The Lady of Shalott 1857: 'The Moment of the Catastrophe'
If Hunt's first drawing of The Lady of Shalott faithfully illustrates the events surrounding and tensions informing the moment of the Lady's ruin, then both his subsequent versions portray her as ruined; fallen rather than falling. In formal terms this might be taken to indicate a quite justifiable feeling on Hunt's part that he had passed his apprenticeship as a literary illustrator in 1850 with flying colours, and was therefore now in a position to interpret 'The Lady of Shalott' more freely, rather than feeling obliged to illustrate it exactly. This would explain why, in his next version of the picture, made for the celebrated Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems published in 1857, there were several significant changes from the 1850 drawing. [See illustration in the column at left.]
Before considering these alterations I wish first to examine the dialogue about this version of The Lady of Shalott which took place when Hunt and Tennyson met for the first time in 1856, and which is dramatically 'reconstructed' by Hunt in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:
'Why did you make the Lady of Shalott, in the illustration, with her hair wildly tossed about as if by a tornado?'
Rather perplexed, I replied that I had purposed to indicate the extra natural character of the curse that had fallen upon her disobedience by reversing the ordinary peace of the room and of the lady herself; that while she recognised that the moment of the catastrophe had come, the spectator might also understand it.
'But I didn't say her hair was blown about like that. Then there is another question I want to ask you. Why did you make the web wind round her like the threads of a cocoon?'
'Now,' I exclaimed, 'surely that may be justified, for you say -
'Out flew the web and floated wide!'
Tennyson insisted, 'But I did not say it floated round and round her.' My defence was, 'May I not urge that I had only half a page on which to convey the impression of weird fate, whereas you had about fifteen pages to give expression to the complete idea?' But Tennyson laid it down that 'an illustrator ought never to add anything to what he finds in the text.' (Hunt 1913, II, 95)
This account of the Hunt-Tennyson encounter contributes significantly to an understanding of the complex nature of Hunt's conception of the 'truth'. In the first place, Hunt's use of the reconstructed dialogue form is, as Laura Marcus rightly says, indicative of his 'belief in the power of the voice' as his main weapon in the rhetorical battle against his rival Pre-Raphaelite historian, the more subdued William Michael Rossetti (Marcus 1989, p. 16). Secondly, this use [318/319] of vigorous dialogue is typical of a strategy peculiar to Hunt: while he establishes his status as an eminent Victorian conventionally enough by recounting numerous encounters with the great men of his age, curiously he often comes a poor second in many of these encounters. The argument with Tennyson is a case in point, and one possible reason why Hunt should habitually represent himself as coming off worse in so many arguments was to make a virtue of necessity, by building a Cassandra-like image of himself as the misunderstood and much maligned prophet.
More detailed analysis of the content of this particular debate further illuminates the specific role retrospectively assigned by Hunt to his 1857 version of The Lady of Shalott, half a century later, in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Implicitly, Hunt's account of his argument with Tennyson represents it as a power struggle, in which concepts of 'truth', authority and status compete. Most obviously, Hunt and Tennyson rehearse, in the Lessingite terms considered above, the debate about the limitations of the respective arts of painting and poetry. Supporting Tennyson's assumptions about the superiority of poetry are cognate ones about his seniority and authority over Hunt. Thus: poetry is superior to the visual arts, the poem is Tennyson's, Hunt is Tennyson's illustrator, and — of course — Tennyson is poet laureate. On this evidence Tennyson is totally superior to Hunt in all respects, and Hunt is forced to concede defeat on all of the points raised.
However, besides contributing to Hunt's self-image as persecuted prophet, it can be argued that another, more subtle rhetorical strategy is also being deployed here. Quietly undermining the apparently impregnable authority of Tennyson in this debate is Hunt's alternative conception of another, higher 'truth', the idea which underlies and governs the rhetorical structures of Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It has already been seen that in his 1850 drawing Hunt expends considerable ingenuity trying to serve Tennyson faithfully, rather than risking trying to interpret his poem daringly. This Lady of Shalott clearly conforms to all the rules of illustration which Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood subsequently credits Tennyson with stipulating in 1856, and it could therefore either have been meekly produced — or at least humbly cited — by Hunt on that occasion as proof to Tennyson that he could 'do the job properly'. But it was not. Hunt does not invoke his first, 'true' illustration of The Lady of Shalott because, as I have suggested, by the time he came to write Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood the stakes he was playing for were much higher, rendering questions of literal accuracy of illustration immaterial to him. Instead, what was at stake by the twentieth century was the credibility of Hunt's wholesale revision of the history of Pre-Raphaelitism, in which his third interpretation of The Lady of Shalott is deployed as his major symbol of 'eternal truth', the second appears to be its prototype, and the first — perhaps because it served Tennyson so well — is not mentioned at all, but written out of existence.
Thus, in reconstructing his 1856 debate with Tennyson, Hunt's objective is to neutralize him rhetorically, thereby to create a space in which to begin inscribing his own version of the Lady of Shalott. Accordingly, the legitimacy of Tennyson's underlying objection to the severe nature of Hunt's interpretation of his poem is distorted, and his position discredited, because in Hunt's reconstruction the poet's questions about the Lady's hair and the web sound extremely literal-minded, and he comes across as being narrow-minded and arrogant.
