Monday, May 17, 2010

Norming the Female Body: Discourses of Sexuality in Dante Gabriel Rossetti (First Part) by Lai Sai Acon Chan

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s rendering of the fallen woman is the product of faithfully adhering to the tenets of the nineteenth-century ideology of literary creation. In the fashion of a “proudly masculine cosmic Author”—in the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar—Rossetti poured the patriarchal ink into the passive female body, the blank page, patiently waiting to be shaped as either an angel or a monster. And in so doing, Rossetti was merely reproducing a normative view about sex. In fact, his sonnet sequence, The House of Life, can be interpreted as a metaphor of a dichotomous female body fatefully caught between the two poles of feminine behavior imposed by patriarchy. On one hand, Rossetti depicts sensuous and captivating women who only live to fulfill respectable roles as brides, wives, or mothers. These are the kind of women who know what it means “To be a sweetness more desired than Spring; / A bodily beauty more acceptable” (“True Woman”). The descriptions of the women in the sonnets are indicative of the gender norms of the era, “High grace,” “sweet simplicity,” “thrilling pallor of cheeks,” “a mouth whose passionate forms imply / All music and all silence held thereby,” “soft-stirred feet” (“Her Gifts”), “Sweet dimness of her loosened hair,” “sweet hands,” tremulous smiles,” “murmuring sighs,” “The confident heart’s still fervour,” “the swift beat/ And soft subsidence of the spirit’s wing” (“Love-Sweetness”). However, the women’s intellectual traits are never praised. To give the women the illusion that they are the ones with power in the relationship, the male speakers resort to royal treatment: “My lady’s absolute queendom” (“The Moonstar”), “lady, beams thy sovereign grace,/ When the drear soul desires thee” (“Gracious Moonlight”). On the other hand, a fallen woman like Lilith represents the darker side of the mid-Victorian woman. And yet, she has this irresistible power to allure men, which rather than threatening the ideological apparatus supports it. In “Body’s Beauty” Lilith’s sexuality can be described as mature and intoxicating, but sweet and, therefore, desirable to Adam. She does not destabilize normative sexual practices but embodies male fantasies of women who sensuously take over their bodies with a “sweet tongue [that] could deceive” and “strangling golden hair” (3,14). Adam’s weakness lies not in her power to emasculate him, but in his own willingness to let her engulf him with her wealth of hair and enrapture him to the point of ecstasy. So The House of Life is Rossetti’s figurative rendering of the female body regulated by the dominant, mid-Victorian sexual politics; it is also a metaphor of the repressive house that encloses that body.

The lily is the ideal type of woman who submits to every patriarchal whim and never replies impertinently or belligerently. In this respect, Gilbert and Gubar point out that, “There is a long and crowded road from The Booke of Curtesye (1477) to the columns of ‘Dear Abby,’ but social historians have fully explored [the conduct book’s] part in the creation of those ‘eternal feminine’ virtues of modesty, gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, chastity, affability, politeness [. . .] (23). Rossetti certainly has a penchant for representations of demure women. Thus, one of the techniques he employs in his poems is that of imposing the male speaker’s thoughts and feelings on the women’s, that is, imposing phallocentric language on the women. In “The Blessed Damozel,” the lover is described as an omniscient being, while the damozel has a limited apprehension of her world. While he seems to know her every thought and movement, what she wears and what she says, she spends her time in heaven longing for her beloved and wondering when he will be able to join her. Like the proverbial angel in the house (Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House”), she is restricted to the domestic sphere—heaven—and patiently awaits his arrival as a dutiful wife would wait for her husband’s. In the meantime, she smiles, looks sweet and innocent with her lilies in her hand, the stars in her hair, and makes endless plans for their life together in paradise. This, however, is the lover’s version since the damozel is represented in the poem as he pictures her in heaven.

