It was popular for sentimental Victorians to dream of the Mediaeval era. While we modern readers look to the Regency romance or the Victorian fantasy, they wrote of jousts and tournaments and romances in the Middle Ages. (Note: in Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, the heroine writes a novel set in the Middle Ages. By the way a romance in the Victorian era means an adventure or story removed from the usual realities of life, not heartsy stuff. It could be fantasy, it could be an adventure in some exotic place, it could be just a series of improbable events with lots of emotion. The whole point was imagination.)
The Lady of Shalott is based on Mediaeval legend of King Arthur and Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Sir Lancelot is committing adultery with the Queen Guinevere, and has returned from a battle somewhere. (I never know why people like Guinevere, adultery is still adultery, and anyway her love for him wasn't so great as the other neglected girl of the story. And I don't get why Lancelot was so in love with her. Probably she was more experienced, worldly, and self-assured.) He went to to the house of Bernard of Astolat, a lord, and was entertained and given shelter there. Bernard's daughter, a sweet innocent girl called Elaine of Astolat fell in love with Sir Lancelot. But Lancelot isn't in love with her. According to the original he leaves the house without saying goodbye to Elaine so she falls into a despair and dies. The reason he doesn't is Bernard thought that Lancelot's courtesy made Elaine love him so if he was rude she might fall out of love. So Lancelot did that thinking Elaine would forget him. She didn't. On her deathbed she has her father and brothers write a letter. She is to be put into a boat with that letter and sailed to the King's castle for them to read. On seeing her body everyone is so touched, the Queen reproaches Lancelot for being unkind (since it made Elaine die) and the King has her buried in full honours. Lancelot is self-reproachful because she loved him so well, greater than the Queen, who alternately dumps him and sleeps with him out of guilt. Seriously. This story wouldn't have gone down well had it been written in the Victorian age by a Victorian novelist. But they accepted it in a Mediaeval legend.
In Tennyson's version, he adds something. Elaine can look at her surroundings only through her enchanted mirror. If she looks out of the window she is cursed. "I am half sick of shadows," she says while she weaves.
|by William Maw Egley|
|"I am half-sick of shadows," by Waterhouse|
|by Sidney Meteyard|
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
|by Emma Harrison|
One day she sees Lancelot through the mirror and goes to her window to look at him. The mirror cracks - she is cursed.
She left the web, she left the loom,She finds a boat, creeps into it and sails to Camelot, singing. It eerily reminds me of Ophelia who dies drowning after singing and picking flowers. She dies singing.
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
|By John Atkinson Grimshaw|
Lancelot sees her dead body and muses
"She has a lovely face;Touching isn't it?
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
It inspired the Pre-Raphaelites' paintings too, though Tennyson complained they hadn't got the essence right. But a poem inspiring art is something. If only we had that sort of touching narrative poem nowadays.
|by Henry Darvall|