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XLVIIIe congrès de la S.A.E.S. à l'université d'Orléans

Britomart Quest Anew, Victorians Revive the Elizabethan Faerie Queene as Campaigns for Women’s Suffrage Intensify

Susan Clayton
p. 323-338


Nineteenth century reeditions and reworkings of the Renaissance The Faerie Queene, can be equated with renewed interest in one of Spenser’s leading protagonists, Britomart, daughter of a knight, who herself passed as one. This Victorian interest in an example of transgenderism coincided with women’s demands for socio-cultural changes. We shall address the questions of links between gender and power, and consider how the past is used to consolidate the present.
Our analysis starts by contextualising Victorian revivals of Britomart’ story, paying special attention to a prose adaptation by Mary MacLeod, then assessing these revivals in relation to women’s demands for change, bearing in mind that British suffragettes also looked across the Channel to another female knight-at-arms, Joan of Arc, for a model for their campaigns. Finally we will consider certain cultural implications when such a resurgence interacts with challenges to gender.

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Texte intégral

Did the New Woman Update Female Chivalry?

  • 1 The poem was begun in 1579. As The Oxford Companion to English Literature notes “The first three bo (...)

1The Victorian period is usually rated as one of innovations and transitions. But the age was also marked by cultural revivals amongst which we can include values promoted by muscular Christianity, as well as themes chosen by artists and writers. Our first part will survey how Victorians related to a society that was pre-industrial, and exhibited medieval features, not least chivalry, before we concentrate on one particular late-nineteenth century literary revival, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.1 Victorian editions constituted a resurgence of ‘faery-land’ chivalry at a time when another icon of chivalry, Joan of Arc, served as inspiration to campaigners for women’s suffrage.

  • 2 A 7th edition appeared in 1914; a copy is held by the British Library.

2Amongst reworkings of The Faerie Queene, Mary MacLeod’s, entitled, Stories from the Faerie Queene, ran into several editions.2 The volume also contained drawings by A.G. Walker, and we shall consider both text and drawings. Furthermore we shall focus on one leading character in Spenser’s poem, Britomart, who also inspired nineteenth century painters. She was the daughter of a knight, passed as one herself, and had adventures during which she showed herself to be as brave as “the next man”. Such literary and artistic resurgence occurred at a time when the struggle for women’s rights neologized the term, the New Woman, whose demands included parliamentary suffrage. This coinciding of the resurgence of Spenser’s female-knight-at-arms and the changing situation of women at the end of the nineteenth century is not only interesting because it can inform our understanding of the construction of gender, but also because of the light it throws on how social change and continuity are represented - as we shall see in our third and final part.

Voices from the Past

3There exist many examples of cultural revivals in Victorian Britain which indicate Victorians tapped images of a pre-modern society which flowed freely into the nineteenth century vision of things. For instance themes chosen by painters, not least the Pre-Raphaelites, and writers or poets. Several paintings by Pre-Raphaelites depicted stories or scenes set in a time prior to the Renaissance. Indeed one can juxtapose canvases by Pre-Raphaelites which illustrate how the Middle Ages inspired as richly as did their own times. Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work, dated 1852–63 glorified the Victorian work ethic and Chaucer at the Court of King Edward III (1327–77) dated 1845–51, depicted a lively fourteenth century court scene with the English writer busily practising his profession by reading aloud. Similarly William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, first exhibited in 1853, addressed Victorian concern about the fallen woman, and Hunt likewise portrayed a struggling Arthurian woman in the Lady of Shalott, painted between 1886–1905. Her story also appealed to John William Waterhouse, as confirmed by his painting of 1888, and likewise to Alfred Tennyson, whose poem The Lady of Shalott appeared in 1852.

4Architects similarly sought inspiration in the pre-industrial period with the mock gothic. Indeed buildings were constructed in neo-gothic style to accommodate the achievements of industrial, technological or scientific inventions: a railway station such as St Pancras is one example. In addition to specific works of architecture, art or literature we can find the resurgence of medieval values in for instance a renewed interest in chivalry. The expression which has become closely associated with Victorian Britain, muscular Christianity, was used by Charles Kingsley, and is generally attributed to him.

  • 3 Spenser follows a reference to other great figures by saying “Yet these, and all that else had puis (...)
  • 4 In Girouard’s own words, “The ideal knight was brave, loyal, true to his word, courteous, generous (...)

