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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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Nuptial Dreams and Toxic Fantasies: Visions of Feminine Desire in John Anster Fitzgerald’s Fairy Paintings The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of (1858)


‘What visions can she have?’ the waking man muses, as he turns her face towards him, and stands looking down at it. (…) ‘What can she rise to, under any quantity of opium, higher than that! – Eh?’

— CHARLES DICKENS, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870

Sleep is a prevalent theme in Victorian paintings, which commonly focus on innocent childhood slumber. Examples of this genre include Benjamin Leader, The Young Mother (1856), Edmund George Warren, Lost in The Woods (1859), or J.E. Millais, Sleep (1867). In the nineteenth century, sleep provided a convenient motif to portray female submissiveness through passive descriptions of ennui and exhaustion. As a trope encroaching on the territories of nudity, sometimes obscenity, sleep is a subject that Victorian painters exploited. In the process, they subtly circumvented moral codes to depict enchanted realms, drawing upon mythological episodes, fairy tale or Shakespearean sources, while following the tradition of Renaissance dream-paintings. Few artists, however, offered a simultaneous representation of the sleeper and the content of his dreams, leading Fuseli to remark that: ‘One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams, and what may be called the personification of sentiment’.1 ← 181 | 182 →

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