Exhibition review: Tennyson’s Women

This guest post comes from Lauren Evetts, Literature MA student in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy.


Tennyson, Tennyson…. Where to begin?! I had just finished the taught element of a module about King Arthur in the 19th and 20th centuries and I had been particularly struck with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the beautiful retelling of Malory’s complete Arthurian legend in poetry form. My assessment was approaching and I really wanted to write a comparison piece, however I was struggling to find an appropriate text to compare it with. Hence my question – where on earth do I begin? I had this amazing, powerful tome of poetry but no approach, no methodology… I was pretty stuck.

All I can say is: Thank goodness for the people down in Special Collections! I thought I’d look for some inspiration amongst the collections and archives and maybe have a chat with the archivists to see what I could find. So I was incredibly pleased when I opened the double doors and right in front of me was an entire exhibition on the very text I wanted to write about! I was absolutely stunned.

Tennyson's Women exhibition at Special Collections and Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, on until March 2017.

Tennyson’s Women exhibition at Special Collections and Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, on until March 2017.

There in the glass cabinets were beautiful illustrations which accompanied Tennyson’s Idylls at the time of each publication. Gorgeous sketches, wood engravings, plates and paintings by Sir Richard Holmes, Gustave Doré, Edmund J. Sullivan, Florence Harrison, Mary Montgomerie Lamb, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti instantly appealed to the artist in me. I had no idea that such renowned illustrators were involved in decorating Tennyson’s work, and each one with a different perspective on the same scenes. The artist who really grabbed my attention, however, was Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, who produced 28 watercolour illustrations to accompany the 1911 edition of the Idylls. Her compassionate and complex portrayal of Tennyson’s women allowed me to gain a completely different stance on the characters and I knew, in that instant, that I had finally found a powerful comparison piece for my essay.

One image which particularly stood out to me was the depiction of Elaine being placed on her death bed.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, illustrated by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale.

‘So there two brethren from the chariot took / And on the blank decks laid her in her bed’. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, illustrated by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911.

Shunned by Lancelot after her repeated declarations of love, Tennyson’s Elaine chose to die rather than live with her unrequited feelings and asked her brothers, after her death, to deck her out like Lancelot’s beloved Queen Guinevere, put a letter for the knight in her hand, place her in a barge and let her float in it past the castle for all to see. Poor, young, naïve Elaine, who could only gain power over her circumstances in death! However, Fortescue-Brickdale’s illustration told rather a different tale.

The first thing I noticed was that Elaine has been positioned quite differently to the way she instructed her brothers to do so in the poem. Her gold covering is drawn right up to her chest, so that we are unable to see if she is dressed in the ‘rich’ clothing she desired, ‘like the Queen’, and her letter to Lancelot is completely hidden – if it is there at all! Furthermore, her face is pale and drawn – typical of a corpse, I suppose, but not smiling as in the text, and definitely not reminiscent of the ‘Fairy Queen’ which the courtly onlookers describe her as when she passes by. So Elaine is not powerful in death, after all. Her letter will go undelivered and she is unable to communicate her final message to the court. She is not sleeping the restful sleep of someone who has completed her final mission, but merely a powerless, young girl who died too young.

In these ways I could see that Fortescue-Brickdale felt that Elaine completely lacked autonomy over both her life and her death. She was dependent on men for her happiness in life and dependent on them to carry out her wishes in death. Although the changes in her illustration are fairly subtle, Fortescue-Brickdale’s depiction invites the viewer to feel Elaine’s helplessness and reliance on a patriarchal system. I found similar motifs in her other artwork and was able to write an argument on the female artist’s sympathy for Arthurian women. Now to wait for the results!

I strongly suggest asking for help from Special Collections and Archives if you’re ever stuck on what to write. In my experience, being able to view the original artwork accompanying Tennyson’s poetry was amazing, and visiting the exhibition really fascinated my inner geek. If you’re not stuck, I suggest going for a visit anyway – there are always incredible exhibitions, the staff are very helpful and know all sorts about all sorts of things. And who doesn’t love a bit of extra help?

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