How does Rosetti portray Maude Clare in the shorter, 1862 version? Can the reader empathize with her situation? What purpose does the narrator serve? What might the natural world stand for in Rosetti’s poem?
In ‘Maude Clare’ Rosetti portrays a vindictive and venomous Clare:
‘Here’s my half of a golden chain…’ Clearly Claire is bitter about her ‘lords’ new marriage and wants him to know this. Nevertheless it is clear that her ‘lord’ still has feelings for his mistress since he ‘(gazes) long’ on her in line fifteen of the poem. By drawing on three different points of view, varying in prominence, Rosetti is able to recreate a valuable insight into Victorian conventions. She adopts a largely female dominated narrative perspective in her poem but the identification of the narrator is somewhat ambiguous allowing the reader freedom to speculate and draw their own conclusions.
‘The Angel in the House’, a poem by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854 idealizes women role in society (p3 The Changing Role of Women):
Man must be pleased; but him to please is women’s pleasure.
And if he once, by shame oppressed
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers…
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher…
This led to a concept which was central to Victorian beliefs about the proper ordering of society. Women’s role was altruistic: she exists to give pleasure to her husband and it is in giving pleasure to others that she herself is pleased.
In ‘Maude Clare’ Rosetti dramatically overturns this concept with her characterization of Maude Clare and, to a lesser extent, Nell.
Clare does not fit the altruistic image in the poem in which women lived to please their husbands; instead she acts selfishly thinking little of the consequences. She does not ‘love higher’ when she ‘loves alone’ (her lord has left her), rather that love is replaced with bitterness.
Nell, by contrast is prepared to ‘love her husband ’til he loves (her) best’ – when he is totally over Maude Clare. By doing this she demonstrates many of the qualities listed in the poem which Clare evidently lacks.
The theme of innate goodness and gentleness of women was picked up by the essayist John Ruskin. He wrote a text, published in 1865, outlining women’s position in society. Ruskin believed that women were ‘gentle, weak and tender’ (p4 The Changing Role of Women) and should be protected from the ‘cut and thrust’ of society.
Rosetti breaks down this stereotype in her poem by making her strongest and most prominent characters female. The ‘lord (falters) in his place’ weakened by the venomous presence of Clare. In following Victorian patriarchal conventions the ‘lord’ should have power over his wife/mistress but in the overturned reality conjured up by Rosetti this position is pushed aside by dominant women such as Clare.
Nell seems weak and has less to say at the beginning of the poem. Instead of stealing the focus of the wedding day, as would be expected Nell instead forfeits this attention to Maude Clare. Our first meeting of Nell seems to support this:
‘His bride was like a village maid,
Maude Clare was like a queen.’ However in the final two stanzas she starts to challenge Clare’s point of view which, up to this point had been unopposed. This is plausible since, as Nell is bound to ‘her lord’ by wedlock, Victorian society dictates he is obliged to support her and any children she might have with him. She claims she’ll ‘take’ what was Clare’s and ‘wear it ’til he loves (her) best’.
It is clear that Rosetti wishes her audience to sympathize with the seemingly innocent Nell. There is an air of secrecy in the poem surrounding Clare’s background, as if Rosetti does not feel Clare deserves any audience recognition beyond her revenge stricken ‘faï¿½ade’. Only small details of Clare’s relationship with ‘her lord’ are released such as the image of them wading in pond and the ‘the golden chain’ both supporting an image of a lord who looks after for his female inferiorities. Since no conflicting evidence is presented by the narrator the audience has no choice but to agree. In this way the role of the narrator could be seen as a vehicle for Rosetti’s ideas regarding the importance of marriage, ideas which were shared by many others in her time.
From a modern perspective some people might be inclined to empathize with the dumped Maude Clare, in a society where a lesser emphasis on wedlock exists. By contrast Harrison suggests that the reader might feel little sympathy for Maude Clare because of her bad timing and ‘queenly mien’ which suffer in comparison with Nell’s inferred humility with likening to a ‘village maid’. Although this is a valuable interpretation of the poem I feel that the majority of people who can identify a significant loss in their lives may at least have a degree of empathy for Clare’s apparent bitterness.
In the poem Rosetti alludes to a number of scenes from the natural world. In the sixth and seventh stanzas she describes a romantic day that Thomas (the ‘lord’) and Maude Clare spend together. The juxtaposition of ‘fading leaves’ and ‘lilies budding’ by Clare’s speech help to order the events to the reader and show the significant amount of time that has passed since Clare’s romance with her ‘lord’ and his marriage now to Nell. The ‘fading leaves’ suggest the relationship to be fruitless and dead, hardly the image of an extravagant love affair implied by the ‘golden chain’. However the alliteration of ‘budding bough’ helps to show the deep connection between the couple. ‘Bough’ is an interesting choice of word since it supports the ‘bud’ in nature like the husband is supposed to support his wife under Victorian ideas about the household. The ‘buds’ themselves are images of new beginnings and this could be Clare telling her lover the affair is over.
In conclusion Clare and Nell could, to Rosetti represent prominent female figures in Victorian society. For instance, Maude Clare, Florence Nightingale who was herself alienated and shunned by the ‘Angel in the House’ concept deeming it ‘intolerable’ (p.5 The Changing Role of Women). Nell, Mrs. Beeton who provided a practical and positive approach to the housewife image of Patmore’s poem but was far from the image of ‘tender’ women adopted by Ruskin.
Rosetti does in some ways support traditionalist views of women in her time, portraying the simple, domesticated Nell as her protagonist and modeling the headstrong Clare as immoral and stripping from her any personality beyond that illustrated in the poem. However it seems to me that Rosetti disagrees with the idea that women needed protecting from society’s evils since the female characters presented seem anything but weak.