Victorian Literature was nothing short of discussing many different forms of themes and genres throughout many means such as prose and poetry. Many of the authors of this era, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Christina Rossetti are two such writers who greatly influenced the era and that of the literature that followed. Their pieces of work, Lady Audley’s Secret and Goblin Market, respectively, deal with so many different themes and the two for the purpose of this paper are that of gender roles and sexuality. These topics have been in existence since the earliest works of literature and women were always deemed to be the fragile, weaker of the sexes. A woman’s portrayal of innocence, obedience and purity existed long before Braddon and Rossetti even existed and still exists in modern day literature. The notion of a woman’s virtue and purity exists in both of their works. It is for this reason that one cannot talk about gender roles in both of these texts without also referring to sexuality.
This is the most evident subject in Goblin Market. The whole poem is hugely sexualized in both the tale itself and especially through the words used in it. Although there are many differing opinions of Rossetti’s meaning and purpose to this poem, sexuality seems to be the most striking and obvious. The two sisters in the poem, particularly Laura struggles with temptation and ultimately fails to overcome this temptation. The poem itself literally depicts her losing her innocence by sucking on the goblin’s fruits, which one can only assume means losing her virtue. The following paragraphs portray her downfall after succumbing to this temptation and losing her virginity, essentially making her a fallen woman as this is only supposed to happen to a woman when she is married. The result of this the poem suggests is that she will wilt and die because just like their friend Jennie, “who should have been a bride”, she will now never be able to be a wife and fulfil her societal duties of a good, obedient, woman.
It is only when her sister Lizzie sacrifices her own virtue and innocence to try and save Laura and ends up being sexually assaulted for not giving up her own virtue and succumbing to temptation, that somehow restores Laura to be innocent and virtuous again. This can be slightly a harder concept in this poem to wrap ones head around as one must ask how one can get their virtue back. Nonetheless, whether it be the act of love itself in the sacrifice of her own innocence and body or some other magical, goblin related aspect that has been overlooked, Laura is restored to her former glory. This is evident by the final paragraphs which describes the two sisters in years forward retelling tales of their younger years to their own children and that they are now “wives” themselves.
This leads us to now think about the gender roles that are portrayed in the poem itself with a careful look at the two sisters and the different dynamics that unfold to that of a typical Victorian era woman. To begin with, albeit different times to our modern world, but there was, and one could argue that there still is, an unwritten rule for women to behave and to only give up their virginity when they marry. As previously discussed, losing this would deem the woman to have fallen and be unworthy of any respectable man to marry her which of course thought to be a woman’s sole purpose of existence! One aspect of the poem that felt very important was Rossetti’s portrayal of a woman being able to save someone and not needing a male hero to help her. One can imagine that this may have caused a stir in literary circles and indeed society itself that a woman should be able to be the hero of a story. It is also interesting to note that the only mention of any males in the story are indeed the goblins themselves, who are naturally portrayed as ugly creatures and perhaps a way of Rossetti to suggest that all men are in fact a vile and vulgar sex.
Gender roles are a crucial element of Lady Audley’s Secret as there are many portrayals of differing reversals of the “typical” gender roles. The most important character is obviously that of Lady Audley herself and her initial depiction as being fair haired and beautiful which we know to be a typical description of a “good” character. Any depictions of evil female characters of the era almost describe the characters as ugly and old. The conventional notion of gender roles and marriage have been put under scrutiny by Braddon in this novel as she tells the tale of a murderer, bigamist, arsonist, manipulator, child abandoner and a serial liar, but to name a few characteristics, and all of which exist in one beautiful, elegant and seemingly harmless looking woman, Lady Audley. These characteristics noted are not the typical characteristics one associates with a woman of this era and that is what is so striking about this character and her portrayal of a simple pretty woman whom all around her dote upon.
To all her loved ones, she appears to be a beautiful, kind and caring woman who had the great fortune of attracting the eye of a wealthy gentleman who accentuated her class status through their marriage, something we know was even better than she could have ever aspired to become. It is only in her realisation that her first husband, who deserted her in seek of fortune, returns that the whole world that she has created starts to crumble around her and we see the real woman within. In terms of female sexuality, Braddon explores this in relation to how Lady Audley manipulates the men, and indeed the women around her by using her looks and apparent graceful personality to her advantage whenever she feels the need to. One such instance was when she discovers that Robert Audley has begun to suspect that Lady Audley is not who she seems and she slyly convinces her own husband that his own nephew is crazy and subsequently gets him removed from their home.
Writers in the Victorian Era used many social influences to their advantage when creating their masterpieces. Such is the case with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market. The main social themes that reoccur in both the novel and poem respectfully is that of gender roles and sexuality, with the fact that both pieces are wrote by women being merely coincidental but also a huge reflection of the change in literature in this era. One could compare and contrast the themes in both of these pieces but both deal with the social themes and cultural norms of the era in their own unique and specific way which is why they have been the stand out features of this course. From focusing on Laura and Lizzie, without forgetting the title characters of the goblins, and then to turn attention to Lady Audley in particular, as well as of her fellow characters, we see the cultural depiction of women and men of the era and the aforementioned theme of sexuality and its existence through both pieces.