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic works, the rose is, on the other hand, the type of woman who refuses those traditionally submissive roles but still pleases men with her deviant sexuality, a perverse sexuality that can only pertain to the fallen woman. The overt sexuality of women like Jenny, the woman in “The Orchard Pit,” and Lilith is not abhorred, but rather desired by men. Although a fallen woman, Jenny is akin to the angel in the house. She embodies the perfect mix of lily and rose, which is even more attractive than the devout angel in the house. With her “wealth of loosened hair,” “silk ungirdled and unlac’d” and “warm sweets open to the waist,” Jenny represents an all-but-innocent and virginal woman; but rather than adopting an overly forward attitude that one would expect from a harlot, she submissively puts her head on the male speaker’s knees. To further romanticize the fallen woman figure, like the sexual politics of his time dictated, Rossetti devotes a whole stanza to soften, even condone, Jenny’s profession. She is then compared to “a rose shut in a book / In which pure women may not look” (253-254), and to a “rose / Puddled with shameful knowledge” whose blood “flows / Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose” (264-66). Both images evoke an inner beauty that cannot be tarnished by such a shameful practice since the rose “still keeps such faded show / Of when t’was gathered long ago, / That the crushed petals’ lovely grain, / The sweetness of the sanguine stain” (267-270).

Norming the Female Body: Discourses of Sexuality in Christina Rossetti (Second Part) by Lai Sai Acon Chan

