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Women’s Circles Broken – Part Five

Women's circles conclusion

Women’s Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works

The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.
(This is part five of the essay. Part four can be found here, part three can be found here, part two can be found here and part one can be found here.)

***

CONCLUSION

Rossetti’s words could easily serve as a conclusion on their own. Wrapped up in six short lines is the core definition of the importance of women’s communities. Rossetti’s definition of sisterhood can be the basis for the communities of women in Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. Friendship and sisterhood are essential for all women, according to Austen, Alcott, and Rossetti. In each of these works, women grow, learn, and love together. No matter the separation after marriage, if it is at all possible, these women strive to return to community with each other. After marriage—or any separation caused by men—there is a void that remains unfilled. Jane and Elizabeth are fortunate in Pride and Prejudice in that they are able to recreate their own community with each other; and through their good influence, are able to bring another sister into their inner circle:

Kitty, to her very material advantage, spent the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. In society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great. She was not of so ungovernable a temper as Lydia; and, removed from the influence of Lydia’s example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid. (Austen)

Austen, of course, realizes that not all sisters desire community, and in this closing paragraph she shows that some merely need to get away from the influence of “bad” sisters. As was mentioned earlier, to be a good woman in Austen’s opinion means that one is first and foremost a good sister. Dobosiewicz also writes that “an ideal marriage bond in an Austen novel is actually patterned after sisterhood. Thus, the female-oriented sororal bond would become a touchstone determining the value of a relationship” (Dobosiewicz ). Jane and Elizabeth essentially married men who had similar values to those they already respected in each other, and in that, they could retain a semblance of their sisterhood although marriage physically separated them from each other.

In Little Women, marriage is more destructive to the community of sisters. In “The First Wedding” chapter when Meg gets married, Alcott writes that “Mother and sisters gathered close, as if loath to give Meg up” (Alcott). Meg is actually the first sister lost even before Beth’s death. The March sisters never return to a sense of true community after their marriages, but in “Goblin Market,” Laura and Lizzie’s love for each other is undiminished even by the intrusion of men.

After marriage disrupts sisterhood, the changes are permanent. Although women may try to return to a semblance of their former community, it remains forever altered. Alcott gives a perfect glimpse into the utopia of young sisterhood before men enter the scene—although the reader is intruding through Laurie’s eyes as he becomes the first male to enter their community, albeit a welcomed one when he is discovered:

‘Here’s a landscape!’ thought Laurie, peeping through the bushes, and looking wide-awake and good-natured already.
It was a rather pretty little picture, for the sisters sat together in the shady nook, with sun and shadow flickering over them, the aromatic wind lifting their hair and cooling their hot cheeks, and all the little wood people going on with their affairs as if these were no strangers but old friends. Meg sat upon her cushion, sewing daintily with her white hands, and looking as fresh and sweet as a rose in her pink dress among the green. Beth was sorting the cones that lay thick under the hemlock near by, for she made pretty things with them. Amy was sketching a group of ferns, and Jo was knitting as she read aloud. A shadow passed over the boy’s face as he watched them, feeling that he ought to go away because uninvited; yet lingering because home seemed very lonely and this quiet party in the woods most attractive to his restless spirit. He stood so still that a squirrel, busy with its harvesting, ran down a pine close beside him, saw him suddenly and skipped back, scolding so shrilly that Beth looked up, espied the wistful face behind the birches, and beckoned with a reassuring smile. (Alcott)

When Laurie nearly decides to leave, it becomes obvious that Alcott saw his presence as an intrusion—but a somewhat necessary and inevitable one. It is here that we once again see a man longing to enter the women’s utopia but changing it irrevocably with his presence. While all three sisterhoods are disrupted and changed, they do return to a sense of strength and community unique to women. As the last lines of “Goblin Market” display, sisters not only help each other when one is weak; they share each other’s strength. Even when one is standing, the others lend their support.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the suffragist movements of the twentieth century, the definitions of places for women began to change; but the women that Austen, Alcott, and Rossetti created in these texts are not necessarily fighting to claim a space in the public sphere. Instead, they are redefining where a woman’s place is and what it can be. They are reclaiming communities of women as a type of strength in contrast to that of the patriarchal public sphere. Nineteenth-century sisterhood can be seen as safe and comfortable; but on the contrary, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, the March sisters, and Laura and Lizzie stand as proof that each community of women is different and constantly changing while being held together by strong bonds despite the disruption of men.

