Looking at the Romance: the Romance of Looking
by Cathy Cupitt

The definitive action of the modern romance hero,
what he/ she does best, is looking.

The birth of many of the characteristics of the modern Romance was during the nineteenth century. This was the time when women started to find a central place in the Romance, instead of inhabiting the periphery as they did in earlier Romances such as King Horn, Sir Orfeo, and Malory’s “Balin and Balan”. It was also the century that the ideas of capitalism and democracy were becoming central to the structures of society. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, and Haggard’s She explore some of these modern themes and issues. Although the literary methods used in these two works differ, central to them both is an exploration of the societal place of women, signified by “the implications of the active/looking, passive/looked-at split in terms of sexual difference”1. “The Lady of Shalott” and She are full of “profuse sensuous detail”2, as well as the “improbable, desiring, erotic and violent” 3 elements found in the world of romance, so there is indeed plenty for these women to look for, and at, within them.

“There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at,”4 says Laura Mulvey in her essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”5, both of these pleasures seem to be denied the heroine. Looking, because it brings the `curse’ upon her; being looked upon, because she is `invisible’ while alive.

The Lady suffers a type of invisibility. She is never seen alive by another human being, “but only heard at particular times and by privileged people.”6

She is in the position of the quest object or the courtly lady whose anonymity, imprisonment and distress inspires the heroic action of a questing knight and the narrative that both tells of his deeds and resolves her mystery. However in this instance, that narrative … is itself deferred since she neither has a devoted suitor … nor the power to elicit the attention of passing knights.7

“But who hath seen her wave her hand? / Or at the casement seen her stand?” asks the poem. The answer, is no one – she does not even see herself, despite the imagery in and of her mirror being so significant. Elaine Jordan writes:

No one has commented on what seems to me a curious fact, that in a poem about a Lady with a mirror, the traditional emblem of vanity, the Lady herself is never imaged in the mirror saying ‘this is I’…. Selfhood is silent in The Lady of Shalott.8

In my opinion it is this kind of breaking with traditional visual representations that makes the poem so powerful. It has been used here to introduce us to the character of the Lady as an unreachable, unseeable, enigma, isolated from the `real’ world. And yet at the same time the Lady is the `active’ gazer in the poem – a masculine role which usually signifies some kind of control of the narrative.

It is the pattern of gazing which is central to the poem. In fact these are all literally mirror images of familiar mythic patterns, fitting for a poem where a mirror plays an essential functional part, in that they turn the usual patterns back to front and upside down and redistribute actions between the sexes in almost direct opposition to the customary readings.9

The overt reason that the Lady does not interact with the world is that, “A curse is on her if she stay / To look down to Camelot.” It is not revealed what the specifics of the curse entail, but as it is described using the phrase ‘the curse’, it conjures up the impression that it is gender specific.

The `mysterious’ circumstances of the Lady’s imprisonment, her gender specific occupation, the nature of her `curse’, the symbolic `cracking’ of the mirror, all provide excellent symbols for the ideological/ psychological oppression of mid-Victorian women.10

“I’m half-sick of shadows,” said the `spinster’ Lady after seeing the moonlit reflection of two “young lovers lately wed”. If the Lady symbolises the captive nature of womanhood, the almost ‘house arrest’ existence of Victorian women, then her only traditional escape would be marriage. Would she not yearn to be a newly-wed? It is at this point that the Lady becomes an active, rather than passive observer:

The Lady gazes into a reflective surface, the mirror, like Narcissus, but sees no image of herself. It is Lancelot, riding along the river bank who is reflected, both in the river and through the mirror in a double image.11

He is a splendid, fiery figure. The dazzling sunlight flames “upon the brazen greaves” and “The helmet and the helmet-feather / Burn’d like one burning flame together”. “The appearance of Lancelot … is presented as a visual onslaught.”12 writes Saville.

Not only is he himself a visible presence, but he is associated with action, questing and the achievement of erotic and semiotic consummation.13

He is almost a kind of `Sun God’, whose golden reflection would banish the Lady’s `shadows’. Furthermore he is a sexual figure. His shield bears the emblem of courtly love – the thing that would save the Lady from her drudgery. Ironically, it is looking at this bright, confident, worldly figure that brings on the `curse’.

The Medusa cannot be looked at except through a shield. But it is the Lady who cannot look at Lancelot except through the proxy of the mirror. It is the male that kills, not the female gaze. 14

But it is not only Lancelot’s brightness, and status as a courtly lover that brings the curse upon the lady. It is the way he is seen by her. Not merely reflected in the mirror, but doubly reflected, “From the bank and from the river / He flashed into the crystal mirror”.

