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Sapphic fruit: clutching to queer interpretation in Goblin Market

A bite into the hidden subtext of a Victorian poem

Art by Claire Ollivain

If I feel a whisper of queer subtext in the silky depths of ambiguity, I grasp that gossamer wing and hold it close. It goes into my proverbial cabinet of curiosities, where I keep all the scraps, relics and potentialities of queerness in soft, velvet-lined drawers. 

In the cabinet there is a drawer which holds a downy yellow peach; a goblin globe fresh and dew-speckled. Along the stem, a spider has spun her web. I open this drawer often and admire the scene. It is a reminder to myself when I feel that I’ve succumbed to critical theory; to the belief that some arguments just are more plausible than others. 

Christina Rosetti’s 1862 poem Goblin Market is an erratic, glimmering fretwork of fairy tale, gothic and allegorical elements. Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, are hounded by the temptation of luscious fruits pandered by wily, zoomorphic goblins. The cascading stanzas mimic their seductive cries:

Swart-headed mulberries,

Wild free-born cranberries,

Crab-apples, dewberries,

Pine-apples, blackberries…

Laura, inevitably, falls prey, and sucks “until her lips are sore.” No more does she hear the goblins call, yet all she desires in the world is to taste once more; “peaches with a velvet nap, / pellucid grapes without one seed.” She begins to wither away, but is saved by Laura, who is able to obtain some of the precious goblin fruit without tasting it herself. Lizzie sucks for a second time, and the spell is broken. The poem concludes on a jarringly moral note. Both sisters have married, had children, and put their wild youth safely in the realm of didactic allegory. 

Scholars have had their erudite knickers in a twist for a long time. What is the metaphorical relationship between these sensuous, perilous temptations and Rosetti’s Victorian London context? There are papers arguing allusions to drug addiction, the biblical fallen woman, even the transgressive desire to be a female artist. Their names attempt to be as wily as the poem itself, papers like A Punishment Required: Pleasure of Pain in…‘Goblin Market’ by Aijun Seneha, or my personal favourite; Absinthe Makes the Tart Grow Fonder: A Note on ‘Wormwood…’ in ‘Goblin Market’ by Shelley O’Reilly. Rosetti actually wrote the poem in 1859 whilst volunteering in Highgate at a home for ‘fallen women.’ The rather uncommon conviction of those who ran St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary was that these women – primarily sex workers – could be ‘rehabilitated’ and ‘reformed.’ Assuming this was front of mind for Rosetti, it follows that the sinful path of tasting goblin fruit is akin to sex work, with a sweet moral about sisterhood driving the pro-convent message home. A good scholar would argue their case, with evidence from the poem and context, and boldly claim to have unwound the web and framed the prey. 

What I have neglected to emphasise is that the poem oozes with sexuality. It is also very, very gay. When Lizzie brings home the fruit for Laura she cries:

Come and kiss me. 

Never mind my bruises,

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

Squeezed from goblin fruits for you

Goblin pulp and goblin dew.

Eat me, drink me, love me…

And later:

Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,

She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.

Screw the evidence, I wanted to proclaim, this poem is unequivocally sapphic! Of course, this meant warping some of the finer points of the story. The sisterly incest? Of minor consequence. The entire ending of the poem? Don’t read that far! Yet, the good English student in me, perpetually in search of a thesis, dismissed my fervent love for the poem as merely personal fantasy. Besides, I couldn’t stop hearing that all-too familiar voice, telling me to “stop making everything gay.”

And then I stumbled across a Playboy magazine from 1973. It was the first copy on the stack in a dusty corner of an antique bookstore in rural NSW. On the cover, a naked woman was squatting, her red snakeskin platforms complete with gold Playboy logo buckles and the proclamation; “Entertainment for Men.” I’ll admit this was enticing, but what I discovered inside was more tempting still. The five-page spread on my favourite poem opened with an interpretation of a kind. The unnamed author claimed that Goblin Market was borne from poor dear Christina “suffering the collapse of a turbulent love affair.” Indeed, “how really sinister and scary it is, given just a Freudian glance, has never been openly discussed.” Thankfully Playboy would provide the long overdue recognition of the “lurid sexual fantasies that raged in Miss Rosetti’s unconscious.” I was simultaneously horrified and amused. I couldn’t help but admire the sticky, lacquered writing. “The all-time hardcore pornographic classic for tiny tots,” the author opined, “Adult readers of today…will doubtless be shocked…it is a lewd goblin that rises dripping out of the dark depths of the Victorian psyche.” The accompanying paintings by iconic Playboy artist Kinuko Y. Craft revel in this lush, camp excess. Salivating goblins, explicitly yonic and phallic fruit and a comparatively prudish depiction of Lizzie presumably tasting Laura’s fruit; all composed in gorgeously pulpy detail.

In a single article, Rosetti had been reduced to a lovelorn, decidedly un-self-aware children’s author and her sweet sisters’ fate into titillating smut. I wasn’t so keen on the misogyny of the former, nor the lesbian performance for the male gaze of the latter. It seemed to eschew all ambiguity for the satisfaction of the male reader, to whom my connection to the text would be seen only as yet more “Entertainment for Men.” 

Yet, in my hands, the poem feels like a kind of delicious subversion. I shamelessly take Goblin Market as a sign of my kind of love existing within the fleshy, enigmatic folds of the Victorian gothic. I have no desire for more evidence or argument. I admire the glistening web, wink at the tightly spun centre and close the drawer softly, until next time.

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