Women in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Arthurian Renditions (1854–1867)

by José María Mesa Villar (Author)
©2014 Thesis 482 Pages


This scholarly but accessible volume traces the impact of the enduring themes and key women characters from Arthurian tradition in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic corpus. Combining literary and visual analysis, the author opens a double perspective upon the past to emphasize that the painter-poet’s renditions on the legend of Camelot should not be read only as merely illustrative of pre-existing textual sources. Quite on the contrary, his personal take stands out as an eclectic exercise of revaluation providing additional insight into his professional preoccupations and view of the self.
Unfolding in three sections, the book first focuses on the tragic love triangles in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and so on Rossetti’s portrayal of Guinevere and La Belle Yseult. Next, it considers the value of female mediating presences and inter-gender unity in the Grail Quest. The third set of chapters addresses Rossetti’s view of chivalric paternalism and romantic rescue. For reasons of complementation and contrast, this last section also includes an analysis of the painter-poet’s contribution to the stained glass series on the legend of Saint George and the dragon.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Rossettian Arthurianism and the Medieval Revival
  • I. Tragic Amorous Relationships in the Context of Arthurian Experience
  • I.1 An Assessment of Guinevere’s Responsibility for The Rise and Fall of Camelot
  • I.2 Guinevere’s Search for Atonement: Arthur’s Tomb
  • I.3 Stepping on Unstable Ground: Sir Launcelot in the Queen’s Chamber
  • I.4 Females as a Reference Regarding the Conflict between Body and Spirit
  • I.5 Doomed Chivalric Worth and the Dual Value of the Magic Philtre
  • I.6 Sir Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drinking the Love Potion
  • II. Female Mediating Presences Midway between the Earthly and the Divine
  • II.1 The Role of Morgan Le Fay as the Main Priestess of Avalon
  • II.2 Rossetti and the Issue of Human Eagerness to Grasp the Divine
  • II.3 The Mystical Female as a Symbolic Scale of Spiritual Perfection
  • II.4 On the Importance of the Guiding Damsel Type to the Progress of Sir Galahad’s Fellowship in the Grail Quest
  • II.5 Approaching Beatific Vision: Rossetti and the Attainment of the Grail
  • II.6 Interaction with Angels in Tennyson’s Sir Galahad
  • II.7 Yearning to Breathe the Airs of Heaven: Unsexing the Grail Hero
  • III. Female Dependence within the Context of Chivalric Paternalism
  • III.1 Helplessness and Heroism in Rossetti’s The Death of Breuze sans Pitié
  • III.2 And Sure in Language Strange She Said I Love Thee True: Woman as a Creature of Instinct
  • III.3 The Entowered Maiden under the Onslaught of Misguidance
  • III.4 The Dead Damsel and the Shadow of Unrequited Love
  • III.5 Salvation, Restriction and Confinement: The Issue of Male Guidance Concerning the Construction of the Female Self
  • III.6 The Maiden and the Beast: Scapegoats in the Wake of Communal Wickedness
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • a. Primary references
  • b. Secondary references
  • c. Webpages
  • List of Images and Credits
  • Index


Everyman whose soul is not a clod

Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved

John Keats


Murcia, September 2013

Many are the debts I have incurred in researching and writing the volume that you now hold in your hands. As my very first monograph, it may well be labelled as the offspring of an intense and intimate quest which began years ago and promises to yield more in the future. Since the very first moment I set my eyes on Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata (1871–1874), I knew I was meant to go on a lifelong journey, and felt how both my heart and mind, as if suddenly kindled with a gentle flame, had been invited to venture into that setting, to explore and deepen into its meaning. It truly was an eye-opener, a sincere invitation which, since then, has allowed me to dwell in the shadow of this artist and his surrounding sphere. It still keeps calling, guiding me along a path of discovery and encouraging me to go forward, uttering a promise of retrieval and return. The least I can do in reciprocation for such generosity is to pursue that blazing trail, and feed on his dream – more of a reality than what many would like to admit.