5The values promoted by muscular Christianity permeated Victorian society: areas of life which they entered included education, not least in the public schools, the Boy Scout movement, and attitudes towards empire building. As John Beynon confirms, “One of the key influences in the promotion of Muscular Christianity was Dr Thomas Arnold, the charismatic headmaster of Rugby School from 1829–1842.” (41) Purity was a defining feature of Victorian muscular Christianity. And Mark Girouard has noted, “Muscular Christianity helped make purity an essential element of nineteenth-century chivalry.” (143) Purity, it should be remembered, is synonymous with chastity, the great quality Spenser attributed to Britomart.3 Amongst traits of chivalry Girouard lists in his working definition are being brave, loyal, generous, as well as defending the Church and the wrongfully oppressed4—a point we shall return to.

  • 5 “Spenser’s epic is full of castles, monsters, knights, queens and ladies” (Girouard 17)
  • 6 Although Woolf said, “The Faery Queen, it is said, has never been read to the end; ...” (14) she as (...)
  • 7 Publication of the six books of The Faerie Queene with Crane’s illustrations appeared in 1894 (book (...)
  • 8 For example Sophia Maclehose published, in 1890, a prose reworking—like Macleod: and the publisher (...)

6Given the revival of chivalry, it is not surprising to find a renewed interest in The Faerie Queene, the sixteenth century poem in which Spenser created, or rather recreated, a world of chivalry.5 Recreated is more appropriate because chivalry was “the code of conduct (which) evolved for the knights of the Middle Ages.” (Girouard, 16) Amongst reworkings of The Faerie Queene, Mary MacLeod’s is interesting because it was a prose adaptation which was also illustrated by drawings. By choosing to transform Spenser’s poem into prose and to illustrate it, the volume catered for readers who would not have tackled what is rated a demanding work of fiction in verse; so demanding that Virginia Woolf in an essay on the poem wrote it has reputedly “never been read to the end”.6 Macleod’s transformation was not the only Victorian re-working or reedition. An edition by T. J. Wise contains illustrations by Walter Crane, which according to Percy Muir “show Crane at his worst—muddled, overcrowded and derivative.” (164). The volumes were printed on hand-made paper and have become collector’s items.7 Another, less pretentious reworking, was done by Mary E. Litchfield in which she gathered in one volume Spenser’s verses about Britomart, as her title, Spenser’s Britomart from books III, IV and V of the Faery Queene, neatly outlines. One can understand Litchfield’s effort to re-group “the scattered portions of Spenser’s interesting narrative” because for her, “... no story in the Faery Queene is so romantic and none has such a strong human interest as that which tells of the ‘lady-knight’” (iii) The oxymoric term “lady-knight” invites reconsideration of roles normally attributed to women in 19th century Britain. One need only recall how dichotomously organised on the basis of separate spheres those roles were. We have mentioned three examples of reeditions or reworkings but there were others; some were in prose, some were illustrated.8

7As the above mentioned works indicate Britomart quested anew in Victorian Britain, in particular at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed the timing of the above editions is worth noting: the volumes containing Crane’s illustrations were published in 1894, 95 and 96, Litchfield’s in 1896, and Macleod’s reworking in 1897.

  • 9 A reproduction of the painting can be found in Draquet’s book (313).
  • 10 “Till that to the sea-coast at length she her addrest. / There she alighted from her light-foot bea (...)

8Britomart’s story also inspired paintings without textual support, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. There is the Belgian, Ferdinand Knopff’s oil of Britomart, dated 1892, as well as sketches. His oil of Britomart wearing armour has prompted Michel Draquet to say about the rendition of the “lady-knight” “Le corps absent s’est dérobé sous la surface métallique d’une cuirasse qui souligne à la fois le caractère androgynique de l’idée révélée, la chasteté de la quête caressée et la perfection aristocratique de l’être sublimé.” (285)9 Knopff has revived key traits of Britomart: androgyny, chastity and sublimation. Crane, in addition to illustrating Spenser’s poem did an oil, dated 1900, portraying Britomart in armour. His background suggests the Albion coastline, and the scene is inspired by lines in book III, canto iv, verses 6 and 710. The less well-known British artist Mary Raphael chose to depict Britomart after she rescued the lady Amoret. Her oil painting portrays the “lady-knight” as champion of the wrongfully oppressed, a key characteristic of chivalry. In these late nineteenth century visualisations of Britomart there is resurgence of traits present in Spenser’s text: androgyny, chastity, chivalry, patriotism and sublimation.