*****

About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she’s not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at https://meagangunn.wordpress.com.
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Women’s Circles Broken – Part Four

Women's Circles Broken part four

Women’s Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works

The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.
(This is part three of the essay. Part three can be found here, part two can be found here and part one can be found here.)

***

“GOBLIN MARKET”: SUFFERING SISTERS

“Goblin Market” can be read as a study of relational dynamics between sisters. Lizzie and Laura are two sisters who differ widely in their personalities and morality. “The poem itself places heavy emphasis on the importance of having a strong sister. Laura, the weaker sister, unable to restrain first her curiosity and then her desire, owes her life and perhaps salvation to the moral strength of her sister, Lizzie” (McNaron). This idea of a “weaker” sister relying on a stronger one echoes Rossetti’s personal experience with her older sister Maria, who was a devoutly religious woman. The two sisters were extremely close until Maria’s death when Rossetti was 46 years old. Rossetti would later describe Maria as her “’irreplaceable sister and friend’” (McNaron). Many scholars hold firmly to the belief that Maria had a negative effect on her younger sister and that Rossetti struggled to attain the moral perfection she saw displayed in Maria, a perfection that can be seen in “Goblin Market’s” Lizzie.

Austen, Rossetti, and Alcott all remained unmarried; but Rossetti shared another parallel with Austen in the fact that her older sister also never married, although Rossetti herself rejected two marriage proposals for religious reasons. Rossetti was raised in England amid the Tractarian Movement, which “brought with it a renewed emphasis on woman’s sinfulness, moral weakness and role in the Fall” (Palazzo xii). Within this focus on women’s guilt was a push “to promote sisterhoods” and lead young girls “towards the passions of martyrdom, either real or imagined” (Palazzo). “Goblin Market” is probably the best and most optimistic version of many poems portraying a young Rossetti struggling to work through this complicated version of piety for women.

Reading “Goblin Market” through a religious lens is helpful in many ways when one considers Rossetti’s complicated background. Rossetti’s Tractarianism most certainly influenced her writing, and for Simon Humphries its influence was strongest in one particular way. In “Goblin Market,” the same fruit that nearly kills Laura also brings her back to life in the end. What changes is not the fruit itself but the way it is obtained and consumed. This paradox plays itself out in other elements of the poem as well. A common reading of “Goblin Market” is one in which people see a religious unity throughout the poem. However, Humphries shows how Rossetti instead used “theological contradiction”—such as the fruit that can “both destroy and save” (Humphries). As he concludes, “When the fruit is offered not by the malign goblin men, but by the self- sacrificing Lizzie, it becomes curative” (Humphries). The bond built and nurtured between the sisters transforms the evil power presented by the goblin men into its own cure.

The strength that Rossetti saw in her sister Maria lent itself to her creation of a strong heroine in Lizzie. Literary scholar Diane D’Amico writes in her essay “Maria: Christina Rossetti’s Irreplaceable Sister and Friend” that:

The two people who provided Christina with sustaining daily love were her mother and her sister…The poem [“Goblin Market”] does depict a feminine world of order, duty, and love, which is set against a darker, sinister world of escapism and indulgence, represented by creatures that are predominantly masculine…Moreover, there are no men associated with the world of the sisters…To suggest that Christina is rejecting the male world completely or portraying it as satanic is too extreme a reading and in many ways out of keeping with the rest of her work. However, it is significant that in this, one of her major poems, she depicts a female-hero.

Alone Lizzie has the courage she needs; there is no father, brother, or lover to whom she turns. (McNaron)

Interestingly, here we can note again the focus on love, duty, honor, and respect seen in communities of women. These are the attributes that present a stark contrast to the world of goblin men.

