Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti; drawing by David Levine

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,

“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;4
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

Laura responds: “She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.” The effect is at first disastrous (loathing, bitterness, feverish fires in the blood) but at last Laura’s cure is complete and permanent. Rossetti concludes with a sober envoi: “Days, weeks, months, years / Afterwards….” Both sisters, she says, grow to a maturity which includes marriage and motherhood. In reality Christina Rossetti remained a spinster, and her sister Maria, to whom Goblin Market was dedicated, became an Anglican nun.

That some kind of biographical fact or event lies behind Goblin Market has been a matter of general agreement among Rossetti scholars, starting with William Michael Rossetti, who edited his sister’s poems. I find the biographical speculation interesting and ingenious but not wholly satisfying;5 I can also go only part way with the standard reading of Goblin Market as a poem about the divided self, for it makes too little of the two sisters theme that Rossetti handled with particular intensity.6 Laura and Lizzie may possibly stand for profane and sacred love, or weak sensuality and strong reason; but to say that as criticism is no more illuminating than to say (as has been said) that Heathcliff is the Id, and Catherine the Ego. A purely symbolic interpretation of Wuthering Heights and Goblin Market makes them out to be a sort of Tennysonian “Two Voices,” or something different from what they are in fact: perverse and also realistic works in the Victorian Gothic mode. It was a mode to which I suspect both writers had access through fantasies derived from the night side of the Victorian nursery—a world where childish cruelty and childish sexuality come to the fore.

In one important respect their formation was similar: both women grew up in a family of four siblings, male and female, bound together in a closed circle by affection and by imaginative genius, as well as by remoteness from the social norm. Several Victorian women writers—the Brontë sisters and Christina Rossetti among them—derived a valuable professional leavening from starting out as infant poets, dramatists, or tellers of tales with an audience of enthusiastic and collaborating siblings. That not only much of the technical expertise but also some of the material of their adult work derived from the nursery circle should not surprise us. Quentin Bell’s recent biography of Virginia Stephen, a girl in another family of talented, like-minded sisters and brothers, allows us at least to speculate openly on the sexual drama of the Victorian nursery. (Though Mr. Bell does not, for me at least, settle the question of the fantasy component in Virginia Woolf’s memories of fraternal incest, to the reality of the incest fantasy he brings important evidence, if evidence is needed.)

Every reader of Dickens knows the importance of a sister to a brother struggling to resolve the extreme Victorian separation between the purity and the desirability of womanhood. But to Victorian women the sister-brother relationship seems to have had a different and perhaps greater significance—especially to those women, so commonplace in the intellectual middle class, who in a sexual sense never grew to full maturity. The rough-and-tumble sexuality of the nursery loomed large for sisters: it was the only heterosexual world that Victorian literary spinsters were ever freely and physically to explore. Thus the brothers of their childhood retained in their fantasy life a prominent place somewhat different in kind from that of the father-figures who dominated them all.

Little sisters were briefly and tantalizingly the equals of little brothers, sharers of infant pains and pleasures that boys quickly grew out of, but that girls—as Maggie Tulliver bitterly tells us—clung to despairingly at an inappropriate age.7 Women authors of Gothic fantasies appear to testify that the physical teasing they received from their brothers—the pinching, mauling, and scratching. we dismiss as the most unimportant of children’s games—took on outsize proportions and powerful erotic overtones in their adult imaginations. (Again, the poverty of their physical experience may have caused these disproportions, may it was not only sexual play but any kind of physical play for middle class women that fell under the Victorian ban.)

I was recently reminded of Christina Rossetti’s goblins while reading two very different documents: Freud’s lecture on symbols, where he says that small animals often appear in dreams to symbolize little brothers and sisters; and The Diary of Alice James, the witty, poignant, and distinctively American reminiscences of the sister of Henry, the novelist, William, the philosopher, and also Garth Wilkinson and Robertson James. “I wonder what determines the selection of memory,” Miss James wrote near the end of her life:

…why does one childish experience or impression stand out so luminous and solid against the, for the most part, vague and misty background? The things we remember have a first-timeness about them which suggests that that may be the reason of their survival. I must ask Wm. some day if there is any theory on the subject….(1890)

Alice James then went on to record her memory of being conscious for the first time “of a purely intellectual process”: her brother Harry, when he was about thirteen (and she was seven or eight) said something witty and original which delighted and stimulated her. The James children, in Europe for the summer, had taken an excursion with their governess: a boring, dusty, and non-memorable trip, except for Henry’s mot and the drive that began the day. “A large and shabby calèche came for us into which we were packed, save Wm.; all I can remember of the drive was a never-ending ribbon of dust stretching in front and the anguish greater even than usual of Wilky’s and Bob’s heels grinding into my shins.” Not only intellectual but also physical stimulus of a surprisingly trivial kind lodged her brothers in a sister’s adult memory.

