he central female character of The Water of the Wondrous Isles seems at first to be a traditional model of the female. A lovely, gentle girl living in a magical, quasi-medieval world, Birdalone superficially resembles the "damsels in distress" who populate the Arthurian romances, especially since her adventures are narrated in a deliberately archaic prose style. However, there's more to William Morris' fantasy than appears on the surface: in fact, Morris uses his characterization of Birdalone to subvert contemporary ideas about appropriate female roles.
To get an idea of what makes Birdalone stand out, consider the historical context of the novel: It was a time of "unprecedented changes in the way people perceived traditional gender roles" (Michalson 176) in England. However, these changes did not reach as far as one could wish; there was a long way to go toward true gender equality. As Michalson notes, "as important as these advances were in a society in which the legal status of married women had been that of property, many of these social improvements were little better than window dressing" (183). Birdalone is important in this climate because in the dramatic freedom of her character and actions, she continues to subvert the still-limiting norms of the time.
Morris' characterization of Birdalone begins with her early education, emphasizing her capacity — equal to men — for learning. Birdalone explores her environment with a freedom more akin to masculine explorers than meek maidens. Thinking "that she might harden her heart to try the adventure" (25), she ventures into a threatening area of the woods. She also hunts, for "the bowman's craft had she learned, and at the dame's bidding must fare alone into the wood now and again to slay big deer and little, and win venison" (11). She swims and roams until her body is tanned and fit, and goes naked when it is comfortable to do so.
Nonetheless, some of Birdalone's time is, in fact, spent in traditionally feminine pursuits. On the practical side, she takes on the maintenance of the home and its domestic duties, to "in all ways earn her livelihood hard enough" (11). She also has an impulse to decoration, as can be seen in her spontaneous taking up of the feminine craft of embroidery. As she begins the practical task of making shoes, "a fancy came into her head . . . and [she] fell to broidering the kindly deer-skin" (12). These activities fit reasonably well into the Victorian ideal of the woman in the home, indicating that Morris is looking for true, non-gender-specific equality, rather than completely rejecting the activities or attributes that are traditionally associated with women. In that sense, Morris is even farther ahead of his time, giving us a model of a healthy human being completely unrestricted by stereotype.
Birdalone also receives a moral education from the wood-mother Habundia, displaying intelligence and an interest in learning that makes her the equal or, more likely, the better of any male pupil. She has no awareness of gender limitations, and so she does not question what she can or should learn, instead simply following her interests and abilities. In one of the first indications of her active nature, she puts her learning to use by choosing to depart openly from the witch's house in the Sending Boat. Rather than passively obeying the wishes of Habundia, she makes a moral judgment that it is better to go without further guile.
So far we have seen that Morris subverts traditional gender stereotypes in his characterization of Birdalone's education. It gets even more interesting when Birdalone moves from being a relatively passive student to being an active shaper of her own life. In particular, Morris moves into more sensitive cultural territory when he makes desire a primary motivating factor for Birdalone.
Birdalone's desire for Arthur, the Black Squire, is not only important to the plot but also adds a great deal to the subversiveness of her characterization. First of all, Birdalone desires something forbidden, for Atra has an earlier and perhaps a stronger claim on Arthur's affections. Birdalone cannot use the excuse that Atra is unworthy of Arthur to justify supplanting her, for Arthur himself calls Atra "tender and wise and strong of heart" (233). Birdalone holds firm to her own individual needs, but she never denigrates the validity of Atra's feelings in the process.
The expression as well as the existence of Birdalone's desire takes an active form that is traditionally more masculine than feminine. She is unable to wait patiently for the return of the three knights from their rescue mission, but translates her frustrated desire into action and sets out for the Black Valley of the Greywethers where she hopes to be granted a wish. Once there, she wishes that Arthur "may come back now at once and loving me" (149). She is not content merely to hope for Arthur's affections to turn her way but acts to ensure that they do. She makes a bad choice here, which leads eventually to Baudoin's death and the parting of the fellowship for a time, but Morris doesn't imply that she is wrong; rather, she simply wants to make things happen, not wait for others to make things happen for her.
A further indication of her active role appears in her behavior toward Arthur after she has been rescued. When he is about to leave for the war, she decides that she must see him, and "went into the hall and found him there . . . For indeed she had sent word to him by Leonard the priest that he should be there. So she went up to him, and all simply took him by the hand and led him into a shot-window and set him down by her" (231). Arthur has an interesting reaction to her: he is "all trembling from love and fear of her" (231, italics mine). Birdalone displays an assertiveness that would not be out of place in the most masculine knight.
As we've seen, Birdalone doesn't always choose wisely, but when her desire leads to harm, she does not attempt to excuse herself by feminine emotionality or weakness and turn the situation to her advantage. Instead, she chooses to leave the fellowship. She displays a mature self-awareness in her realization of the consequences of her desire, and accepts responsibility for them. She says, "I have undone Atra's hope. This I did not of mine own will, but it came unto me; yet of mine own will I can do the best I may to amend it; and this is the best, that I depart hence" (237). Her departure is motivated by the understanding that she is only capable of being rational while Arthur is gone, for "if they come back and I see my lord Arthur, so fair and beauteous as he is, before me, never shall I be able to go away from him" (237). Birdalone, who privileges rationality and independent choice over emotionality, places equal consideration on being faithful and fair to Atra, her rival in love. She accepts that the situation has turned out badly for her and chooses to move on so as not to cause more pain.
In this magical setting, then, Morris gives us a characterization that subverts contemporary cultural norms for female behavior at a time in Victorian England when women agitated for the right to vote and equality before the law. What makes it even more complex is the issue of Birdalone's beauty. In her world of brave knights, evil witches, and magical quests, it's expected that damsels will be lovely. In this setting, to be the subversive character that she is without being beautiful would suggest that her independence is a compensatory mechanism, and that with physical attractiveness to fall back on she would be more traditional. As it is, her beauty seems irrelevant, making the point beauty is not a prerequisite to love, be loved, and be an individual as Birdalone is.
The witch makes clear the potential power of Birdalone's beauty, when she continually denigrates Birdalone's appearance in order to keep it under her control and use it to her own advantage. Yet Habundia tells Birdalone that she is beautiful; it is not ignorance of her appearance that keeps her innocent but a genuinely unmanipulative nature. Pleased to know that she is beautiful, she takes further pleasure in the lovely clothing that she makes for herself, but hers is a healthy pleasure; she does not view her appearance as a means to control others. Just as Morris stretches beyond a mere reaction to chauvinism to paint a picture of genuine equality in Birdalone's education, showing her interest in traditionally feminine pursuits as well as traditionally masculine ones, he uses her appearance to further extend the boundaries of our expectations about women. She can be physically beautiful as well as intelligent, independent, and active, without compromising either aspect of her self. Birdalone may be an imaginary inhabitant of a medieval fantasy world created by a male Victorian novelist, but she has a healthy psychological balance that would be envied by many a modern woman.
Perhaps most interesting, Birdalone still stands out; although she does not appear as actively subversive to a modern, post-feminist readership as she would have been to Morris' Victorian readers, she is still pushing at the edges of the possible. To the extent that Birdalone's adventures still strike us as atypically feminine, we still need to come to terms with the full meaning of gender equality.
Michalson, Karen. Victorian Fantasy Literature: Literary Battles with Church and Empire. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.
Morris, William. The Water of the Wondrous Isles. New York: Ballantine, 1971. (First edition 1895)
Last modified 24 November 2004