hristina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," in addition to the multitude of ideological messages embedded within it, serves as a critique of the fairy tale genre, which was used to inculcate children with conventional Victorian morality and often placed unrealistic and destructive expectations on them.
Rossetti, as numerous critics and biographers have noted, was deeply religious. Her mother, Frances, helped lay the foundation for her daughter's austere existence by advocating against any improper willful, vain, or impatient behavior (Marsh 12). Rossetti biographer Jan Marsh explains how "self-control was, quintessentially, a feminine lesson: far more than their brothers, girls were taught to suppress desire and ambition, told that wishing and wanting were greedy and selfish, and schooled to internalize the values of denial and docility" (13). It was a lesson hard learned by young Christina, who was prone to fits of temper that were on par with those of her notoriously stormy brother, Dante Gabriel. To help curb her obstinate spirit, Rossetti was introduced to songs and nursery rhymes, many of which contained strongly didactic messages, like those of Isaac Watts, Sara Coleridge, and Ann and Jane Taylor (11-12).
This same kind of moralistic content could be found in other forms of children's literature, particularly in fairy tales, with which Rossetti was also familiar. Her cousin, Anna Eliza Bray, published a collection of traditional fairy tales in 1854, entitled A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, which details seven stories of the pixies of Cornwall and Devonshire, retelling ancient tales for the amusement and education of children. As has been documented by Rossetti scholars, the original title for "Goblin Market" was to be A Peep at the Goblins, an obvious play off of Bray's book (Marsh 230). But, Marsh notes, it may have been wise for Rossetti to change the title of her poem, considering that one of Bray's tales sounds awfully familiar to "Goblin Market" (230).
In "The Lady of the Silver Bell" (130-48), Bray tells the story of Serena of Tintagel, who is distracted by a fairy musician while on her way to worship. Her fascination with the creature leads her to forget her religious duty and become consumed with hearing the otherworldly music again. She confesses in part to her minister, Father Hilary, who imposes a severe penitence for her disobedience but who cannot relieve her internal suffering. Eventually, Serena reveals all to her nurse, Judy, who recognizes her affliction as the curse of the pixie and advises her to consult with a wizard, Swillpot, to remove the curse. Swillpot instructs Serena to stand at the top of a waterfall and call on Merlin for assistance, but when she does, she loses her balance and falls into the water below, where she drowns. Thus, one fairy song destroys Serena, who "was seen no more. But long did her memory survive her unhappy fate; long was her story told as a sad example of so young and so lovely a creating being led into folly by her vain and idle curiosity" (Bray 148). Marsh observes, "There is no happy moral ending, but the germ of "Goblin Market" is surely here" (230).
The germ, perhaps, is here, but Rossetti's final product demonstrates several alterations of considerable importance from Bray's conventional didacticism. True, both Serena and Laura are bewitched by supernatural creatures whose songs and fruits, respectively, are so desirable that, once had, are craved with such intensity that the young women begin to physically waste away from all-consuming want. From this similar plot, however, Rossetti structures her tale to serve as instruction without using fear as its underlying motivating force. Serena, although she attempts it, is allowed no redemption—her punishment for transgression is death. Rossetti refuses to follow such rigid morality. She chooses to drive her story using the force of sisterly love and to allow Laura to survive her sinful mistake.
Also worthy of note is how Serena attempts to secure her redemption, first through Father Hilary and then through Swillpot. Of course, Bray's story also features Serena's trusted nurse, Judy, giving her the advice to consult Swillpot, advice that ultimately leads to her death. Rossetti, on the other hand, removes Bray's male characters in her reworking of the story. There is no clergyman and no wizard, which allows for the bond between Laura and Lizzie to be the focal point. Rossetti's women do not rely on any powerful (whether Christian or pagan) male figure—they work independently of any patriarchal authority to redeem themselves. And, rather than have her female confidant guide the fallen young woman to her doom, like Judy does for Serena, Rossetti places Lizzie in the role of Laura's savior. There is no hint of one woman undermining the other in "Goblin Market".
So while "The Lady of the Silver Bell" may have inspired Rossetti, she clearly wanted to tell her own story, a unique story that proffered a new form of didacticism not mired in fear, death, or patriarchalism.
Bray, Anna Eliza. A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West. London: Grant and Griffith, 1854.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life. New York: Viking, 1994.
Rossetti, Christina. The Complete Poems. Ed. Betty S. Flowers. New York: Penguin
Last modified 2 December 2007