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Béatrice Laurent (ed.), Sleeping Beauties in Victorian England: Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth

Bern: Peter Lang, 2015, 244 p. ISBN: 978-3-0343-1745-0
Julie Sauvage
Bibliographical reference

Béatrice Laurent (ed.). Sleeping Beauties in Victorian England: Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth, Bern: Peter Lang, 2015, 244 p. ISBN: 978-3-0343-1745-0

Full text

1The ten articles collected in this volume by Béatrice Laurent deal with the literary and pictorial representations of sleeping women in Victorian Britain, and mostly originate from a seminar held during the 2012 ESSE conference in Istanbul.

2First, let us notice that the book itself, as an object, is quite nice and provides the readers with relevant illustrations, which is highly appreciable, especially with the articles about painting and photography.

3This volume gives an interesting overview of the topic in various fields of study, so that it may be of interest to scholars specializing not only in literature, but also in history and art history. In addition, the obvious relationship between the theme of the sleeping woman and the renewed interest in fairy tales in the 19th century makes the collection an essential read for fairy tale specialists. They will certainly appreciate the way the volume puts the Sleeping Beauty theme in perspective and relates it to the historical context that gave rise to a general fascination with sleep in Victorian Britain.

4Such a diversity of topics and approaches could make it challenging to organise the contributions in a consistent way. ‘The essays in this volume have been arranged in three broad sections—culture, literature and art—each impinging on the other two’ (3), Béatrice Laurent writes in her introduction, which hardly does justice to her work. To put it in a more positive way, one might argue that the collection is precisely about the theme of sleep as one of the main areas of overlap between science and the arts in 19th–century Britain, which bears testimony to its significance in the Victorian psyche. Consequently, one might also wish that the issue of intermediality, in relation to the representation of sleep, were more explicitly tackled in the introduction. But this might also become an interesting topic for further publications.

5However, the editor actually managed to arrange the articles in the right way for the readers to draw enlightening links and parallels between them. In this respect, the first contribution, ‘What did Sleeping Beauties Dream of? About the Great Number of Representations of Sleep in the 19th Century’, by Muriel Adrien, could be a case in point. Although well-written and perfectly documented, it remains slightly too descriptive, because over-ambitious in scope, as its subtitle suggests: The topic is a little too broad for the author to provide a theoretical analysis of all the artistic fields and historical facts she tackles (some of them fascinating, like the switch from bi-phasic to consolidated sleep and its consequences in the Victorian period).

6Yet Muriel Adrien’s contribution constitutes a very enlightening overview of the subject, providing non-specialist readers with essential information, and specialists with a crystal-clear outline of the main aesthetic questions addressed in the following articles—the representation of sleep, gender issues, the perception of sleep and death, and metapictorial questions. It thus finds its perfect place as the opening essay to the volume.

7Béatrice Laurent’s own contribution, ‘The Strange Case of the Victorian Sleeping Maid’, focuses on famous 19th–century cases of protracted sleep, like Elizabeth Squirrell and Ellen Saddler, who attracted considerable attention and even became tourist attractions. She shows how doctors and journalists, borrowing from each other, actually focused on a few dramatic cases. She demonstrates the underlying presence of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale and the related myth of Persephone in their accounts. Her study of the scientific literature of the time allows better to understand the significance of those protracted sleep cases and the evolution of the Victorian authors’ conceptions of sleep.

8In a similar perspective, Laurence Talairach-Vielmas turns to the cultural context, namely the success of waxwork exhibitions in the Victorian era, shedding light on their historical links with medical science and anatomy, but also with crime and death, to examine Dickens’s Sleeping Beauty imagery in Great Expectations. Relying on Elizabeth Bronfen’s analysis of the contradictions inherent in the Victorian representations of the female body, she shows how Dickens uses waxwork imagery to represent mechanisation and repression, but also hint at the narrative workings of the novel.

9Her article provides a transition from the cultural perspective to the more specifically literary approach Manuela d’Amore uses in her essay on gender and creative negativity in The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (1866), by Anne Thackeray Ritchie. It may be noticed that this is the only contribution focusing on literature alone. All of the other articles tackling literary topics either link literary creation to its cultural context, or deal with artists like the Pre-Raphaelites, whose creations combined both literature and painting.

10Manuela d’Amore shows how Anne Thackeray Ritchie—with whom Victorian scholars must be familiar, but whose influence on the next generations of fairy tale writers may need to be reassessed—used the Sleeping Beauty imagery and the theme of sleep to surreptitiously subvert some of her readers’ expectations and gender assumptions.

