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Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain

Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth


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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The Strange Case of the Victorian Sleeping Maid


The names of Margaret Lyall, Sarah Jacobs, Elizabeth Squirrell, Mary Kettle and Ellen Sadler do not evoke anything nowadays: they have vanished from public memory as surely as they entered it in the nineteenth century. Yet, these five girls and women enjoyed a moment of stardom through doing nothing. They were real-life sleeping beauties. I would like to suggest a possible link between sensational cases of prolonged sleep, which in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century bewildered the public and the medical profession alike, and the renewal of interest in the Sleeping Beauty myth in Victorian Britain.

The historian of science Mark Largent recently underlined the reciprocal relationship between science and context: ‘while various circumstances and perspectives have influenced the evolution of the sciences,’ he writes, ‘scientific disciplines have conversely influenced the contexts within which they developed.’1 Sleeping Beauty is a case in point, for in the context of the nineteenth century the figure became a complex, in the sense that it involved scientific, cultural, literary and artistic components each resonating with the others.

Even though cases of protracted sleep had been reported in French medical literature since at least 1786,2 it was a neurologist from Frankfurt, ← 27 | 28 → Dr Willi Kleine,3 who first described the symptoms of the hypersomnia that was later named after him, in 1925. Between these two dates, the abundance and success of publications on sleep-walking, hypnotism, trance and mesmerism testify to the interest of...

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