Christina Rossetti and the aesthetics of the feminine
The act of contextual recovery that motivates New Historicist readings of Christina Rossetti's poetry has its own validity, but the consequence of recovery is often to posit a fully intentional, strong, and subversive subject position. An alternative critique is offered which interprets subjectivities as endlessly oscillating between positions of presence and absence, subject and object, silence and speech, here and elsewhere, and between the text and (impossibly) outside the text. This dynamic allows for a subtle matrix of collusion with, resistance to, and evasion of the representational system. I read this matrix as the product of Rossetti's biographical and poetical subject positions conventionally encoded as the superlatively and excessively feminine, and thus as both the basis of nineteenth-century gender ideology and its blind spot. The various discursive pressures on Rossetti's poetry - specifically Pre-Raphaelitism, Tractarianism, and Aestheticism - produce an unstable poetic that both avows and rejects the aesthetic of the feminine. The Introduction traces the implications of the aesthetic of the feminine for feminist readings of nineteenth-century gender ideology. The first three chapters then explore specific interactions between Rossetti and the aesthetic: Chapter 1 analyses biographical constructions of Christina Rossetti as a trope for the feminine and for representation itself; Chapter 2 explores D.G. Rossetti's manuscript revisions of her poetry and her collisions; and Chapter 3 critiques his two earliest paintings for which she sat as a model for the Virgin Mary and also critiques her own poetic responses which expose the repressed alterity beneath her brother's gender ideology. The following chapters move on to suggest how other discourses bear the aesthetic of the feminine: in Chapter 4, Italy and the maternal; in Chapters 5 and 6, the Tractarian doctrines of analogy and reserve.