It is this sort of research (that little creature of sincerity, constancy and passion) which lit the way and brought me here. The further along this path I walk, the closer I feel to my own. Therefore, it almost goes without saying that my greatest debt is to Rossetti and his circle – next, to so many fellow researchers and scholars who also devote their life and passion to the Pre-Raphaelitism plus its manifold connections with other areas. These and the following lines are meant to express my deepest gratitude to those people and institutions that have contributed to shape my personal and professional life. ← 7 | 8 →

I am deeply appreciative of a four-year research grant obtained from the Spanish Ministry of Education – within the framework of the FPU Programme.1 Without it, it would not have been possible to complete my Master Dissertation – which obtained a unanimous ‘excellent’ grade in 2006 – or to set the corner stones of my European PhD Thesis – which was awarded a unanimous ‘summa cum laude’ in 2010. The latter has formed the basis for this volume. Accordingly, I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Eugenio Olivares Merino (Universidad de Jaén), for his guidance and constructive criticism. This gesture is extended to Dr. Julio Angel Olivares Merino (Universidad de Jaén), for his continued support since my days as an undergraduate until today.

I owe particular debts of thanks to Prof Colin Cruise (Aberystwyth University), whom I first met as one of the members of the examining board for my viva, and who has never failed to show me great kindness or to keep encouraging me to further pursue my own research interests. His words and observations have been really comforting at a crucial time for me. My gratitude goes as well to Prof Barrie Bullen (University of Reading / Royal Holloway University of London) for his invitation to perform a four-month research stay at the University of Reading, which enabled me to carry out much of the initial research and writing for my PhD Thesis. I keep really fond memories of those months at the Whiteknights Campus. His opinions and insightful remarks on some of my initial case studies were really helpful. Our visit to the Oxford Union’s Pre-Raphaelite murals is still fresh in my mind. This stay, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education, gave me the opportunity of travelling to examine Rossetti’s Arthurian works directly.

I would also like to thank Sara Negro and Adrian Stähli, at Peter Lang, for their patience, good judgement, efficiency and valuable comments. They have been truly sensitive, friendly and supportive editors throughout the process that has led to the publication of this volume. Working with such professional people is always a pleasure. Special thanks and admiration are due to Dr Ana González-Rivas ← 8 | 9 → Fernández (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) and Dr Mercedes Aguirre Castro (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) for their constant enthusiasm towards my research and for allowing me to share the fruits of my study in a variety of conferences which have always offered a breath of fresh air and truly enlightening sessions. Special mention goes as well to my fellow colleagues at the Department of Modern Languages at UCAM (Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia), a dynamic institution with a commitment to excellence in teaching and research. Thanks for your inspiring enthusiasm and for making me feel like another member of the team since the very first day I arrived.

My deepest appreciation goes as well to Dr Jodi Anne George, Dr Brian Hoyle, Dr Karen Brown, Dr Keith Williams and Dr Christopher Murray for giving me a really warm welcome to the Wildering Phantasies and Excavating Time conferences, held at the University of Dundee. Both events were simply amazing and left a deep trace in my soul; I keep dreaming of going back to Scotland. Likewise, I would like to thank Dr Dinah Roe (Oxford Brookes University), Prof Peter Faulkner (University of Exeter) and Dr Jennifer Melville (Aberdeen Art Gallery) for our refreshing and revealing conversations during those conferences – and, it goes without saying, their excellent papers. Another gesture of gratitude goes to my fellow members of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, for their continued commemoration of Pre-Raphaelite ideals, and the always outstanding contributions included in The Review of the PRS and The Pre-Raphaelite Society Newsletter of the United States which are invariably a pleasure to read. This includes special greetings for Patricia O’Connor, Jane Cohen, Michael Wollaston and Dr Serena Trowbridge (Birmingham City University). Thanks as well to the organizing committee of Pre-Raphaelitism: Present, Past and Future (Oxford Brookes University, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford and St. John’s College), with additional greetings to Prof Christiana Payne and – again – Dr Dinah Roe, for their more than outstanding effort for offering a truly Pre-Raphaelite experience with loads of food for thought and a memorable dinner at the Oxford Union.

