Sisterhood is Powerful: Christina Rosetti’s Maude

  • Frederick S. Roden

Abstract

In the past 20 years of Christina Rossetti criticism, the Victorian poet has been reclaimed from an image of a gentle, renunciatory spinster fearful of the world and unsuccessful in love.1 Concurrent with the developments in feminist literary theory and criticism has been work in feminist theology seeking to reclaim a feminine voice in relationship to the Divine. In the nineteenth century, in the writings of Christina Rossetti and other religious women, this voice was present in a tradition similar to one that can be traced back to female mystical experience in medieval Christianity. While still in her teens, Christina Rossetti wrote a short work of prose and verse called Maude, perhaps the most neglected work in her canon. Rossetti also composed a huge amount of devotional prose and poetry which has only recently received greater scholarly attention as the ways in which her religiosity infuses her more ‘secular’ poetry have begun to be appreciated. I suggest we likewise consider Maude with Rossetti’s unique brand of Christianity in mind. Written in the form of a spiritual journey, this nineteenth-century Pilgrim’s Progress for a young, intellectual, High Church woman anticipates the essential link between spirituality and sexuality that the poet fleshes out in both incarnation and transubstantiation throughout her later great sensual poetry.

Keywords

Corn Assure Posit Reso Metaphor 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See L.M. Packer, Christina Rossetti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963)Google Scholar
  2. S. Gilbert and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). They read her poetry as that of self-abnegation.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    See David Hilliard, ‘Unenglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality’, Victorian Studies, XXV (1982), 181–210Google Scholar
  4. S. Casteras, ‘Virgin Vows: The Early Victorian Artists’ Portrayal of Nuns and Novices’, Victorian Studies, XXIII (1981), 157–83.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    For further on the religious sisterhoods and their effects on women’s lives in Victorian England, see B. Heeney, The Women’s Movement in the Church of England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988)Google Scholar
  6. M. Hill, The Religious Order (London: Heinemann, 1973)Google Scholar
  7. J.S. Reed, ‘“A Female Movement”: The Feminization of Nineteenth Century Anglo-Catholicism’, Anglican and Episcopal History, LVII (1988), 199–238Google Scholar
  8. M. Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    Diane D’Amico, ‘“Choose the stairs that mount above”: Christina Rossetti and the Anglican Sisterhoods’, Essays in Literature, XVII (1990), 204.Google Scholar
  10. 5.
    See D.M.R. Bentley, ‘The Meretricious and Meritorious in Goblin Market: a Conjecture and an Analysis’, in David A. Kent, ed., The Achievement of Christina Rossetti (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Christina Rossetti, Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments (London: SPCK, 1883), p. 90.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Rossetti’s earthly gender politics are not, however, without a subversive twist. In a famous letter to suffragist Augusta Webster, Rossetti declares: ‘The fact of the Priesthood being exclusively man’s leaves me in no doubt that the highest functions are not in this world [my emphasis] open to both sexes... On the other hand if female rights are sure to be overborne for lack of voting influence, then I confess I feel disposed to shoot ahead of my instructresses, and to assert that female MPs are only right and reasonable’ (M. Bell, Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study (New York: Haskell House, 4th edn, 1971) pp. 111–12).Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Christina Rossetti, Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite (London: SPCK, 1879), pp. 31–2.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Ibid., pp. 30–31. Compare this passage to an excerpt from Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations: ‘O feminea forma, soror Sapientie, quam gloriosa es (O form of woman, sister of Wisdom, great is your glory)!’ B. Newman (trans.), Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 264–5.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    See Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Christina Rossetti, Maude, in Maude, On Sisterhoods, A Woman’s Thoughts About Women, edited by Elaine Showalter, (New York: New York University Press, 1993), p. 4.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    For an excellent study of the cultural milieu surrounding the treatment of death in Victorian literature, see M. Wheeler, Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  18. 48.
    See, for example, Angela Leighton, “‘When I Am Dead, My Dearest”: The Secret of Christina Rossetti’, Modern Philology, LXXXVII (1990), 373–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 49.
    Diane D’Amico, ‘Christina Rossetti’s Maude: A Reconsideration’, University of Dayton Review, XV (1981), 136.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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  • Frederick S. Roden

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