09 September 2008

Women: Dead Maidens Floating Down to Camelot

By Sandra Schwab

By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.
~ Jane Austen, PERSUASION
Nineteenth-century ideology divided the world into two different spheres: the public sphere and the domestic sphere. The public sphere (work, politics, money) was the realm of man, who was thought to have greater reason and thus greater intellectual capacities. The domestic sphere (the household, raising the children), by contrast, was the realm of woman, who was considered to be more emotional than man and to be unable to withstand the cruelties of the big, bad world outside. All in all, men were supposed to be active, women passive. The model woman was the so-called Angel in the House, a term which derived from a poem by Coventry Patmore, who described ideal female behaviour this way:

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
Because women were considered to be angels, they had to look frail and ethereal and had to faint a lot; many drank vinegar to gain an interesting pallor. In ideological terms, the most ideal, because the most passive, woman is a dead woman, and depictions of dead or dying women abounded in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the topic was popular and widespread that it threatened to become a cliché.

Illness, especially consumption, was idealized and regarded as a gentle fading away into death – a most suitable end for innocent, young girls such as Jane Eyre's friend Helen.

Love could also prove fatal for those poor fictional women: in Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" the heroine dies of unrequited love (because Lancelot, the cad, is in love with the queen), but before that happens she composes the Song of Love and Death:
I fain would follow love, if that could be;
I needs must follow death, who calls for me;
Call and I follow, I follow! let me die.
Furthermore, artists and writers used death as a means to subdue the unruly woman and an overly developed, and hence threatening, female sexuality. (Remember, women were supposed to be angels--and pure angels don't know anything about lust or passion!) One of the most popular dead women of the Victorian Age was Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, who sits in her tower, looking into her magic mirror and weaving night and day, until Lancelot comes riding along. When she dares to look out of the window, a curse strikes the lady and her mirror and web, the basis of her existence, are destroyed. She leaves the tower, takes a boat (which she conveniently finds on the banks of the river) and, floating down to Camelot, she dies. One of the most famous paintings on the topic is Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott:

Other artists such as William Holman Hunt chose to depict the Lady's digression, namely the looking out of the window. Given the sexualised imagery in the description of Lancelot, this moment can well be regarded as a sexual awakening (for which she is punished by death). Therefore, Hunt's Lady is a sexual creature, with naked (gasp!) feet and loose, wild hair (Victorian women only took their hair down in the bedroom), who gets entangled in her unravelling web while pigeons, symbols of innocence, fly out of the window.

Being a nineteenth-century heroine was certainly fraud with dangers!