She only said, 'my life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'—  ‘Mariana’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson (Complete text)

Mariana. Sir John Everett Millais, Bt (1829-1896. 1850-51/ Oil paint on mahogany. Support: 597 x 495 x 15 mm; frame: 876 x 767 x 55 mm. Courtesy Tate Britain, Ref. TO7553. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Marriage or death are the only sources of hope for the protagonist of Millais' Mariana. The above lines accompanied the work's exhibition at the Royal academy in 1851 and capture the mood of the piece. Taken from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, published in the First Folio of 1623, she is banished to solitude by her fiancé Angelo, after the loss of her dowry in a shipwreck. The following discussion explores how Mariana, which Millais based on Lord Alfred Tennyson's 1832 poem of the same title, speaks vociferously to the Victorian woman. The subject of this piece suffers a double rejection: she is unwanted by Angelo and also unwanted by society. Jan Marsh explains the era in which the work was painted, 'It was produced within a culture with prescriptive ideas about relations between the sexes and, in particular, the dependency of women’ (66). Upper and middle class women of this period were financially and socially dependant on husbands, fathers, or male relatives. Without male support Mariana cannot resolve her confinement. The theme of a woman waiting is repeated in Millais' work throughout his career. Marsh explores the theme of the isolated single woman in the works of Millais and links Mariana to his later piece Waiting 1854, in which we see another female segregated from society noting, 'The popularity of images of solitary girls, patiently waiting for their princes to appear' (68). These women not only wait for their 'prince' but for their financial security and standing in society to be established through marriage and motherhood.

In a letter to The Times on May 13th 1851 praising the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their modern approach to seemingly medieval subject matter, the writer and critic John Ruskin writes, 'These Pre-Raphaelites do not imitate antique paintings, as such they intend to surrender no advantage which the knowledge or inventions of the present time can afford to their art' (8). To this end, Millais uses a medieval heroine banished from society to highlight the social banishment of the unmarried Victorian woman. Jason Rosenfeld discusses how Mariana held particular appeal for Ruskin, explaining that the subject matter, elements of the composition such as the significant inclusion of nature; the stained-glass window; and the vibrancy of colour manufactured with the most modern technology, 'bespeak Ruskin's notions of pictorial convention, drawing from nature, reconstructing the past and embracing technological progress through materials' (14). The Pre-Raphaelite movement impressed upon Ruskin their technique for taking a medieval subject, and executing its rendering with the most current technology and methodology. These young men reconstruct the past in a refreshingly modern manner which was very much of their own time. In this way, Millais spirits the plight of the unmarried Shakespearian character from the seventeenth century, and positions her firmly in nineteenth-century Britain. As Elizabeth Prettejohn remarks, 'The figure that dominates this precisely described, yet enigmatic environment is clad in a blue velvet dress and jewelled belt that may be of the past, yet her sensibility seems distinctively modern' (12). Her high-necked dress and middle parting of hair reflect Victorian fashion rather than medieval costume. Millais has styled Mariana with just enough modernity to reflect that although his female protagonist is of the seventeenth century in literature, she is representative of women of the nineteenth-century who continue to suffer the same fate representative of women of the nineteenth-century who continue to suffer the same fate if unmarried.

Shakespeare will eventually bestow upon Mariana the coveted position of marriage; Tennyson and Millais do not offer the same endowment to their entrapped Mariana. Following Tennyson's lead, Millais takes a counterfactual approach to Mariana and presents her fate as an unmarried woman. Through his adaptation of Mariana, Millais is highlighting and condemning the status held by the unmarried woman in Victorian society. Mariana is banished from society and longing for death. For the Victorian spinster, her marital status amounted to banishment and death in society, in which for her, no place was held. Millais presents Mariana not as a hopeful young maiden awaiting word of her lover, but as a more mature woman who recognises that without a husband her position in society is void of purpose. According to Prettejohn, 'Her bodily forms are fuller and heavier than those of a girl' (12).

Millais has presented Mariana as a woman contemplating her position in society without a husband. We sense from Mariana that time is passing, she is getting older, and with every passing year the likelihood of marriage dissipates. The expected role of a socially successful woman was clearly illustrated in popular culture of the nineteenth century. Rachel G. Fuchs explains, 'From the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, marriage provided economic security, and not being married often engendered poverty. Until well into the twentieth century, most women had few if any alternatives to marriage' (23). Coventry Patmore's poem The Angel in the House (1856), gave clear instruction as to the Victorian female ideal: the patient, selfless and devoted wife andmother embedded in her domestic realm. In visual art works such as George Elgar Hick's Woman's Mission 1862-3, the ideal is reinforced. This triptych comprises three pabels instructing the woman to be: A Guide of Childhood, A Companion of Manhood, and A Comfort of Old Age.

