Adapted from the author's "Tennyson and the Ladies of Shalott," Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts, Ed. George P. Landow, Brown U.: 1979.
re-Raphaelite artists found a rich source of pictorial inspiration in "The Lady of Shalott" It attracted them in part becaus it emphasized the spiritual nobility and the melancholy of the more sorrowful aspects of love, such as unrequited love, particularly the embowered or isolated and therefore unattainable woman; the woman dying for love; the fallen woman who gives up everything for love; the special "tainted" or "cursed" woman; and the dead woman of unique beauty.
Undoubtedly an element of escapism figured in the popularity of Tennyson's poem. It offered temporary freedom from worry about a world threatened by such major social problems as hunger, disease, alcoholism, prostitution, and inhumane living conditions, all of which orginated in or were exacerbated by the urban and the industrial revolutions. Tennyson's romantic narratives provided an escape to a simpler, happier, and more exotic world uncontaminated by the problems of modern life. The appeal of the medieval world Tennyson portrayed does not derive from mere love of archaic patterns and forms or nostalgia for a more colorful way of life. Instead, according to Humphrey House, the attraction rests on the fact that medieval art did not betray any division between daily visible fact and accepted truth and values (Pre-Raphaelitism, ed. Sambrook , l 79.). Archaeological accuracy therefore mattered little to the illustrators of Tennyson's Arthurian poetry.
The popularity of the image of a figure at a window, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin., reflects the characteristic nineteenth-century separation of woman's interior world from the exterior one that man inhabited. Rossetti's portrayal of Mary seated at her embroidery frame carefully rendering the lily that an angel is presenting her all while under the supervision of her mother represents his conception of the Virgin as the "symbol of female excellence." The window beside her, through which the spectator can see Mary's father pruning a grape vine, brings the confinement of interior space into immediate contrast with the vastness of the outside world. The window, both a threshold to the world and a barrier, confines the woman to her protected place in the home. The two worlds meet at the window in the form of the cultivated, pruned grape vines and the rose on the window sill. To Rossetti Mary represented the ideal woman that was also exemplified by the Lady of Shalott. Unquestionably pure and totally unattainable, Mary remains content within her sheltered environment and devotes herself to feminine pursuits related to the home.
Although William Holman Hunt made a few drawings of the Lady of Shalott seated at her loom and in her boat, all of the versions that he offered to the public portray the Lady, standing, at the climactic moment when she sees Lancelot. A study of Hunt's different versions of the subject suggests that he developed his interpretation thoughtfully and that his interpretation changed subtly between his first drawing of the subject in 1850 and the final painting, which he completed in 1905. Since Timothy Rodgers and Miriam Neuringer discuss the developing conception of Hunt's Lady of Shalott at length, I shall confine my remarks on Hunt to his interpretation of the theme and how his conception relates to that of other artists.
As The Shadow of Death (discussion) and The Awakening Conscience (plate) demonstrate, throughout his career Hunt's interest focused upon climactic moments of truth and revelation.'° Hunt was therefore consistent in choosing to depict the psychological moment of insight or illumination when the Lady realizes the consequences of her actions, the moment when she knows that the curse has come upon her — not the moment when she sees Lancelot or the exterior real world, but the moment when she realizes her fate, when "destruction and confusion overtake her."
In Hunt's drawing, the reflection of Lancelot and the Lady in the cracked mirror overshadows the Lady and the unraveling web. Attempting to free herself from the web, the Lady raises an outstretched hand in a gesture that wards off some unseen threat — the curse, love, or Lancelot himself. The viewer cannot see Lancelot, who occupies a space outside the picture, literally positioned in the viewer's space. However, the distortion of the mirror behind the Lady presents a different picture in which the two, strangely enough, appear together. In the mirror the Lady appears to be leaving her tower as she advances into the exterior world with Lancelot, even though the column between them emphasizes their separateness, thus underscoring the unrequited love she feels for Lancelot.
Hunt's design for the Moxon edition of Tennyson's poetry (I857) presents a more dramatic version of The Lady of Shalott; her hair tosses wildly about, revealing her internal emotional state as she realizes that the curse has come upon her. The unraveling yarn twined around the Lady also frames and encircles the image of Lancelot in the mirror, underscoring her romantic entanglement with him. Interestingly, here as in Hunt's other versions, Lancelot rides away from the Lady whereas other painters show him in profile riding past her.
