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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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Immortal and Deadly Icons: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Sleeping Beauties


In Rossetti scholarship as much as in the latest popular novels published on the subject, the enigmatic character of Elizabeth Siddal has attracted a lot of attention and fuelled many critical debates.1 The most recent accounts of her life rather make it sound like an inverted fairy tale: while in most versions of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale, the story starts with a dramatic curse followed by a tragic accident that induces the long life-in-death state and is eventually relieved by the kissing of prince charming, the life of Lizzie Siddal sounds like a long life-in-death agony.

The story of how the frail red-haired girl was discovered by Rossetti’s friend, Deverell, in a milliner’s shop in 1848, how she then became Rossetti’s muse and endured long years of suffering from various ailments including the birth of a stillborn daughter, only to commit suicide through laudanum in 1862 (at the age of thirty-two), has long prompted biographers and critics alike to picture Elizabeth Siddal as a victim of male desire and the artist’s narcissism. Simultaneously, contemporary testimonies and a fair amount of speculation argued that Rossetti himself repeatedly acted as a ruthless prince going as far as disturbing his beloved’s final rest by having her coffin exhumed and searched seven years after her death to retrieve his manuscript of poems buried with her.

By contrast, this article intends to show that the Sleeping Beauty motif, rather than a theme, proves to be a fruitful trope...

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