A blazingly sunny summer day in 2009 found me camped out at the Baldwin Collection of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida. I was there researching nineteenth-century children’s guides to London (or so I thought), when in the midst of this study, the happy serendipity of archival work led me to Andrew Tuer’s nineteenth-century collection of London cries. As I read through Tuer’s guide and then rapidly searched for and consumed several others, I kept scrawling in my notes, ‘Sounds like ‘Goblin Market’! Look into this.’ Back at home culling through these notes, it became more and more apparent to me that the London cries had informed Rossetti’s writing.
Although scholars have placed Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) in a number of economic contexts (for example, the labour of women writers in the marketplace, imperial commerce, the economy of prostitution through the vending of bodies, the adulteration of foodstuffs, and the growth of advertising), no one has yet considered that the goblins’ ‘cry’ in the second line of the poem points to the famous tradition of London cries by sellers of goods such as hot cross buns, cherries, or milk. London cries were not only sung in the streets, but they also became a popular literary genre. Published in broadsheets, chapbooks, bound books, and images since the time of Queen Elizabeth, works featuring ‘cries of London’ promoted nationalism and urban identity. Although Rossetti’s metropolitan readers would have had such an aural context ringing in their ears, it has been lost on contemporary readers who have tended to look at the broader national and international economics framing the poem.
Rossetti’s poem is situated between the lived, urban aurality of the streets around her home and the literary representations of the city that translated the oral cries into written discourse, so that readers could consume particular moral lessons about buying and selling. ‘Goblin Market’ participates in the tradition of Aunt Busy-Bee’s New London Cries (1852) and Aunt Louisa’s London Alphabet (1872), works which also use the cries of the city to urge child readers to be wise consumers, suggesting a dimensional literacy that is at once aural, oral, and moral. This was important work since a range of vendors traversed the London streets, some more honest than others. Prior to the passage of Adulteration of Food, Drink, and Drugs Act, the consuming public had to develop savvy strategies to choose their food, and the one most often touted in children’s guides as well as Rossetti’s poem is to evaluate the moral character of the vendor. Rossetti’s poem presents a test case in which two sisters have the opportunity to demonstrate their moral virtue in the selection of vendor, in setting the terms for their commercial transaction, and in the way the food is consumed.
Many thanks to the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature for permission to use the image above.