Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts
Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts, Graduate School of Humanities, Cardiff University, 28-29 June, 2007
The principal aim of this conference is to encourage doctoral researchers from across the humanities to consider how the concept of reading may come to bear on their own subjects of research. ‘Reading’ here is intended to be interpreted in a wide sense, to include the reading of, e.g. images, buildings, inscriptions, theatre or dance performances or other creative productions as well as books and manuscripts. This approach both allows participation by students from many humanities disciplines and topics, and also provides a framework for interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. Beyond this tangible ‘cross-fertilisation’ a secondary aim will be to foster skills and confidence in presentation and communication among postgraduates.
The paper I will give at this conference is entitled ‘Writing and Reading the Rhetoric of Femininity in Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep.’
Written in 1892, The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on The Apocalypse is Christina Rossetti’s last published work. Few scholars have taken it seriously enough to conduct a through survey of the ideas presented. Although hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, such dismissal is understandable when the relentless self-mortifying comments that Rossetti makes about her own hermeneutics are taken into account. Certainly, her claim that all she can do is ‘but quote both texts’ is not a great incentive to engage in a comprehensive study of its hermeneutics. Whist Joel Westerholm suggests that the constant reminders of the humility of the author may have influenced the book going through seven editions ; it is difficult for a modern readership to appreciate such self-deprecation.
With a specific focus on The Face of the Deep, my paper will examine the extent to which Rossetti sought to muffle her more controversial and challenging messages within an overtly traditional ‘feminine’ discourse in which she positioned herself as a ‘reader’ rather than an interpreter. Insistently fearing that she was being ‘overbold’ (551) and crossing the elusive line between performing a ‘surface study’ and probing of the depths of the un-revealed mysteries surrounding the nature of God, she resorted to denying any authorial responsibility.
As I expand on Rossetti’s hermeneutical interrogation of the term ‘reader,’ I consider her self-deprecating remarks in the context of her medieval fore-mothers such as St Teresa of Avila. Alison Weber suggests that the use of “feminine” features in St Teresa’s work are to be seen as the means by which she broke the Pauline silence and asserted her authority whist at the same time defended herself against any charges the Inquisition could bring against her. Despite the gap of three centuries between the writings of St Teresa and those of Christina Rossetti, the insights that Weber’s book bring are of an immense help when considering the language of obfuscation that is shared by both writers. Although Rossetti did not have a death threat hanging over her for interpreting the scriptures, her authority was, as this paper will demonstrate, similarly severely hampered by the fact of her gender.