dreams and desires, Camelot. The images do indeed foreshadow the Lady’s death. Some Victorians believed that when a person died they were returned to the beginning of birth, a mothers womb. Water imagery is also related to the womb and the birthing process. The “wave that runs forever,” in line 12, suggests the very idea of being returned back to the beginning of time since it flows past real places (Camelot and the Isle of Shalott).

Color imagery also plays a role in defining Camelot as a locus of desire. Red and white are contrasted to the grey and dulled colors of the Lady’s world. The red of the cloaks of the women in line 53 and the red cross on Lancelot’s shield represent the desire for light and knowledge, and the courtly passion of Victorian love. The white portions of the shield represent truth, faithfulness and purity of heart.; three qualities associated with medieval knights. Whereas the whiteness of the Lady’s robe represents her purity and monotony of her life, an almost prison sentence.

Although Rossetti and Tennyson don’t say it directly, their views on women and their place in society are reflected within their poems. Women are to be uneducated, and be concerned with homely activities like cooking and weaving. They are to remain pure and innocent, to an almost religious extent, and not partake in “prostituituos ,” and unclean rituals. They don’t outright attempt to define women and what they are supposed to do. This is what Robert Browning’s poem, “Women and Roses” attempts to do.

In Robert Browning’s poem “Woman and Roses” the speaker compares the ideal woman to a rosebush. Rose imagery is seen throughout the poem to indicate values of love and passion of women towards their husbands. In using the image of the rose, he defines women according to the past, the present or Victorian standpoint, and suggests how the idea of being a woman will change in the future.

The past ideal woman is “sculptured in stone, on the poet’s pages” (line 7). Here the speaker begins a basis on which women are defined. In the past women were seen as having primarily a aesthetic value, to be cared for and kept sacred. These women weren’t allowed “to possess and be possessed”(line 20) causing them to wilt and fade in color. “Thy leaf hangs loose and bleached:/ bees pass it unimpeached,” lines 14-15, describes man’s reaction toward the wilting and fading of the woman’s spirit. In these lines the woman’s role is seen boring, stale and that no “bee” would desire to partake in the sweet honey of these roses.

The rose of the present “thy cup is ruby-rimmed,/Thy cup’s heart nectar brimmed” (lines 26-27). The imagery in these two lines suggests the Victorian woman’s desire and passion for love. Women with this viewpoint are said to have many desires, their “cups” being “ruby-rimmed,” suggesting the sexual drive of women in this ideal. The sixth stanza helps in re-enforcing this idea of women’s desires as being sexual in nature. The reference in line 28 to the bees being “sucked in by the hyacinth,” denotes that women have some control over men and are able to get what they sexually desire. “Prison my soul in eternities of pleasure,” (line 34) reaffirms this desire for woman’s power over men.

Stanza’s seven and eight prophesize about the future of women. The rose is a “Dear rose without a thorn,/Thy bud’s the babe unborn:/ First streak of a new morn” (lines 37-38). The imagery here represents the new possibilities that women might have. The speaker states that women in the future will have “grace and beauty strange,” and will have wings and that these “roses will bloom nor want beholders.” These images suggest that future women will no longer be submissive under man, that they will “bloom” without being captivated. Line 44, poses a hypothetical question which he leaves open to discussion. In answering the question, and in the allusion to the freedom of women in the future, the speaker disregards this view is as being best to leave for future generations to discuss. Browning, then leaves the unbridled women of the future, to the future, with no further thought on its importance to the presence.

Throughout the Victorian era, people saw Nature as being separate from their society. The use of nature imagery in all the poems described above reflects these Victorian ideals. Rossetti’s use of nature defines the context in which women and men are divided, and why it is bad to integrate the two. Tennyson’s poem uses nature imagery to describe the Lady’s position in society. Nature imagery is also used by Tennyson to compare the bleakness of the Lady’s situation to the life that thrives outside her mirror image. Browning’s poem centers the rose, nature imagery in itself, to compare what he believes the perfect woman should be. In the comparison of women to nature, all three poets suggest that women are separate from men. However, the Victorians held notions that nature and women were similar in the respect that they both had to be subdued.

Victorian men also believed that Nature had to be controlled just as the thoughts of women had to be caged and subdued. Many Victorian authors attempted to distill woman’s desires to seek knowledge and power by comparing then in a fearful manner to Nature. Despite attempts to lighten views of women (hence the attributes of purity and innocence), Victorian men were also afraid to give any amount of power and knowledge to their women counterparts, fearing what they would do to the men if given the opportunity.