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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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The ‘ghastly waxwork at the fair’: Charles Dickens’s Sleeping Beauty in Great Expectations

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– All moveables, of wonder from all parts,Are here, Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,The Horse of knowledge and the Learned Pig,The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craftOf modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet showsAll out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,All freaks of Nature, all Promethean thoughts,All jumbled up together to make upThis Parliament of Monsters. Tents and BoothsMeanwhile, as if the whole were one vast Mill,Are vomiting, receiving, on all sides,Men, Women, three-years’ Children, Babes in arms.

— WILLIAM WORDSWORTH,‘Residence in London’, The Prelude, 1805

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1), little Nell, a character who embodies the feminine ideal, is presented in the following terms: ‘so small, so compact, so beautifully modelled, so fair, with such blue veins and ← 53 | 54 → such transparent skin, and such little feet’.2 Moreover, little Nell is sometimes believed to be ‘a cunning device in wax’ and taken for ‘an important item of the curiosities’ (179) that Mrs Jarley’s waxworks exhibition offers. The novel, written at the time when Bartholomew Fair was threatened with closure,3 is punctuated by hints at the type of waxwork exhibitions which could be seen in fairs, such as Ewing’s, Ferguson’s, Hoho’s, Smithfield’s and Godwin and Reynolds’s. Waxes were, indeed, among the chief attractions available in fairs in the 1830s, the lying in state of George...

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