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Victorian Femininity in "Maude Clare"

Andrew Stewart and Alexandra Russel

John Millais' illustration for "Maude Clare" @
The 19th century in Britain saw the rise of a curious problem. Women were expected to marry, have children, and look after the home, while at the same time being docile and gentle without being too weak and needy.@ This became a problem because by the 1850s it was recognized that due to a variety of circumstances mainly connected with imperial rule, that there was a surplus of women in Britain. This surplus meant that because middle and upper class women were discouraged from working to support themselves that they were thus rendered unemployable and unmarriageable and in essence, redundant.@  This issue is particularly present in period fiction, including the poem “Maude Clare” by Christina Rossetti. “Maude Clare” deals with a woman who has been spurned by her lover in favour of another woman, Nell. Maude subsequently turns up at the wedding to confront the couple and to essentially wash her hands of her former lover. By examining this poem’s engagement in the contemporary discourses in the cultural practices of femininity and gendered expectations of women as well as the issue of so called “redundant women,” this essay will argue that the poem both reinforces and challenges the dominant perception and interpretation of what it meant to be a woman. This will be done by investigating the relationship between the text and the visual image and the meanings thus derived and also by examining the layout of the poem and the text itself and how they too reflect on these attitudes.
The illustration that accompanied the poem in its original 1859 publication in Once a Week magazine, in conjunction with the text, challenges the definitions of femininity and also calls attention to the problem of surplus women. John Millais had invited Christina Rossetti to submit a poem to the magazine he worked for, Once a Week, and offered to illustrate it for her.@ His illustration portrays Maude as the centre of attention with the gazes of all those in the vicinity trained on her, some with faint smiles, and others with more ambiguous expressions. By making Maude the focus of attention and neglecting to include Nell and the bridegroom, Millais was in effect giving Maude dominance over Nell, implying that Maude was the character with whom the reader was meant to identify. This dominance is made even more apparent by the richness of Maude’s attire and her erect and confident demeanour. These interpretations are mirrored in the text of the poem when Rossetti says that Maude resembled a queen, while Nell looked more like a village maid. The poem also states that all eyes including those of the bride and bridegroom were on Maude Clare.@  Maude Clare by occupying the centre of attention and eclipsing the bride both visually as well as in the text appears to be a challenge to the notion of Victorian femininity.
The link between the visual and textual material also challenge Victorian femininity in context of the woman question. Maude has attempted to follow the path expected of her, to attain a husband, but her place has been usurped by another. The defiance portrayed in both her words to the couple as well as in her visual portrayal can be read as a defiance of the perceived docility of women. Furthermore by privileging Maude, the poem is also calling attention to the plight of single women. This plight is captured in a letter sent to the Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal in 1850 by a woman named Shirley. Shirley describes how the marriage market is overstocked by women attempting to attract a man in any way they can, which leads to fierce competition as well as enabling men to treat women quite poorly.@ Rossetti’s poem combined with Millais’ illustration appears to similarly call attention to the problems inherent in the expectations of women. That being said there is evidence that this interpretation was not necessarily the one intended by Christina Rossetti. By submitting her poem for illustration Rossetti was aware that she was relinquishing some degree of control over the interpretations readers would make.@ Linda Hughes points out that when Rossetti eliminated the stanza about the crowd ignoring Nell when she edited the poem for later publication and that this likely represented a reaction to the effects of Millais’ illustration on the reader’s interpretation of her poem.@  Thus by removing this stanza Rossetti essentially raises Nell’s positioning in the poem. However this does not change the fact however that Maude is the one featured in the illustration. Nonetheless the implication is that Rossetti while drawing attention to the fate of the single woman, expressed through Maude, did not necessarily wish her to appear as superior to Nell as she did in the 1859 version. Thus “Maude Clare” can be read as a challenge both textually and visually to these expectations as well as to dominant definitions of femininity, however revision by Rossetti somewhat lessened the degree of this challenge in later versions implying that it might not have been her original intention.
