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Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain

Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth

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Edited By Beatrice Laurent

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.
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What Did Victorian Sleeping Beauties Dream of? About the Great Number of Representations of Sleep in the Late Nineteenth Century

The Interest in Sleep

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The purpose of this article is to try to understand why there were so many paintings that dealt with the theme of sleep in the late nineteenth century, what preoccupations of the time they reflected and what this trend anticipated in terms of the evolution of painting. One of the contextual reasons accounting for such an interest was the gradual shift from the dominant pattern of segmented sleep to our contemporary pattern of sleep. Since time immemorial and until the nineteenth century, biphasic sleep prevailed (meaning two four-hour blocks with an interlude in between) and it was replaced during the Industrial Revolution by contemporary seamless, continuous eight-hour sleep routine. Meanwhile, the successive medical theories on dreams, each probing deeper into various states of consciousness and bringing to the fore new understanding about man’s inner self, are also keys to the dreams that haunt these paintings. Moreover, as they were motionless, the depicted sleeping women were reminiscent of bodies under perusal for medical research, and as such, reified into new objects of study.

The fact that the portrayed sleepers were mostly women of course induces gendered readings on women as objects of contemplation and desire, fantasized by the Victorian mind as idealized mute and yet potentially threatening sexualized beings. When represented sleeping, they were reassuringly reduced to passive bodies lying still. These unmoving bodies went hand in hand with other pictures that flourished in the Victorian age: last portraits. Sleep was akin to lifelessness, according to many...

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