11The next two contributions, by Stefania Arcara and Laurence Roussillon Constanty, respectively, are both devoted to Elizabeth Siddal. They adopt different perspectives on this intriguing woman who was mythicised as the epitome of the Victorian Sleeping Beauty, first by her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, then by most of her biographers. Relying on Siddal’s own poetry, as well as on various accounts of her personality by her contemporaries, Stefania Arcara cogently demonstrates that she was an artist in her own right, who deliberately used and thematised sleep as a position of extreme passivity in her works. In short, she ‘appropriated for herself the Sleeping Beauty myth and reversed its perspective so that its passivity becomes conscious self-withdrawal, where alienation from the world also means self-possession, and ultimately liberation’ (118).

12Laurence Roussillon also re-examines Elizabeth Siddal, but interestingly, includes Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic production in her study, together with Christina Rossetti and Siddal’s own poems. Focusing on the dynamics of looking, especially by drawing an enlightening parallel between Dante’s ‘Silent Noon’ and Elizabeth’s ‘A Year and a Day’, she deconstructs the traditional interpretations of the Sleeping Beauty figure to demonstrate how it initiated a form of female empowerment, and created a female figure who was not only looked at but also ‘watche[d] herself being watched’ (141).

13Also focusing on the intricacies of aesthetic theory, literature and painting, Cristina Pascu-Tulbure’s essay on Edward Burne-Jones and John Ruskin’s life-long friendship and correspondence shows how they both elaborated on the Sleeping Beauty trope, together and separately, in converging, then diverging ways. Her article reads like a fascinating, albeit winding, exploration of the briar wood groves of their correspondence. Her close analysis does yield very interesting results, since it convincingly accounts for the development of the artist and the critic’s recreations and reformulations of the Sleeping Beauty story by relating them to the vicissitudes of their lives and loves.

14The three articles on the Pre-Raphaelite interpretations of Sleeping Beauties nicely echo and complement each other, and they transition to the next essays, which deal more specifically with painting and photography.

15To begin this last section of the collection, Anne Chassagnol masterfully compares two versions of John Anster Fitzgerald’s The Stuff Dreams Are Made of, examining their historical and literary sources to demonstrate that both paintings depict a nuptial ceremony. She cogently argues that the drug-induced symbolism found in both versions subverts traditional interpretations to present the viewer with ‘a more liberated vision of sleeping beauties’ (184).

16Broaching potentially very fruitful, related questions, Marie Cordié-Levy’s essay on Julia Margaret Cameron’s Sleeping Beauties is unfortunately too short to allow for a thorough examination of the intricacies of beauty and death in photography that it hints at. Interestingly, the author resorts to Jean Clair’s La Barbarie ordinaire to comment on this aspect of Cameron’s sleeping women’s portraits. Although older, and possibly out of fashion by now, Jean Clair’s work on Medusa (La Méduse) could have been, perhaps, more fruitfully used to further explore this theme. Because this article directly deals with photography and its paradoxical relationship to time and sleep/death, it is also the moment in the collection when the reader most wishes Roland Barthes’s striking, albeit probably hackneyed, comment on the Sleeping Beauty as the ‘mythic prototype’ of the Tableau Vivant in Camera Lucida were explicitly addressed somewhere in the volume.

17The collection closes with Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada’s essay on Neoclassical and Aesthetic painting, ‘Beneath the Surface: Sleeping Beauties in Representations of Antiquity and their reception (1860–1900)’. She convincingly analyses paintings depicting mythological sleeping women, but also their reception by contemporary critics in order to shed light on the tension between the libidinal and the Ideal, and the subsequent gendering of the beholder. She demonstrates that the representation of eroticised Sleeping Beauties enabled late Victorian painters to use Greek myths and classical forms so as to explore the subconscious aspects of the human psyche which were beginning to attract some attention at the time.

18On the whole, this collection offers interesting, sometimes quite original takes on a well-known Victorian trope, and it can prove useful to Victorian arts and literature specialists, as well as myth and fairy tale scholars. Of course, it cannot complete a comprehensive exploration of such a wide topic, but it does offer some very fruitful insights and suggest new, connected areas of research.

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Electronic reference

Julie Sauvage, « Béatrice Laurent (ed.), Sleeping Beauties in Victorian England: Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 84 Automne | 2016, Online since 01 November 2016, connection on 12 December 2017. URL :

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About the author

Julie Sauvage

University Paul Valéry – Montpellier III

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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