Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti’s fairy-tale poem Goblin Market was completed in April 1859 (when she would have been 28), and was first published in 1862, in Goblin Market and Other Poems, her first non-privately-printed collection. The poem’s initial title was “A Peep at the Goblins”, but her brother, the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, convinced her to change it. (He also provided the illustrations for its first appearance.) It was, appropriately enough for a poem about a redemptive bond between sisters, dedicated to Christina’s sister Maria Francesca Rossetti (a Dante scholar who would later become a nun). And at this point it seems best to bring in the rest of the family: Christina’s other brother William was a critic, biographer and Pre-Raphaelite (and a civil servant); her father Gabriele was an Italian Dante scholar now living in London; her mother was the sister of John Polidori, author of The Vampyre (1819), which was based on Lord Byron’s offering on that infamous night in 1816 when Mary Shelley presented the story of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market tells the story of golden-haired sisters Laura and Lizzie, whose country-maiden idyll is interrupted at the start and end of each day by the cries of goblins hawking their wares, a mouthwatering list of ever-ripe, ever-juicy fruits. These goblin-grown (or, in at least one case, imported) fruits are dangerous, though, as the sisters know from the tale of Jeanie:

Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?

Having eaten the fruits, Jeanie “Fell sick and died”, and is now to be found in her grave, above which no grass or flowers grow. Laura, though, can’t resist the goblins’ cries. She has no money to buy the fruit, but the goblins are only too happy to give her as much as she can eat for a lock of her hair. The next day, all she can think of is tasting the fruit again, but when the evening comes, she’s devastated to find her sister can hear the goblins’ cries but she no longer can. She pines away, till Lizzie sacrifices herself for her, going to the goblin men and trying to buy their fruits with a penny. When the goblins realise she isn’t going to gobble their fruit up straight away, they assault her with it, pelting her, and smearing it into her face. Lizzie goes home covered in fruit pulp and juice, and offers herself to Laura:

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.

Finding the fruit now tastes of a “bitterness without a name”, Laura is saved, and we get a brief, trite moral about there being “no friend like a sister”, then the poem ends. The moral in no way satisfies, but isn’t that always the way with fairy tale morals? They’re like the “Once upon a time” at the beginning — part of the formula, a way to get things started or get them stopped, a frame for the wonders contained within, and, like most frames, not to be examined too closely.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market was well-received at the time (though Ruskin didn’t like its irregular rhyme scheme and line lengths), and has since, like eat-me Alice, only grown in stature, and is now perhaps Christina Rossetti’s second most well-known poem (the first being “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

There’s something startling, even shocking, about the poem, that begs for explanation. Those lines I quoted just above are perhaps the key to this feeling, arriving as they do in the midst of a poem by a woman Victorian writer who never married (though was several times engaged), and who held strong religious views. She herself (according to an 1895 biography by her friend Mackenzie Bell) said the poem had no specific meaning, and was just a fairy-story. Brian Stableford, in The Dedalus Book of British Fantasy, calls it “one of the most vividly erotic pieces of writing to have surfaced in England during the entirety of Victoria’s reign”, and Kinuko Y Craft’s illustrations for the poem, published in Playboy in 1970, make it clear that, to her, the goblins’ fruits were sexual in nature. At the time she wrote it, Christina Rossetti was working at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for fallen women in Highgate, an institution “remarkable in the period for its conviction that women who had transgressed sexually could be redeemed” (“An introduction to ‘Goblin Market’” by Dinah Roe), and the tale-within-a-tale of Jeanie:

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

…combined with the fact that only “maids” hear the goblins’ cries, and Laura ceases to hear them after she’s tasted their fruit, makes it sound that the poem is about Victorian ideas of sexual purity and young women having to act “as modest maidens should” — that is, until it comes to Laura’s redemption through Lizzie putting herself through the same ordeal, which doesn’t fit.

Nevertheless, the poem is undeniably, well, fruity.

Other critics go for a more religious interpretation, and fruit is laden with religious significance, from the fruit of the Garden of Eden, to “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16):

“…it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven.” (“Fallen or Forbidden: Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’” by Lesa Scholl)

Also, there’s the poem’s feminism:

“The goblin merchants are men… who dominate women; they consume their prey like the fruit they sell, tossing the rinds and pits away once they have found temporary satiety…” (“Can I know it? — Nay: An Alternative Interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’” by Matt Christensen)

Laura’s pining away for another taste of the fruit sounds like addiction (and fits in with Christina’s brother Dante’s wife’s death from a laudanum overdose, though this was in 1862, after the poem was written), but if so, the goblins aren’t exactly your classic drug pushers, as they make themselves scarce as soon as they’ve created a new addict; they’re only interested in corrupting innocent souls, not leeching off them.