Besides lending itself to a strong focus on piety, Rossetti’s religious fervor also led to an emphasis on forgiveness and grace. When Laura breaks the code of sisterhood by leaving her sister in favor of the goblin men’s fruit, Lizzie could reject her. However, she does the exact opposite. Instead of rejecting her sister, Lizzie worries and makes plans—eventually going so far as to risk her own life to save her sister’s. Rossetti experienced similar examples of grace and second chances at work in reality, or as Kathleen Vejvoda puts it: “The importance of unfallen women saving fallen women was more than a commonplace for Rossetti” (Vejvoda). A few months before she began writing “Goblin Market,” Rossetti started to volunteer at a religious home for prostitutes and other “fallen women.” It was called St. Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women or House of Charity and was run by nuns and other women volunteers called “sisters.” D’Amico also explains Rossetti’s religious thought helpfully:

Although her faith certainly led her to see the fallen women of her time as sinners, for Rossetti that was not the end of their story. Not only could each fallen woman become a saint, but each individual should also aspire to be like the penitent and loving Mary Magdalene.

(Vejvoda)

For Rossetti, sisterhood is at its core a redemptive experience, a belief she evoked clearly in the characters of Lizzie and Laura.

Besides the obvious difference of being a poem, the other great distinction between “Goblin Market” and the two novels is the way in which men disrupt sisterhood within the work. At no time do the goblin men represent potential husbands as men clearly do in Pride and Prejudice and Little Women; however, they do unmistakably convey the dangers and threat that men can bring to communities of women. For a nineteenth-century audience especially, one constant threat from men was the potential destruction of a woman’s virtue. At the time, single women were basically forbidden to be in a man’s presence alone, and men were often portrayed as vicious predators preying on unwary or immoral women.

Because of this, it is easy to see why there is a prevalent reading of “Goblin Market” as a poem about sexual temptation, namely the dangers of premarital sex. Many scholars have viewed the fruit offered by the goblin men as indicative of sexual enticement and have pointed out the constant warnings for the girls to stay away from what the goblin men are selling—such as Lizzie’s many warnings to Laura:

‘We must not look at goblin men,

We must not buy their fruits:

Who knows upon what soil they fed

Their hungry thirsty roots?’

and

‘No,’ said Lizzie, ‘No, no, no;

Their offers should not charm us,

Their evil gifts would harm us’

(Rossetti)

Throughout the poem, we also hear warnings featuring Jeanie, a cautionary tale of a girl who had also fallen victim to the goblin men. Lizzie asks her sister:

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
Pluck’d from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low

(Rossetti)

This is easily a scene of foreshadowing as the reader is introduced to exactly what will happen to Laura now that she has tasted the goblin fruit. If the fruit is sexual temptation and Laura has given in to it, then this shows that her punishment will be a slow death and torment caused by an unquenchable hunger. This reading of sexuality and the dangers of men is absolutely valid and easily supported; however, it places the focus too heavily on the necessity of avoiding bad men rather than on the closeness between the two sisters. The goblin men are characterized as men for a reason; the story would be completely different if goblin women were at the market instead.

The connection between Lizzie and Laura is the strongest and most obvious sisterhood. Partly because the poem compacts their story and partly because of the focus on self-sacrifice, the two sisters’ bond is striking. Laura and Lizzie in “Goblin Market” exist at first in a realm of unbroken communion with words being nearly unnecessary:

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory

(Rossetti)

The sisters are literally inseparable, embraced in such a close bond that their two separate entities and identities merge together. Going about their daily tasks, the two sisters gain happiness and purpose from their work and from their relationship with each other. It is not until the goblin men appear with their temptations that the idyllic harmony between the two sisters is destroyed. Only later in the poem does Lizzie’s love eventually win Laura back to the connection of sisterhood.

The day after Laura chooses to eat the fruit the goblins offer, she goes happily with Lizzie in hopes of again eating the fruit she craves. However, there is one big difference: only Lizzie can hear the goblin men, and Laura’s reaction is telling:

Laura turn’d cold as stone

To find her sister heard that cry alone,

That goblin cry,

‘Come buy our fruits, come buy’

Her desire for the fruit consumes her, and that night after she waits for Lizzie to fall asleep, she weeps not for what she has lost but instead for “baulk’d desire”—what she cannot have. Laura’s act of separation from her sister leads her to feel so differently that she cannot even cry in front of her. It is not so much the act of eating the fruit that causes Laura to slowly fade, but instead it is her insane craving and desire for more of it. This sense of selfishness and longing did not exist at the beginning of the poem, and Lizzie has no trace of it in herself.

