- The Demon and the Damozel: Dynamics of Desire in the Works of Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Compelled by the lurid mix of fact and rumour surrounding the lives of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, critics of their work have long dabbled in a kind of forensic psychology, extrapolating backward from key motifs in the Rossettis' oeuvre to speculate about the trauma at their roots. This approach may fuel interest in the figures of the Rossettis themselves but can also lead attention away from their works. Suzanne Waldman's The Demon and the Damozel represents a refreshing departure from this tendency: her psychoanalytic reading of the works of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti carefully embeds both the texts and theories in the socio-historical framework of the Victorian period. This gesture highlights meaningful parallels between the Lacanian concept of the subject as fundamentally divided by the demands of the imaginary and symbolic orders and the Rossettis' own representations of human subjectivity as conflicted—both of which, as she demonstrates, emerge from a common set of formative contexts (3).
The great strength of Waldman's approach is precisely this contextualization: rather than breaking radically with past criticism, her study adds nuance and depth to existing critical perspectives on the Rossettis. In chapter 1 ("The Transcendental Tendency in Christina Rossetti's Poetry of Love and Devotion"), she shows how the Freudian and Lacanian concepts of sublimation line up with the Christian imperatives against the flesh that mark Christina Rossetti's devotional works (The Face of the Deep, "A Better Resurrection") as well as her love poetry (Monna Innominata), thereby harmonizing the erotic and religious aspects of her poetry so often treated as mutually exclusive. This outlook also makes possible an elucidation of Rossetti's puzzling ambivalence to traditional femininity, on the one hand, and her participation in the patriarchal discourses of religion, on the other. Waldman shows how her quest for sublimation in the context of an apocalyptic Christianity allowed Rossetti to view gender as located in the body and therefore of little consequence to true spiritual selfhood.
Although Lacan's theory posits the demonic and fantastic as the encoding and re-enacting of early traumas, in chapter 2, "The Superegoic Demon in Christina Rossetti's Gothic and Fantasy Writings," Waldman resists biographical readings of the demons, goblins, and repressive authority figures that haunt some of Christina's works (Goblin Market, Speaking Likenesses), affirming that these might be traceable to any number of incidents in the poet's life. Rather, she shows how Christina's representations of these figures are shaped by contemporary religious and literary discourses. Waldman traces the evolution of demonic imagery through Rossetti's work, demonstrating how her budding self-confidence as an author coincides with her characters' increasing power over their demons. Especially insightful here is Waldman's reading of the short [End Page 241] story Maude as a Gothic tale and its mysteriously unwell heroine as a victim of the internal demons of the superego.
Chapter 3 ("Imaginary Oscillation in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Illustrations of Dante") examines Dante Gabriel Rossetti's illustrations of the writings of his Florentine namesake. These paintings are works of interpretation that, considered from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, as Waldman convincingly does, deconstruct courtly love and the sublimation it entails to lay bare the erotic, imaginary urges subtending the symbolic order of its rituals. The fourth chapter, "The Symbolic Perfection of the Imaginary in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life," reflects on Rossetti's treatment of these themes in his own poetry, looking specifically at his long and varied sonnet cycle, The House of Life. Rather than approaching these poems in their numbered sequence, Waldman places them in chronological order to reveal what she characterizes as a modern, secular narrative of transcendence through romantic love that mirrors the evolution of Rossetti's own attitude to love and attachments.
The fifth and final chapter ("Hysterical Desire in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Narrative Poems and...