Nineteenth & Early Twentieth Century Adaptations of the Lady of Shalott by Women

Along with Elizabeth Siddal, a number of Victorian artists used the Lady of Shalott to represent women’s autonomy. The maiden locked away in a tower illustrates domestic isolation and the longing for more in life, as she can only see as what Tennyson describes as “shadows of the world.” Upon looking outside and away from the mirror, the maiden becomes aware of the world around her as well as herself. In a feminist reading of the poem, we can interpret the Lady’s weaving as a participation in patriarchal norms and strictures: she can only copy what she sees, unaware of anything outside of a narrowly delineated and constructed order. When she steps away from the mirror, she breaks away from the gendered confines within which she has existed. Her embrace of her passion for Lancelot and her open pursuit of desire was a revolutionary threat to Victorian morality and patriarchal society, and according to those social and artistic mores, she must be punished for her transgressive desire through death. However, many woman artists and authors challenged these structures in their depictions of the legend, reclaiming agency both for the Lady of Shalott and for themselves as artists within a male-dominated profession. They depict the Lady as themselves: realistic and dynamic, rather than merely beautiful and passive.