‘The Lady of Shalott’ by John Atkinson Grimshaw
With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
~ Alfred Lord Tennyson (from ‘Mariana’)
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Alfred Lord Tennyson composed his lyrical ballads, featuring desperate damsels beyond hope of deliverance, in the early nineteenth century on the cusp between the Romantic and Victorian Periods. As such, they are as reflective of one as they are prescriptive for the other. THE LADY OF SHALOTT
both derive their subject matter from traditional sources, each marrying elements of setting with themes of female suppression and confinement in such a way as to provide lasting inspiration for the school of Gothic narrative that would surface in their wake.
Not least among its finest catch is THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
the short story of a young woman’s gruelling descent into madness, rendered by American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman in terms no less evocative than those of her poetic predecessor. However, unlike the languishing Mariana, her protagonist’s dilemma goes well beyond the trampled heart and consequent mischief of the mind: she is victim not only of her own thwarted desires, but, equally, of the pernicious dictates of an insensitive husband and the unwholesome quarters to which he has condemned her. In a dilapidated nursery, high atop a mansion of hyperbolic dimension and design, this repressed young wife is destined to see her worst fears of personal undoing brought to full fruition.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
It is a setting the narrator is quick to characterize as giving rise to her own dire feeling of foreboding – “I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. Else why should it be let so cheaply?” And indeed, it is probably in terms of perspective that Gilman’s narrative differs most significantly from that of Tennyson. All the morbid intensity that Mariana conveys through soul-stirring imagery, The Yellow Wallpaper recreates by means of a sharply subjective point of view. In the same way Edgar Allan Poe’s dubious spokesman for *The Tale-Tell Heart plunges his reader headlong into his patently skewed inventory of the many demons at his door, so Gilman’s protagonist offers no preamble to declaring herself victim of a nameless sense of dread. Steeped, as such, in her inevitable bias, and cloaked in strains of speculation and denial, she proceeds to peel for us the layers of her own psychic disintegration.
Thus, it is through a skillful manipulation of perspective that the author seduces her reader to side, unequivocally, with the oppressed against her oppressor. No shadow of doubt does she allow us to entertain over the culpability of the physician husband, whom she bluntly typecasts for the vagaries of his gender, profession, and the society in which they conspire. So blithely prescriptive is he of every move his young wife makes, so blandly dismissive of every fear that he calls fetish, that, no matter how candied his claims of good intention, we know him, nonetheless, for the clod he really is. Life with him, as Gilman portrays it, is a sentence of slow and silent suffocation, the ensuing pallor of which his victim foreshadows for herself from the onset, referring to the very page upon which she would bear it testimony as “dead …[and] a great relief to my mind.”
Nor is it any coincidence that her tablet is made of the same unlucky substance that is to adorn the walls of her dungeon of so-called rehabilitation. When first she lays eyes on that fateful harbinger of torment, she is drawn, and yet, repelled, by its colour and condition, describing it much as she might her own experience of depression: “dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study.” Her ambivalence notwithstanding, she wastes no time in seizing us by our growing partiality, and dragging us along with her into its noxious midst, and from there, down the corridors of her ravaged perception to a place of such pity, horror and apprehension that, in those “lame uncertain curves … [that] plunge off at outrageous angles, [and] destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions,” we cannot help but recognize the voice of grisly prediction.
And so, as daylight fades, and night invades this chamber of her misery, shadows become elongated. The waxing moon casts, in stark relief, the “sprawling outlines [that] run off in great slanting waves of optic horror,” and, with them, the torrid secrets of her sick and broken soul. Assuming her place, then, amid the ghastly tangle of this metaphor for madness, she becomes the “recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down,” and lunacy prevails. For just as Tennyson’s wasting heroine opts for death in the face of the absence of her man, so Gilman’s seeks oblivion against the weight of his demands.
*Read my blog post: EDGAR ALLAN POE: TALES OF THE HEART and watch the video version: ODE TO THE MAN WHO LIVES UPSTAIRS
British author Thomas Hardy was a contemporary of Gilman, equally intrigued by the Gothic genre and the theme of female entrapment. THE WITHERED ARM (1888) is his macabre tale of a milkmaid who suffers the devastating consequences of her jealousy when her employer, who is also the father of her illegitimate son, takes a bride of higher social standing. Like both Mariana and The Yellow Wallpaper, the story addresses the often subversive and self-destructive responses of women to the mental and emotional deprivation imposed on them in a male-dominated society.
The following is my own poetic retelling of Hardy’s classic, which I’ve written in the form of lyrical ballad after Tennyson’s Mariana. You can also view the video version at THE TAINTED LIMB.
THE TAINTED LIMB
When, in a busy Dorset dairy,
rumour rang from every roof
that Farmer Lodge was soon to marry,
one among them held aloof;
at close of day, with heavy tread,
back to her home, she did repair,
and to her young son waiting there,
“Your father is to wed!” she said,
“And may their lives with grief be fraught!
The man is mine!” she cried,
“Alter not what God hath wrought,
I will not be denied!”
So trenchant was her jealousy,
her sleep so fettered with distress,
that one night, that young bride to be,
she swore she saw perched on her breast!
A fiendish leer upon the face
showed clear intent to do her harm …
so gripping fiercely by left arm,
she spurned the demon from her bed;
“Get thee, Evil Spirit, out!
This bed is mine!” she cried;
Yet, on her soul, was cast a doubt
from which she could not hide.
The farmer soon his lady wed,
and for her virtue, she was famed;
for wishing ill upon her head,
her rival felt a growing shame.
Indeed, the wife became a friend
and in that mother did confide
that on her left arm she must hide
a wound that would not seem to mend;
“It is the mark of devilry!”
the guilty milkmaid cried;
She must not ever let her see
the truth she held inside.
As time went on, they grew apart:
the sheepish mother could not stay,
and so, she took her bastard son
and settled several miles away;
as six years passed, the limb grew worse,
the farmer’s wife could find no cure
for symptoms that most surely were
the sequel to some heinous curse;
“A monster have I grown into!
Grief is mine!” she cried,
“this shriveled arm I must renew!
No longer can I hide!”
She’d heard tell of a Conjuror
who lived within the neighbourhood;
magic might he have for her
to coax the evil back to good.
And so, she made her way to him
and stood upon his darkened stair…
showed him what she could not bear,
which signified a future grim:
“Take this blemish from my life!
A jinx is mine!” she cried,
“I am not fit to be his wife!
This limb, he can’t abide!”
Thus, diagnosed the magic man:
“Free you’ll be of devil’s clutch,
if to a strangled neck you can
your sorely vexed appendage touch”
So, that same night, she stole away
to where her sick heart might behold
a gallows set to take its toll
before the dawning of the day;
“What price is this for me to pay?
Horror, mine!” she cried,
“I would there were aught else to do
to see this ill subside!”
When from the shadows, she did steal
to where the lifeless duly swayed,
her arm against the gruesome weal
of one poor strangled neck, she laid;
trembling in her mortal dread,
a scream rang out from close behind…
she twisted round in time to find
the parent of the freshly dead!
The milkmaid, who in bitterness,
“Vengeance mine!” had cried,
was one for whom forgiveness was
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