Figure 1. — Walter Crane, Britomart, 1900

Figure 1. — Walter Crane, Britomart, 1900

9We have used Mark Girouard’s work to contextualize Britomart within the resurgence of chivalry in the long nineteenth century, however we should add that Girouard said nothing about her, and hardly referred to Joan of Arc. Indeed for Girouard the “return to Camelot” was about men or as he implies in his sub-heading “Chivalry and the English Gentleman”, so we shall have to extrapolate if we wish to locate women in the revival.

Britomart, Joan of Arc and Fighting for Women’s Rights

  • 11 See for instance Hannah Mitchell’s autobiography.
  • 12 As Jean Chothia explains in her introduction to four New Woman plays, “The term, the New Woman, whi (...)

10A link between Elizabethan socio-political reality and Spenser’s writing of The Faerie Queene is acknowledged. For Girouard, the poem “was in fact a genuine reaction to a real situation, one way of stimulating loyalty and service to the queen of a Protestant nation fighting for power, prestige and survival.” (17) Likewise during Victoria’s reign Britain and the empire struggled for “power, prestige and survival” which could have been a factor in revivals of Spenser’s epic. Concurrently the late nineteenth century movement for women’s rights was reinvigorated; it was diffuse and strong at the grass-roots11. As such Mary Litchfield’s grouping together of the “Britomart story” from Spenser’s poem was in keeping with a reinvigorated feminist consciousness. At the time her adaptation appeared, 1896, the neologism, New Woman, entered the social, political and cultural scene of Victorian Britian. The term is attributed to Sarah Grand who used it in an article in 1894.12 It was also chosen to title Sydney Grundy’s play in 1895. The New Woman challenged clichés of the Victorian “angel in the home”; she offered alternative models to women who wanted adventure, travel (including emigration), and an active life outside home.

11Interaction between literature and social ideas about women in the late nineteenth century was steady. Not only did feminists use fiction to get their message across, as numerous examples in Glenda Norquay’s anthology illustrate, but also fiction regularly reflected the demands of women, for example Sue in Jude the Obscure, 1896. Similarly revivals would have joined the stock of fiction which fed the common conscience; in the case of The Faerie Queene there were both reeditions in Renaissance verse of Spenser’s accounts of Britomart’s love of adventure (such as Litchfield’s re-grouping of her story) as well as modern English prose (such as Macleod’s paraphrasing). It is easy to see the appeal which Britomart’s story would have had in 1897. For instance here is how Britomart explains to a fellow knight her quest for adventure as they, ’journeyed away from Castle Joyous:

Fair sir, (...), I would have you know that from the hour when I left my nurse’s arms, I have been trained up in warlike ways, to toss spear and shield, and to meet and overthrow warrior knights. I loathe to lead the lazy life of pleasure that most ladies do, fingering fine needle and fancy thread; I would rather die at the point of the foeman’s spear. All my delight is set on deeds of arms, to hunt out perils and adventures wherever they may be met by sea or land, not for riches nor for reward, but only for glory and honour. For this reason, I came into these parts, far from my native country, without map or compass, to seek for praise and fame. (182)

  • 13 As Joan Perkin explains, “Elizabeth later took advantage of the opening of medical degrees to women (...)

12The New Woman would, like Britomart, have deplored the “lazy life of pleasure that most ladies” lived. Not only is it worth noting how Britomart has saddled together, with a hint of puritanism, “laziness with pleasure” but her attachment to an active life, with adventures and challenges, was something which the New Woman could have identified with when she practised sports, rode a bicyle, travelled or migrated, and in some cases obtained qualifications denied her in England—for example Elizabeth Garrett Anderson13. The New Woman also condemned the injustices of social customs concerning women, as a play like The Last of the De Mullins (1908, St John Hankin) illustrates. When the heroine, Janet De Mullins, cycles around the countryside, and decides to move to London to gain her independence and make a success of her life as an independent woman we can draw parallels with the choices of Britomart.

  • 14 For instance The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882.
  • 15 A conversation between Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson records priorities ““Well, Eliza (...)

