Rossetti presents a female form vampirised by her brother’s male gaze. The model – and it is worth remembering that Christina herself was the model for Dante Gabriel’s first completed oil, 1849’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin – is reconstructed as a series of ciphers and female icons (‘queen’, ‘saint’, ‘angel’) or merely as ‘nameless girl’. The Pre-Raphaelite obsession with constructing genericised feminine beauty denudes the female body of its particularity. At the beginning of the sonnet’s sestet, the artist appears as a kind of vampire-king who ‘feeds upon her face by day and night’. The model is drained of life so that the artist can gratify his fantasies. In an Artist’s Studio suggests that the ‘saint’ in the picture is as fixed by the male gaze as the Blessed Virgin ever was. The artist makes a dream woman for himself. She exists to look only on the artist who made her, not at herself or at the world. She embodies – as queen, as saint, as angel – ‘the same one meaning, neither more nor less’. This might strike some readers as just too much Theory, but any serious contemporary treatment of Rossetti’s poetry cannot simply plot a line around it and expect to be credible. When a relatively conservative critic Valentine Cunningham says the following, it’s only fair to acknowledge the force of theorised readings of Rossetti’s work:
What’s striking in recent times is how post-Theory reading has opened up Victorian poetry so convincingly, and (in the best sense) as never before. […] [T]heorized re-readings of the canon have brought in from the cold many otherwise neglected men and women […] Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, now in the Top Team, jostling hard against the Top Three of Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Hopkins.1
1 Valentine Cunningham, Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems, Poetics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. ix.
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