- Christina Rossetti’s “A Safe Investment”: Commodity Fetishism and the Problem of Materialism
While christina rossetti’s poetry occupies a secure position in the canon of nineteenth-century writing, her prose has received less scholarly attention. Rossetti expressed anxiety about her short story writing and received harsh criticism of her prose works from some contemporary critics (Harrison 355). The Spectator’s review of “A Safe Investment,” which was originally published in Churchman’s Shilling Magazine (1867) and subsequently included in Rossetti’s volume of sacred and secular tales, Commonplace and Other Stories (1870), was particularly harsh. Regarding the story’s plot, the reviewer averred that “[s]uch an accumulation of disasters were never described before as happening in a few consecutive hours” (Untitled). These disasters include an explosion at a gasworks, a series of shipwrecks, and a run on the local bank. Rossetti articulated her concern regarding the critical reception of Commonplace and Other Stories to her publisher: “Dear Mr. Ellis, I still hope that favourable reviews may rescue ‘Commonplace’ from oblivion but am sorry to say that I know not of any such definite prospect beyond a rumour that ‘Pall Mall’ means to treat me well” (Harrison 355).
This forum essay explores “A Safe Investment” and its links to Rossetti’s recurrent interest in nineteenth-century material exchange, as well as the story’s connections with nineteenth-century desire, faith, and theology. “A Safe Investment” provides an example of Rossetti revisiting the theme of [End Page 182] trade and exchange in the years following the publication of Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). The story attempts to use the language of the market against itself to ask moral questions about the nature of true “wealth” in a period of burgeoning capitalism. It is narrated in the third person using antiquated, pseudo-Biblical language, such as “aye” and “yea,” and is set in an unnamed mid-nineteenth-century town that is inhabited by working people who ply their trade through the local docks. No individuals are named in the text, and this anonymity adds to the story’s depiction of reification, wherein workers are objectified and treated as fodder for economic exploitation. The tale describes the visit of a stranger, a man on horseback who encounters the townsfolk in the aftermath of an accident at a gasworks: “He rode a white horse: about both the beast and his rider there was something foreign, or if not foreign, at any rate unusual” (242). The scene he encounters is a dystopian nightmare. The narrator explains that “[t]hen the cry went up, then there came the crash and crush of a tremendous explosion” (243). The owners of the gasworks are notably absent.
The narrative then moves to the setting of the docks, a shift that allows the developing tension between material vocabulary and Biblical language to be foregrounded. The ships are “laden with passengers, with gold, silks, provisions, merchandise of all sorts . . . rarities from the ends of the earth, corn and wine, and oil” (244). The text indicates a moral judgment here by describing how the ship hands have little concern for the afterlife or spiritual investment; they are described as “too happy if with bare life they escaped to land beggared but alive” (244). However, an ambiguity is also created here by Rossetti’s joy in material objects and the language that describes them, which leaks beyond the moral tone. The ships laden “with gold, silks, provisions, merchandise of all sorts” (244) still exert a sensual allure. The moral perspective highlights the folly of holding on to the material at the expense of the spiritual; however, its tone seems excessive when levelled at working people in danger. If the cultural commodification of virginity is highlighted by many nineteenth-century texts that focus on fallen, or potentially fallen, women—most obviously “Goblin Market”—“A Safe Investment” considers the commodification of souls and the social body.
Some scholars have highlighted links between Rossetti’s work and Karl Marx’s theories of political economy.1 In Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx notes the following concerning the fascination of commodity fetishism: “A commodity appears at first sight an...