In his introduction to the diary, Leon Edel comments on the teasing that Alice James knew as a girl, on the “usual petty indignities small boys have in reserve for baby sisters.” He cites the phrase “greater even than usual” from this passage as one that “sums up whole chapters of childhood history.” Chapters perhaps as well of women’s writings, for even the civilized James boys, in their role as kicking, pinching, scratching little brothers, are potential goblins, perhaps potential Heathcliffs in their rough and uninhibited physicality.

The puzzles of Wuthering Heights may best be resolved if the novel is read as a statement of a very serious kind about a girl’s childhood and the adult woman’s tragic yearning to return to it. Catherine’s impossible love for Heathcliff becomes comprehensible as a pre-adolescent (but not pre-sexual) love modeled after the sister-brother relationship. The gratuitous cruelties of the novel thus are justified as realistic attributes of the nursery world—and as frankly joyous memories of childhood eroticism.

Emily Brontë’s view of childhood comprised nature and freedom, but not innocence; this may well be the particularly female component of her romanticism. The children in her novel are brutes, little monsters of cruelty and lust, like Christina Rossetti’s goblins; but they are to her, nevertheless, the most real, the most fascinating of creatures. The wonderful childhood journal of the dead Catherine that Lockwood stumbles on at the start of the novel opens to us a world of mean brutality, but also palpitating vitality; it shocks us as it shocks Lockwood into his dream of Catherine’s ghost outside his window, the ghost of a child begging to be let in. It is as a child that Catherine first appears in the novel, and as a child that she prays to return to earth when she is dying.

Critics of Wuthering Heights have wondered why Catherine should want to return to such a childhood as she experienced at the Heights, for it seems to have been made up of hatred, brutality, and random cruelty. Yet in her dying delirium she cries out against her adult state, against being “Mrs. Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange, and the wife of a stranger; an exile, and outcast…from what had been my world…. I wish I were a child again,” she cries, “half savage and hardy, and free…and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed?”8

To make my point about the female imagination, and its delight in the remembered brutishness of childhood, I have taken the liberty not only of adding italics but of tampering with that quotation. For what Catherine actually cries is not “I wish I were a child again,” but “I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free….”

The savagery of girlhood accounts in part for the persistence of the Gothic mode into our own time; also the self-disgust, the self-hatred, and the impetus to self-destruction that have been, alas, increasingly prominent themes in the writing of women in the twentieth century. Despair is hardly the exclusive province of any one sex or class in our age, but to give visual form to the fear of self, to hold anxiety up to the Gothic mirror of the imagination, may well be more common in the writing of women than of men. While I cannot prove this statistically, I can offer a reason: that nothing separates female experience from male experience more sharply, and more early in life, than the compulsion to visualize the self.

All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace
Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,
Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face.
—Christina Rossetti, “A Royal Princess”

From infancy, if not from the moment of birth, the looks of a girl are examined with ruthless scrutiny by all around her, especially by women, crucially by her own mother. “Is she pretty?” is the second question put to new female life, following fast upon the first: “Is it a boy or a girl?” Whatever else may have changed in the experience of women, Maggie Tulliver is in this respect still with us, and George Eliot’s memories of the ugly intellectual’s girlhood still give us the horrors, Gothic or otherwise. I am reminded of something she told Edith Simcox late in life, in explanation of her preference for men over women: “When she was young, girls and women seemed to look on her as somehow ‘uncanny’ while men were always kind.”

Women writers have, in any case, continued to make monsters in the twentieth century, but not so often giants or animaloid humans as aberrant creatures with hideous deformities or double sex: hermaphrodites. “Freaks” is in fact a better word than monsters for the creations of the modern female Gothic: “a horrid sideshow of freaks,” to use the phrase T.S. Eliot hoped would not be applied to Nightwood, for he considered Djuna Barnes’s novel of 1936 a masterpiece, rather “Elizabethan” than Gothic in its “quality of horror and doom.” Nightwood no longer seems so impressive a work, but Djuna Barnes’s material—macabre fantasy interlacing lesbians, lunatics, Jews, spoiled priests, artists, noblemen, transvestites, and other masqueraders—has remained attractive to women writers of greater gifts. It reappears in the tales which Isak Dinesen called Gothic, with a special quality recognized by Carson McCullers as a “freakish brilliance.”