Left: Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood. 1863. Oil on canvas, 762 x 641 mm Courtesy of Tate Britain T00397. Presented by David Barclay 1963. Right: Woman’s Mission: Comfort of Old Age. 1862. Oil on canvas, 762 x 638 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain T14037. Purchased 2014. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

John Ruskin further endorsed the notion that a woman could only reach her potential within the realms of marriage observing of women, 'Her intellect is not for invention or creation but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. Her great function is praise. By her office and place she is protected from all danger and temptation' (147). The middle and upper-class woman was prohibited from working outside of the domestic realm and so had no access to means of self-sufficiency if choosing to remain unmarried. Martin A. Danahay comments, 'So great was the separation of the notion of the lady from work that "working ladies" was a "contradiction in terms"' (78). For Mariana, without the financial support of marriage, she is also without options. She is paralysed and helpless in this space. The inability to support herself financially makes leaving impossible. Such is the stifling confinement of the single Victorian woman to the margins of society. Millais' rendering of Mariana speaks of the oppression and lack of opportunity for the mid nineteenth-century woman. Victorian elements to the décor of the room which detains the 'weary' woman, such as the wallpaper, reinforce the connection between the Shakespearian character and her nineteenth-century counterpart. Mariana stands and stretches but she remains trapped between the table that she works on and the stool behind her. The stained glass obscures her view of the outside world. She stretches because she has been interminably bent over her needle work or perhaps she has been leaning across the table to peer out of the lower half of the window which reveals life and nature outside. There is a small altar of worship to Mariana's right, denoting that solitude, needlework and religious devotion are her only undertakings in the life that she wishes would end. Neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson mention Mariana weaving a tapestry. Millais links Mariana to another Tennyson female protagonist who will choose death over solitary confinement. 'The Lady of Shalott' (1833) is Tennyson's tale of a young woman, locked in a tower and so removed from society that she may only glimpse its reflection in a mirror and reproduce the image in a tapestry. In the poem she declares, 'I am half sick of shadows'. Millais echoes this tragic heroine in Mariana to link them not only to each other, but to the Victorian single woman, passing time at needlework, confined to the home and the shadows of society.

Mariana is shut off from nature, Millais counteracts her confinement to the domestic sphere by allowing nature to invade the space. The autumn leaves are scattered throughout her room, and a mouse, not hiding as in the Tennyson poem, but dynamic, scurries across the wooden floor. The inclusion of such nature gives a sense of movement to the otherwise stagnant mood of the painting and also offers contrast to the unnatural confinement of a human being secluded from nature and society. The autumn leaves also signify the changing of seasons and the passage of time. The leaves on Mariana's tapestry are withering, mirroring her own fate. For Prettejohn, the invasion of nature signifies decay, and underlines the poverty a single woman, lacking in male financial support, would incur, 'We seem to see back in time into a historic house, one that may be in decay as a mouse scuttles across the floor and the Autumn leaves blow in'(11). The rejected lover surrounded by decay call to mind another Victorian spinster: Dicken's tragic Miss Havisham, surrounded by the decay of her wedding feast, paralysed in a moment, as time passes defiantly onward. Whilst Shakespeare's Mariana will eventually marry and be welcomed back into society, the viewer of Millais' painting senses that this woman has no such fate. The seasons will continue to change but her position will not. Marsh speaks of the Victorian attitude toward the rejected woman, 'In the Victorian age, a woman rejected by her love was a sad figure. Conventional wisdom decreed that her chances of marriage were slim' (138). The vibrancy of the colour palette, so emblematic of Pre-Raphaelite movement, offer no hope or vibrancy to Mariana's future. The image of The Annunciation in the stained glass reminds Mariana of a woman's expected role. The Angel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary as to what her fate will be; so too the Victorian woman's role is dictated, the alternative is a life on the fringes of society. Although he is addressing The Virgin Mary, the angel faces Mariana, she in turn leans away from him. Motherhood will not be for her. Mariana's desire that she be dead is echoed in the motto in the right-hand panel of glass, 'In Coelo Quies', meaning 'in heaven there is rest'. Marsh notes, 'In art, death by drowning or decline were appropriate endings for rejected women' (139). Marsh's observation underlines that the fate of the rejected woman in art reflects the attitude of the society that produced it. Death and decay befit the rejected or single woman as they have no place or function within that society. Millais interestingly includes the same silver ornament from Mariana's altar in his work of the same year, The Bridesmaid, which displays an anxious young woman, engaged in a folk-ritual desperately trying to conjure an image of her future husband. For some scholars this ornament has sexual connotations. Nicola Brown notes that 'the phallic authority of the sugar caster' (75) whilst Marsh also refers to this ornament as, 'The Phallic sugar caster' (48). The phallocentric quality of the ornament can be understood to emphasise the importance of a union with the opposite sex for the single woman. Marriage and children are not the only longing of Mariana. The sensuality of her rich blue velvet dress invokes in the viewer the sense of pleasure experienced through touching such a fabric.