13At the end of the century British feminists concentrated their efforts on winning parliamentary suffrage. It was the area where little had been obtained, whereas in education, employment, custody of children, control over personal income14, etc there had been, by the end of the nineteenth century, some victories15. Part of the feminist struggle for suffrage involved speaking at public meetings, and in the case of members of the WSPU also becoming involved in militant activities. The very fact of speaking in public was a victory over the exclusion of women from the political public sphere. It brought suffragettes to the notice of the press and public and as such one could say that the leaders, for instance the Pankhursts (especially Emmeline and Christabel) sought, “praise and fame”, to quote Britomart about herself.

  • 16 See on this point Lisa Tickner’s analysis of the movement.

14Suffragette marches were accompanied by banners and took on the air of a spectacle, not unlike the spectacle of medieval tournaments16. Also the suffragettes produced placards, art works as well as journals. One such example is the poster the Bugler Girl, designed by Caroline Watts which was published by the Artists’ Suffrage League to advertise a NUWSS procession in June 1908. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was a suffragist organisation. We shall compare the poster with an illustration of Britomart in Mary Macleod’s adaptation when the female-knight-at-arms removes her helmet and onlookers discover that she is a “lady-knight”. In both illustrations the women are wielding or holding high objects associated with combat: an iron helmet and bugle. They are also carrying or wearing other symbols of battle: suit of armour, a sword or standard. The ways they are holding their bodies with their arms in the air, outstretched and, or reaching up, signify corporeal assertiveness; there is nothing submissive about their poses. Also they are doing these things for the benefit of onlookers, theirs are public gestures, which defy the standard codes of deportment for women. Their assertiveness is subject to the gaze of others; they are making a public statement about their behaviour in the public place.

Figure 2. — Illustration of Britomart in Macleod (198)

Figure 2. — Illustration of Britomart in Macleod (198)

Figure 3. Bugler Girl, Caroline Watts

Figure 3. Bugler Girl, Caroline Watts
  • 17 In the case of Britomart’s victory it was partly due to “her angel face”, as Macleod writes, Artega (...)

15Britomart was not the only model of female chivalry available to the suffragettes. As Lisa Tickner notes “The archetypal militant, continually evoked in the final years of the WSPU campaign, was Joan of Arc: ‘not only perfect patriot but perfect woman’”. (209) And Tickner continues “Joan of Arc symbolised the women’s holy crusade... she was borrowed from the French and made the central emblem of feminist rebellion against the state” (209–10). By choosing a patron saint from history rather than literature the WSPU surely aimed at more convincing credentials for the movement, and other women warriors became models, for example Boadicea, but the dividing line between “faery land” and history is blurred, also it is the generality of female chivalry which surely is significant. The range of female champions simply confirms that female gallantry has a literary and historical tradition and that at the time of the New Woman the tradition whether fictional, historical or for that matter mythical, resurged. If we compare two illustrations, one of Joan of Arc in a WSPU poster and the other of Britomart we can see several common points. In both the female knight-at arms is set in a dominant position, and is seen from below, as in a low-angle shot. She is dressed in a full suit of plate armour, wields a sword in one hand and a shield or standard in the other, and is moving towards her opponent - in the case of Britomart he is in the picture, in the case of Joan of Arc the opponent is anyone, man or woman, who stands in the way of the woman’s holy crusade to obtain suffrage. Britomart has defeated her (male) opponent17, Joan of Arc is set to do the same. She represents the promised victory over the injustice of women deprived of parliamentary suffrage. We should not forget that these are late nineteenth century images which were aimed at a wide readership. Mary Macleod’s volume was in modern English, The Suffragette was sold freely. The two illustrations depict women dressed as female knights-at-arms from previous centuries and as such they cross the boundary of time as well as the (timeless) one established between genders.

16Two traits attributed to Joan of Arc and Britomart alike, were fighting injustice or oppression, and second chastity. Mary Raphael’s painting of Britomart and Amoret is a good example of Britomart’s rescue of someone wrongfully oppressed. In this late—nineteenth century, pictorial revival of Spenser’s poem the “lady knight” has rescued Amoret from the wicked Enchanter. Likewise the century’s pictorial revivals of Joan of Arc e.g. Ingres’ 1854 painting of her at Rheims cathedral or D.G. Rossetti’s Joan of Arc Kisses the Sword of Liberation, 1863, portray her set to rescue France from the injustice of English occupation.

Figure 4. — The Suffragette 1912

Figure 4. — The Suffragette 1912

Figure 5. — Illustration of Britomart in Macleod (254)

  • 18 The roles of both women have been scripted differently but the words of Harry Berger about Britomar (...)

