Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain

Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth

by Beatrice Laurent (Volume editor)
©2015 Others X, 248 Pages


Artists, scientists and the wider public of the Victorian era all seem to have shared a common interest in the myth of the Briar Rose and its contemporary implications, from the Pre-Raphaelites and late Victorian aesthetes to the fascinated crowds who visited Ellen Sadler, the real-life ‘Sleeping Maid’ who is reported to have slept from 1871 to 1880.
The figure of the beautiful reclining female sleeper is a recurring theme in the Victorian imagination, invoking visual, literary and erotic connotations that contribute to a complex range of readings involving aesthetics, gender definitions and contemporary medical opinion. This book compiles and examines a corpus of Sleeping Beauties drawn from Victorian medical reports, literature and the arts and explores the significance of the enduring revival of the myth.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • What Did Victorian Sleeping Beauties Dream of? About the Great Number of Representations of Sleep in the Late Nineteenth Century
  • The Strange Case of the Victorian Sleeping Maid
  • The ‘ghastly waxwork at the fair’: Charles Dickens’s Sleeping Beauty in Great Expectations
  • Engendering Creative Negativity: Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (1866)
  • Sleep and Liberation: The Opiate World of Elizabeth Siddal
  • Immortal and Deadly Icons: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Sleeping Beauties
  • Aesthetics of Desire: Ruskin, Burne-Jones and Their Sleeping Beauties
  • Nuptial Dreams and Toxic Fantasies: Visions of Feminine Desire in John Anster Fitzgerald’s Fairy Paintings The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of (1858)
  • Julia Margaret Cameron’s Sleeping Beauties
  • Beneath the Surface: Sleeping Beauties in Representations of Antiquity and their Reception (1860–1900)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index



The idea for the present volume, and some of the chapters in it, originated in a seminar organized during the European Society for the Study of English Conference in September 2012 hosted by Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey.

It is therefore my pleasure to thank the conference organizers and more specifically Professor Isil Bas and my seminar co-convenor Dr Federica Mazzara, who contributed to make this event a success. I also wish to thank the research group Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes based at the Université Toulouse-Le Mirail and its Director, Professor Philippe Birgy, for their financial support towards the organization of this seminar.

Turning collected seminar papers into a book would have been impossible without the intellectual and material support of Professor Barrie Bullen, the patient encouragement of Dr Laurel Plapp, and the financial help of the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires en Lettres, Langues, Arts et Sciences Humaines based at the Université des Antilles et de la Guyane and its Director, Professor Corinne Mencé-Caster.

For their assistance with reproducing images of works in their keeping we should like to thank The Faringdon Collection Trust, Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, the Ruskin Collection, Museums Sheffield, the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The staff of the Museo de Ponce were very helpful in giving me access to paintings from their collection at a time when they were busy organizing a special exhibition. Special thanks go to Dr Michael Pritchard, Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society for the exceptional loan of the photograph Alethea by Julia Margaret Cameron.

To these individuals and institutions goes my deepest gratitude.

The authors of this volume sympathize with Cristina Pascu-Tulbure who wishes to dedicate her article to her late husband Petre. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →



This book contains a series of ten papers that explore the relationships between medical assumptions, literary renderings and pictorial presentations of a single theme: the sleeping woman in Victorian Britain. Most result from a fruitful seminar on that topic that was held at the European Society for the Study of English conference in Istanbul in September 2012. Using an interdisciplinary approach, this two-day event brought together academics specializing in Victorian studies but with varied research interests ranging from literature and the arts to cultural history.

A web search of Victorian periodicals with the keywords ‘Sleeping Beauty’ through the six decades 1840 to 1900 returns an impressively high, although irregular, number of entries, the lowest being five for 1845, the highest 424 for 1891. Although some of these entries come from the sport section, with news concerning the racehorse called Sleeping Beauty, most belong to the news or entertainment categories and advertise or report various performances of cantatas, pantomimes, musicals or extravaganzas. Occasional papers deal with paintings by Daniel Maclise or Edward Burne-Jones. The web survey shows a progression in the popularity of the legend from an average of 55 entries per year in the mid-Victorian period, a sharp rise to 98 entries per year in the 1870s, a towering average of 163 throughout the 1880s and a modest decline in the last decade of the century with 146 entries on average per year. These results confirm that the mid- and even more the late Victorian public were familiar with the fairy tale and enjoyed the representations of beautiful female sleepers. Some Sleeping Beauty shows targeted a juvenile audience, especially during the holiday season, but many addressed adults. Such was the case of the ‘Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ at the Polytechnic Institution in London, in which ‘Mr George Buckland recites the “argument” which deals very freely in ← 1 | 2 → allusions to topics of the day and sings several songs with good effect’.1 This show was so popular that it ran for over five years, from 1872 till 1877. A more scholarly approach to folktales was being pursued by ‘storiologists’ who sought to discover remains of a primeval common Aryan culture. For instance, William Ralston Shedden-Ralston, a noted scholar and translator of Russian tales, wrote that

No loftier origin, no more venerable parentage, can be assigned to any form of literature than that which is ascribed to folk-tales by scholars who recognise in them ‘heirlooms of the Aryan family’; who consider that they have been independently developed by the various branches of the family, from mythological germs which existed in the minds of our primaeval ancestors, while they still inhabited their ancient home in the highlands of Central Asia. Viewed in this light, such a story as that of the Sleeping Beauty may well inspire a respect bordering upon veneration. In the world’s morning-time, before the religious instincts of our ancestors had taken distinct shape or found articulate utterance, the idea may well have occurred to some of the more poetic among them that the revival of the earth in Spring resembled an awakening from sleep. And from this simile may have sprung a legend of a maiden who slept through a space of time corresponding with or typical of the length of the winter season, and who then awoke to active life and enjoyment.2

This interpretation of tales as nature narratives was shared by John Ruskin in his 1868 introduction to the Grimms’ tales, and Ralston was popular enough both as a story-teller and as a scholar to be invited to Marlborough House to entertain the little princes and princesses and to deliver public lectures on ‘The Mythology of Fairy Tales’.


X, 248
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
recurring theme aesthetics medical opinion
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 248 pp., 9 coloured ill., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Beatrice Laurent (Volume editor)

Béatrice Laurent is Lecturer in Victorian and Cultural Studies at the Université des Antilles et de la Guyane in Martinique. A Pre-Raphaelite scholar, she has contributed to Worldwide Pre-Raphaelitism (ed. T. Tobin, 2004) and several issues of the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. She is the editor of a volume of essays on William Morris's News from Nowhere (2004) and the author of La Peinture anglaise (2006). Her research focuses on the interactions between theoretical discourses and the arts in nineteenth-century Britain.


Title: Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain
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260 pages