No writer of our time worked more seriously with Gothic forms or created more haunting monsters of ambivalence than Carson McCullers herself. Sometimes, like Dinesen, whose work she admired, McCullers put distance between herself and the freakish by means of folk-tale fantasy, as in The Ballad of the Sad Café. It tells of the love of a huge man-woman, hairythighed and muscled like a prizefighter, who loses her heart to a greedy little hunchback of uncertain age and mysterious provenance.

Sometimes, in short stories and in her best-known novel, The Member of the Wedding, McCullers cloaks with humorous tenderness her unsentimental perception of the freakish self as originating in female adolescence. McCullers is at her best with creatures poised on a sharp, thin line between opposites: of sex, of race, of age. Her finest work is her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), which interweaves in a kind of dance of doom a small group of officers, servants, soldiers, and wives. They are also lovers and murderers, impotent homosexuals and gentle perverts, gluttons, idiots, artists, and nymphomaniacs. McCullers’s cast of characters here are as humdrum and as horrifying as their setting: that numb nightmare of the void, an army post located somewhere in the South.

It has long been a critical commonplace to explain the Gothic strain in Carson McCullers, who came from Georgia, as belonging to the southern American Gothic school of which William Faulkner is the notorious advertisement. But there is abundant evidence of McCullers’s participation in a tradition at least as feminine as regional. In Reflections in a Golden Eye she seems to have drawn from Isak Dinesen ideas for the relationship between Alison and her Filipino servant Anacleto: between a woman who is wife, mother, and queen (yet has neither husband, child, nor subjects) and a grotesquely devoted servant of another race, perhaps a homosexual, certainly a gifted, sensitive, ridiculous, mad, dwarflike creature, as diminutive as a monkey or a child.9 A recognizably feminine theme in this novel, and one which has more recently surfaced in the grotesque love triangles of Penelope Gilliatt, is the treatment of the male homosexual as an object of frustrated maternal love.

I was especially struck by the Female Gothic aspect to McCullers’s work when I walked through the Museum of Modern Art’s recent retrospective Diane Arbus show. For Arbus’s photographs of freaks—her drag queens, lesbians, circus people, adolescents, lunatics, dwarfs, and the rest—looked as if they might have been designed to illustrate McCullers’s fiction. Not only the subject matter but the tone of Arbus’s work recalls McCullers: the cold intimacy, the fear which suggests, in objective terms, the haunted and self-hating self.

Looking at the Arbus pictures, I thought of the girl’s visit to the circus in The Member of the Wedding, where, before the booth of the Half-Man Half-Woman, “a morphidite and a miracle of science,” Frankie stands riveted in fascination, although “she was afraid of all the Freaks, for it seemed to her that they had looked at her in a secret way and tried to connect their eyes with hers, as though to say: we know you.” I was also reminded of Colette’s long reverie—which of course owes nothing to southern Gothic—inspired by a collection of photographs of transvestites and other sexual freaks: “autres monstres modestes,” she called them, “amis de l’ombre, un peu assassins, un peu suicidés.”10

No reference either to women writers or to their monstrous creations was made by Freud in his study of Gothic horror, called in English “Freud on the Uncanny.” But there Freud refers to the perception of the female genitals as monstrous—an idea of which self-conscious use is made by Robin Morgan in the title poem of her recent collection called Monster (Vintage, 1972). Freud, however, locates this perception not in female but in male fantasy, perhaps properly puerile fantasy. Indeed, Robin Morgan’s poem (not one of her best) is about a very little boy’s view, presumably her infant son’s, of the naked female body. “I am a monster,” Morgan concludes, three times, “And I am proud.” But the effect is neither proud, frightening, nor feminist, resting as it does on a woman’s rather nervous suspicions of the male view of herself.

Similar suspicions seem to me nowhere present as the basis for the fears and anxieties, the despair and self-hatred of Female Gothic. In that long and complex literary tradition, woman is examined with a woman’s eye: woman as girl, as sister, as mother, as self. The resulting grotesqueries have immeasurably enriched our stock of Gothic fantasies, whether by giant monsters or goblins, by freaks or living corpses:

O my enemy.
Do I terrify?—

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
—Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”

(This is the second of two articles on Female Gothic.)

This Issue

April 4, 1974