17Britomart’s defeat of Artegall, as depicted in the above illustration, as well as that of Scudamour was partly due to her “angel face”. Here is how Macleod describes how Scudamour “was wondrously dismayed, and, drawing near and seeing plainly this peerless image of perfection he... did homage to Britomart as to some celestial vision.” (254) And it is widely acknowledged that Joan of Arc was saintliness personified. The choice of two female warriors renowned for their virtue and chastity is worth noting, but it is not a point we can develop here except to mention that it was in keeping with the feminist movement’s fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts, and the double standard of morality. Josephine Butler was the leading campaigner against the Acts, and Dale Spender explains her analysis of the situation as follows, “Butler explicitly states that conditions for women were made worse during the second half of the nineteenth century with the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts which created a slave class of women for the purpose of satisfying licentious men who gave only their own word that their sexual appetite was uncontrollable…” (469) Joan of Arc’s and Britomart’s virtue coincided with the campaigns for purity—even though the two women were cast different roles in relation to motherhood and heteronormativity.18 The debate on women being polluted by syphilitic men was an issue which recurred at the end of the nineteenth century—even if free love and chosen single motherhood were also advocated by other New Women.

18We know that Spenser’s Faerie Queene was read. Not only do reeditions of his poem indicate this but Virginia Woolf in her essay has confirmed the pleasure the poem gave her. And it is surely no coincidence that Woolf should have made Orlando acknowledge having read Spenser, “All her life long Orlando had known manuscripts; she had held in her hands the rough brown sheets on which Spenser had written in his little crabbed hand…” (270) We can recall that in Woolf’s 1927 novel the leading protagonist starts out as an Elizabethan knight, enriched by adventures and travel, who mutates into an early twentieth century New Woman. Orlando’s remark above implies that through a recognition of (hand)writing there was resurgence of the faery land in another work of fiction... also marked by resurgence of androgyny. But resurgence was not a prevailing force for Victorians.

Past Revolves with Present, a Cyclical Model

19Girouard used the word return in the title of his referential volume on the revival of the Arthurian world vision in Victorian times. By calling his volume The Return to Camelot, he made re-emergence of the past seem to be part of an ordinary movement. After all one returns to work after a vacation. As such the interplay of past in present occurs without devaluing the past. This is not the case with, for example, the word throwback, used by Tony Money when writing about sportsmanship, as part of muscular Christianity; he said that it was “a product of the 19th century Christian gentleman ideal of Dr Arnold, a throwback perhaps to medieval chivalry...” (175) Someone’s attitude to the past is different if s/he rates its reappearance a throwback rather than a return. The O.D. defines throwback as “reversion to an earlier ancestral type or character” and Merriam-Webster equates it with atavism, “an instance or product of atavistic reversion”. To qualify muscular Christianity as a throwback or as atavistic, gives it negative connotations, by implying that it does not belong in the present. Such an attitude is not surprising if one deems evolution to be the model any society should follow. And evolution was the widespread model of social movement in the long nineteenth century, even if it did not have a monopoly. Victorians, more likely than not, judged things by the yardstick of social Darwinism and accordingly interpreted inventions as part of a continuous, forward process viewed as progress. We should remember that Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859. Also of interest is that Merriam-Webster dates the appearance of the word throwback at 1888; it meant an expanding vocabulary which connoted the past recurring in the present as negative.

20With the concept of “historic recurrence”, or big history, the notion of socio-historic return acquires a more theoretical basis. Similarly Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project reexamined a volume by August Blanqui, published in 1872 and declared; “Blanqui’s book presents the idea of eternal return ten years before Zarathustra…” (25) And Benjamin continues “Blanqui here strives to trace an image of progress that (immemorial antiquity parading as up-to-date novelty) turns out to be the phantasmagoria of history itself.” (25) Accordingly an evolutionary interpretation of history could be a phantasmagoria.

21The various re-workings and re-editions of Spenser’s poem as well as pictorial renditions of Britomart constituted a recurrence, which at the time of muscular Christianity and the “return to Camelot” not only matched a political demand, felt to be as crucial as in Spenser’s day, for “loyalty and service to (a) nation fighting for power, prestige and survival”, but also translated a cultural constant. There seems to be tucked into this cultural revival something that resurges in human consciousness, namely the freedom which the “faery land” imagined by Spenser conveyed. Woolf valued his poem because “The mind is being perpetually enlarged by the power of suggestion. Much more is imagined than is stated. And it is due to this quality that the poem changes, with time, so that after four hundred years it still corresponds to something which we, who are momentarily in the flesh, feel at the moment.” (15) Another crucial word Woolf used in connection with Spenser’s epic was that it frees one, “So we feel free not shut in; but freed” (18) and her point is confirmed by the the fact that the poem freed the imaginations of painters (Knopff, Crane and Mary Raphael) and even Woolf herself through Orlando.

