Composed in 1857, Maude Clare is written as a narrative in which Maude Clare confronts her previous lover on his wedding day. As is common in her poetry, Rossetti uses this fictional event to discuss the theme of male and female relationships. The ambiguity of Maude Clare can perhaps be seen to reflect Rossetti’s own conflicting views on the relationship between men and women; as a devout Anglican, Rossetti struggled throughout her lifetime with the biblical view that women are inferior to men, and her own ideas, perhaps influenced by the beginning of the suffrage movement, that the two sexes are equal. Whilst she certainly did not consider herself a feminist, Maude Clare, along with several of her other poems, suggests that she was supremely uncomfortable with the typical Victorian relationships between men and women, particularly regarding the double-standards surrounding sexuality.
A major theme which is discussed in Maude Clare, particularly at the beginning, is the relationship between men and women within the context of marriage. The way in which Rossetti initially refers to Nell as ‘his bride’ whilst Maude Clare, who is free from marriage, is immediately presented as a dominant force as the poem takes her name. This suggests that, through marriage, Rossetti believes that women lose their identity and autonomy. In fact, the possessive pronoun ‘his’ suggests that, as a result of marriage, Nell has become nothing but an object owned by her husband, an idea typical amongst the Victorians, where marriage was as much the conclusion of a business contract between the groom and father of the bride as it was a religious ceremony. Whilst Rossetti may present marriage as something which works to the disadvantage of women, the fact that lord Thomas’s father is absent from the poem suggests that men place little value upon it. As it is only his mother who congratulates her son with ‘smiles’ on his wedding day, Rossetti perhaps implies that marriage exists only to provide security for women, whilst it constrains the more sexually promiscuous men. This idea which is supported by the penultimate line of the poem in which Nell says ‘I’ll love him till he loves me best’, adding to the idea that marriage is a means by which a woman can make a man faithful to her. Whilst on first reading lord Thomas’s mother’s response to her son’s wedding may seem joyful, the fact that she speaks ‘almost with tears’ creates a troubling undertone. Possibly she is grieving for her son’s loss of freedom which the constraints of marriage will bring, but Rossetti’s comparison between Nell and Thomas’s mother (she is not ‘so pale as Nell’) suggests that she is tearful on Nell’s behalf; as Thomas’s mother says ‘your father thirty years ago/had just your tale to tell’, Rossetti implies that, just as Thomas had had a previous relationship with another woman, so had his father, and so Nell is effectively following in the footsteps of Thomas’s mother. Thus, she is perhaps aware of the fate which marriage will bring Nell. Whilst in ‘In the Round Tower at Jhansi’ Rossetti presents marriage as something which is filled with an all-consuming love, shown through the Skenes’ agreement that ‘it is not pain thus to kiss and die’, in Maude Clare she presents it as something which is devoid of happiness. For example, it is strange that Thomas’s mother does not hope that the newly-wedded couple will be happy, but rather hopes that they will ‘live but as true’, or as faithfully, as she and her husband have done, suggesting that happiness is simply too much to expect. However, the contrast here between Rossetti’s portrayal of relationships within marriage in ‘Maude Clare’ and ‘In the Round Tower’ can perhaps be explained by the fact that Thomas and Nell’s marriage follows Thomas’s relationship with Maude Clare, whilst it could be assumed that Mrs Skene was Skene’s first love, as their marriage is so idyllic. Thus, it is perhaps marriage following a relationship with someone else which Rossetti is criticizing, rather than marriage as a whole.
