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Rebecca Stern: Adulterations Detected

Jessica Koch

Texas A&M University

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"Adulterations Detected": Food and Fraud in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. By: Rebecca F. Stern

    Like many a Victorian text, Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" (1862) offers salient critical commentary about the deceptions and seduc- tions of the capitalist marketplace. Critics have been largely silent, however, about the materiality of both the poem's luscious fruit and its clamorous market. Most early reviewers read Rossetti's fantastic tale as a Christian parable, interpreting the goblin merchants' wares as so many Edenic apples, and the poem itself as a tale of sin and redemption. For example, in 1862 a reviewer for the Athenæum writes: "Lizzie wins Laura to repentance, and to a relish for those homely joys which she had scorned for the baneful sweets of Elf-land." Those sweets remain amorphous and allegorical, however; indeed, in 1866 a reviewer in the same journal writes plainly that the poem "is an allegory, and . . . the argument is the power of temptation to beguile man from the worthy and earnest work of life." Although some religious readings of the poem do attend to its titular market, they retain a metaphorical approach; thus, mercantilism takes vague shape at best, symbolizing what Jerome J. McGann terms "the late Victorian world of getting and spending, which [Rossetti] judged so severely." In their religious readings of the poem, critics have had little to say about the nutritional potential of the goblins' remarkable fruit.
    Feminist critics have offered new insight into the parabolic significance of appetite in Rossetti's poem, many finding in Laura a specifically Victorian echo of the hungry Eve. These readers offer more complicated fables of falling, in which Laura's appetite stands in for various forms of sexual difference: between genders, between women, between fallenness and purity. As Terrence Holt notes, however: "The emphasis in . . . these readings has been on the goblins and the issues of gender and sexuality they seem to represent, while the 'market' of the title has received little attention." Only recently have critics read "Goblin Market" as a tale of the market, and to the best of my knowledge only three critics—Paula Marantz-Cohen, Deborah Thompson, and Richard Menke—have heeded the goblins' cries and interpreted their wares as actual groceries. If, as most scholars have argued, the poem is a parable, then I mean to emphasize it here as one that attends carefully to specific economic and cultural concerns. Reading the goblins' luscious fruit as food allows us to cash in on the promise of the poem's original title, to have "A Peep at the Goblins" and the Victorian spaces they haunt.
The luxurious inventory of the poem's opening passage overtly invites this critical strategy through its profound fusion of domestic and corporate concerns, its melding of dangers among goblin and fiscal markets. As the goblins' chants of "Come buy" literally call our attention to their wares, "Goblin Market" highlights the impact of the market on the lives of those denizens who live in its thick and on its margins. Marrying fetishized foodstuff with the more amorphous machinations of economic development, Rossetti's first lines clearly link her fairy tale with the concerns of the modern world. Foregrounding the Victorian market's propensity for offering sensuous, indeed charmed, commodities, the vocabulary that frames the poem's pastoral story is, as Elizabeth Helsinger notes, "remarkably mercantile" ("Consumer Power," p. 903). Holt observes that "economic language and metaphors, terms of finance and commerce ("buy," "offer," "merchant," "stock," "money," "golden," "precious," "sell," "fee," "hawking," "coin," "rich," etc.) permeate the poem" ("Exchange in Goblin Market," p. 51). Further, the lush adjectives that the goblins assign to their catalog of fruit ("plump unpecked," "bloom-down- cheeked," "fresh from the vine," and simply "rare"), alongside the abundance of their wares and the hypnotic rhythm of their song, give this harvest an irresistible, mouth-watering appeal.  
As the breadth and complexity of its scholarship suggests, "Goblin Market" is no simple pastoral story. We might
productively read Jeanie's and Laura's strange illness as a metaphor for sin, sexual fall, or even, initially, capitalism, but I
want to suggest a reading at least temporarily free from allegory. Specifically, the widespread problem of food adulteration
provides apt framework for this tale of a young woman sickened by the food she consumes. An 1855 pamphlet, How to Detect
