Women of the lower classes fascinated the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB often sought lower class uneducated girls to model for them, and many members of the Brotherhood engaged in love affairs and even eventually married these women. Indeed, Lizzie Sidal, one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's two great loves, was a milliner, an occupation often associated with prostitution in Victorian England. The PRB emphasized the figure of the contemplative, imprisoned woman in figures such as Millais's Ophelia and Rossetti's "Jenny". In Ophelia, the weight of her clothing, the weight of society as it were, literally pulls Ophelia to her watery death.
In the poem, "Jenny," the narrator accuses Jenny of being uneducated and fallen. However, as the night progresses and Jenny remains slumbering on his knee, his condemnation of Jenny becomes a critique of man in general.
Just as another woman sleeps!
Enough to throw one's thoughts in heaps
Of doubt and horror, — what to say
Or think, — this awful secret sway,
The potter's power over the clay!
Of the same lump (it has been said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels.
Women tread a thin line between grace, the narrator's sweet innocent cousin, and disgrace, Jenny half undressed and asleep on the narrator's lap. Woman becomes mere "clay," and as clay, they have no agency and are at the mercy of man. Thus the narrator continues,
Yet, Jenny, looking long at you,
The woman almost fades from view.
A cipher of man's changeless sum
Of lust, past, present, and to come,
Is left. A riddle that one shrinks
To challenge from the scornful sphinx.
Man creates the fallen woman. Man's lust led to Jenny's fall, and therefore the narrator to some extent excuses her. Women are merely the clay or canvas upon which man leaves his imprint. At dawn, the poem's speaker may condemn men for having corrupted women thus, but in the bright light of morning, he removes himself from the scene of their crime, leaving only golden coins in her golden hair.
"Jenny" exemplifies the PRB interest in pairing lower class women with cultured, regal and upper class ladies. For instance, Lizzie Sidal appears as the Lady Ophelia, the Lady Viola, and Beatrice. The artist's eyes and skill transform the lowly milliner into highborn women of grace and beauty.
Many of the beautifulwomen the PRB depicted look strong and sensual. Yet in the poem, Rossetti speaks of "The potter's power over the clay!" Did the members of the PRB really believe in the power of men to shape women? Is there evidence to the contrary?
Rossetti writes of "A riddle that one shrinks/ To challenge from the scornful sphinx." In engaging to educate and cultivate their models, women such as Lizzie Sidal, were the PRB interested in righting the wrongs of Victorian society, in addressing this "riddle"? Did the PRB actually believe that women such as Jenny were victims?
At the end of the poem, Jenny, a lower-class prostitute, remains alone in her room to face the grey day. Her situation reminds one of other PRB ladies trapped in their rooms; Hunt's The Lady of Shalott comes to mind. The Lady of Shalott is under a curse, and she can only ever see the world in a mirror until the day she sees Lancelot riding by and turns to the window, thereby triggering the curse. Both the Lady of Shalott and Jenny seem doomed to spend their days hemmed in by walls. Jenny is a prostitute and the Lady of Shalott is a Lady. To what extent do they share similar situations?
In "Jenny," Rossetti has an ostensible goal — to dramatize the young man's realization that men like him created Jenny's plight. Yet, by morning, despite the narrator's condemnation of his own sex, he still just leaves money and walks out the door with "Only one kiss. Goodbye, my dear." There seems then to be no great lasting revelation, the young man is not moved to save Jenny or even to attempt to alter her fate. Is this then, a decadent poem?
At some point in the night, the narrator realizes, "Yet, Jenny, looking long at you,/ The woman almost fades from view." The poem centers on the sleeping figure of Jenny. However, she lacks a voice, for throughout the long night, she sleeps unaware of the young man's, and our, scrutiny. Does Jenny truly fade from view? How does this apparent focus upon the form and thoughts of a silent woman appear in other PRB works?
Last modified 9 October 2006
Last modified 26 June 2007