The Sleeping Beauty myth, a popular theme during the Victorian age, gave rise to many creations both literary and visual. A fascination with portraying a sleeping woman suggests a situation fraught with meaning. Reduced to inanimation, she is the ultimate object of femininity — a beautiful unmoving thing. She sleeps in perfect peace and purity and can only be brought to her full potential — that is, animation — with the aid of a male.
In Nina Auerbach's Women and the Demon, she contends that this state could be a metamorphosis, from which she will awaken with greater power. However, the myth traditionally ends with the Princess awakening and marrying the prince, not asserting some newfound power. Marriage as a definitive closure in domestic bliss assigned each gender its part in upholding the order, and rare was the reader who found this dissatisfying. For most Victorians, that was ending enough.
Edward Burne-Jones provided an interesting departure when executed his series of Briar Rose paintings; he ended the story with the prince at the gates and the princess still asleep amongst the rest of the inhabitants. In outward appearances, it only seems that he did not need to go further, for his audience already knew the way the story ended. And yet, that he chose to focus on the moment while the princess sleeps and the prince moves alone is significant in that the male hero is active while the female heroine is merely decorative against all the gray sleeping figures. However, in this state she does have some inner pulsing glow which pulls the prince towards her, emboldens him to face the dangers in order to come to her aid. If this represents the source of awakened power, it is quickly nullified upon her waking and marriage — a moment which Burne-Jones chooses to omit.
The model for his painting was his eighteen year-old daughter Margaret, whose own sexual awakening had begun. Aware of the pulsing inner power which would draw suitors to Margaret just as Princes were drawn to Briar Rose, a distraught Burne-Jones placed in his paintings many obstacles for the hero to overcome before he may claim the lady. The thick, intimidating briars which fill each panel serve to hold off the seeking men but also as a threat to the princess herself. Gay Daly in Pre-Raphaelites in Love, notes that if she "awakes and begins to move, she will inevitably be pricked by a thorn, the significance of which is painfully obvious."
In declining to portray the moment when the Prince achieves his goal and awakes Briar Rose, Burne-Jones delays the surrender of his daughter to a husband. However, he does nothing to dilute the attracting power of a budding, beautiful young woman whose power over men is potent.
Last modified 1996