  • 19 In answer to the “Darwinian evolution theory” Carpenter contended “... the unfolding of the creatur (...)

22Evolutionary theory was not the only Victorian concept of change. For instance the Socialist thinker Edward Carpenter, in Civilization: its Causes and Cures 1889, advocated exfoliation in an essay of the same title.19 Exfoliation does not rest on a linear concept of change, as does evolution. Similarly trade cycles allow for repetitions and returns. Concepts of change which do not envisage linearity diverge from those, such as historicist or evolutionist ones that do, by their recognition of recurrence. Currently in the debate between constructionists and essentialists a similar divergence exists.

  • 20 “Another feature of the new chivalry was that it was to be democratic: beauty and spiritual quality (...)
  • 21 Four characters use “new” as follows: “Enid: A New Journalism / Victoria: A New Political Economy / (...)

23Girouard qualified Victorian chivalry, as New Chivalry, and said that its special feature was that it was more democratic. He offers as proof, the creation of the Boy Scout movement by Baden Powell.20 Newness was a refrain in the nineteenth century and at the end was notably applied to women, as illustrated by Sydney Grundy’s play The New Woman, 1894. When the Colonel exclaims “Everything’s New nowadays!” those present draw up a list.21 On the other hand Lady Wargrave on the New Woman says, “What do I think of the New Woman? There is no New Woman, she is as old as Molière.” (in Chothia 41). Her words allow for continuity in the alleged newness of the so-called New Woman, who as we know had forerunners going back to Mary Wollstonecraft—at least. Similarly making Britomart quest anew could be seen, like the adoption by the WSPU of Joan of Arc as an iconic figurehead, as the inherent perenniality of female chivalry and gallantry. A comprehensive analysis of the two would require considering the dynamics of power involved, regardless of whether it be female or male, but such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

24Surely though one could legitimately claim that obtaining suffrage was new for women, as was entering certain professions e.g. medicine, and that these were an indication of greater democracy which one can match with a new more democratic chivalry mentioned by Girouard (who it should be remembered chauvinistically said nothing about female chivalry). But it cannot be denied that throughout the nineteenth century struggle for democracy for women, historic women warriors resurged and Britomart quested anew.


25In the tussle between cognitive constructs which depict societies moving in a linear way and those which depict them moving rather in a cyclical fashion or as an unfurling, revivals of cultural works, whether reeditions or reworkings, e.g. screening a novel, suggest an inherent inner strength or entity which resurges, so strengthening the claim of the cyclical. When resurgences are used to consolidate current demands by groups who have been deprived of rights then one could claim that past combines with present in a potent alchemy. Justifying current socio-political demands with the help of history, such as the WSPU choosing Joan of Arc as patron saint, illustrates how dynamic the combination of resurgence and reform can be.

26Amongst the numerous revivals which marked the long nineteenth century the questing anew of Britomart in The Faerie Queene illustrated two resurgences: space for the enlargement of the mind and freedom to imagine, which a poet offers readers, as well as the challenge by women, through female knighthood, to the established gender dichotomy. Surely this challenge underlies Litchfield’s claim about Britomart that “… no story has such a strong human interest as that which tells of the ‘lady-knight’” (iii). Resurgent desires for creative freedom and gender equality illustrate the “archaic in the midst of the modern”, pointing to persistence in history. Revivals of Britomart’s story represent the(re) questing of gender equality and prompt us to reconsider the dominant Victorian model of social evolution by showing how history is punctuated by constants.

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Iconographic references

Brown Ford Madox, Work, 1852–63.

Brown Ford Madox, Chaucer at the Court of King Edward III, 1845–51.

Crane Walter, Britomart, 1900.

Crane Walter, Illustrations and Ornamentation from The Faerie Queene. Arranged by Grafton, Carol Belanger. Mineola, New York. Dover Publications, Inc. 1999.

Dallas Hilda, The Suffragette, 1912.

Hunt William Holman, The Lady of Shalott, 1886–1905.

Hunt William Holman, The Awakening Conscience, 1853.

