Christina Rossetti and the Church Penitentiary Movement

Following the extreme rise in prostitution during the Victorian period many rehabilitation groups appeared to provide a safe place for “fallen women.” These organizations relied on the voluntary assistance of English citizens to help in the rehabilitation process. Among the volunteers was Christina Rossetti. Rossetti’s work took place in the Highgate Penitentiary from 1859 to 1870. To gain a deeper understanding of Rossetti and her poems one must understand the Church Penitentiary Movement and the work they performed to rehabilitate women.

            The Church Penitentiary Association was founded in 1852 and affiliated with the Church of England.  The association was part of a movement to provide places of rehabilitation and shelter for destitute citizens such as prostitutes or homeless people. The penitentiaries were similar to Catholic convents in that the penitents were to remain celibate while they were in the penitentiary. As was evidenced by Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” there was a strong sense of sisterhood amongst the women and a mutual encouragement to keep from the temptation of the outside world. Often times the leadership of the penitentiaries would not allow women to leave the grounds of the institutions. The penitentiaries were met with some hostility from the English public. Most of the time their criticisms were informed by their anti-Catholic views, comparing the penitentiaries to Catholic convents. The movement helped extinguish the epidemic of prostitution in England and played a part in the larger reform efforts of the Victorian period.

            Rossetti’s work in Highgate Penitentiary had an interesting effect upon her writing. Her passion for helping rehabilitate former prostitutes was undeniable and evidence by her decade-long service in Highgate. In “Goblin Market” Rossetti shows a deep belief in the power of the sister communities to rehabilitate women. Her experience in Highgate provided a unique vision into the social ill of prostitution during the time. “Goblin Market” was written early in Rossetti’s time at Highgate and her later works appear to lose some of her confidence in sisterhood and friendship. There was no easy fix for these women and Rossetti knew that better than anyone else. The church penitentiaries sought to meet these complex needs but addressing every need was nearly impossible.

            Christina Rossetti is often remembered for her poems but her assistance in the lives of prostitutes must not be overshadowed. As a volunteer in the Church Penitentiary Movement Rossetti put her words into action and helped outside audiences understand the struggle of the “fallen women.”

Rogers, Scott. “Re-Reading Sisterhood in Christina Rossetti’s “Noble Sisters” and “Sister Maude” .” Studies in English Literature. William Marsh Rice University, 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.