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Female Gothic

In response to:

Female Gothic: The Monster's Mother from the March 21, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

I found Ellen Moers’s essays on the Female Gothic [NYR, March 21, April 4] to be of great interest and validity, and, like all her work, excellently written. I should like to call her attention, however, to a text quite apposite to her argument but which, because of its scarcity, she may not know—Christina Rossetti’s children’s book, Speaking Likenesses (1874). It consists of three cautionary tales, addressed to a group of little girls, who interrupt with questions and remarks, and reproduces in many details the horrendous aspects that Ms. Moers refers to.

The first tale tells of Flora, whose birthday party is broken up by childish squabbles and her own selfishness; as a punishment, she gets lost and attends a party in a yew tree which is a nightmarish metaphor for her own playmates and preoccupations. The description of the children is an almost surreal depiction of nursery savagery: “One boy bristled with prickly quills like a porcupine, and raised or depressed them at pleasure; but he usually kept them pointed outwards. Another instead of being rounded like most people was facetted at very sharp angles. A third caught in everything he came near, for he was hung round with hooks like fishhooks. One girl exuded a sticky fluid and came off on the fingers; another, rather smaller, was smily and slipped through the hands.” Flora is pinched, pricked, jostled, forbidden food, forced to play impossible games (like Alice), and finally stoned.

The second tale is relatively bland, concerning Edith who cannot manage to get a kettle boiling on a surreptitious picnic; but the third might prove a field-day for Freudians. Little Maggie, Psychelike, is assigned the thorny task of carrying a load of tapers and a parcel of chocolate through a dark forest on Christmas Eve. Her journey is menaced by more “monstrous children” (Rossetti’s phrase) including a “glutinous girl” who seek to entice her into their sports and literally off the true path. She must tiptoe past a group of men in nightcaps dozing around a gypsy fire, who tempt her to their torpor. And, most grotesque incident of all, she is accosted by a fat boy who has no eyes but a face made up of an enormous tusked mouth.

The emphasis in these stories on the freakish and on the violence of nursery life bears out Ms. Moers’s thesis to a remarkable degree. Arthur Hughes’s uncanny illustrations, too, would keep any modern child lying awake o’ nights.

Laurence Senelick

Tufts University

Medford, Massachusetts

Ellen Moers replies:

I am grateful for this extremely interesting letter and for many other suggestions about “Female Gothic” that reached me from other writers: references to the Balthus illustrations to Wuthering Heights, the 1931 James Whale Frankenstein film, the Huxley nursery in Brave New World, the fiction of Christa Wolf, and other matters literary and psychiatric. Several letters drew my attention to Samuel Rosenberg’s article, “Frankenstein, or Daddy’s Little Monster,” which appeared first in Life in 1968, then in Rosenberg’s The Come As You Are Masquerade Party collection (Prentice-Hall, 1970), then in the Penguin reprint (Confessions of a Trivialist, 1972), and finally, much altered and diminished in every sense, in TV Guide (November 24-30, 1973).

My hope is that evidence my correspondence brings of a lively interest in the womanly sources of women’s writings indicates also a serious new concern with their work, for example, Christina Rossetti’s poetry, which merits a major reassessment.

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