Michie uses “Goblin Market” as a partial focus in one of her book chapters, seeing the relationship between the sisters Lizzie and Laura as a representative example of the consistent negotiation of identity in comparison to each other:

Lizzie’s heroism consists not so much in the potential sacrifice of her life and world as she beckons to the goblin men, but in her refusal to admit difference. This is why her rescue of Laura takes the familiar form of sharing, of reiteration . . . Lizzie’s sacrifice allows her to reconstruct a shared sororal space that is once again rhetorically defined by sameness, analogy, and iterability.

(Michie)

In Michie’s opinions, if a centrally important facet of women’s communication is the ability to negotiate and name differences, then it is indeed heroic of Lizzie to give this up in order to become “one” with her sister again.

One remarkable fact about “Goblin Market” is that Christina’s poet-brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti actually gave the poem its title. It is noteworthy that he along with the rest of his family also had a fascination with fallen women. In his own poem “Jenny,” Dante Rossetti reflects from the viewpoint of a man in a prostitute’s room as she sleeps. At one point near the end of the poem, the speaker wonders what it is that separates Jenny from other women:

Just as another woman sleeps!

Enough to throw one’s thoughts in heaps

Of doubt and horror,—what to say

Or think,—this awful secret sway,

The potter’s power over the clay!

Of the same lump (it has been said)

For honour and dishonour made,

Two sister vessels.

Here is one.

Here, he muses on the fact that Jenny is the same as other women. What is it that makes her “less” than the other women he knows? He moves next into a comparison with his cousin Nell, who enjoys love and praise just as he assumes Jenny does:

My cousin Nell is fond of fun,

And fond of dress, and change, and praise,

So mere a woman in her ways:

And if her sweet eyes rich in youth

Are like her lips that tell the truth,

My cousin Nell is fond of love.

And she’s the girl I’m proudest of. …

Of the same lump (as it is said)

For honour and dishonour made,

Two sister vessels.

Here is one.

It makes a goblin of the sun.

(Rossetti)

Upon his introspection, the speaker realizes that all women are similar, and that even his own “honorable” cousin resembles Jenny. The “sister vessels” he mentions could be yet another way to describe Lizzie and Laura—one sister who is honorable and the other dishonorable.

Before moving on from Dante’s influence on his sister’s poem, we must pause and notice his use of the word “goblin.” A goblin is a creature from English folklore who is always portrayed as ugly, mischievous, and full of trickery. Therefore, when Dante writes that the sun is a goblin, he means that the sun has tricked everyone into believing that Jenny is so very different from other women. There is a definite connection between the use of “goblin” in this poem and in his suggestion that Christina borrow it for her own poem’s title. The goblin men are tricksters who convince women to fall.

A more complicated part of the poem lies in its ending, where at first glance, it seems to have the largest divergence of the three works. Whereas, the Bennet sisters and the March sisters must readjust to far different experiences of life with other women after marriage, Lizzie and Laura seemingly regain the same sense of closeness—if not more of it—that they had at the story’s beginning. Besides the goblin men, no men are even mentioned except for the phantom husbands that Lizzie and Laura have magically married: “Afterwards, when both were wives/With children of their own” (Rossetti). The girls who survived the incident with the goblin men are now mothers, teaching their children the moral of the story and the importance of strong sisterhood. This somewhat stilted scene of domesticity can be confusing given the content of the rest of the poem, but Rossetti also clearly shows the strength of Laura and Lizzie. The husbands are phantoms; they have no space at the end of this poem where the domestic sphere has conquered the public sphere.