I gladly acknowledge the kind help provided by the following people and institutions in the process of acquiring the reproduction rights for ← 9 | 10 → the twenty images included in this book: Domniki Papadimitriou (Birmingham Museums Picture Library), Chris Sutherns (British Museum Images), Amelia Morgan (Tate Images), Paola Fumagalli (The Bridgeman Art Library), Lorraine Cook (The Higgins Art Gallery and Museum) and Hannah Kendall (Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford).

Without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest debt of gratitude goes to my family. My life, as it is now, would not have been possible without them, for their constant encouragement throughout my academic career, and for all I have learned from them. Together, we have shared many moments of joy and sorrow. As close confidants, they have always cared to know about my dreams, hopes, fears, achievements and disappointments. They have never failed to receive me with their unfailing love and sincerity. For these and many other reasons, I want to thank my parents, Jesús Mesa Jiménez and Maria Teresa Villar Romero, and also my two brothers, Jesús and Aurelio. Of course, this gesture is extended to the remaining members of our family, including those who have parted from our side but still remain close to us all. Therefore, I dedicate this book to the memory of my beloved grandparents, Aurelio Villar Prats, Carolina Romero Gómez, Ana Jiménez de Dios and Jose María Mesa Cárdenas: thanks for making it possible for us to be here. Thanks for walking with us hand in hand now, as you always did before.

José María Mesa Villar

Department of Modern Languages

UCAM – Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia


← 10 | 11 →


1Programa de Formación de Profesorado Universitario (University Teacher Training Programme).


Rossettian Arthurianism and the Medieval Revival

Casting a glance into the past sometimes responds to the need for a return to the hearth of the familiar. In the course of this attempt to decipher the sights and sounds kindled in the embers of memory, the flaming shadow of time burns anew before the eyes of observers, thus helping them to follow the traces of their own selves. Such a move sometimes derives from a conscious attempt to reconstruct what they knew – or else thought – they were; some other times, it stems from the aim of building a safe shelter from the unpleasant face of reality. Quite often, though, a sudden stimulus, either unexpected or not fully anticipated, allows an antique blaze to emerge from seemingly burnt-out coals, so that the mind becomes deeply captured by its renewed magnitude. These observations lead us to formulate two main questions: on the one hand, is it not by means of this look into the mirror of ages that the past manages to uphold a dialogue with the present to keep moulding the future? On the other, does this whole process usually emerge from what individuals believe themselves to have been, or does it not entail setting their eyes upon others, and, what is more, undertaking a journey across an ocean of decades and centuries afar?

Indeed, the impulse that invites many to set their thoughts upon such a trail does not rest exclusively on the columns of a single human being: the splendour of past civilizations, the social customs of a given time, the durable charisma of a specific personage, a chapter of catastrophe set in collective memory, an effort to reconstruct what others may consider mere vestiges… all these examples relate to a common eagerness to know about others, and also about the ways in which this information interacts with personal experience. This commonly implies recovering, renaming, rethinking, or re-imagining something not completely (or not really) ours, but still adding more meaning to our present situation. While some tend to look down on ← 11 | 12 → the past or to scorn the remains of what they believe completely dispensable, others cling to revitalized memory (and its effects upon the present) as to their only source of righteousness, stability and comfort. Similarly, at times, ‘past’ and ‘present’ struggle against each other, as if set in a tough generational clash, or else engage together in a well-measured dance where neither of them can be understood alone, but within that specific bond, like a well-matched couple.

