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Female Gothic: Monsters, Goblins, Freaks

The first readers of Wuthering Heights were struck as we are still today by the perverse aspects of the novel. “A disagreeable story” about “painful and exceptional subjects,” said The Athenaeum, “…dwelling upon those physical acts of cruelty—the contemplation of which true taste rejects.” Much as that assessment misses—the strength, the solidity, the moral wisdom of the novel—it still sums up a side of Wuthering Heights that cannot be argued away. Emily Brontë’s acceptance of the cruel as a normal, almost an invigorating component of human life sets her novel apart, from its opening pages to its close. Her first narrator, Lockwood, the foppish London visitor to Wuthering Heights who establishes our distance from the central Brontë world, falls asleep at the Heights at the start of the novel and dreams that Catherine—the dead Cathy, Heathcliff’s love—is a child ghost outside the casement window, begging to be let in. “Terror made me cruel,” says Lockwood; “and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes….”

Terror made me cruel….” Is Emily Brontë a “Terrorist,” as the first Gothic novelists were called? Is Wuthering Heights, which Robert Kiely places at the end of a study largely devoted to Gothic novels as “the masterpiece of English romantic fiction,” part of the Gothic tradition? Kiely bypasses the question by his use of the term romantic, but, like virtually every other critic of Brontë’s work, he is struck by its successful and almost seamless stitching of mystical eloquence, metaphysical profundity, shrewd realism, and moral dignity to the faded paraphernalia of the Gothic mode. For there are the graveyard lusts and wandering ghosts, the mysterious foundling and tyrannical father; the family doom, repeated generation after generation; the revenge motif; and the aroma of incest that persists from the introduction of the bastard Heathcliff to the family at the Heights, and to the bed he shares with the girl-child Catherine, his playmate, his sister, his torment, his victim, his beloved, but never his wife.

The Gothic vice of sadism is an extreme and pervasive feature of Wuthering Heights, though handled by Emily Brontë with a sobriety that Jacques Blondel aptly describes as “cette dignité dans la violence.” Nevertheless, sadism of a particularly horrid kind, child-torture and child-murder, fills the novel with what Wade Thompson has called “a multitude of insistent variations on the ghastly theme of infanticide.”1

In 1847 The Athenaeum summed up all this material as “the eccentricities of “woman’s fantasy.’ ” We are more familiar with Victorian clichés about women being by nature (and women writers, therefore, being by right) gentle, pious, conservative, domestic, loving, and serene. That sort of comment was received wisdom among the Victorians and is still, rather thoughtlessly, repeated in our own day. But to confront the long engagement of women writers with the Gothic tradition is to be reminded that its eccentricities have been thought of, from Mrs. Radcliffe’s time to our own, as indigenous to “woman’s fantasy.” In Wuthering Heights those female “eccentricities” must be called by a stronger name: perversities.

Thinking about Wuthering Heights as part of a literary women’s tradition may open up a new approach to a faded classic of Victorian poetry by a woman who was in fact, as Emily Brontë certainly was not, gentle, pious, and conservative: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. In 1859, twelve years after the Brontë novel, Rossetti wrote her own contribution to the literature of the monster in the form of a narrative poem. Published in 1862, Goblin Market quickly became one of the most familiar and best-loved Victorian poems, and was given to little children to read in the days when children had stronger stomachs than they do today. Perhaps the last generation to grow up with Goblin Market was that of Willa Cather, who published her first book of short stories a decade after Rossetti’s death, called it The Troll Garden,2 and gave it an epigraph from Goblin Market:

We must not look at Goblin men, We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?

The roots of Christina Rossetti’s goblins are themselves mysterious. In its modest way, her fable was as original a creation as Frankenstein; that is, as a maker of monsters Rossetti swerved as sharply from her sources in literary and folk materials as did Mary Shelley. There seems little doubt that particularly female experiences, in both cases, contributed to the disturbing eccentricity of the tale.

Two little girls, two sisters Laura and Lizzie, seem to be living alone together as Goblin Market opens, and running their own household without parents. Their relationship is one of spiritual and physical affection:

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtained bed…
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest.

Into their neighborhood come goblin men known to all the maids round about as dangerous tempters: they sell fruit which intoxicates and then destroys. One feast upon the goblin fruit and girls turn prematurely gray, sicken, fade, and die young. In verses that seem unquestionably to associate goblin fruit with forbidden sexual experience, Rossetti cites the case of one goblin victim,

Jeanie in her grave,

Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died….

The goblins themselves are monstrosities of a special kind that Emily Brontë, too, worked with in Wuthering Heights. Like Heathcliff, who is presented through animal metaphors (“a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man,” or a tiger, a serpent, a mad dog that howls “like a savage beast” or prowls like “an evil beast [between the sheep] and the fold”),3 Rossetti’s goblins are animal people:

One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry scurry.

The sinister music here, one of the numerous auditory variations played by Rossetti’s apparently simple verse, establishes that these goblins are not lovable little hobbits, but true monsters.