One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations to his sister’s poem

(The goblins are one of the most interesting parts of the poem, from a fantasy-reader’s perspective. They’re not your traditional goblins, but a ragtag mix of animalistic little men:

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 skurry.

And I can’t help thinking of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whenever I read this, as he had his own little private menagerie, which gained a wombat in 1869. It was, apparently, allowed to sleep on the dinner table during meals. Hopefully Dante didn’t also gain his own ratel — another name for one of nature’s most aggressive small animals, the frumious honey badger.)

Goblin Market is obviously a tale of fall and redemption, but one in which redemption can be purchased through the same means as the fall. It’s the glamour the goblins spin about their fruit that makes it taste so good, which is why they don’t want to simply sell it to Lizzie so she can take it to the ailing Laura — they know that, without their sales spiel, the fruit will taste like “wormwood”. Likewise, it seems to be what the fruit is purchased with that gives it its evil or its good effect: Laura purchases hers with a lock of her golden hair, which is usually a gift for lovers (or, in Victorian times, the memento of a dead loved one); Lizzie purchases hers not so much with a penny as her willingness to sacrifice herself for her sister.

Perhaps, with Goblin Market, it’s not the details that give the poem its meaning, but the underlying sentiment, that it’s not what you do but why you do it that matters.

You can read the poem online here.

The Palace of Morgana by John Sterling

cover art by Richard Dadd

I first heard of the early-19th century writer John Sterling through Brian Stableford’s Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, which included one of his tales, “A Chronicle of England”. Introducing it, Stableford said:

“Sterling would surely have become one of the leading writers of his day had he not died so young, and he might well have become the most important nineteenth century fantasy writer; his prose fantasies are more various and more adventurous than any other contemporary work.”

“A Chronicle of England” paints a delightful, fairy-haunted picture of England in the days before it received its first human inhabitants. The constant battles between the semi-substantial, light-loving fairies, and their brothers, the thunderous, brutal giants, often feels like a poetic allegory of England’s changeable weather — sunny one moment, cloudy the next — particularly when, at one point, the giants open a great cave to unleash a mist upon the land. The story certainly felt different in the richness and poetry of its fantasy elements compared to the other writers in the anthology, and I wanted to find out more.

Sterling was born in 1806 and died of tuberculosis in 1844. During his short life he’d been co-proprietor of the literary magazine The Atheneum, a disciple of the elderly Coleridge, and a friend of Thomas Carlyle. He wrote novels (Arthur Coningsby, published in 1833; The Onyx Ring, serialised from 1838 to 1839), poetry, and numerous essays, plus enough short fantasy stories to fill a slim volume. His shorter writings were mostly collected in a two-volume, posthumous Essays and Tales in 1848 (which you can find at archive.org), and these contain almost all of his fantasy output. (His novel Arthur Coningsby also contains some easily-separable stories, as told by its characters, some of which are published on their own in Essays and Tales, but I found two more of a fantastical nature that merited being collected as tales in their own right.)

cover by Murray Ewing

Once I’d sought these out, cleaned up the text, and assembled them together for my own reading, I thought I’d put them out as a book, because, although the Essays and Tales are freely available as a PDF, I think the fantasy tales are worth issuing on their own, and in a more readable form.

Are they worthy, though, of Stableford’s high praise? It’s impossible, of course, to tell if Sterling really would have become one of his age’s most important writers, but his fantasy stories certainly show signs of developing in a unique direction. Aside from an attempt at Orientalism (“The Caterpillar”), which at least has the virtue of ending with a humorous moral to its tale of what happens to a young woman who thoughtlessly flicks a caterpillar off her arm, Sterling’s early tales published in The Atheneum were mostly set in or around the world of Ancient Greek myth. “Zamor”, for instance, is a sort of Vathek-in-miniature, providing three glimpses into the life of Alexander the Great, first as a carefree but ambitious boy, then as a world-conqueror granted a glimpse of the afterlife horrors awaiting all world-conquerors, and finally as a broken man haunted by that terrible vision. Perhaps the best tale of this period is the poignant “The Last of the Giants”, in which a fifteenth-century man, wandering among wild mountains after a shipwreck, gets a privileged but mournful glimpse of the titular creature.