In complete contrast, Hunt sounds eminently reasonable. While Tennyson harangues Hunt, in return Hunt is, as he says, 'rather perplexed', but nevertheless rational, and still polite. In the long second sentence of the extract, for example, the measured tones of Hunt's reported speech contrast markedly with Tennyson's abruptsounding question. Indeed its mild manner is the very antithesis of the customary declamatory mode of the Victorian sage. Yet much of the content of this quietly written sentence is in fact unmistakably dogmatic, and thus insidiously undermines Tennyson's position. Evangelical expressions like: 'the curse that had fallen upon her disobedience', are cunningly disguised behind the most disarming, innocuous-sounding preamble: 'Rather perplexed, I replied that I had purposed to indicate...'
The dominant impression given by Hunt's interpretation of 'The Lady of Shalott' in 1857 — the one to which Tennyson uncomfortably alludes, and which Hunt avoids confronting directly but simultaneouslyjustifies evasively — is that it represents the Lady as a fallen woman. Because this side of the Lady's nature was only latent in the 1850 drawing — which is characterized by a subtle, Tennysonian ambiguity — a comparison of the differences between it and its Moxon counterpart accurately pinpoints the changes made between 1850 and 1857 which transformed Hunt's original Lady of Shalott into the image of a fallen woman.
The 1850 drawing shows a chaste-looking Lady simultaneously resisting and succumbing to the temptation to look at Lancelot, but in the Moxon illustration her right arm no longer offers any resistance whatsoever to him, and both her arms are now naked; her long hair floats 'wide', like the web, where before it had been straight and still; and a phallic detail from the poem — Lancelot's 'mighty silver bugle' (1.88) -7- is introduced, prominently, as is another, his lance, which Tennyson does not mention. Finally, the convex mirror of 1850 has been flattened. It now looks more like a window, complemented by oval panels to each side, the right of [319/320] which, depicting the Crucifixion, replaces the roundels of the 1850s and their scenes from the poem.
Collectively, these new details convert the Lady into a fallen woman. In Victorian England, the production of visual and written discourses about female sexuality in general, and the fallen woman in particular, peaked in the 1850s and, as Linda Nochlin suggests, 'perhaps received its characteristic formulation in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelites and their friends' (Nochlin 1978, p.139). Typical examples of this formulation are Rossetti's unfinished Found (begun 1853), Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853-54), and the series of three paintings by Hunt's friend Augustus Egg, Past and Present (1858).
The iconography of Hunt's 1857 version of The Lady of Shalott unmistakably follows the conventions of Victorian visual representations of fallen women. Mid-nineteenth century discourses on female sexuality regarded as 'fallen' any woman who indulged in active — and thus unregulated — sexual activity, be she a prostitute, as in Found, or an adulteress, as in Past and Present. In the visual art there evolved a conventional mythology of the life cycle of the fallen woman, accompanied by an equally readily identifiable iconography. Typically, the fallen woman was once innocent, was seduced and abandoned, became an outcast, and — as a result of her inevitable despair and remorse — either committed suicide or, more rarely, repented and was saved. It is clear that the fatal life cycle of the Lady of Shalott parallels the inevitable, downward pattern of the typical fallen woman's existence very closely indeed.
In terms of her appearance the fallen woman was correspondingly heavily stereotyped: Lynda Nead explains that 'the notion of the prostitute's fall from virtue to vice was signified by stressing the transformation in her appearance from natural simplicity to showy detail...' (Nead 1988, p.173). Between 1850 and 1905 Hunt's Lady of Shalott's dress and appearance undergo precisely this process of transformation described by Nead: in 1850 it is characterized by 'natural simplicity', but by 1905 it is overwhelmed by 'showy detail'. The 1857 version represents an intermediate but unambiguously corrupt stage, when the Lady's sexual awakening is plainly signified by her bare arms and the wild hair, which so disturbed Tennyson. As Nead points out, in the vast majority of Victorian discourses about gender, respectable femininity was defined as being physically and sexually passive 'while the male sexual urge was understood to be active, aggressive and spontaneous'(Nead 1988, p.6).
Of course, pre-eminent among the seducers of medieval English legend was the figure of Lancelot: corrupter of Guinevere; betrayer of Arthur and — as a consequence of this — destroyer of Camelot. However, when Lancelot reappeared in Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott' in 1832, although his masculine sexuality was undiminished, he was decidedly not portrayed as the seducer of Tennyson's maiden. Thus the Lancelot-seducer stereotype was complicated. Accordingly, when Hunt first depict Tennyson's poem he too emphatically represented Lancelot in the main mirror as riding away from the Lady, quite oblivious to her existence; (though in the roundel closes to the Lady's head, Lancelot is shown frontally and in semi close-up image which recalls the poem's detail description of him). And although by 1857 Hunt had added two phallic details to Lancelot, thereby heightening his sexuality, Lancelot remained unseeing, and thus, immune from blame in the case of the Lady's fall.
This, I think, is the exact source of the controversy between Tennyson and Hunt about the Moxon version of The Lady of Shalott quoted above: its explicit representation of the Lady's frantic sexual awakening, in juxtapostion with Lancelot's passive masculinity, which unambiguously makes the Lady the agent of her own destruction. Indeed, the overwhelming feeling conveyed by Tennyson's uneasy questions about Hunt's drawing — "'Why did you make the Lady of Shalott ... with her hair wildly tossed about as if by a tornado?" ' '"Why did you make the web wind around her like the threads of a cocoon?"' — is of a sense of his Lady's ideological innocence having been violated by Hunt's representation of her as a fallen woman.