The present volume has emerged from a similar process of exploration, this time with the additional requirement of opening a double perspective upon the past in order to develop a sound approach to the Arthurian renditions that the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti executed between 1854 and 1867. Our main purpose has been to compose a consistent analysis of the contents, types and iconography associated with them. Special emphasis has been placed on the female referents in such scenes, the interaction maintained with their male counterparts, and the implications derived from that dynamics. Both diachronic and synchronic aspects have been considered to gain further insight into the dialogue between the visual and literary samples under study. In the forthcoming sections we will also focus on the most prominent topics, characters motivations and conflicts in the literary sources which served as inspiration for the aforementioned visual works. The corresponding chapters devoted to the analysis of those texts are aimed at providing readers with enough information and points of reference to fully grasp how the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet viewed and reinterpreted the main events in the legend of Camelot. Additionally, one cannot overlook the fact that those renditions were executed at a precise historical period: this of course demands taking into account extra variables of a social, political, historical, ideological and cultural kind. A substantial part of this book concentrates on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) in order to gauge how Rossetti perceived, reinterpreted and portrayed its key thematic axes and female characters. Likewise, several chapters will be devoted to his approaches to three poems by Lord Alfred Tennyson (The Lady of Shalott, Sir Galahad and The Palace of Art). This will enable us not only to see how the legend of Camelot was addressed from two different perspectives, but also to examine the manner in which Rossetti often ← 12 | 13 → combined and applied bits from both to his own view of the Arthurian experience. Together with this, and owing to the painter-poet’s eclectic take on chivalric matters and romantic rescue, our focus will later be expanded into a reduced selection of non-Arthurian works (post medieval versions of the story of Saint George and the dragon plus John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci) which will nevertheless provide welcome instances of contrast, complementation and variation with regard to his treatment of the female characters and main topics from the Camelot legend. All this will allow us to highlight the adjustability, durability and protean value of this literary material. At the same time, we would like to render Rossetti’s Arthurian renditions as a non-derivative selection of visual works, as part of a personal quest for the ideal.

Notably determined by his indecision between painting and poetry, or rather by his dissatisfaction with having to choose between the two in professional terms, the correlation between the textual and the visual in Rossetti reached its summit within the dialectics of beauty running through his double works between 1860 and 1882. But there, even without the intention of leaving aside the twinning ties bound to ‘expression’ and ‘representation’ that stitch their components together, the viewer and the critic cannot understand such link either in strict Horacian (ut pictura poesis) or Simonidean (ut poesis pictura) terms.1 Although the textual may precede the visual, or the other way round, the interdisciplinary bond that characterizes these double works sprung from the mind of a single author bestows a special value upon them: such creations may be viewed as parallel manifestations of the same inspirational flash, and also as part of a multi-perspectivist affiliation2 to the idea of beauty in terms of ‘form’ and ‘content’. The verbal and visual ‘halves’ thus integrated do not pursue offering a strict reflection of each other, but joining forces to bring us closer to the sublime experience of contact with the transcendent. ← 13 | 14 →

Rossetti’s poems and canvases can of course be assessed separately, but this usually comes at the expense of losing a part of their expressive potential. None of these components truly determines the other: if there is something particularly interesting about the third creative stage in the Pre-Raphaelite’s career (1860–1882) is the semi-concealed richness of his daring approach: the women shown in those particular works do not function merely as a collection of decorative faces; at a deeper level of analysis, they become what may be termed as ‘constructs’ or, as McGann has stated, “critical abstractions that distil the Idea that Rossetti has recurrently in view, and that the abstraction itself means to locate” (2000: 123). His female types and the latent symbolic power associated to every one of them open a doorway into the tension of forces that resides in beauty as art’s anima: woman is viewed as the origin, support and messenger of this aesthetic religion; she likewise awakens the creative soul to shed light upon humanity, in terms similar to the process that Hernández Guerrero (1996: 78) perceives in Dantean approximations to the beloved Beatrice. Following an eminently Neoplatonist vein, the artist rises above the mediocrity of our world to redeem it through the extraordinary brilliance of beauty. Similarly, in consonance with Hegelian aesthetics, Rossetti’s art during the referred period functions as a sensible bridge into the intelligible. Hence, the sense of unity that permeates his double works does not partake of a simplistic or reductionist view upon the possibilities of bringing painting and poetry together, since it is by means of that highly valuable interaction between the two that such works manage to invite the observer and the reader to proceed upwards, as the contents poured into its basic components are further qualified and expanded throughout a two-fold approach.