This public versus private sphere debate in the study of nineteenth-century literature is also relevant to this discussion as another way of understanding Rossetti’s purpose in writing the poem. Namely, the title of the poem itself gives some information away—“Goblin Market”—where the men sell their fruit. This focus on production has also interested scholars because it lends itself easily to yet another interpretation. “Nineteenth-century debates over women in public have typically been understood as arising from the contradictions of domestic ideology: the home was the origin of and limit upon women’s public role” (Peiss). Lizzie and Laura exist initially only in the sphere of “womanly” tasks; however, Lizzie knows much more about the public sphere than is at first apparent. When she decides to confront the goblin men in order to save her sister, Lizzie knows she must pay for what they sell. She gives them “her penny” but makes it clear that she realizes money is not what they really want:

‘Thank you,’ said Lizzie:

‘But one waits At home alone for me:

So without further parleying,

If you will not sell me any

Of your fruits though much and many,

Give me back my silver penny

I toss’d you for a fee’

(Rossetti)

Kathy Peiss, in her article “Going Public: Women in Nineteenth-Century Cultural History,” writes: “Before women’s entrance into the public became a social and political issue, women had long been involved in production, barter, and exchange” (Peiss). The lines quoted above display just how clearly Lizzie understands the goblin men’s system of production and selling. The focus on money can seem out of place at first, but the fact that Lizzie gets to keep her payment further reinforces the immense bond she shares with Laura. In the end, she is able to withstand their attacks because of her commitment to save her sister; and on her way back to Laura, the penny “Bouncing in her purse… was music to her ear” (Rossetti). Clearly, it is not the money that brings her joy; rather, her joy comes from the fact that her intelligence and knowledge of the bartering system allowed her to bring her sister back to health.

After Lizzie defeats the goblin men and hurries home to her sister, there is a scene of undeniable homoerotic imagery. Lizzie first invites her sister’s kisses, and Laura returns to life after kissing the remnants of fruit from Lizzie’s body. The words “kiss” and “kiss’d” occur seven times in the following lines:

She cried, ‘Laura,’ up the garden,

‘Did you miss me?

Come and kiss me.

Never mind my bruises,

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

Squeez’d 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.’

 

Laura started from her chair,

Flung her arms up in the air,

Clutch’d her hair:

‘Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted

For my sake the fruit forbidden?

Must your light like mine be hidden,

Your young life like mine be wasted,

Undone in mine undoing,

And ruin’d in my ruin,

Thirsty, canker’d, goblin-ridden?’—

She clung about her sister,

Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her:

Tears once again

Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,

Dropping like rain

After long sultry drouth;

Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,

She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.

(Rossetti)

Laura’s initial concern and fear is for her sister when she assumes that Lizzie has also eaten the goblin men’s fruit. It seems unclear whether she kisses Lizzie more out of desire for her or for the fruit that she craves. Either way, this interaction between them displays a level of emotional and even sexual intimacy that is uniquely female and integral to Laura’s eventual revival.

It would seem remiss to ignore Rossetti’s own opinion of her poem in light of her relationship with her own sister. She “claimed that the poem was only a fairy story, utterly without ‘any profound or ulterior meaning” (Arseneau 105). It is fascinating to see just how many different interpretations exist for “Goblin Market” when Rossetti herself said it was merely an entertaining story meant for children. One can hardly keep from wondering whether or not this was truly what she intended. With a poem so ripe with potential analyses, surely she knew her audience would interpret the poem as more than “only a fairy story.” Richard Menke writes in his essay that:

Goblin Market is indeed a parable without the necessary allegorical parallel to its deceptively simple story, insistently material but illimitably metaphorical: thus the endless interpretations of its plot, its eroticism, its goblin men, its fruit; and thus Christina Rossetti’s ability to dismiss it, with some plausibility, as only a fairy story.

(Arseneau)

It is this lack of built-in explanation that leaves so much room for multiple readings and such complex characters in Lizzie and Laura.

Both sisters suffer as a result of Laura’s decision. The two of them have shared everything until this moment, and now they cannot understand each other. This separation is of course reciprocal. Take a moment to muse about what a different piece of literature this poem would be if both sisters had eaten what the goblin men offer. If Lizzie, seeing her sister’s initial delight, had also eaten the fruit, what would the ending be? Would both sisters waste away just as Jeanie had before them? Or, if Lizzie wasn’t the stronger sister who sacrificially saved Laura, would the two sisters have still shared a sense of community by literally sharing the same suffering? We can’t know the answers to these questions, but Rossetti had a purpose for writing it the way she did.

