The Goblin Market

A pre-raphaelite painting of a woman holding a pomegranate for The Goblin Market by Malin James

“Proserpine” or Jane Morris & the Pomegranate by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847)

I’ve been sick the past few days, which has given me an unusual amount of time for listless thinking and wool gathering. In and amongst the drift of fairly useless thoughts came the realization that there is a binary in how sex appears in fiction – there are stories that focus on sex for it’s own sake, and stories that achieve a raw, nearly sexual intimacy, despite the absence (or near absence) of sex.

The first sort of reading is generally known as erotica, which makes it pretty easy to find. The other kind of eroticism is harder to qualify.

Instead of being expressed in an overtly sexual way, the intimacy in those stories comes out as a sort of shared ache – a sympathy between characters that is, hopefully, transferred to the reader. That affinity triggers something like an erotic response, one that’s subtly sexual and emotionally intimate. The latent sexuality in that response is what comprises the second sort of eroticism – one that’s emotionally sexual and not obvious in the text, but simmering beneath it.

“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, drips with limpid, super sensual imagery and includes a final scene that could be a portrait of sexual ecstasy, except it isn’t. The ecstasy isn’t sexual. It’s the culmination of devotion, sacrifice, and love between two sisters whose affinity is so strong it pushes their bond to lover-like levels of intimacy while remaining uncompromisingly platonic.

How Rossetti managed to blend the sensual with the sisterly is a wonder to me, even now. There’s nothing concrete that I can point to in the poem, no line on a map marking the territory between sexuality and emotionality, but it exists all the same, which is why I think of that shared territory as the goblin market. The goblin market in narrative creates a tension that works on the reader without any conscious effect, yet you put the book down feeling lush and keenly aware, like Persephone when she finally gives in and eats the pomegranate’s seeds.

For me, one author achieves the goblin market better than anyone else. If you read anything by Angela Carter you’ll feel it, but it’s especially effective in her collection, The Bloody Chamber, which I’ve pushed mentioned before. The title story is fantastic I’ve already fangirled all over it so I’ll focus on a different story from the same collection – “The Tiger’s Bride”.

“The Tiger’s Bride” is one of the sexiest stories I’ve ever read, yet it contains no sex.  What it does have is massive amounts of emotionally charged intimacy unpinning a story in which masks and identities are stripped away. It isn’t until a tacit understanding is reached between the tiger and his captive that a shared ache develops, but when it does, it makes something that should have been ghastly, (the tiger licks her human skin away, revealing golden fur), unbelievably erotic.

The narrator’s affinity for her captor can’t be expressed in words (he speaks in low growls, translated by a simian valet), which is just as well. It’s the silence of their understanding that transforms what could have been yet another variation on “Beauty and the Beast” into a story steeped in animal sexuality. Its lack of obvious eroticism heightens, pretty fantastically, the latent eroticism of the text.

I’m finding more and more that I need this second, more subtle, emotional component for the erotic aspects of a story to work for me. While I still love straight up filth, it doesn’t tend to stay with me. It’s the stories that weave tapestries of sex and emotional intimacy that I come back to again and again, whether they’re called erotica or something else.

This shift in my reading is something relatively new. While I appreciated the goblin market from an intellectual perspective when I was younger, it never touched me the way that raw sex did. Now it’s quite the opposite. It would be easy to say that this shift is the result of getting older, but I suspect it has less to with age and more to do with me. I’ve always had an emotional intensity that I was never completely comfortable with, especially in conjunction with sex. I suspect that my growing attraction to stories steeped in this kind of emotional sexuality is, more than anything else, a sign that I’m finally comfortable with my own goblin market.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite goblin market stories, along with links to where you can find them (some for free!). And if  you have any books you love for this kind of read, tweet me or leave them in the comments!

POETRY:

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

COLLECTIONS:

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen – “The Invincible Slave Owners” and “The Heroine”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Bloody Chamber” (and most of the others, to be honest).

Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (The first story is a really subtle, really sexy adaptation of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”).

The Lure of Dangerous Women by Shanna Germain

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

NOVELS:

Atonement & The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I fangirled the film here. And to be fair, there is fairly explicit sex in this book, but its punch lies in the emotional intensity behind it).