Adulteration in Our Daily Food and Drink, explicitly states: "Traders have been proved to be the coadjutors of death, and it is not
to be doubted that the physical strength, the stature, perhaps the moral dignity of our people, have all deteriorated under the steady
action of impure food, impure water, and poisonous preparations."
    Food adulteration was a serious problem in 1859 when Rossetti composed "Goblin Market," and it was still very much a concern in 1862 when the poem first appeared in print, accompanied by her brother Dante Gabriel's cornucopian illustrations. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s the number of people who ate ostensibly nutritious food, only to wither and die in consequence, provoked both governmental and popular alarm. Food poisoning was no longer a rare occurrence, and the story of a young girl eating beautiful food only to sicken unto death was not so unusual as one might imagine.
    Rossetti's tale of sumptuous fruit, dubious merchants, and near-fatal illness, along with the literature of adulteration with which I contextualize it here, offer concrete and specific examples of a more widespread condition that equally infected food, economics, and social exchange. Through the story of Laura's illness and recovery, Rossetti makes overt the poem's subtext about the home and the market's operations within it—a point that she emphasizes by making these merchants brothers who sell their wares to cohabiting sisters. Although the sisters live in bucolic space that seems frankly removed from the market and its interests, the capacity of the merchant brothers to invade and infect that home life emphasizes the extent to which economic and domestic concerns imbue one another. Thus "Goblin Market" provokes debate about and keen insight into the economic milieu that supported and troubled both market and home. Adulteration is a literal issue touching actual material goods, but further, as the Victorian biologist Arthur Hill Hassall noted, it is "a great national question, closely affecting the pocket of the consumer, the revenue, and the health and morals of the people." More than just an epidemiological problem, food adulteration presents a microcosmic window into the wider effects of fraud in Victorian popular ideology.
"Goblin Market" thus belongs both to a select group of Victorian literary works concerning literal poisoning and to a much larger canon of works that lament market corruption and encourage, as Hassall notes of food adulteration, "the greatest mistrust on the part of the buyer" (Food and Its Adulterations, p. xxxv). Works satirizing, warning against, or detailing the mechanics of fraud proliferated alongside its occurrence throughout the Victorian period, and the many documents on food adulteration are only select examples of the thousands of ballads, pamphlets, books, and illustrations that variously promoted the suspicions I have been discussing here. Yet if fraud marked a societal deterioration, then that deterioration was both enormous and, in many ways, enormously creative. Threateningly fraudulent prospectuses, company books, and food circulated in Victorian culture, but there were also innumerable other, tinier duplicities that were wildly popular, including miraculous pills, mermaids on display, and such acts as the "Greatest Wonder of the Age! The Singing Mouse" to be seen at Palmer's Hair Cutting Rooms."
    The mania for detecting fraud gave rise to conduct materials, dictionaries of flash and cant, ballads and cartoons, pamphlets and broadsides, and novels and melodramas, many of which emphasized the need for caution and suspicion in monitoring oneself and the general population. But many of these same documents, circulating within the Victorian street, shop, library, club, and home, recounted juicy tales of duplicity, both reviling and reveling in the dynamics of fraud. Their combina- tions of admonishing caution and gleeful detail recall such works of early capitalism as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), which tempt the reader with flavorful inventories of criminal life only to offer coy (and dubiously effective) antidotes of contrition at the close. Thus, given the vast popularity of writings that copiously recorded the mechanics of duplicity, it is clear that Laura's perspective is at least as powerful as Lizzie's, and that honest Victorians did not simply eschew fraud. Rather, fraud became part of the period's aesthetic, tempered perhaps with moral judgment and humor, but nonetheless a powerful shaping force of both art and imagination. The appetite for quick riches and tales of impersonation and duplicity made Victorian England much like the goblin market itself: filled with promise and poison, with fraud and luscious narratives thereof.