Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'What Happens, or Rather Doesn't Happen': Death and Possibility in Alice James and Christina Rossetti

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'What Happens, or Rather Doesn't Happen': Death and Possibility in Alice James and Christina Rossetti

Article excerpt

Abstract

The idea of the dying Victorian woman as passive victim or object of desire has justly received critical attention, but this has meant a comparative neglect of the dying Victorian woman as an active, speaking, writing subject. In response, this article focuses on the death writing of Alice James and Christina Rossetti, reading the central role of death in their work as a way of articulating a space of possibility beyond what life has to offer. In Rossetti's death poetry and James's Diary, death is what gives form to the text, and represents the possibility for the text and its speaker to be read and understood. The article reads James and Rossetti's death writing as neither definitively conforming to or subverting social norms about the links between death and femininity. It suggests, however, that reading these death explorations in terms of ventures into a promising unknown creates a more complex conception of the role of women as active participants in as well as victims of Victorian death culture, and of the strategies available to women writers facing the problem of an existence that could itself seem deathlike.

Keywords." Christina Rossetti, Alice James, death writing, nineteenth century, Victorian death culture, femininity

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"Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Romans 7:24, King James Version

Introduction: Deathly femininity and death exploration

Victorian culture is full of images of women made more beautiful and more perfectly feminine by death. The serene face of the 'inconnue de la Seine', purported to be the death mask of a drowned young woman, hung in thousands of homes; according to A. Alvarez it was considered an aspirational ideal of beauty. (1) In Woman in American Society, Abba Goold Woolson described the feminine ideal of her time as something between an invalid, a corpse and a ghost, 'with her sunken cheeks, lost colour and wasted smiles ... like some heart-sick wraith'. (2) Earlier in the century Elizabeth Siddal's image became famous as Millais's near-drowned Ophelia (1852), while Thomas Hood's hugely popular poem 'The Bridge of Sighs" admired he effect of death on a young woman, suggesting that dying has erased her sins and made her lovable and pitiable: 'Death has left on her / Only the beautiful'. (3) In the same era, Alice James and Christina Rossetti wrote works that fit into this tradition of the conjunction of death and femininity, but that also reveal something very different. Rather than showing the dying woman as the aestheticised, objectified other, their writing imagines and approaches death from the position of the subject.

Influential writers like Elisabeth Bronfen and Bram Dijkstra have justly paid critical attention to the dying Victorian woman as passive victim or object of desire, but this has meant a comparative neglect of the dying Victorian woman as an active, speaking, writing subject. In response, this article reads the central role of death in the work of Alice James and Christina Rossetti as a way of articulating a space of possibility beyond what life has to offer. In their work, death is what gives form to the text, but it also represents the possibility for the text and its speaker to be read and understood.

Rather than assume, as Dijkstra does in his comment on James's diary in Idols of Perversity, that 'she could not overcome her environment ... the realm of what she called "my suffocation" came to seem to her "the natural one'", I will discuss what the imaginative exploration of death offered James and Rossetti, both as writers and as women preparing to die. (4) A decision to imagine death in terms of possibility can, of course, be seen as in some ways not a choice at all, but an attempt to come to terms with a lack of possibility within life itself. James's and Rossetti's explorations of death shift between ecstasy and despair, and to read them definitively as conforming to or subverting social norms about the links between death and femininity would be reductive: both modes are present in the texts. …

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