Ingres Jean-Auguste-Dominique, Joan of Arc on Coronation of Charles VII in the Cathedral of Rheims, 1854.

Raphael Mary F, Britomart and Amoret, 1898.

Rossetti Dante Gabriel, Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance, 1863.

Walker A. G., drawings in Stories From The Faerie Queene by Mary Macleod.

Waterhouse John William, The Lady of Shalott, 1888.

Watts Caroline, The Bugler Girl, 1908.


Benjamin Walter, The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, The Belknap Press, 1999.

Berger Harry Jr, “Resisting Translation: Britomart in Book 3 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene”, in Translating Desire in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, p. 207–250, eds Berry, Craig A and Hayton, Heather Richardson, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005.

Beynon John, Masculinities and Culture, Buckingham, Open U. P., 2002.

Carpenter Edward, “Exfoliation” in Civilization: Its Cause and Cure, p. 181–205, London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1889, 1921 ed.

Chothia Jean ed., The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays, Oxford and New York, Oxford World Classics, O.U.P., 1998.

Draguet Michel, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique, Bruxelles, Crédit Communal, 1995.

Girouard Mark, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, New Haven and London, Yale UP, 1981.

Grundy Sydney, “The New Woman: an Original Comedy in Four Acts”, 1894, In Chothia, p. 1–59.

Hankin St John, “The Last of the De Mullins: a Play without a Preface”, 1908, In Chothia, p. 211–263.

Litchfield Mary, Ed. Spenser’s Britomart, from books 3, 4, and 5 of the Faery Queene, Boston and London, The Athenaeum Press, 1896.

Macleod Mary, Stories From The Faerie Queene, London, Gardner, Darton & Co. Ltd., 1897.

Mitchell Hannah, The Hard Way up: the Autobiography of Hannah Mitchelll Suffragette & Rebel, London, Faber & Faber, 1968.

Money Tony, Manly & Muscular Diversions: Public Schools and the Nineteenth Century Sporting Revival, London, Duckworth, 1997.

Muir Percy, Victorian Illustrated Books, London, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1971.

Norquay Glenda, Voices & Votes: A literary anthology of the women’s suffrage campaign, Manchester and New York, Manchester U.P., 1995.

Perkin Joan, Victorian Women, London, John Murray Ltd., 1993.

Spender Dale, Women of Ideas (and what men have done to them), London, Boston... Ark Paperbacks, 1982.

Spenser Edmund, The Faerie Queene Disposed into twelve books, fashioning XII morall vertues, London, W. Ponsonbie, 1590–96.

Tickner Lisa, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907–14, London, Chatto & Windus, 1987.

Wise T. J., Spenser’s Faerie Queene: a poem in six books ed. by T. J. Wise: Pictured by W. Crane, London, George Allen, 1894, 1895, 1896.

Woolf Virginia, Collected Essays vol 1. “The Faery Queen”, p. 14–18, London, The Hogarth Press, 1966.

Woolf Virginia, Orlando, 1928. Oxford, Oxford World Classics, O.U.P., 1992.


Site containing painting by Mary F. Raphael, Britomart & Amoret:

Site containing Macleod’s volume with drawings by A.G. Walker:


Bibliothèque des Arts décoratifs, Paris, collection Maciet pour Britomart de Walter Crane.

Sacred Texts, pour les illustrations de Stories from “The Faerie Queene” de Mary Macleod.

The Museum of London, Picture Library pour The Suffragette de Hilda Dallas.

The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Havard university pour Women's Suffrage March de C. M. Watts.

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1 The poem was begun in 1579. As The Oxford Companion to English Literature notes “The first three books were entrusted to the printer in Nov. 1589, and the second three were published in 1596.” 1967 (288)

2 A 7th edition appeared in 1914; a copy is held by the British Library.

3 Spenser follows a reference to other great figures by saying “Yet these, and all that else had puissaunce, /Cannot with noble Britomart compare, / As well for glory of great valiaunce, /As for pure chastitie and vertue rare,” Book III, canto iv, verse 3.

4 In Girouard’s own words, “The ideal knight was brave, loyal, true to his word, courteous, generous and merciful. He defended the Church and the wrongfully oppressed but respected and honoured his enemies in war, as long as they obeyed the same code as he did.” (16)

5 “Spenser’s epic is full of castles, monsters, knights, queens and ladies” (Girouard 17)

6 Although Woolf said, “The Faery Queen, it is said, has never been read to the end; ...” (14) she asserts she “has gone through the experience.” Collected Essays, vol 1.