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Angels and Insects & The Game by A.S. Byatt

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (courtesy of Tamsin Flowers, who was lovely enough to give me a copy!)

12 Comments

  1. i completely need to read Angela Carter, you always recommend her so highly!!! thank you for this reading list!

  2. As you know, my go to book for sexy is “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox – so damn hot!

  3. Malin, I absolutely love this post.
    (and I always seem to be saying that over here on your site!)

    I agree completely about the lure of the ‘subtly sexual and emotionally intimate’ and the excitement of ‘latent sexuality… simmering beneath’.

    Your reading list is just my cup of tea.
    Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is brimming with everything most wonderful in literature; it’s such a juicy feast. I’ve used it for inspiration in writing recently.

    I’ve read quite a few of the editions you mention, and shall be placing the rest on my ‘must-buy’ list. I have the Byatt books on my shelf unread as yet, so will have to move them onto the bedside table. So many wonderful stories to tuck into.

    Thank you again for this gorgeous post.
    x

    • Thank you so much, Emmanuelle! I’m so happy you enjoyed this post. It was a great deal of fun to write. Reading is one of my biggest pleasures and I love talking to other readers about favorite books. I’m not at all surprised that there are shared titles between us! x

  4. I shall have to investigate some of the titles on this list. I have read the McEwan ones so lots for me to explore

    Mollyxxx

  5. I’ve been mulling over this for a few hours. For myself, I suppose there is a sort of emotional eroticism at play which provides an interesting intersection between erotica and romantic works (which brought the film, In the Mood for Love to mind).
    Something that has always been of interest to me is the power of memory, the emotion that is tied to that memory, how we recall it over the years, and the how others involved with that memory perceive it. And the personal influence.
    I think of the HEA desire, the journey of the relationship that is a means to an end. That the protagonist gets the partner. Whereas in the HFN, or not even at all, it is the journey. It is that desire, longing, ache and it’s almost as if the end is inconsquential, because there is actually no end. There is no satisfaction as such, because one is always looking to match the highs or even lows of that journey. We’re not particularly after the stable love-after, in terms of having one’s love and that being enough.
    And I think in some ways that is what makes the emotional so, so appealing? (Possibly why damage is also so appealing, but that is probably another topic its own entirety.)
    It’s not to be mistaken for drama, but almost haunting desire, that for me is almost as fresh and as sharp as it was well over a decade ago. So in a way, that’s what makes well-written, non-explicit writing so striking.

  6. The interesting thing is this; Christina Rosetti’s devout, pious, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, unreconstructed prudishness would have embarrassed a Puritan. Read the “Ballad of Boding” for a little perspective on her attitude toward sex. Three boats set off, the first filled with lovers (and her brother who had just written an erotic sonnet sequence), the second with pride, envy and avarice, and the third with the hungry and poor. Which boat do you think she sunk first?

    Her brother’s.

    And sent him and all the other lovers straight to hell:

    There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
    When Love ship went down by the bottomless quicksand
    To its grave in the bitter wave.
    There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
    When Worm-ship went to pieces on the rock-bound strand,
    And the bitter wave was its grave.

    In her view, hedonism, lust and well, you know, sex for fun, was disastrously worse than envy or avarice. And yet she writes something like the Goblin Market. If ever there was a conflicted woman, CR was she. We only condemn the things we love. 🙂

    Also, I’m feeling like you about erotica. I’m feeling like I want to write more around sex than about sex.

  7. I’d really like to discuss this with you more at some point because I totally agree – straight up filth doesn’t stay with me, either. That said, I’m not familiar with most of the the titles you mention in this post, and I wonder if it’s because they’re not genres I typically read. What would you classify Angela Carter as?

    • That’s a really good question…Angela Carter sort of defies categorization. She covers a *lot* of different ground, but I think the unifying factor is that there’s almost always something of a fantastical element. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it magical realism. It’s more like she’s using narrative archetypes in fantastic ways – lots of legends from different cultures, myths, fairy tales and tropes getting repurposed to dark, sexual, feminist ends… Her non-fiction is also amazing. She has a collection of essays called The Sadeian Women that I think you might really enjoy.

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