The Arthur Coningsby tales are slighter but see an opening out in the sort of fantasy Sterling wrote. “The Crystal Prison”, for instance, is about a man punished by being imprisoned in a crystal sphere, in which, wherever he looks, he sees only his own face (an idea also used, if I recall rightly, in “The Hell of Mirrors” by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo in 1926), and “The Sons of Iron” is a sort of early robot fable, about men made of metal who spend their lives making more men out of metal.

Portrait of John Sterling, by J Brown

Near the end of his life, Sterling began publishing a series of stories under the shared title “Legendary Lore” in Blackwood’s Magazine, and it’s here his writing really shows the promise Stableford alluded to. “A Chronicle of England” and “The Palace of Morgana” (a virtually conflict-free idyll about bright young things flitting around the grounds of a paradisal palace, amusing themselves with displays of magic — Stableford calls it “a uniquely delicate prose poem”) have left the world of Classical Greece for a fantasy that seems to owe more to the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The fantasy in these two tales is poetic and playful, strange and wondrous. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The Suit of Armour and the Skeleton”, a dialogue between two relics in an old church, one of whom (the suit of armour), despite being hollow, is rather full of himself, for having once been worn by a somewhat brutal duke, while the skeleton, of humbler origins, proves to have a more down-to-earth and inclusive outlook, as well as a greater claim to be on display in the church. The title and form both reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose-poem dialogue, “The Corpse and the Skeleton”, which has a similarly satirical (though more darkly cynical) flavour.

If these three, the best of Sterling’s tales, point the way to how his work might have progressed had he lived, he’d certainly have deserved Stableford’s praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to get Sterling’s works published in the US, and Carlyle, Sterling’s friend and literary executor, wrote a book on his life, but today he’s mostly forgotten. I’d like to imagine though, that, had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line continued, it might one day have had a Sterling volume such as this. (I was aiming for something of that feel with my cover.) His language is often poetic and archaic (and I like it all the more for that), and he may rely, on occasion, on certain Romantic clichés (most of his heroines are unworldly, innocent types devoted to their ageing, widowed fathers, but have a longing to witness strange and sublime sights), but if you like classic fantasy, I think there’s something to enjoy in them.

The Palace of Morgana and Other Fantasy Tales is now available on Kindle, ePub and in paperback (and, of course, you can read most of the tales in Essays and Tales at archive.org).

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Henry JamesThe first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I hated it. I hated the over-stuffy prose, which seemed to be hiding a good ghost story behind thickets of Victorian verbiage so tangled the only emotion to get through was the most insistently hysterical. The characters seemed nothing more than embodiments of the era’s most conventional attitudes: the oh-so-angelic children, the distant, paternalistic gentleman-employer who of course knows best about everything, the loyal housekeeper with an unquestioning faith in her superiors, and the governess, a wide-eyed innocent country parson’s daughter on her first adventure out into the world…

And then, on a recent re-read, I realised this was, of course, the point. The story, told by the governess (that country parson’s daughter on her first adventure into the world) is infused with her hysterical insistence that things be as the Victorian world liked to pretend they should be, precisely when they’re revealing themselves to be the opposite. Those thickets of Victorian verbiage are her way of trying to keep a destabilised world in check, a world in which children aren’t little angels but human beings (and so can seem, at times, like devils); a world in which distant paternalistic gentleman-employers don’t know best, but simply don’t care; a world in which some servants aren’t so unquestioning and loyal.

turn-of-the-screw-01I suppose what wrongfooted me on that first read was I expected The Turn of the Screw to be a ‘straightforward’ ghost story (which was the only type I’d read, at the time). By this I mean a story in which a normal world is invaded by the supernatural. To make this sort of ‘straightforward’ ghost story work, you need characters who are straightforwardly normal, whose very normality acts as a baseline to which the abnormality of the supernatural can be compared. But The Turn of the Screw isn’t of this type. It is, I’d say, one of the first truly modern ghost stories, whose characteristic is that they tangle the supernatural with the psychological to such a degree it’s impossible to unravel the two.