One potential aspect of this purpose is the fact that Lizzie’s sacrificial love is much more indicative of women’s communal relationships. The story also reads as a reversal of the Garden of Eden story. Instead of the woman causing the man to fall, the men are the ones who beckon with forbidden fruits that promise death to those who eat them. In their mutual love for each other, Laura and Lizzie in “Goblin Market” have a commitment that lasts through this temptation, sickness, and even marriage to the shadowy unknown men. Rossetti’s closing lines in “Goblin Market” speak eloquently to the profound importance of sisterhood and communities of women:

‘For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands’

(Rossetti)

 

(Part five, CONCLUSION , will be published next week)

*****

About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she’s not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at https://meagangunn.wordpress.com.
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Women’s Circles Broken – Part One

Broken Circles - Jane Austen and Cassandra Austen

Women’s Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works

The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.

***

INTRODUCTION

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen).

If rich men must go wife-hunting, then the women presumably are lucky to get them, spending their time scrambling and fighting to beat out the competition and become the chosen wife. However, Jane Austen and other nineteen-century women authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Christina Rossetti saw the truth played out in the society around them. Of course, on the surface, the frantic search for wealthy husbands was reality; women were trained to become wives. Since women had such limited opportunities available to them, marriage was the most viable option for survival. An interesting connection found, though, among the literature written by women at the time is the way in which women thrive together in communities with each other—up until the men enter the scene. Many women are extremely unhappy after marriage and mourn the loss of community they had shared with their sisters. Once the men, or more commonly, one man who is also the future husband, disrupt these women-centered communities, the close bond among women is severed.

Christina Rossetti
Louisa May Alcott
Jane Austen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three works of literature sharing this similarity are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, early in the nineteenth century, when many people had yet to question the societal relegation of the “woman’s place” to the home. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, when Rossetti published “Goblin Market” in 1862 and Alcott published Little Women in 1868, there was already an early push for women’s suffrage in both the United States and England. These three authors realized that women should have more options than marriage—although even they could not quite visualize what these options could be.

What they longed for was a way for women to retain sisterhood after marriage instead of leaving it behind completely and to be allowed a place in the public sphere. They could see this better option, a supportive sisterhood—safe, loving, and uninterrupted. How and why did women thrive together in these three fictional nineteenth-century communities? How did they communicate? In what spaces did these communities exist? In what ways did men disrupt these communities, and was it possible for women to regain a similar level of closeness with each other after the disruption of men (i.e. marriage)? Some answers to these questions will become clear as this thesis looks at the various viewpoints and treatments each author brought to women’s communities, their importance, formation, and men’s intrusions upon them.

Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet

In each of the works discussed, one female character is affected most particularly by the male disruption. For Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, one of the most obvious instances of male intrusion occurs when Mr. Collins takes her dear friend Charlotte away from her. The loss of their friendship and intimacy deeply affects Elizabeth. Jo March in Little Women quite nearly despises the man who marries her older sister Meg and removes her from the cherished community of sisters, and after Laura eats the fruit offered to her in the poem “Goblin Market,” she drifts away from her sister Lizzie and moves swiftly toward death. Consequently, Lizzie is also deeply affected when she must discover a way to save her sister’s life. All of these characters navigate a world that shifts drastically with the entrance of men—and in the case of both novels, the changes brought by marriage.

The two novels use realism to illustrate aspects of female utopian spaces, relationships, and struggles, while by the end of the poem, Lizzie and Laura exist in a true female utopia—a world devoid of men and devoted to sisterhood. Coming hand-in- hand with the nearly inevitable event of marriage in women’s lives was the fact that they would be forced to leave these female utopias for the worlds mostly inhabited and controlled by men. In these writings by nineteenth-century women, women consistently pursue a space free from the overwhelming presence and power of men. Because of the transplants caused by marriage, these women constantly seek communities of women, new utopias and places of refuge with their own ways of communicating with each other that are often vastly different from dominant male forms of communication.