7 Publication of the six books of The Faerie Queene with Crane’s illustrations appeared in 1894 (books 1 and 2) 1895 (books 3, 4 and 5) and 1896 (book 6). A selection of Crane’s art work has been arranged by Carol Belanger Grafton in Ilustrations and Ornamentations from The Faerie Queene.

8 For example Sophia Maclehose published, in 1890, a prose reworking—like Macleod: and the publisher Dent & Co reedited Spenser’s poem in 1897 in three volumes which were pictured and decorated by L. Fairfax-Muckley.

9 A reproduction of the painting can be found in Draquet’s book (313).

10 “Till that to the sea-coast at length she her addrest. / There she alighted from her light-foot beast, / And sitting downe vpon the rocky shore, / Bad her old Squire vnlace her lofty creast; / Tho hauing vewde a while the surges hore, / That gainst the craggy clifts did loudly rore,”

11 See for instance Hannah Mitchell’s autobiography.

12 As Jean Chothia explains in her introduction to four New Woman plays, “The term, the New Woman, which seems to have been introduced by Grand in 1894” (x) and clarifies in a footnote, “Sarah Grand, “The New Aspect of the Woman Question”, North American Review, 158, Mar. 1894, 271.”

13 As Joan Perkin explains, “Elizabeth later took advantage of the opening of medical degrees to women by the University of Paris. Through influential friends she got permission to take her degree without residence in France. In 1870, after performing two operations and answering written and oral exams in French, she was awarded her M.D. diploma with credit.” (39)

14 For instance The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882.

15 A conversation between Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson records priorities ““Well, Elizabeth” said Emily, “it’s clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you open the medical profession to women. After these things are done, we must see about getting the vote.”” quoted in Joan Perkins (41).

16 See on this point Lisa Tickner’s analysis of the movement.

17 In the case of Britomart’s victory it was partly due to “her angel face”, as Macleod writes, Artegall, “... at last fell humbly down upon his knee and imagining he saw some angelic being—for he did not know what else it could be—he besought her to pardon his error, ... while trembling horror seized him, and made every limb quake and his brave heart quail.” (253)

18 The roles of both women have been scripted differently but the words of Harry Berger about Britomart, “Britomart’s passion is represented as the effect and the target of anxieties inscribed in a network of male discourses that can only interpret woman’s desire as politically threatening.” (214) apply equally to Joan of Arc.

19 In answer to the “Darwinian evolution theory” Carpenter contended “... the unfolding of the creature from its own needs and inward nature is an organic process, and likely to be persistent, while its modification by external causes must be more or less fortuitous and accidental and sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another; partly also because the movement from within outwards seems to be most like the law of creation in general.” (191)

20 “Another feature of the new chivalry was that it was to be democratic: beauty and spiritual quality, not birth, were to be the passports to entry.” (218)

21 Four characters use “new” as follows: “Enid: A New Journalism / Victoria: A New Political Economy / Doctor: A New Morality / Colonel: A New Sex” (in Chothia 17)

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. — Walter Crane, Britomart, 1900
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Figure 2. — Illustration of Britomart in Macleod (198)
Fichier image/jpeg, 96k
Titre Figure 3. Bugler Girl, Caroline Watts
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Figure 4. — The Suffragette 1912
Légende Figure 5. — Illustration of Britomart in Macleod (254)
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Fichier image/jpeg, 31k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Susan Clayton, « Britomart Quest Anew, Victorians Revive the Elizabethan Faerie Queene as Campaigns for Women’s Suffrage Intensify »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 71 Printemps | 2010, 323-338.

Référence électronique

Susan Clayton, « Britomart Quest Anew, Victorians Revive the Elizabethan Faerie Queene as Campaigns for Women’s Suffrage Intensify »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 71 Printemps | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 octobre 2016, consulté le 25 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Susan Clayton

Université de Paris 7
Susan CLAYTON est MCF à l’université Paris-Diderot où elle enseigne l’anglais dans le cadre de Lansad. Elle a fait de nombreuses communications en France, en Grande Bretagne ainsi que dans plusieurs pays européens qui traitent de ses thèmes de recherche : le sexe social, la “New Woman” et les “female husbands”. Elle a également publié des articles sur ces sujets, et prépare une monographie sur les “female husbands”.

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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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