Christina Rossetti’s representations of the mid-Victorian female body challenge the normative notions about sexuality embodied by her brother’s angels and monsters.  She transforms the dominant definition of the Victorian fallen woman in her depictions of a woman who, dis-eased with her biological circumstances, provides the seed for the 1890s New Woman, someone akin to the madwoman who thinks for herself, has a career and a story to tell, seeks internal enlightenment, challenges accepted ideas, and creates artistic works (Moi 58).  Actually, in The Madwoman in the Attic Gilbert and Gubar contend that the literature of the nineteenth century portrays female characters and reveals female authors who apparently develop illnesses on purpose to purge their guilt, denounce their anger, find an outlet for their desires, or express their self-worth.  In Bloomian terms, women writers in particular suffer from a kind of anxiety of influence, which when transposed to the realm of female creativity causes women an anxiety of authorship, “an anxiety built from complex and often only barely conscious fears of that authority which seems to the female artist to be by definition inappropriate to her sex” (Gilbert 51).  Many of these groundbreaking women becoming precursors in fields traditionally dominated by men, put such a strain on them that their bodies, circumscribed by the “regulatory ideal,” produced diseases such as claustrophobia, agoraphobia, amnesia, aphasia, madness, and eating disorders, to further constrain them and keep them in their proper place.  However, in many cases, argue Gilbert and Gubar, the female bodies reappropriated those maladies and turned them into dis-eases, that is, ways to signal nonconformity to sexual norms of the time.
In her attempts to transcend pre-fixed, essentialist labels, Rossetti portrays the female body as agonizingly trying to reshape itself, particularly through supernatural means.  Her use of the preternatural in works such as “Goblin Market,” some of her ghost poems, some of her death poems, and stories like “Maude,” “Nick,” “The Lost Titian,” and “Hero” put in evidence the female body’s desire to escape the patriarchal prison of the flesh.   Maude is a heroine trying to escape the prison of her body, indulges herself in dreams of rematerialization and provides a model for the New Woman.  Torn between socially acceptable roles such as marriage and seclusion in a convent, Maude cannot avoid feeling guilty of the chosen path.  She is burdened by a gift to write poetry that is rarely bestowed on other young women of her generation:  “people thought her clever, and that her little copies of verses were handed about and admired.  Touching these same verses, it was the amazement of everyone what could make her poetry so broken-hearted as was mostly the case” (“Maude” 253).   Overwhelmed by the constant attention to her verse, she envies the simplicity and happiness of her cousins and friends, destined to fulfill patriarchal expectations.   She constantly looks pale, “languid and preoccupied to a painful degree” (253) as a typically ill woman from the nineteenth century—in particular a female creator—must have looked like.  She seems to use her malady to project the anxieties of being trapped in a normative woman’s body.  Unlike Laura and Lizzie, she is not destined to fulfill the role of her cousin Mary nor does she hear the call of God, like her acquaintance Magdalen.  Neither embroidery nor prayer is in Maude’s mind, but writing.  However, writing is not a source of pleasure and tranquility, but something that reminds her of her abnormalcy in the eyes of Victorian patriarchy:  “You cannot mean for the present that you will indulge in vanity and display; that you will court admiration and applause; that you will take your fill of pleasure until sickness” [. . .] (267).  And yet, unlike her successor, the literary New Woman, Maude does not flaunt convention, ruin her honor, upset her family, or refuse to repent for alleged sins.  The accident that keeps Maude bedridden is a symbol of her wish to escape from her prison:  “she had been overturned; and, though no limb was broken, had neither stirred nor spoken since” (270).   She develops both agoraphobia and aphasia in her unconscious attempt to confront the realization that she was moving away from the normative.  Since she cannot cope with the guilt of being both so talented a poet and a woman, she gradually withers away until she breaks free from the constraints of the regulatory ideal and free from labels, even from the future New Woman label.  While  Maude’s anxieties are not a supernatural way of transcending patriarchal labels, they might reveal why Christina Rossetti had a proclivity for poems about ghosts and death and tales of transmutation.
Poems like “Chilly Night,” “The Hour and the Ghost,” “The Ghost’s Petition,” “A Nightmare,” and “At Home” are the type of poems that deal with spirits that transcended their prisons of flesh, while poems like “Death Before Dead,” “After Death,” “Remember,” “Song,” and “Sleeping at Last” deal with human beings who are only too glad to leave their bodies behind.  Perhaps because they are narrative poems, the ghost poems do not seem to offer clues about those spirits’ former lives that made them glad they were finally set free, but it might be said that Rossetti’s inclination to write about them seems to indicate that fleeting to the realm of ghosts is just one possibility to transcend the lily/rose dichotomy. Then, like the New Woman or the madwoman in the attic, these ghosts demonstrate that even those who slipped into oblivion have a story to tell, unsavory opinions, or are willing to defy conventions.  Some of the ghosts come back from the afterlife to disturb those they once knew. Yet, others make themselves visible to mortal eyes because they are more disturbed than when they were among the living. “The Ghost’s Petition” is the story of Robin, a spirit who, ailed by his former wife’s pain, pleads her not to grieve for him anymore:  “I could not rest if you would not moan / Hour after hour; I have no power to shut my ears where I lie alone” (46-48) laments the ghost.     In “The Hour and the Ghost,” a spirit comes back from the afterlife to exact a woman’s promise on her wedding day, despite her reluctance and revulsion:  
Come with me, fair and false,
To our home, come home,
It is my voice that calls:
Once thou wast not afraid
When I woo’d, and said,
‘Come our nest is newly made’— 
Now cross the tossing foam. (11-17)
Unlike this outspoken ghost, the ghost of the speaker’s mother in “A Chilly Night” speaks without a voice and stares without seeing, a sad reminder that for the friendless speaker, “Living had failed and dead had failed/And [she/he] was indeed alone” (49-50).  The ghost “At Home” returns to her/his old house only to discover her/his friends in lively gatherings:  “’Tomorrow,’ said they, strong with hope,/And dwelt upon the pleasant way,/’Tomorrow,’ cried they one and all,/While no one spoke of yesterday” (17-20).  That is, the former self of the ghost was forgotten and was “Like the remembrance of a guest/That tarried but a day” (31-2). Like the troubling, yet equally troubled New Woman, the deceased people’s new state in the ghost poems is sometimes welcomed. Other times the new state is despised or rejected (and by extension the New Woman), and even makes some spirits long for their previous existence.