Similar to the illustration in Christina Rossetti’s “Maude Clare”, the layout of the text in its 1859 publication in Once a Week magazine challenges the contemporary interpretation of women’s role in Victorian society. As mentioned previously, the Victorian gendered dichotomy was based on women performing and being constrained within the private sphere. Rossetti’s “Maude Clare” touches very realistically on the plight of women, however, paralleling the contrast in society, it’s layout of images and text contrasts the first page to the second. The first page begins the poem by putting two of the author’s quatrains below the story “An American Apple Frolic”. The image accompanying that essay is of a little boy cherub peeling apples with two little girls stringing them before an upended apple basket, which according to Linda Hughes suggests a fairy-tale context for the beginning of Rossetti’s poem.@ At the commencement of “Maude Clare” Rossetti describes the fields as white with lily buds, pigeons being “mated” and plumping their metallic necks, from this description we get a sense of a surreal setting and a surreal story. Rossetti then goes on to introduce Maude Clare and Nell describing them respectively as like a queen and a village maid.@ Without reading any further on, the reader gets a sense that Maude Clare must be superior to the bride - Nell. As when she walks towards the church, she is surrounded by nature’s beauty and is herself royal in deportment. Furthermore, Rossetti describes her step into the church - her first interaction with the bride and groom - as “lofty”, which points to her dignity and upright character.@ With that image of superiority in mind, the layout then takes on another strong symbolic meaning and intentionally makes Millais’ illustration double what the poem is depicting. The drawing is large, taking up most of the page and just as the onlookers gaze at the richly dressed and beauteous Maude Clare, so would the audience gaze at the poem as they turned the page of Once a Week.@ Attention is drawn to the illustration first and the poem second, so does Maude Clare draw the attention first in the pictorial depiction of the scene as well as in the text, with Nell absent from the illustration and brought down to the level of village maid. While the illustration reinforces Maude Clare’s status as superior to Nell and is challenging feminine ideals of docility and submission, the text also appears to place Maude Clare in a dominant position over Nell. The implication of this is that the poem is privileging the woman who does not conform to Victorian feminine ideals.
That being said the text of the poem itself while seeming to position Maude as the heroine, has implicit meanings which undermine Maude’s superiority and reinforce the social reality of women’s place in society. Maude Clare after all is still a Victorian woman and one that ultimately has failed at her supposed lifelong goal - to get married and start a family.@ Though she is a figure of pride, there is a sense of her suffering still present in the poem. Rossetti describes the festivities, but points out that Maude did not eat or drink, “nor clapp’d her hands, nor bless’d.”@   By not participating in the festivities Maude is both demonstrating her displeasure with the union but also showing her isolation from the community. Even in the illustration she is alienated from those around her while still being looked on with awe. Maude is the image of a woman who differs from societal norms and ideals but who struggles in that solitary position and who without a mate could potentially have great difficulty in supporting herself due to the limited number of occupations open to women.
Despite the actions described and Maude Clare’s own struggle, she clearly represents a powerful female figure when she triumphs over the bridegroom linguistically.@ In the five quatrains in the middle of the poem, Maude takes the time to beautifully and derisively say farewell to her lover. She reminds him of the times they had and by speaking candidly of their love, she reinforces that she is strong and wishes him and Nell her best. However, when the attention is turned to the bridegroom to answer Maude, “to match her scorn with scorn” he is completely at a loss for words and instead hides his face in what is symbolic of defeat while repeating her name.@ While she has lost the marriage game Maude has a power over not only Nell but over her former lover, demonstrating a strong femininity that suggests that it is possible for women to voice her indignations, a rather striking statement for 1859.
Maude Clare then speaks to Nell and communicates that in a way she “allows” Nell to take what used to be her own, washing her hands of her love for the bridegroom. While Nell complements her, and called her the fairest, she too points out that Maude Clare is left husbandless and alone as she takes what Maude Clare is giving up and seeks to transform the weakness of the groom’s love for her.@ This woman to woman interaction mirrors the societal struggle for women to solidify and reaffirm their own roles. Maude and Nell represent different kinds of women, but they represent the social reality, that getting married is still the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, reaffirming the dominant gendered ideology.
In conclusion Christina Rossetti’s “Maude Clare” engages in a discourse on hegemonic definitions of Victorian femininity. This issue is dealt with on multiple layers which in turn either reinforce or challenge these gendered ideals in their reflections on the position of women. The illustration in combination with the text as well as the layout challenge these ideals, however the explicit and implicit meanings of the text itself lessen this challenge and create a more ambiguous position. Perhaps this ambiguity is more reflective on the actual position of women at the time however as the demographics in the population made it impossible for all women to accomplish the goals set for them by society, placing them in an ambiguous position indeed.