In contrast to this procedural pattern, Rossetti’s Arthurian renditions prove closer to the Simonidean maxim, albeit with a proviso worth mentioning: while these may often be labelled as more or less direct renderings of a core episode from a given textual source, the artist did not conduct himself simply after the fashion of an illustrator. The structures, symbols and contents poured into his oils, drawings and watercolours also prove detached from strictly derivative efforts. Certainly, many elements reflect his conscious in ← 14 | 15 → ternalization of some key events in Malory, but viewers cannot miss valuable additions and sharp contrasts which provide information of a more personal kind and anticipate the crucial topics further developed in his dialectics of beauty. Just as in the days when the original Pre-Raphaelite creed was formulated, his analysis of tradition was motivated by the need for authenticity through artistic sincerity: reinterpreting, refashioning, or even reinventing the past helped to illuminate the present, leaving aside the soulless imitative manners promoted by academicians. As the initial brotherhood, formed with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, approached its twilight, and his fruitful bond with William Morris and Edward Coley Burne-Jones was but a while away, Rossetti decided to gaze back into the past in order to delve deeper into his professional self-definition, a step clearly spurred by Ruskin’s resounding defence of the Gothic.

There exists a deeply intriguing connection between Rossetti’s Arthurian renditions (1854–1867) and the double works in his third creative stage (1860–1882): it resides in the enduring tension and continuity perceived between poles standing opposite to each other, such as ‘order / chaos’, or ‘purity / corruption’, and in the implicit advocacy in favour of maintaining balance between ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’. It was precisely because of this kind of potential that we felt instantly drawn towards his Malorian works, in an attempt to capture in critical terms the former step which had influenced so clearly the scheme of thought permeating his last creative stage. We were interested as well in getting to know to which extent the sense of potential highlighted a few lines above could have found its origin in a more dichotomous view of reality. To fulfil this task, it was necessary to analyze and describe an evolutionary step often silenced in one-sided critical accounts keen in labelling Rossetti as a sensualist without the ability to formulate a sincere spiritual – we do not mean ‘religious’ – message in many of his works. As readers shall perceive, we will develop these ideas in practical terms throughout the three main parts in the present volume. We may nevertheless disclose our view that Rossetti’s Arthurian works, just like his double works, may be viewed as examples of ‘aesthetic transmutation’: the painter and poet was fully conscious of the limitations intrinsic to the visual medium, ← 15 | 16 → specially regarding ‘structural’ and ‘spatiotemporal’ factors; but he fed on the lines penned by other authors and recast that ‘raw’ material into a more personal set of renditions. This meant taking another step forward from his early contrasts between the physical and the transcendent – the kind which had called up his attention as he composed his first version of The Blessed Damozel near 1847 or his seminal short story Hand and Soul (1850). Not without a distinctive degree of irony, Rossetti’s medievalist vision confirms its truly modern essence by means of its integrative potential regarding the expressive, reflexive, symbolic and aesthetic fields.