These women’s communities have been viewed as utopian alternatives to the patriarchal societies around them. The word “utopia” was created in 1516 when Sir Thomas More wrote the novel of the same name. He took it from the Greek word ou- topos for “nowhere” or “no place,” but the extremely similar eu-topos also means a good place. It is within this in-between area where women exist in these works of literature— the space between nowhere and a good place. The word “utopia” commonly connotes perfection and unity, but these women’s utopias do not quite fit this definition. The utopias they create are not recognized by the patriarchal society, and because of this, the women’s utopias are much closer to More’s original definition of “nowhere.” Where men often gather in large, boisterous groups, women gather in small, private spaces. From the parlor to written letters, the places and ways in which women communicate differ drastically from those of men.

In a search for a space away from men’s authority, women create their own. Many of these spaces are unique from their male-dominated counterparts. For example, the women in these works claim letter-writing as a space distinctively theirs. While not usually viewed as a literal “space,” letters create a location wherein women share their true, hidden thoughts and feelings with each other, free from the prying eyes of their husbands. Letters act as a private space for sharing intimate details about life, love, frustration, and loneliness—but also a space for sharing joyful news and encouragement. Writing and story-telling feature heavily in relationships among women—not only through their letters but through journals and stories repeated around the fireplace, in the drawing room, the kitchen, and other places women make their own.

In Space, Place, and Gender, Doreen Massey discusses the important roles that literal and metaphorical spaces and places play in women’s lives—specifically in the nineteenth century. Massey argues that critics should think “of social space in terms of the articulation of social relations which necessarily have a spatial form in their interactions with one another” (Massey). A few lines later, she elaborates:

Thinking of places in this way implies that they are not so much bounded areas as open and porous networks of social relations . . . It reinforces the idea, moreover, that those identities will be multiple (since the various social groups in a place will be differently located in relation to the overall complexity of social relations and since their reading of those relations and what they make of them will also be distinct). And this in turn implies that which is to be the dominant image of any place will be a matter of contestation and will change over time.

Women construct their identities within literal and metaphorical spaces in these three works—most commonly the home or “private sphere.” However, as Massey explains, the women themselves also have varying definitions of identity as it compares to specific places. Women do not define their identities based solely on the spaces they inhabit; rather, the ways in which they choose to use certain spaces confer identity on the spaces themselves. In this mutual transferal of identity, almost any space available to women can be transformed into a female utopia, giving women a type of power all their own.

The March sisters in the BBC Little Women adaptation

Massey also writes that “it is necessary to understand … gender relations as significant in the structuring of space and place, spaces and places” (Massey). By focusing on how women affect the spaces they inhabit, it becomes clear that they construct them differently from male spaces and specifically for themselves. For Massey, “It means that spatiality cannot be analysed through the medium of a male body and heterosexual male experience, but without recognizing these as important and highly specific characteristics, and then generalized to people at large” (Massey). Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and “Goblin Market” were all born out of strict patriarchal societies, but the characters within them seek and discover ways of defining spaces and meaning without men. Further discussion of specific characters’ definitions of space and identity will be found in each chapter.

When reading and writing about relationships among women, it can be easy to come to the incomplete assumption that all women seek to be united together on common ground; and while that is true in one sense, there are multiple dimensions to women’s connections. Women in the nineteenth century were most often drawn together in their struggle for a place to call their own where their voices could be heard, but their methods of creating spaces were as diverse as their personalities.

One critic, Helena Michie, coined her own term for describing one aspect of communication among women. In her book, Sororophobia Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture, she makes continual use of the title word “sororophobia,” which “attempts to describe the negotiation of sameness and difference, identity and separation, between women of the same generation, and is meant to encompass both the desire for and the recoil from identification with other women” (Michie). It is this simultaneous longing and withdrawal from sameness that gives rise to many elements of women’s communication. In the three works discussed here, it becomes clear that women are different even within the same families, and it is often these dialogues among sisters and friends that drive the plots nearly as much as the impending marriages and disruptions by men.

Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in The Female Imagination that “Pride and Prejudice centers on marriage. In the society it depicts, marriage measures a woman’s success; mothers value themselves for marrying off their daughters; girls value themselves and are valued for their ability to attract and hold eligible men” (Spacks). In “Goblin Market,” there is a definite underlying theme of the girls preparing themselves for marriage. With so much emphasis placed on becoming “marriageable,” it is no wonder that it factors into the women’s communities. However, as we will see, marriage was not the sole focus of women’s lives. Even in the phase of “waiting” for men to arrive, the women—and especially sisters—in these works of literature create alternate, often utopian spaces for themselves. Each work discussed here displays varying differences in women’s communication, their level of closeness before and after marriage, the places they could call their own, and the ways in which they viewed impending marriages and probable separation from each other.

It has been argued that the communities of women in both novels are brought more closely together through difficulties that arise from the “lack” of men in their lives. Nina Auerbach writes in Communities of Women that “throughout Austen’s completed novels, women lead a purgatorial existence together … their lives are presented through an avoidance of detailed presentation as unshaped, unreal, a limbo” until men enter the scene (Auerbach). This statement simplifies the complexities that women’s communities can achieve. While it is true to some extent that the women in these stories exist in a culture of waiting and training until marriage becomes a possibility—until marriage ends the communities they have built together, their communities are not “purgatorial” as Auerbach claims. Rather, these communities are fragile and always at risk of disruption or dissolution caused by marriage. The clearest example of this can be found in the Bennet sisters, who exist in a close family unit until the marriageable men arrive in town.

Pride and Prejudice specifically has been labeled a marriage novel. At first glance, the entire plot is moved forward by impending marriages. The first sentence itself seems to focus readers on the fact that all rich single men are searching for wives, but there is much more going on under the surface. Austen’s language here can also be read with sarcasm; rich men do not actually need wives because they are rich men, but their culture demands marriage. However, even though the plot does lead to marriages, the bulk of the novel is centered on women’s communities. Readers see the social aspects of balls and dinners and whispered conversations among women, but we also see Elizabeth Bennett strategically avoiding a marriage with Mr. Collins. For her, marriage is more than simply security, and she refuses to settle for a life with a man who would make her miserable.

Cassandra Austen and Jane Austen in Becoming Jane
Cassandra Austen and Jane Austen in Becoming Jane

Austen, Alcott, and Rossetti each had significant relationships with their sisters in one way or another. Most famously, Alcott’s novel is based on her childhood with her sisters, and Austen’s close relationship with her sister Cassandra has also been widely speculated upon and discussed. Rossetti’s tumultuous relationship with her sister is not as well known but influential all the same. For better or for worse, these sisterly relationships had a lasting impact on what and how these three authors wrote. Another significant similarity shared among the three authors is that they all chose to remain single. In a time when nearly all women married out of necessity, the fact that these three were unmarried is meaningful. It has become increasingly common to avoid authorial biography when writing about literature, but the strong parallels in this case create a space for inclusion and justification of biographical details. While biographical analysis will not feature heavily in this paper, each author had strong bonds with at least one sister and remained unmarried—common life experiences that are too important to omit.

All three authors knew one thing in particular that appears often in their writing: women create communities when they are together. They can transform unlikely spaces into female communities to strengthen and support each other. In these works of literature, the heroines struggle with the disruption and subsequent loss of these support systems most often through men and marriage. The characters we will discuss and befriend in these pages do not hate men, but they love their sisters more. The communities they create are not in opposition to male communities, but they are essential for women to function and thrive. for It is their resilient spirits that draw readers back to Elizabeth Bennet and Jo March centuries later. Lizzie’s devotion to Laura in her defeat of the goblin men is magnetic—it pulls us into the poem and challenges us to see beyond the words on the page. Nineteenth-century women’s communities are ephemeral, but even their weaknesses produce strength among women, binding them tightly together until the disruption of marriage and oftentimes continuing after marriage. These communities are spaces where women define and claim identities, challenge, and support each other. When women are forbidden to enter the public sphere, they create better spaces for themselves which are not defined by men—spaces that allow perseverance and rebuild community. For a first look at this type of strength found in women’s communities, we turn to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

(Part Two, Pride and Prejudice: The Men Enter The Scene, will be published next week)

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About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she’s not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at https://meagangunn.wordpress.com.