Lady of Shallot

The Lady of Shalott

“The greatest social difficulty in England today is the relationship between men and women” (NAEL, 1719). These words express awareness and the beginning of a change in the Victorian period. The role of the woman began its change throughout this period. Such changes seemed to only take place in the middle class. These changes caused many to question the role of the woman in society, thus the “woman question” evolved. The woman became less and less involved with the every day drudgeries and had more and more time on her hands. How women actually felt about this change is questionable, many took a middle ground that Walter Hougton said was “entirely characteristic of the time in its mediation between conservative and radical thinking” (349). This is where we find Tennyson. In “The Lady of Shalott” there are times where traditional womanly characteristics are present, and at the same time we see very liberal ideas expressed. Remember that the middle class woman’s role is the one going through this transformation, and the primary focus of this “Woman Question”. As a result of this new role we see a clash between traditional and radical thought, along with feelings of isolation, and questions of sexuality.
The “traditional” roles of the woman as a wife and mother became increasingly more popular through the Victorian period, predominately in the middle class. Although this wasn’t the only perception of women at the time the role of woman as “the submissive wife” (Hougton, 348) whose sole purpose was to please her lord and master is the best known. Coventry Patmore’s poem “The Angel in the House” (NAEL, 1722) is a poem that focuses predominately on such traditional woman’s duties. He feels that he gives woman a role in the home as a wife and mother, by “sing(ing) her worth as Maid and Wife”(NAEL, 1724). These two roles were usually the only options for a middle class woman, and there was a progression from one to the other. He wraps the poem up by saying, “The nuptial contrasts are the poles/ On which the heavenly spheres revolve”. He again is stating that the woman is both wife and maid, but one is not complete without the other. This statement gives insight to why the Lady of Shalott felt the need to escape her personal prison; she could not progress from maid to wife. Traditionally woman was to “love, honor, obey-and amuse-her lord and master, and to manage his household and bring up his children” (Hougton, 348). The Lady of Shalott could not progress to the role of wife because of the curse that trapped her in her tower. The writing of Sarah Stickney Ellis supports this idea of woman belonging in the home. She is to take care and comfort the man who spends the day working in the market, “the remembrance of her character, clothed in moral beauty, has scattered the clouds before his mental vision, and sent him back to that beloved home, a wiser and better man” (1724). She is there for the pleasure of the man. I suppose that if the Lady of Shalott was a traditional reflection of a woman in the Victorian period she would have stayed in he tower and waited for her “prince”. Since she ventured out on her own to find him and left the boredom that surrounded her in the home she is quite the opposite of the conservative views of the woman submissive. She became more of a reflection of the radical idea. Through her death Tennyson stifled this radical rebellion and leaves us standing on an intermediate ground.
In the nineteenth century the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and Nostalgia were also very prominent. Since “they felt isolated by dividing barriers; lonely for a lost companionship, human and divine; nostalgic for an earlier world of country peace and unifying belief”(Hougton, 77) we can assume that these feelings are mirrored in the literature of the times. The Lady of Shalott is literally isolated in her tower with only the distorted view of the world through her mirror. This is a reflection of not only how women were viewed and treated; it is one of the isolation everyone felt at this time. The cause of