The components of the double works that Dante Gabriel Rossetti executed during his third creative stage (Venus Verticordia, Lady Lilith, Pandora, Astarte Syriaca, The Day Dream, etc.) were (generally) conceived and executed by Rossetti himself, and so confirmed his orientation as a painter and poet. Although those interrelated verse pieces and canvases prove closer to the idea of an integral project than his Arthurian renditions, our current interest in the latter should not be viewed as an attempt on our part to interpret his creative skills in terms of a visual ‘rehash’ of a variety of texts composed by others. In fact, the samples under study here have enriched our view of the artist, insofar as they constituted the culture medium which partly preceded his third creative period, while also providing some extra feedback during the transition years when both stages coexisted with each other (1860–1867). Furthermore, we should say, the specific characteristics of these Arthurian renditions also required the expansion of our critical optics at both ‘analytical’ and ‘expositive’ levels: it was necessary for us to approach them bearing in mind the dialogue established not only with Rossetti himself, but also with the tradition(s) they partook of.

Still, while offering some valuable insight into the process of identification, recreation, reinterpretation and representation developed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, this scheme brought not only advantages: one of the main difficulties we had to face was to track the sources appropriate for our study – that is to say, volumes in a state as close as possible to the one in which the artist got in contact with them. A remarkable example could be Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1485): given the fact that most modern editions are ← 16 | 17 → either partially or totally based on the Winchester Manuscript,3 discovered in 1934, we had to search for previous editions in order to get in contact with Caxton’s text as read during the last two thirds of the nineteenth century. Even though Rossetti could have read either of the two reprints of the Stansby edition (1634) published in 1816, or Robert Southey’s extensively annotated 1817 edition of Caxton, we could not have access to these volumes for unavailability reasons. In order to overcome this setback, we managed to obtain a late-Victorian reprint of the 1868 Globe edition – then checked against Southey’s – and also Prof. Sommer’s 1860 edition of Caxton’s text. Both sources brought us closer to the actual state of Malory’s work during the years in which Rossetti developed his Arthurian renditions. As readers will perceive in the following areas of content, some interesting notes may be drawn from the comparison between both editions.

It was not so difficult to purchase a reprint of Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) or John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary (1788), among other works which Rossetti had got access to either at home or in public libraries – as reported by his biographers. We must likewise underline the usefulness of Ricks’ edition of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s works, which allowed us to get in contact with the early versions of some of his compositions included in Poems (1840). Additionally, regarding the third area of content in the present volume, we should also mention Fellows’ edition of Richard Johnson’s The Seven Champions of Christendom (1596–1597) or Ryan’s own of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (c. 1260) – these efforts being also set in the attempt of approaching the texts that stirred Rossetti’s creative soul under the most authentic form available to us, given their intimate relation with the case studies developed here. As we got in contact with a variety of works and authors sifted through the Pre-Raphaelite’s optics, we managed to ← 17 | 18 → understand that his renditions are not as derivative as often thought, and also that the commercial and critical prominence of the double works from his third creative period could have unfairly pushed into the background a set of Arthurian works bearing a great potential and a high degree of complexity.

In consonance with our previous points, the need to take into consideration a variety of textual triggers from equally diverse periods has determined the implementation of certain adjustments concerning the bonds between ‘images’ and ‘words’, or the ways in which both components relate to and partake of a pre-existing common tradition. As readers shall perceive throughout the following content areas, a substantial effort has been devoted to these matters, in an attempt to establish a fruitful frame of reference which may add up to the way in which Dante Gabriel Rossetti refashioned the contents in Arthurian legend and its periphery4 through artistic craftsmanship. Given the unavoidable bonds between male and female characters in his visual renditions and in the textual sources which served him as inspiration, this aspect will prove crucial to our description of the tension between ‘body’ and ‘spirit’ at this particular creative stage – a struggle which would eventually be expanded in his dialectics of beauty.

