Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Reading Group Report: Fallen Women, Devotion and the Queer Salvific in the Work of Victorian Women Poets

Special session led by Caroline Baylis-Green (Manchester Metropolitan University), 18 October 2012

For the opening October meeting of the academic year, NENC were delighted to welcome our first guest speaker from outside the region, as well as several new members. We heard a paper by Caroline Baylis-Green on the subject of religion and sexuality in Victorian women’s literature, followed by a wider discussion amongst members.

Caroline began by providing us with a brief overview of her thesis and her research interests to date. These focus primarily upon a desire to extend and develop contemporary concepts of ‘queer theory’ by exploring the ways in which nineteenth-century women writers raised questions in their work relating to how sexuality is contained, confronted and subverted along gender lines. Authors of particular note include Christina Rossetti, Michael Field, Anne Lister and Adelaide Anne Procter, whose poem ‘A Legend of Provence’ (1864) was the focus of this session. Caroline read this work in conjunction with Rossetti’s poem ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) in order to explore the subjugation of female sexuality, the dichotomy between the ‘angel’ and ‘whore’ in Victorian society, and the possibility of alternative kin structures to the idea of ‘sisterhood’ favoured by religious readings of these poems.

A major theme in these discussions was the ways in which women poets of this era both faced prejudice by their male counterparts and society, and sought to overcome this in their writing and their preoccupations. In a patriarchal Victorian hierarchy, poetry was not seen as an appropriate vocation for a woman, and so female writers were forced to contend with social hostility, as well as respond to forms and metres that had been constructed by an exclusively male canon, a famous example being Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), which narrated the rise of a female poet and her place in society. Caroline suggested that Rossetti and Procter reacted against the popular concept of the ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian society. By volunteering in refuges for former prostitutes as a result of their involvement with the Oxford High Church Movement, both writers gained an insight not only into how women could ‘fall’ from grace and society, but also how they could be redeemed.

Both Rossetti and Procter came from artistic backgrounds, and their writing can thus be viewed as indebted to, and seeking to subvert, male literary legacies.  Rossetti was overshadowed in her lifetime by her brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael, who were prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Similarly, as the daughter of Bryan Waller ‘Barry Cornwall’ Procter, Adelaide Anne’s writing was associated with a poet whose verse was regarded as derivative ‘doggerel’ by his contemporaries Byron and Shelley. We considered how these connections to more famous male writers impacted upon Rossetti and Procter, particularly that the idea of a ‘brotherhood’ of artists could be equally applicable to a more subversive ‘sisterhood’.

Notwithstanding the obstacles brought about by this undeniably ‘male’ literary legacy, we discussed the ways in which Rossetti and Procter incorporated Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite imagery into their work. For example, the themes of fallen maidenhood and religious salvation in ‘Goblin Market’ can be seen as indebted to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poetry and art, in particular the blurred boundaries between sexuality and redemption. It was suggested that the protagonist Lizzie’s name and her character are reminiscent of the ill-fated Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal, who committed suicide following her marriage to Dante Gabriel and his many infidelities. Furthermore, the character of Jeanie, Christina's symbol of the irredeemable fallen woman, draws parallels with Dante Gabriel’s recurring prostitute figure - Jenny - in his poetry. Similar undertones are to be observed in Procter’s ‘A Legend of Provence’, which with its dream-like imagery and depictions of sexuality, are reminiscent of Keatsian poems like The Eve of St. Agnes (1820) and ‘La belle dame sans merci' (1819). An interesting point was made about Procter’s description of Angela’s vision of herself before her fall as being one of ‘sudden light’. This not only supported Caroline’s redemptive reading of the poem, but may also be seen as a direct allusion to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s short verse ‘Sudden Light’ (1863), which reflected on Lizzie Siddal’s death.

The latter half of Caroline’s paper focussed upon close-readings of ‘Goblin Market’ and ‘A Legend of Provence’. Whilst both poems debated the popular Victorian theme of sexual desire versus spiritual downfall, it was suggested that the erotic undertones and imagery of light and dark in both poems complicated readings of a secular or religious sisterhood as a platonic means for redemption. ‘Goblin Market’ in particular has its moments of fall and salvation taking place at twilight, the realm between day and night and between good and evil. This led us to consider whether the concept of a redemptive sisterhood, particularly Rossetti’s assertion that ‘there is no friend like a sister’, is quite as clear-cut and pure as it initially appears. We noted that there are no maternal figures in either poem, and that without this procreative function, could female sexuality be seen as straying into the erotic? Attention was drawn to the use of lilies as symbols of purity in each poem, but as Caroline pointed out, this was also a popular metaphor for female genitalia during the nineteenth century. We considered whether both poets were concerned, not only with the social liberation of women, but also with extending such emancipation into areas of sexual freedom and sexual choice beyond the heteronormative. Nevertheless, we recognised the dangers in trying to impose anachronistic gender perspectives upon Rossetti and Procter, and acknowledged that this is an interesting area worthy of further study.

A final point was made about the controversial use of the Virgin Mary in ‘A Legend of Provence’. The epitome of womanhood and motherhood, she appears to the fallen woman Angela, rather than the nuns in the poem, in order to raise questions about the ‘mystery’ of salvation. We wondered what Procter meant by this term at a time when Anglican ideas of redemption and devout behaviour were very rigidly defined. This led us to consider to what extent Procter intended to be subversive in a religious sense, and whether this was connected to her wider social aims. Is it really salvation itself she presents as a mystery, or the ways in which it is distorted by an unenlightened, prejudiced and patriarchal society? 


All of these questions inspired some fascinating discussion and extended the literary premise of Caroline’s paper into wider debates about nineteenth-century society, art and the relationship between Romantic and Victorian outlooks. The NENC Organising Committee would like to thank Caroline for her informative, rich and thought-provoking paper, and for introducing the research group to Procter’s work. 


Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.

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