Prettejohn explores how the stretching motion of Mariana pulls the fabric closer to her body, 'The stretching pose pulls fabric tight across the woman's breasts, while the wrinkles and crevices compel the viewer to imagine how the midnight blue velvet would feel to the touch' (12). This sensuality is counteracted however, with Mariana's restrained hair, soberly swept back to reveal her discontented facial expression. The force with which she has stabbed the needle into her embroidery amplifies the frustration of not only her needlework, but at the sexual frustration of her isolation. The subject of the needle-work, exuberant nature, offers contradistinction between her life and the outside world. Sensuality and sexuality have no place in the life of an unmarried Victorian lady. Millais highlights this unnatural physical isolation by juxtaposing Mariana with the natural world.

Although a figure of pity for most, the unmarried Victorian lady was a source of ridicule for some. Punch included a reproduced parody of Mariana adding 'We are glad to see that our portrait painters are making a vigorous attempt to show up merited contempt the nameless "ladies" and "gentlemen" who will insist on thrusting their faces into the Exhibition without a single plea either of beauty, fashion, reputation or greatness to justify their intrusion' 20 (1851): 219. Malcom Warner adds that Punch mockingly surmises that Mariana deserves her isolation noting, 'Obviously the reason the longed-for gentleman "cometh not" is that Mariana is so dreary looking' (Writing the Pre-Raphaelites, 219) Mariana was subject to the satire of an age which had no respect for, or understating of, the unmarried woman but rather deemed her unpalatable and unacceptable to society.

The Royal Family in 1846. Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Oil on canvas, 250.5 x 317.3 cm. Courtesy of the Royal Collection (, Buckingham Palace. Click on image to enlarge it.

In 1850, the previous year to the exhibition of Mariana, an engraving of a painting by Franz Xaver Winerhalter went into public circulation. This engraving was of a far more palatable and socially acceptable scene: The Royal Family in 1846. In this portrait the queen's sovereignty is naturally celebrated, but it is her fecundity that is the true celebration. In contrast to Mariana's weariness and dreariness, this depiction is vibrant and exudes vitality. The scene described by The Royal Collection Trust as 'One of domestic harmony, peace and happiness',19 strikes a stunning dissimilitude to the isolation and loneliness of Mariana. Contrasting to Mariana's virginal blue gown, Victoria wears the colour of the bride. Winterhalter's composition is theatrically set; a red curtain creates a staged effect, and Victoria is cast in the female's most vital role, that of a mother. All elements of the mise en scène emanate fertility: the colour palette is ebullient, flowers are in full bloom in contrast to Mariana's withering leaves, light is cast from many sources to illuminate each and every face. Surrounded by her children, who glow with health and exuberance, she looks to the viewer with an expression of pride and accomplishment. Victoria has secured a suitable husband and has fulfilled her expected duty of producingmany flourishing heirs to the throne. The future royal lineage is secured. Queen Victoria,with her back to the window, need not gaze longingly at the outside world, she is content in her space.

The Victorian public of all classes embraced this wholesome family scene. Eugene Barilo von Reisberg writes, 'The portrait became the official representation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for years to come, and, judging by the proliferation of copies in public collections and on the art market, it was amongst the most popular depictions of the young queen and prince' (2). The Queen's depiction as wife and mother had far more appeal to the public than her innumerable portraits rendered alone as monarch. Unlike Queen Victoria, Mariana will not contribute to the future population and to that end she herself has no future. Mariana is not idealised or rendered as a beauty. She is representative of a very real person, a person who does not cease to exist simply because they are hidden away from society. She is the socially shunned, ineffectual, invisible, unsolicited, unmarried Victorian woman

Other Discussions of this Work


Bennett, Mary. Millais. Liverpool and London: 1967.

Brown, Nicola. 'Will he, won't he? Will she, won't she? Fortune telling and female subjectivity in John Everett Millais' The Bridesmaid', Women: A cultural Review, 13.1 (January 2002): 75.

Danahay, M. A. Gender at Work in Victorian Culture: Literature, Art and Masculinity. Hants, 2005,

Fuchs, Rachel. Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe. New York, 2005.

Giebelhausen, M., and T. Barringer. Writing the Pre-Raphaelies. Surrey, 2009.

Marsh, Jan. re-Raphaelite Women. London, 1987.

The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984.

Prettejohn, Elisabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London, 2000.

Rosenfeld, John. Tate Introductions: Pre-Raphaelites. London, 2012.

Ruskin, John. J., Of King's Treasures and of Queen's Gardens. London, 1865.

von Reisberg, E. B. 'Garters and Petticoats: Franz Xaver Winterhalter's Portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert'. Electronic Melbourne Art Journal, 5 (2010). 2.

Warner, Malcolm. The Pre-Raphaelites. Exhibition catalogue. London: Tate Gallery [now Tate Britain], 1984.

Last modified 27 January 2019