The Turn of the Screw is the famous example of a ghost story that can be read entirely psychologically (the governess, coming apart at the seams, hallucinates ghosts as an expression of her own super-heated repressions) or supernaturally. As someone who doesn’t like their ghosts to be explained away, but who also likes the fantastic to feel psychologically significant, I prefer to read it as the perfect meeting of haunters and haunted — a pair of ghosts who, though real, fit exactly into the dark cracks of an unhinged, still-living mind. The governess, in The Turn of the Screw, is as much a monster as that ‘horror’, the dead manservant Peter Quint, only she’s a monster of the opposite extreme: Quint is ‘much too free’; the governess is as tight-laced and primly judgemental as any inexperienced, over-romantic Victorian pastor’s daughter can be. And whereas Quint is transgressive of all boundaries — between the classes, between the sexes, between adult and child, and, now, between life and death — the governess insists on everything being filed way into the absolute, binary opposites of her age: people are either ‘gentlemen’ or they are ‘horrors’, children are ‘angelic’ and innocent or ‘corrupt’. While eight-year-old Flora is at first ‘the most beautiful child I had ever seen’, she is, at the end, ‘hideously hard… common and almost ugly’.

It’s the governess’s relationship with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, that’s key to both her personality, and my own initial reaction against the novel. Once the governess realises she can, effectively, bully Mrs Grose into agreeing with her, she’s constantly finishing Mrs Grose’s sentences, forcing her own (often wild and illogical) interpretations on what Mrs Grose has seen, heard, or suspects, as though they were the only possibilities:

‘He was looking for someone else, you say – someone who was not you?’

‘He was looking for little Miles.’ A portentous clearness now possessed me. ‘That’s whom he was looking for.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘I know, I know, I know!’ My exaltation grew. ‘And you know, my dear!’

Turn_of_the_screw_02This is what I found so repellent about the book that first time I read it — the governess isn’t merely hijacking Mrs Grose’s point of view, she’s hijacking the reader’s too. No room is left for any doubt that those infamous horrors, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are seeking to corrupt the children, and that the children are willing accomplices. And, while the governess herself freely corrupts Mrs Grose with her own hysterical insistence, she knows she can’t put words into the children’s mouths. The Turn of the Screw becomes a battle with silence — with, in a way, a sort of tortured social propriety, in which the only way to find out if something awful has happened to the children is to suggest that awfulness, but to do that is to potentially ruin what is (to the governess’s mind) most valuable about them, their innocence. So they must be made to speak without prompting, and the more they refuse to do so, the more the governess, in her twisted way, takes the children’s silence as proof of their corruption. Silence, in The Turn of the Screw, becomes a palpable thing, identical both with the ghosts (‘the silence itself — which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength — became the element into which I saw the figure disappear’) and with horror, too:

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’

The governess herself is bound to silence: by the children’s uncle, who wants someone to look after his niece and nephew and not bother him, but also by her society, that expects women to have no voice, and children to be ‘seen and not heard’. Miles’s expulsion from school is because of his saying unspecified ‘things’ (and he later steals a letter, from the governess to the uncle, which was itself an attempt to break a silence). Words are how innocence is corrupted. But, at the same time, confession — breaking silence — is linked with salvation:

‘I’ll get it out of him. He’ll meet me. He’ll confess. If he confesses he’s saved.’

The governess exists in a weird duality with the ghosts. She first sees Quint standing in the tower where she was standing some time before; when she next sees him, through a window, she feels compelled to go outside and stand where he stood, looking in, like two chess pieces chasing one another round a board. She sees Miss Jessel at the foot of the stairs, crying, then later finds herself in the same place, in the same turmoil. When she sees Miss Jessel sitting at the teacher’s desk of the schoolroom where she herself usually sits, the words she comes out with — ‘You terrible, miserable woman!’ — could be her own judgement of herself. Quint is the shadow image of her over-romanticisation of the children’s uncle; Miss Jessel is an image of her own possible ruin. The governess’s utter inability to see herself for what she is (those windows she keeps seeing Peter Quint through could be acting as mirrors), her inability to break a silence she shares with herself, are what makes her monstrous.

OWC DraculaLike the other great horror stories that came out at the time — that embarrassment of graveyard blooms from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and H G Wells’ science-fictional horrors, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor MoreauThe Turn of the Screw gets its power from a new awareness of how our inner lives can entangle us with dark powers, creating far more complex relationships with the horrific and supernatural than merely that of fear. The end of the Victorian era thus saw the creation of a set of stories that have proved fertile for more than a century of ongoing adaptations and reimaginings. Thanks to Freud and co., those Victorian times came to symbolise, in a way, repression itself. The governess of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is perhaps, then, the perfect Victorian monster, so deeply does she embody the strictures, mores, prejudices, idealisations and judgements of what we now tend to look on as an over-straitened age; but she also presents a rich portrait of human self-blindness that continues to be relevant well into the present.