Furthermore, we should not miss from sight, either, that Rossetti’s Arthurian representations were executed within the context of a wider, ongoing movement of retrieval and revaluation (rather than rediscovery) of the Middle Ages that had been gaining strength since the mid-eighteenth century. Nevertheless, as clearly indicated by its title, our ← 18 | 19 → present book does not pursue to discuss a full-scale perspective on the Medieval Revival before and during Victoria’s reign: such a topic would require much more than the pages in this introductory section or more than a single volume to be partly apprehended. However, our interest in Rossettian Arthurianism demands some previous consideration of those matters in order to retrace in a sound manner the links between that multi-layered movement and the creative-interpretative task undertaken by the Pre-Raphaelite artist.

Nineteenth-century revivalism cannot be viewed as a sudden flowering or a short-lived cultural phenomenon. It was bound as much to a wilful exploration and reappraisal of the past as to a communal effort to examine and improve the present under the light of what was believed to constitute the true political, moral and cultural soul of the English nation. Even though a majority of critics tend to underline the fact that this three-fold construct was sometimes heavily pervaded by institutional concerns and interests, we should not fail to note either that a definite eagerness to attain ‘authenticity’ was an integral part of this movement. By saying this, we do not intend to promote an absolute conception of ‘truth’, but rather to highlight its fruitful elusiveness. That ‘past essence’ was believed to linger behind the thick curtains of classicistic ostracism: hence, bringing back such ‘reality’ required a sequence of multiple approaches which differed from each other in terms of their aims, motivations, or extent, among other variables. At first, mainly during the last third of the eighteenth century, this movement was characterized by a more amateurish vein – a fact perfectly understandable, given the actual dearth of documentary sources and research means available to antiquarians such as Bishop Thomas Percy, Sir Horace Walpole, and the Warton Brothers.5 Paradoxically enough, the revisitation of medieval content did not seem so ← 19 | 20 → intimately connected with the Middle Ages: a common interest in getting to know about the past stood side to side with the Romantic cult of ruins, a great fondness of Gothic6 fiction, and the recovery of old romances, which were regarded as true-to-life expressions of the ways and customs of the past. Together with this, what many believed truly mediaeval in fact referred back to Tudor or Elizabethan England, which had also developed their particular re-evaluation of the Middle Ages for political purposes. Additionally, we should say, the late-eighteenth century witnessed the publication of successful literary forgeries, such as James Macpherson’s Ossianic poems (1761–1765), together with true instances of literary antiquarianism.

Despite the apparent deficiencies inspired by this unorthodox amalgam of tendencies, it was precisely thanks to these efforts to retrieve or to fantasize about the past that others were able to take a step further in the attempt of getting to know about the spirit exiled from the tops of the Neoclassical Parnassus. This “self-conscious pursuit of the past” (Bryden 2005: 21) would soon be linked to a growing interest in ancestry, spurred on after the revolt that led to the Independence of the American Colonies (1776–1783): this overseas collapse led the national spirit to take shelter in the belief in the moral and historical superiority of England. But still, as if following a macabre premonition, George III and his subjects soon witnessed the horrifying results of the French Revolution (1789), which Edmund Burke’s Reflections analyzed in detail the following year. Of course, there were also sympathizers of this revolutionary potential, but the monarchy and its related apparatus did everything at hand to halt its ← 20 | 21 → expansion.7 Meanwhile, the king had devoted himself as well to an architectural campaign which found its zenith in the Gothic remodelling of Windsor Castle: this project, which would be completed by George IV, included a commission paid to Benjamin West for the execution of a set of paintings about Saint George as the Patron Saint of England and of the Order of the Garter.8

