Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain
Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth
Edited by Béatrice Laurent
Bern: Peter Lang, 2015
Paperback, 248 p. ISBN 978-3034317450. €59.90
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière–Lyon 2
This volume, No. 33 in a series edited by J.B. Bullen, “Cultural Interactions, Studies in the Relationship between the Arts”, originated in a seminar organised in Istanbul, during the 2012 Conference of the European Society for the Study of English. The subject, women and sleep in the Victorian age, seems to have attracted exclusively female contributors, most of them French, plus two Italian lecturers and a Romanian post-graduate. The theme is globally respected, in spite of a tendency to conflate several mythic figures: the “glass coffin”  seems to refer to Snow-White rather than to the Sleeping Beauty, and one may be surprised to read about “the emasculating operation carried out by Salome and her sisters on a male sleeper” , as John the Baptist was certainly not decollated in his sleep, as opposed to Holophernes when Judith severed his head from his body.
The arts (painting and literature, mainly) are very present in this volume, but its editor includes the real Sleeping Beauties of the Victorian age, the most famous case being that of Ellen Sadler, who slept for nine years without waking up from 1871 to 1880. The “Sleepy Cottage” where she lived, in Turville, Buckinghamshire, became a tourist attraction, without anyone ever discovering whether it was a hoax or a true case of “human hibernation”. According to Scottish physician Robert Macnish, author of The Philosophy of Sleep (1838), “The power possessed by the body of subsisting such a length of time in protracted sleep, is most remarkable, and bears some analogy to the abstinence of the Polar bear in the winter season” . Béatrice Laurent also studies “the sleep-mistaken-for-death trope” , associated with “spooky stories of people in a state of trance buried alive” . Hypersomnia was generally perceived as a gendered phenomenon, in relation with “a theory which associated weakness, under-developed mental capacities and narcolepsy. The less exercised the brain, the more easily it could become exhausted and cause a loss of blood irrigation which then led to drowsiness” .
All the other papers are devoted to problems of representation, but only two of them are exclusively about literature. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas provides a very interesting reading of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations but one wonders about its relevance to the subject. Does Miss Havisham really qualify as a Sleeping Beauty? She is indeed “waiting for her bridegroom to come back” , but she does certainly not sleep. Admittedly, she reminds Pip of “some ghastly wax-work […] representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state” , but she is alive and kicking, and only “her wish to be laid on the table after her death”  brings her closer to some Sleeping Beauty, which seems a bit limited to allow Laurence Talairach-Vielmas to mention “the multiple associations of Miss Havisham with contemporary models of Sleeping Beauties” . And even if Pip does play the role of Prince Charming who will bring back to life the enchanted palace and marry the princess, Miss Havisham is definitely not the princess (that part is assumed by Estella), but a mix between the evil witch and the fairy godmother.
Manuela d’Amore develops the fairy tale topic with her study of Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s rewriting of Perrault’s story, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”, in a collection entitled Five Old Friends and A Prince (1866). Less than eight pages out of twenty are actually devoted to this modernised version, in which the heroine’s “determination not to marry” reflects “a clear form of criticism against the main institution in a patriarchal society” . In Thackeray Ritchie’s book, female agency is “limited to the protagonists’ ability to better their men’s nature and start a new life with them” , forcing the reader to realise that “the only possibilities for women to express themselves were either new forms of escapism or of limited power over men’s nature” .
Literature is studied in direct relation with the visual arts in the two papers devoted to Elizabeth Siddal, whom Dante Gabriel Rossetti delighted in showing as a sleeping beauty, but who also exploited the notion of sleep in her own work as a writer and artist. In Rossetti’s drawings and paintings, Siddal “appears to be constantly in a state of lassitude, sleep or trance” . “She becomes a reified being, immobilized in a state of complete submission to the laws of pictorial representation, an enigmatic beauty devoid of subjectivity because she is unconscious” . According to Stefania Arcara, “altered states of consciousness were a realm of subjectivity that was central in Siddal’s life and art” , as a means of self-possession and liberation. In her poems, she expresses a desire for self-withdrawal, indifference and insensibility, sleep being “the elect space for the female protagonist, where she attains her unromantic, undisturbed estrangement from pain and from love” . For Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, sleep and death “are often interchangeable states of transition from one physical and mental state to another” in Millais’s or Rossetti’s representations of Siddal , the sleeping figure appearing “as a potent hyphen between subject and object” , “a window into a mystical realm” , as witnessed by Rossetti’s poems, “Jenny” or The House of Life.
Cristina Pascu-Tulbure very convincingly shows howBurne-Jones’s Sleeping Beauty paintings may have been influenced by Ruskin’s and his own private lives. The Briar Rose series might well echo the critic’s infatuation with Rose La Touche, whom he “began to talk about […] as ‘Bouton’ in 1862”  and whom he also called “my poor briar-rose” . Ruskin was happy to sublimate his desire for her, as he “found it difficult to imagine Rose as his Beauty invitingly fallen into the eroticized sleep of the maiden, waiting to be awakened to love and life” . Many years later, Burne-Jones had to accept “the impending, natural loss of his daughter Margaret to her future ‘prince’” . In his last version of the Briar-Rose, the princess remains unclaimed, as if she should never change, so that “Sleeping Beauty, safe from the prince’s embrace, may celebrate eternal aesthetic life” .
In her minute study of John Anster Fitzgerald’s painting The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of, Anne Chassagnol leaves no stone unturned to explain how sleep is here depicted “as an act of resistance and female empowerment” . She shows great ingeniousness to prove that female sleep was “a system of resilience that manifests itself via passive exhibitionism”  and rather bathetically concludes that Fitzgerald’s work “resists interpretation and remains a fairy fantasy” .
2015 will mark the bicentenary of Julia Margaret Cameron’s birth, but Marie Cordié-Levy’s paper does not add much to our knowledge of the Victorian photographer. One might even contest the inclusion of Alethea among her portraits “of the reclining sleepy kind” , since Alice Liddell, the model, does not look in the least ready to fall asleep. It might have proved more fruitful to study the theme of the sleeping beauty in the work of her slightly less famous contemporary Lady Clementina Hawarden, where it is much more obviously present.
Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada studies the reception of antique sleeping beauties depicted by painters like Albert Moore and Alma-Tadema, whom she refuses to classify as either “Olympian” or “Aesthetic”. In spite of the mythological or historical pretext, beneath the sculptural innocence, these sleeping women remain “a troubling object of desire” . In Leighton’s Summer Slumber, “A whole realm of dreams and fantasies is suggested: the undulating folds of her vesture emphasize the voluptuous lines of her body; her gown and the drapery on which she rests seem literally to flow out of her body – as if some fluid energy was escaping from her body while she is sleeping” . The same artist’s Flaming June, incontestably the Victorian icon of female sleep, is also discussed by Muriel Adrien in her opening paper “About the Great Number of Representations of Sleep in the Late Nineteenth Century”: “Women were put to sleep and silenced, as mere hollow ornamental shells deprived of voice and say. The pictures of sleeping women are coeval with the development of images of lying deceased persons, death being both an escape route from a male-dominated world and the embodiment of women’s entrapment” .
☞ Illustrated version on The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/reviews/laurent.html
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