The innocence and caution of Hunt's first Lady of Shalott contrasts with the sensuality of the Wadsworth Atheneum's version, which reflects the Lady's earthly, sexual love for Lancelot. The placement of Lancelot in a bright landscape, framed by two columns almost in the center of the picture plane, leads the eye directly to him, accentuating the Lady's erotic longing. As in all of Hunt's versions, he shows the tension between the Lady's desires and reality, each with a sightly different connotation. The reflection in the first drawing shows them almost advancing into the world together, but they are separated by the column; in the Moxon Tennyson Lancelot rides away from her at the same time that their mutual entanglement in the unraveling web almost unites them. In the Wadsworth version the mirror's reflection of the grail embroidered on the web, which emphasizes Hunt's religious interpretation of her task, separates the Lady from Lancelot.
Hunt juxtaposes the various realities in his painting just as Tennyson does in his poem. Although the individual details seem intensely real, the subject of the painting itself is an unrealistic story told in an unnatural setting. The placement of the mirror in back of the Lady creates a tension between the reality of the claustrophobic room and the reflection of the world outside. As in The Awakening Conscience, Hunt uses the mirror to contrast the artificial interior around the woman and the exterior world.
In January 1848 Henry Sutton wrote "The Poet's Mission,"an article for Howitt's Journal in which he interpreted Lancelot as "fame" and "popularity."" According to Sutton, as soon as the Lady prostitutes the pure vision of her own soul in order to achieve fame and popularity, physical and spiritual death overtake her. Sutton's interpretation may have influenced Hunt, who explained that the "parable . . . illustrates the failure of a human Soul towards its accepted responsibility.... She is to weave her record, not as one who mixing in the world, is tempted by egoistic weakness, but as a being 'sitting alone'.... Having forfeited the blessing due to unswerving loyalty, destruction and confusion overtake her."This interpretation turns the Lady of Shalott into a fallen woman who has forsaken the sacred trust she had been assigned for the carnal desires of the flesh. As Hunt further explained, "Seeing the happiness of the common children of men denied to her," she "casts aside duty to her spiritual self" in the pursuit of love (or perhaps of fame) (PRB 19I3, 2.401-2). In either case the Lady is presented as a fallen woman, and as such, destruction overtakes her; "her work is ruined," whatever "other possibilities remain for her are not for this service; that is a thing of the past" (PRB 19I3, 2.402.). Such an interpretation of The Lady of Shalott relates the painting directly to his earlier painting The Awakening Conscience, which presents the moment of illumination in which a kept woman remembers her childhood innocence and (presumably) determines to return to the purity of that righteous life.' Hunt presents both of these embowered women at the moment of realization of their fallen state and of acknowledgment of the consequences of their actions.
They are, however, in contrasting positions. In The Awakening Conscience the woman looks up and out from her sordid bower to the purity of a golden spring whereas the Lady, having looked out the forbidden window, turns and looks back at the world that she has sacrificed. Whereas the kept woman in The Awakening Conscience is depicted as a woman who suddenly realizes her fallen state and determines to return to a life of virtue, the Lady of Shalott has decided to leave her state of grace in order to satifsy her desire for Lancelot. Although Hunt implies that the fallen woman in The Awakening Conscience will be redeemed, he does not allow such optimism for the Lady of Shalott.
Waterhouse's 1894 version of The Lady of Shalott (plate), another variation on the climactic moment, presents the instant when the Lady whirls around to look at Lancelot through the window. She has left the loom, crossed the room, and now leans forward, staring into the world with the golden yarn of the web wrapped around her knees. Her hand rests upon the headboard of a bed, a gesture perhaps inspired by the line "she leaneth on a velvet bed" from the 1833 version of the poem. The cracked mirror behind her reflects the figure of Lancelot, who rides past her window, as he does in the poem, without making any gesture in her direction.
Waterhouse appears to have painted this version in accordance with Tennyson's own interpretation that "the new-born love for something, for some one in the wide world from which she has been so long secluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities." The climactic moment that he chose to illustrate is that supreme one for which the Victorians yearned — when the lover meets the one person predestined for him or her to love forever in life and death. The Victorian ideal conceived the noblest experience of life to be the acceptance of the risk and responsibility of this overwhelming love, even if unrequited or bereaved, and to keep faith with that loved one until perfect union was ultimately achieved in this world or the next.
Last modified 30 November 2004