Similarly, a new moral standard was given shape through the distinction already expounded in Bishop Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1765) between the corrupt manifestations of old chivalry and the promotion of courtesy, loyalty, honesty and generosity as the main features of its ‘renewed’ form, indeed a code in contrast with the tumultuous close of the century. Nonetheless, adopting both Girouard (1981: 16) and Alexander (2007: 26) as references, it may be pointed out that the idea of chivalry during those decades was rather a blanket term closer to Elizabethan panoply than to a factual revisitation of the Middle Ages. In years to follow, the dynamics of protection against the pulse of the revolution reached its peak of seriousness in the anxiety derived from the constant threat of invasion from Napoleonic France. These matters did not only determine a change of direction concerning politics and the promotion of national identity against ‘the approaching danger’, but also revived the old ← 21 | 22 → spectres of the clashes at Poitiers, Crécy and Agincourt. It must be pointed out that the English fear was by no means unfounded: in May 1808, hardly three months after the publication of Marmion, the populace in Madrid fought to the last drop of their blood against the French invaders, thus embarking on a war that would last until 1814. In other words, England had to get ready to fight against this major threat – and, in order to do so, training in patriotism and loyalty towards the basic institutions of the country were crucial. Then, it is not surprising to find such worthwhile retrieval of symbols, images and values aimed at reminding everybody who they were or, at least, pretended to be.

Notwithstanding their constraints and heterogeneous nature, these first approaches to medieval times and to their renewed significance for the modern mind prove particularly engrossing due to their capacity to captivate the attention of the generations that followed, thus fostering the arrival of a more mature revivalist dawn during the second third of the nineteenth century. The fundamental link between those first steps and other samples following Victoria’s ascension to the throne was no other than Sir Walter Scott, whose decisions and innovations nurtured the expansion of this Gothicist movement, which took stronger root in the moral, cultural and political conscience of the nation. Firstly, while still fascinated with Pre-Romantic melancholy, Percy’s antiquarian efforts and Macpherson’s deeply touching – albeit unauthentic – Ossianic verses, Scott composed the definitive version of these impulses through his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803): its strongest value resides, on the one hand, in its spotless reuse of forms and topics which had been despised by the enlightened canon; and, on the other, in the presence of traditional types that regained their lost dignity thanks to the scope and popularity of this work. Secondly, Scott actively inspired others to take pride in their ancestors, and also contributed to reassert the concept of ‘gentleman’ as a man of honour, an idea seen as intimately linked to the modern view of chivalry that he intended to put into practice even in physical terms, despite his well-known limitations.

Thirdly, leaving aside the low wave of enthusiasm that they currently arouse among modern critics, Scott’s pseudo-historical novels captivated the imagination of Victorians and Georgians alike, contributing to further mould their view of the past into Romantic shape. ← 22 | 23 → Their success was to a great extent due to a witty mixture of constituents coming from sources such as old English romances or Shakespeare’s best known works – by then considered in intimate connection with chivalric lore. This formula was cleverly recast into a set of lengthy volumes bearing a distinctive commercial orientation. There readers often found passages about the tension shared by lovers as misfortune befell them, the defence of honour and loyalty, the experience of the supernatural, the tragedy derived from injustice, a deep sense of loss, or love towards one’s native country, along with other appealing topics. Besides, Scott brought into the foreground the idealization of that ‘Merry England’ where the exercise of chivalry got dissociated from the connotative tags related to ‘barbarism’ and ‘irrational violence’. The virtues of a knight, his values and dexterity had to be used in order to redress wrongs and consolidate the stability of the structures sustaining the socio-political and economic systems: union, justice, faith, and loyalty were key concepts upon which the efforts and hopes of a community had to be set in the midst of difficult social and political circumstances. Security, unity, respect to each other… were firmly aimed at safeguarding the life of the nation as if it were that of a single being.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
visual analysis love triangles paternalism legend
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 482 pp.

Biographical notes

José María Mesa Villar (Author)

José María Mesa Villar began research into Rossetti in 2004, upon receiving a grant from the Spanish Ministry of Education (within the framework of the FPU University Teacher Training Programme). He holds an MA and a European PhD in English. His articles have been published in a variety of indexed journals, and his papers have been very positively received in international conferences hosted by the universities of Dundee, Arizona, Coimbra, Porto and Oxford Brookes. He is currently a lecturer and researcher at UCAM – Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia (Spain).


Title: Women in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Arthurian Renditions (1854–1867)
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487 pages