The first manuscript of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem Jenny was buried with his wife, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal , in Highgate Cemetery, in London, and remained in her grave, reportedly in Siddal’s red hair, until it was exhumed six years later and redrafted several times, before it was finally published in 1869. The poem is a first person narration, or monologue, of a writer, who some critics have identified as Rossetti himself, describing the beautiful woman who is lying across his knees, while he gradually unfolds the reasons for the end of their relationship. It is and frank and sympathetic, albeit condescending and biased, account of Jenny, a prostitute in Victorian England.
Rossetti, the poet and the painter, was obsessed with the portrayal of stunning women. He searched for beautiful muses whom he painted, wrote about, married, and befriended, throughout his life. He was particularly infatuated by the biblical myth of Lilith, Adam’s first insubordinate wife. Shelley’s translation of Goethe’s Faust (lines 351-353) inspired both the portrait, Lady Lilith, and his long poem, Jenny.
FAUST: What is that yonder?
MEPHISTOPHELES: Mark her well. It is Lilith.
MEPHISTOPHELES: Lilith, the first wife of Adam.
Beware of her fair hair, for she excels
All women in the magic of her locks;
And when she winds them round a young man’s neck,
She will not ever set him free again.
Rossetti’s Jenny and Lady Lilith are both portrayed as blue eyed and golden haired beauties. Both wear languid and lazy expressions on their perfect faces, and both were wicked women; Lilith was Adam’s headstrong first wife who left him rather than lie beneath him, before being replaced by meek, albeit naïve, Eve; Jenny is a prostitute whose main objective is emptying men’s pockets, and having fun.
The artistic representation of women in Victorian times, depicted them either as the ‘angel of the house’ or the ‘prostitute’. Prostitution was not illegal in Victorian England, but it was a social problem, as most prostitutes were orphans or underprivileged women, who could not live on the meagre wages earned. Prostitution was also a health problem, due to the venereal diseases which abounded.
According to the controversial Contagious Diseases Acts passed in 1864, 1866 and 1869, all prostitutes within a radius of army and military bases were required to register with the police and to monthly submit to an internal examination to verify whether or not they were diseased. If they were, they would be incarcerated in lock hospitals for up to nine months. Although the act was finally revoked in 1882, it was heavily contested, and many Victorian writers, such as Charles Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell were socially aware and active on this account.
According to critics, Rossetti’s poem was of the “fleshly school of poetry,” and much stigma came to be attached to Rossetti’s name as a result. Rossetti’s account is innovative in the sense that he represents the ‘fallen woman’ as a real and contented person, who is treated with caring and respect by the writer while they are together, although he finally abandons her in favour if the respectability and stability his conventional cousin represents.
Jenny contains representations of both extremes. Jenny herself represents the fallen woman, and the narrator’s cousin Nell, represents the angel. Jenny dreams of the money earned by her profession:
Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace
Thus with your head upon my knee;—
Whose person or whose purse may be
The lodestar of your reverie?
On the other hand, his cousin represents honesty and love:
My cousin Nell is fond of fun,
And fond of dress, and change, and praise,
So mere a woman in her ways:
And if her sweet eyes rich in youth
Are like her lips that tell the truth,
My cousin Nell is fond of love.
And she’s the girl I’m proudest of.
The narrator finally decides he must leave Jenny in order to consolidate his relationship with his cousin:
By a far gleam which I may near,
A dark path I can strive to clear.
Only one kiss. Good-bye, my dear.
Although Jenny is the subject of the poem, Jenny herself is silent throughout. In fact she is asleep, and therefore a passive agent, within the narrative. We are informed of her supposed feelings and opinions by the writer, who is clearly trying to justify his callous use and abuse of the compliant girl. Lady Lilith is equally absent, daydreaming into her mirror, perhaps imagining a future in which women are allowed a voice and a more active participation in society.
A contemporary reinterpretation of both Jenny and Lilith should take into account the following considerations. Both women are silenced by patriarchal conventions, and absent from any kind of explicit power. Lilith is lost in thoughts, staring into her own reflection, while Jenny is asleep, lost in her subconscious world. Yet both women fend for themselves, refusing to be a conventional wife and mother. Lilith’s refusal to lie beneath Adam, has become a symbol of resistance to patriarchal authority, and female independence, while Jenny is a survivor and determined to look after herself, on her own, in a man’s world.
Jane Eyre contains no mention directly to prostitutes or prostitution, although there are some allegedly ‘wicked’ or ‘undesirable’ women mentioned during Rochester’s stay abroad in France and Italy, including a reference to Adele’s mother, Celine Varens. Mlle Varens is also voiceless in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. It is Rochester who describes her behaviour and justifies his womanising by telling Jane how he was ‘innocently’ led and fooled by her:
“I installed her in an hotel; gave her a complete establishment of servants, a carriage, cashmeres, diamonds, dentelles, etc. In short, I began the process of ruining myself in the received style, like any other spoony.”
Following the conventions of the time, after Rochester’s marriage proposal, Jane Eyre makes it clear to Rochester that she is prepared to be his wife, but not his prostitute:
“I only want an easy mind, sir; not crushed by crowded obligations. Do you remember what you said of Celine Varens?— of the diamonds, the cashmeres you gave her? I will not be your English Celine Varens. I shall continue to act as Adele’s governess; by that I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides. I’ll furnish my own wardrobe out of that money, and you shall give me nothing but—”
“Well, but what?”
“Your regard; and if I give you mine in return, that debt will be quit.”
Jane is proposing another alternative to the ‘angel’ or ‘fallen woman’ dichotomy. She is proposing the ‘working wife’ who is her husband’s equal regardless of her financial capacity. Jane wants to be Rochester’s wife and his equal, as she claims throughout the novel, not his submissive or inferior. The novel does indeed end on this note of equality. Jane inherits a plentiful sum from her uncle, which will allow her to have financial independence from in her husband, leading to equality in their marriage.
‘All Hallows at Eyre Hall’, on the other hand, does directly approach the topic of prostitution with reference to various characters in the novel, including Mr. Rochester. One of the narrators, Jenny Rosset, who is based on Rossetti’s Jenny/Lilith, is, in fact, a prostitute, who is directly related to two of the main characters in the novel; Michael and Mr. Mason. Jenny, is a character to look out for. She is far more important than she appears. Both Jenny and her offspring will have an even greater part in books 2 and 3 of the Eyre Hall Trilogy.
On the other hand, Celine Varens, Adele’s mother, who is living in Venice with her latest lover, is referred to in the first volume, and she will reappear in volume II, Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall, when Adele travels to Italy to meet her mother, whom she believed dead, one last time. Jenny Rosset and Celine Varens represent two different types of Victorian ‘fallen woman’, whose intentions, feelings, needs and desires will be reappraised throughout the trilogy from a contemporary perspective. Jane Eyre herself, as I would have expected, is actively involved in improving the lives of her contemporaries.
More information on the Dante Gabriel Rossetti Archive and Rossetti’s paintings worldwide