Romanticism: Women and Sexuality in ‘Christabel’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) frames Christabel (1816) within Gothicism, extending on the occult forces of the “Other” embodied by women. Coleridge had written on the presentation of female characters in Gothic literature stating that they were either models of ‘trembling innocence’ or of ‘shameless harlotry’[1]. This statement correlates with a view within the sphere of moral education which had been deeply ingrained in church and patriarchy for generations.

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Oil on canvas, Ferdinand Max Bredt (1860-1921), Eve and Mary. 

Whether seen as vessels used to uphold virtue or warn against vice feminist critic Andrea Dworkin reiterates that:

‘There are two definitions of woman. There is the victim; the good woman who must be possessed. There is the bad woman who must be killed or nullified’.[2]

Whether or not Coleridge was criticising a pre-feminist one dimensionality in the depiction of fictional women, such a debate is critical in reading Christabel[3], which, I would argue writes heavily into this doctrine – especially given the theological basis of its content. In his appraisal of the poet’s career Davidson writes how ‘from 1794 Coleridge had been planning a poem on the Origin of Evil’[4] following the informing influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost which at its own core had the integral myth of the fall of Adam and Eve[5]. Such writing on the ‘overlap between religion and sex’[6] prompted Coleridge into ‘exploring the truths of our inward nature’[7] and I would argue that Christabel is a poetic instance where Coleridge divides the female character into the pseudo-biblical binaries ‘Good Woman’ and ‘Bad Woman’[8].

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H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed, 1891 Created for Lang’s The Blue Poetry Book

Throughout the poem Coleridge gives clear instances of purity pitted against sin, mirroring opposites Christabel and Geraldine and weaving comparison through the stylistic devices of repetition, alliteration and parallelism. Christabel is walled in by her father’s fortress, implying the close guard of her chastity within the cult of the virgin. Her associations point to virtuous piety and duty, with this inward nature reflected in the honest goodness of her appearance ‘so fair, so innocent, so mild’ (Christabel, l. 626). Coleridge provides a model of good behaviour which is off-set by the conduct of Geraldine who intrudes on the narrative.

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Geraldine, Decoration for Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ by Norah McGuinnes (1901-1980)

As a reflection of The Fall the character of Geraldine can be aligned with that of temptress Eve conflated with the corrupting serpent and this awareness is given by her beguiling acts of deceit. For example, associations of wantonness surface when Geraldine undresses to nakedness bearing ‘her breast’ (Christabel, l. 249) having first appeared in a ‘bright’ (Christabel, l. 56) and dazzling guise. The imagery here is paramount as Geraldine is aware of her sexuality and of her body which she uncovers unabashedly, breaking modesty and a strict taboo.

Many Medieval texts believed that ‘the Devil might often assume a woman’s guise’[9] which Kraus states from the monk’s catalogue of transformations and these perceptions of women in relation to Eve are underpinned by superstition and mistrust of female sexuality. As a manifestation of the Gothic, Christabel is no exception as it draws on the supernatural, moralistic concerns of Medievalism by taking on the form of a ballad or folk tale and embedding doctrinal characterisations within its working. As with Kubla Kahn Coleridge again fixates on the carnality of women, bringing anxieties of a sexual nature to the fore.

Women and Sexuality in ‘Kubla Khan’ here…
Toxic Renaissance Relationships here…
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Women in Medieval Art here…

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Sources Used: 

[1] Patrick R. O’Malley, Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 44

[2] Peter Humm, Paul Stigant and Peter Widdowson, Popular Fictions (Routledge, 2013), p. 224.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel, in The Broadview Anthology of Literature of the Revolutionary Period 1770-1832, ed. by D.L. Macdonald and Anne Mcwhir (Broadview Press, 2010), pp. 783-790.

[4] Graham Davidson, Coleridge’s Career (Springer, 1990), p. 78.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Louise Schottroff, Marie-Theres Wacker and Martin Rumscheidt, Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), p. 120.

[9] Henry. Kraus, ‘Eve and Mary – Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman’, in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed by N. Broude and M. D. Garrard (Westview Press; First Edition, Second Impression edition, 1982), p. 79.

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