The two main female characters in this poem can be seen, through their relationship with Thomas, to represent the two archetypal biblical women; Eve, the sexualized temptress who lures the unwitting Adam (or Thomas) into sin (through their illicit love affair), and the idealized virgin Mary, represented by Nell. However, through her exploration of the role of Maude Clare, Rossetti subverts this role of temptress, presenting her as justified in her vengeance on Thomas, who is equally to blame for her pre-marital loss of virginity. Maude Clare’s desire for vengeance is clear when she says ‘I have brought my gift my lord’, evocative of traditional fairy-tales where the curse cast on the protagonist is disguised as a ‘gift’, such as in sleeping beauty. Thus, Maude Clare destroys all that could possibly be good in the couple’s relationship when she ‘blesses’ the ‘hearth’, ‘board’, and ‘marriage bed’. The ironic use of the word ‘bless’ which has distinctly religious connotations perhaps suggests that Maude Clare is in fact doing the bidding of God; because Thomas has sinned by having sex with Maude Clare without marrying her, he must face the consequences. In fact, contrary to societal expectations of the time, Rossetti does not explicitly condemn Maude Clare for expressing her sexuality through her pre-marital relationship with Thomas, as the images which represent her loss of virginity (such as the ‘lilies’ which they ‘waded’ for in the ‘beck’) are entirely positive, and typical of the romanticized ideals of what a relationship should be like. Similarly, the alliterative ‘b’ in ‘budding bough’ creates the impression of vitality and passion, implying that Rossetti does not view their relationship itself as problematic, but the way in which Thomas then did not marry Maude Clare. However, this is something which is unusual within Rossetti’s poetry; in ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’ Rossetti criticizes female lust, having the tormented voice of her poem exclaim ‘oh vanity of vanities desire’. Likewise, in Goblin Market, Jeanie (and very nearly Laura) is destroyed by her lust which leads her to eat the goblins’ ‘fruit’ (or lose her virginity to them). As a strong Anglican who never married, Rossetti’s conflicting ideas can perhaps be attributed to her own presumed lack of experience surrounding sex. Furthermore, the recurring motif of the lily, a flower commonly associated with virginity, suggests that Maude Clare was once as pure as Nell, yet the lily ‘fades’ once she has been corrupted by lord Thomas, much in the same way that Laura’s hair turns grey once she has been corrupted by the goblins.
In contrast, Nell, who could be considered to be Maude Clare’s foil, represents the virgin Mary, just as Maude Clare might once have done. At the beginning of the poem Nell fulfills the Victorian stereotype of a bride, submissive and accepting, much like Mrs Skene in ‘In the Round Tower…’, who clearly relies on her husband for instructions, as is indicated by her frequent questions. However, at the end of the poem, Nell takes on a much more powerful voice, silencing Maude Clare’s attack. Nell’s use of a syndetic triad when she says ‘and what you leave’, ‘and what you spurn’, and ‘and him I love’ creates a tone of authority. It also mirrors Maude Clare’s use of triads with her repetition of ‘to bless’, perhaps indicating that the control has shifted from Maude Clare to Nell. Whilst we might expect Nell to be shocked by Maude Clare’s revelation, she instead responds calmly, humbly accepting Maude Clare’s ‘gift’ of Thomas’s ‘fickle heart’ and ‘paltry love’. Perhaps Nell had prior knowledge of their relationship, or simply loves her new husband so much that the revelation of his sexual history matters little, yet this seems unlikely, as she does not attempt to defend Thomas from Maude Clare’s criticisms and accusations. Alternatively, it is marriage itself which Nell respects, and so she realizes that, now she is married, she must accept Maude Clare’s gifts, as to spurn her husband would be to go against the vows which she just made. This is supported by the way in which she quotes the wedding vows, saying ‘for he’s my lord for better and worse’. Thus, Rossetti suggests that, as marriage is a religious ceremony, Nell’s loyalty to Thomas is in fact born out of respect for God, and so perhaps Rossetti believes that a person’s relationship with God is far more valuable than the relationship between men and women. This idea is also expressed in Rossetti’s ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’, in which the speaker laments the sinfulness of desire, having instead turned to God in becoming a nun, and also in ‘Twice’, where, on being rejected by a man, the speaker instead offers her heart to God.
