‘Rossetti’s poems show a profound resistance to patriarchal values and sexual double standards, however, her poems are ultimately full of unanswered questions and ambiguities in terms of how to construct more equal gender roles.’ How far do you agree with this view of Rossetti’s poetry?
Christina Rossetti struggled with living in a patriarchal society and she expresses this through a range of techniques and ideas which shape her poetry. The misogyny and sexual double standards Rossetti encountered, clearly influenced her writing however her views on women’s rights often comes across as conflicted in her poetry. Rossetti studies the significance of Women in Victorian society and is troubled by their place in the world, yet her belief that women should not have the right to vote for instance contradicts the message she often tries to convey in her poetry. Rossetti was a devout Anglo-Catholic and we can see the difficulty this caused in her life. For example, in 1848 she became engaged to James Collinson but broke it off when James converted to Roman Catholicism, she later fell in love with Charles Cayley but refused his hand in marriage, again due to religious differences. Her Religious views and upbringing appear to fight against her own misgivings about the patriarchal values and sexual double standards that define female identity in the Victorian era.
One way in which Rossetti shows a resistance to the sexual double standards of the time is through the anger and bitterness the narrator in ‘Cousin Kate’ shows towards the lord who put her in the position she’s in. She is described to us as ‘a cottage maiden’ from the beginning, presenting her as powerless and vulnerable, this is accentuated by her low social position which reveals her vulnerability further. The antagonist on the other hand is described as a ‘great lord’, the word ‘great’ is repeated which creates a tone of bitter sarcasm which is kept throughout the poem. The narrator at first appears to adhere to a ‘set of culturally defined characteristics’ we would associate with femininity, one of vulnerability and dependence. The verbs Rossetti uses really illustrates the manipulative position the lord has over this ‘cottage maiden’, he is described as having ‘lured [her] to his palace home’ and ‘[wearing] her like a silken knot’. The predatory language such as ‘lured’ presents the narrator as prey to be hunted, conforming to this idea of a weak and powerless woman. After the lord leaves the narrator for her cousin Kate, ‘The neighbours’ shun her and call her ‘an outcast thing’ while the lord is now happily married with no punishment or blame. Here we see the sexual double standards where despite sex outside marriage being classed as a complete sin in the Victorian age, it is only the female narrator who is punished. Rossetti asks why the blame always lies on women and interestingly, points criticism towards the convention of sex outside marriage being sinful as she makes no effort to suggest that this was wrong. Rossetti starts to effectively question gender roles towards the end of the poem, at the start the narrator clearly followed a set of stereo typical feminine characteristics but we see this change drastically in the last two stanzas. The narrator tells Kate that if she was in her position she would’ve ‘spit into his face’ and not stand with him. This imagery is quite shocking for the time, and it shows a complete breaking of gender roles, she is shown to be neither ‘timid’ nor powerless but instead angry and strong. The last stanza also appears to protest this idea that a woman must be ‘self-pitying’, despite the trauma and difficulty she’s been through she chooses to show pride in her ‘fair-haired son’. The oxymoron in ‘my shame, my pride’ causes the word ‘shame’ to sound sarcastic, as if she’s ridiculing her ‘neighbour’s’ views. This poem is particularly interesting because Rossetti shows us very distinct, typically feminine characteristics but then appears to break them down to construct more equal gender roles. Alongside this Rossetti also exposes the sexual double standards in Victorian society.