What are monsters? Creatures who scare because they look different, wrong, nonhuman. Distortion of scale was the first visual effect employed by Gothic novelists in creating monsters, particularly gigantism: well before Frankenstein’s outsize monster, Walpole had filled the Castle of Otranto with specters of giant stature. But the classically Victorian device to create monsters seems to have been the crossing of species, animal with human. I am thinking of the sneezing pigs, smiling cats, preaching caterpillars, and gourmandizing walruses of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland; of Kingsley’s Water Babies, and Jean Ingelow’s Pre-Raphaelite fairy tales; of Melville’s Moby-Dick and Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau—all fantasies in the Gothic or other modes, with monsters that are animaloid humans.

But there is something more to Christina Rossetti’s goblins that suggests to me a specifically feminine Victorian fantasy: that is, that they are brothers. They are not, in so many words, brothers to the sisters Laura and Lizzie in the poem, but a separate breed:

Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.

The brothers stand opposed to the sisters as tempters of clearly double intention: to intoxicate them with forbidden fruit, and also to harass, torture, and destroy them. One of the sisters, Laura, succumbs to the goblin song. She buys their fruit with a lock of her golden hair:

Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red….
She never tasted such before….
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore.

Suck” is the central verb of Goblin Market; sucking with mixed lust and pain is, among the poem’s Pre-Raphaelite profusion of colors and tastes, the particular sensation carried to an extreme that must be called perverse. I am suggesting not that Goblin Market belongs to the history of pornography as a Victorian celebration of oral sex, but that Christina Rossetti wrote a poem, as Emily Brontë wrote a novel, about the erotic life of children.

Gorged on goblin fruit, Laura craves with all the symptoms of addiction for another feast, but craves in vain, for the goblins’ sinister magic makes their victims incapable of hearing the fruit-selling cry a second time. However, the other sister, Lizzie, who through strength of character has resisted the temptation to eat the goblins’ fruit, can still hear their cry. Lizzie sets out to buy of the goblins in order to save her fallen sister, who, “dwindling, / Seemed knocking at Death’s door.”

Lizzie’s venture in redemption opens up the question of the spiritual implications of Goblin Market, for it is, of course, as a Christian poet that Christina Rossetti is best known. In the view of C.M. Bowra and others, she is one of the finest religious poets in the language, and, until recognition came to G.M. Hopkins (who read her with admiration), she was widely accepted as the greatest religious poet of the nineteenth century. Most of her poems (there are about a thousand) are Christian poems of remarkable fervor and orthodoxy, but not all of them—not, in my opinion, Goblin Market, which, if it were in conception a Christian work, would surely be resolved by an act of piety. Rossetti would have Lizzie save her sister through some ceremony of exorcism, a prayer, at least an act symbolizing her own essential purity. What Rossetti does give us at the end is something quite different, for it is in a spirit of heroism rather than of sainthood that Lizzie engages fully with the goblin experience.

She goes to trade with the goblins:

At twilight, halted by the brook:
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.

The goblins rush to greet her:

Hugged her and kissed her:
Squeezed and caressed her.

They force their fruit upon her, urging her to “Pluck them and suck them.” But when Lizzie makes clear her intention to buy and carry off the fruits to save her sister, without tasting them herself, the goblins become enraged and attack her:

Grunting and snarling….
Their tones waxed loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

But Lizzie keeps her mouth clenched tightly shut. Though the goblin attack turns even nastier and crueler, she resists, survives, and runs home to Laura to offer herself physically—it is the most eloquent, most erotic moment in the poem—to her sister. For Lizzie bears away not only cuts and bruises from her battle with the goblin brothers; she is also smeared with the juices of their fruit. “Laura,” she cries,

  1. 1

    Whether Wuthering Heights should be read as a perverse fantasy or as a work of sober realism is a critical debate of some antiquity, the two sides best represented by Arnold Kettle’s statement that the novel “is about England in 1847” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s that it “is laid in hell—only it seems places and people have English names there.” Q.D. Leavis provides the most energetic recent argument on the Kettle side, but her appendix on “violence” in Wuthering Heights (F.R. & Q.D. Leavis, Lectures in America, Pantheon, 1969) seems to weaken her case, as do important recent discoveries (summarized by Winifred Gérin in Emily Brontë: A Biography, Oxford, 1971) about the real-life Yorkshire family story that Emily Brontë transformed in her creation of Heathcliff. Two recent balanced assessments are those of Robert Kiely (in The Romantic Novel in England, Harvard, 1972) and John Hewish (Emily Brontë: A Critical and Biographical Study, Macmillan, 1972).

  2. 2

    Cather’s title refers to the general theme of her 1905 collection: the monstrousness of the artist’s life. For her assessment of Goblin Market and Christina Rossetti as a poet, see The Kingdom of Art; Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements 1893-1896, edited by Bernice Slote (University of Nebraska, 1966), pp 346-349.

  3. 3

    Tracing the “Transformation” motif, particularly Beauty and the Beast, in Victorian fiction, Elliot B. Gose, Jr., has much to say about Hareton as well as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (see his Imagination Indulged: The Irrational in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972). Two additional variants on the same theme, recurrent in women’s fiction, are George Sand’s Mauprat (1837), which may have entered the Brontë household, and Mary Shelley’s late story “Transformation.”

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