Whilst the relationship between the two women is fraught with conflict, it is unclear who Rossetti intends us to sympathize with. Although Nell seems to defeat Maude Clare by the end of the poem, the poem nonetheless is named after Maude Clare, suggesting that she is the focus. Perhaps, then, Rossetti intends us to sympathize with them both, even though they are (or at least were once) effectively in competition with each other. In terms of who is held in the highest esteem by men, the answer is clear: Nell, as she is a ‘maid’, and so a virgin. However, Rossetti brings the injustice of this to our attention by having Nell admit that Maude Clare is ‘more wise and much more fair’. That it is still Nell who Thomas chooses is indicative of the huge value which was placed on female virginity within male-female relationships, a massive double standard, as within the poem Thomas’s lack of virginity is not even raised as a problem. In this way, Maude Clare is reminiscent of Goblin Market, where, on losing her virginity, Laura is abandoned by the goblins to ‘dwindle’, whilst the goblins are allowed to continue to tempt more ‘maids’.
Whilst Rossetti encourages us to sympathize with the two female characters, she is far more critical of the role of men within relationships. This is immediately made clear through lord Thomas’s comparatively weak characterization; whilst Maude Clare, Nell, and even his mother have a considerable amount of dialogue, lord Thomas simply stutters ‘Maude Clare’. This perhaps reflects Thomas’s weak moral compass in not marrying her. Therefore, Rossetti subtly undermines the Victorian and biblical concept that men are the strongest in the relationship, both intellectually and morally. That he is unable to ‘match’ Maude Clare’s ‘scorn’ also suggests that he, unlike Maude Clare, is unjustified in his scorn, and so is entirely to blame within the relationship. This is a stark contrast to the speaker’s rejection of John in ‘No thank you John’, where we sympathize with the speaker who tries to rid herself of John’s unwanted affections. However, unlike Thomas, the speaker of ‘No thank you John’ gave John no reason to believe she loved him, as is shown when she says ‘I never said I loved you’. Likewise, just as the goblins in ‘Goblin Market’ are characterized as being unpleasant, or even repugnant, as Rossetti compares them to typically repulsive animals, such as a ‘rat’ and a ‘snail’, Thomas is presented entirely negatively, as he is reduced to nothing but a ‘fickle heart’ which is rejected by one woman only to be self-sacrificially accepted by the next. Rossetti here may be making a more general comment about masculine love; by modifying the nouns ‘love’ and ‘heart’ with negative adjectives she suggests that the love of men within a relationship is worthless. However, Rossetti perhaps allows us to sympathize, or at least pity Thomas to an extent; the sustained vowel sound in ‘gazed long’ creates a wistful tone, suggesting that he still loves Maude Clare, and perhaps realizes he has made a mistake in rejecting her in lieu of Nell.
As it is written in the form of a ballad, Maude Clare’s regular rhythm and rhyme scheme creates an almost fairy-tale like atmosphere, possibly intended to suggest that the relationship between Thomas and the two women is an all too common tale. Alternatively, the way in which Rossetti subtly subverts the ballad form by using an abcb rhyme scheme instead of abab implies that instead she is debunking the idealized ‘fairy-tale’ of love, showing relationships between men and women for what they really are. Whilst the story of the poem is generally linear in its progression, Maude Clare disturbs this by bringing to the forefront her past with Thomas, suggesting that a man can never truly escape past relationships. In fact, the strong sense of place which is created within Maude Clare’s description of the past through her use of alliteration in ‘budding boughs’ and the onomatopoeic ‘plucked’ (suggestive perhaps of the premature ending of a relationship) creates the impression that it is Thomas’s relationship with Maude Clare, and not Nell, which is most viable, even though it took place out of wedlock.
Overall, Rossetti presents male and female relationships in Maude Clare as being extremely problematic, at least where a man has rejected a woman who he has essentially corrupted by taking her virginity. Whilst some of Rossetti’s poetry does present male-female relationships positively (such as ‘In the round tower at Jhansi’), Rossetti’s overriding conviction appears to be that relationships between men and women are destructive, as is the case in ‘Goblin Market’, ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’, and ‘Twice’. However, the way in which Rossetti’s concept of romantic relationships changed radically from poem to poem alludes to her own conflicting beliefs at various stages of her life.