The nursery rhyme sounds of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, chimed through my childhood and were probably among the earliest sources of my interest in poetry. Yet this ambivalent tale is underpinned by darkness, rhythmic instability, and contradictory interpretations. The narrative is simple: two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, hear goblins calling them to buy mysterious fruit. But they know they shouldn’t eat it. Laura’s willpower breaks and she consumes the fruit, leaving Lizzie to rescue her fallen sister. This tale of transgressive consumption has fascinated readers since the poem’s initial publication in 1862. Is it a straightforward morality tale? What is the meaning of the Biblical echoes of the book of Genesis? Does Laura represent Eve who plucked the fruit in the Garden of Eden? Does Lizzie redeem Laura in a Christ-like fashion by resisting the goblins? Is the poem about the dangers of sex? Does Rossetti wish to warn female readers about the dangers of art (words and food are linked throughout the poem)? Should the poem be interpreted as feminist or antifeminist? More recently, there have been Marxist interpretations based on Rossetti’s use of the word ‘market’.
As this debate has been going on for upwards of a hundred years, I am not even going to try to attempt to resolve it here. Instead, I am interested in the neglected foodstuff of the poem: the ‘kneaded cakes of whitest wheat, / Cakes for dainty mouths to eat’. (This most likely refers to a kind of sweetened bread which uses yeast as the rising agent.) In a poem composed of pairings and opposites (innocence and experience, two sisters, life and death, light and dark, inside and outside) the cakes are contrasted with the succulent fruits on offer on the goblins’ platters. Lizzie and Laura make the cakes indoors as part of their domestic duties, whilst the fruits are sold outside. The cakes are an innocent white, the fruits are sensual red and purple. The cakes are produced by human effort (kneading), whilst the fruit is lifted all too easily from the hands of the deceptive goblins. White bread is emblematic of the Eucharist, whilst the fruit is reminiscent of the tree in the Garden of Eden. In Christianity, the former is linked with redemption and the latter with the fall from perfection.
So Rossetti seems to present us with a simple black and white parable: reject the sensual attractions of the material world in favour of virtuousness and innocence. However, Rossetti blurs the lines between these categories by emphasising the whiteness of the flour used by Lizzie and Laura. Other white objects in the poem include lilies, flowers which symbolise chastity but are also connected with funerals. Also note that the word ‘dainty’ is used twice in the poem. The first time it describes the mouths which will consume the cakes, whilst the second time it denotes the supernatural fruit. On a historical note, Susan Honeyman points out that the white flour is bleached and processed, ‘which is an important contrast to the otherwise natural fruits’ offered by the goblins. A whole gamut of industrial processes were being developed during the Victorian period in order to rid flour of its impurities – and, consequently, of much of its nutritional value. The pastoral space occupied by the sisters is not under threat just from goblins, but from the factories which were creeping into rural spaces. So Rossetti introduces a conflict between nature (goblins, desire and fruit) and technology (white flour). Furthermore, for the contemporary reader, the mention of white cakes would have conjured up ideas of elegance and expense: these were a foodstuff produced mainly for the elite. Lizzie and Laura do not appear to be virtuous in their spending.
The cakes introduce troubling ideas into a poem which is already ambivalent in its attitude to femininity, marriage, material pleasures, and nature. But I hope they won’t introduce trouble into your kitchens! The recipe below is adapted from Mrs Beeton’s ‘Common Cake’ and is for a simple enriched bread. Slice and serve with butter when warm from the oven, or toast for breakfast with a dash of marmalade for a hint of goblin-esque luxury.
500g strong white bread flour
1 tsp or 7g dried active yeast
125g caster sugar
280ml milk (very gently warmed – not fridge temperature)
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice as you prefer)
½ tsp salt
1. Rub the butter into the flour
2. Add the dry ingredients and mix well
3. Add the milk and bring the ingredients together into a rough dough
4. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes (or 5
minutes in a machine with a dough hook)
5. Return to the mixing bowl and leave for 1 hour in a warm place until doubled in
size (ideally between 18 and 21 degrees centigrade – I turned my oven on for a couple of minutes and then put the bread in). Don’t forget to cover with a damp teatowel or clingfilm
6. Turn the dough out and knead for a few minutes
7. Put the dough in a greased tin and cover
8. Leave for about an hour or until doubled in size
9. Bake for 35 minutes in an oven preheated to 180 degrees centigrade
Susan Honeyman, ‘Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(Land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in
Cautionary Tales of Consumption’, Marvels and Tales, 21.2 (2007), pp. 195-215, p. 205
Christina Rossetti, Poems, ed. by Jan Marsh (London: J.M. Dent, 1996)