Her mirror constituted a protection against life for the Lady; it cracks after she sees somebody doubly mirrored … within the mirror. It is as if the protection is cancelled out: re-re-flection = flection, the impact itself.15

The last section of the poem completes the cycle of the Lady’s doomed existence. For one brief moment she experiences the pleasure of looking:

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

With the coming of the curse, the Lady prepares for her death, “Like some bold seer in a trance … With a glassy countenance”. The Lady may be out in the `real’ world, but she is still alone. There is no joy in the `inner’ sights she is seeing. At this point of the poem:

There is a release of ironic tensions … which the poet achieves through a suggestive and unifying progression from sight as a physical sensation to insight as mystical vision. 16

The reader has no clue as to what this `mystical vision’ might be, apart from the fact that the Lady is preparing to commit suicide. Once she has found, and written her title on a boat, “She floated down to Camelot”, “singing her last song”, “Till her blood was frozen slowly”. She fetches up in the city of Camelot, no longer imprisoned on her island, but no longer capable of taking any active part in the life of the city.

She lies dead at Lancelot’s feet, as opposed to him kneeling for her in imitation of the courtly love represented in his shield. “The power of the gaze, sinisterly, is taken over by Lancelot, who projects his feelings on to her dead body.”17 Lancelot, oblivious to his part in the Lady’s life and death, “mused a little space; / He said, `She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace”.

Isobel Armstrong summarises The Lady of Shalott as:

An island, an imprisoned lady, a mirror, a web, an immense but indeterminate sense of loss: `The Lady of Shalott’ presents images of almost laminated brilliance and precision which are at the same time absolutely arcane and enigmatic.

Enigmatic the images may be, but the fact that they are being `seen’ by the Lady, albeit at second hand reflected in a mirror, is at the crux of the poem. The Lady’s “definitive action” is to look at Lancelot and so bring `the curse’ upon herself. She gains no pleasure, or empowerment, from looking or being looked at, she never escapes her `shadows’; but her `look’ is central to this romance.

The use of the `look’ in Haggard’s novel She18 is quite different to Tennyson’s usage in “The Lady of Shalott”. The most obvious example of this is that the narrative in She is `aware’ of a reading audience. Right from the opening lines of the novel, the voyeuristic `look’ of the reader is expected. This is carried to the elaborate extent of printing a replica of the Sherd of Amenartas – the equivalent of a treasure map – to give to the reader `visual evidence’ of the truth of the tale.

The very landscapes of this tale are sympathetic to the personal powers of the protagonists. An important visual stimulus provided for the reader is in the descriptions of the landscapes the protagonists pass through. Its features, the way it looks, are often gender specific. In places the landscape is strongly configured as feminine or masculine – a device used to, respectively, emphasise Ayesha’s superiority, and foreshadow her death. Etherington summarises this well:

It does not require much imagination to see the female body … dominating the topography of She. The narrow passes between the beautiful shrubbery suggest the loins of a woman. The two extinct volcanic mountains … suggest breasts … The ancient channel cut to drain the crater lake is most strongly reminiscent of the birth canal … That same imagery is repeated more dramatically in the final decent toward the Fire of Life.19

Once the protagonists reach the crevasse that “goeth down to the womb of the world” the imagery suddenly changes to reflect a male bias. Descriptions such as that of a “cock’s spur” which “throbs” and “vibrates”, and the ebbing and flowing of the Fire of Life itself – a “revolving pillar of flame”, dominate the imagery. It is in this phallic, male symbol of power that Ayesha bathes herself, and is graphically destroyed.

There are many examples of metaphors of sight and voyeuristic looking, as well as spectacle on a grand scale, in She, however in the short space that I have in this essay, I would like to concentrate on what I think is the most important facet of the `look’ in this tale – the use of eyes, faces, personal beauty and sexuality.

We, as readers are invited in to the story, and asked to look upon the evidence and judge for ourselves its truth. “So I will explain at once that I am not the narrator but only the editor of this extraordinary history,” writes Haggard in the first paragraph of the introduction, and later “Of the history itself the reader must judge … to me the story seems to bear the stamp of truth upon its face”.

The `looks’ of the faces of the characters in the book reveal much to the reader. Haggard wrote in his article “About Fiction” (emphasis mine):

More and more do they [men and women] long to be brought face to face with Beauty, and stretch their arms towards that vision of the Perfect, which we only see in books and dreams. 20

Beauty, perfection, truth, personal power (especially sexual power): these are all major themes of She. The central character, for whom the narrative is named, is in fact an epitome of many of these things, her personal beauty seeming to be inextricably linked with her other powers. “Haggard succeeds in conveying a sense of her incredible physical perfection and sensuality by judiciously presenting only a few details, leaving her essentially an abstract, idealised vision of feminine beauty.”21

Ayesha’s sexual power allows her to overthrow the `reason’ of men and so capture their loyalty and love. Haggard held that “sexual passion is the most powerful lever with which to stir the mind of man, for it lies at the root of all things human”22. Ayesha’s sexual power is directly connected to her beauty – when she loses her beauty, she becomes powerless, an object worthy of pity and disgust. That her power is connected to her beauty is signified by the care She takes to hide it in “long, corpse-like wrappings”. In this guise she corresponds strongly with the central image of the book – the statue of Truth. “By death only can thy veil be drawn , oh Truth!”

What then is Ayesha’s hidden truth? Holly describes the effect on him of the sight of Ayesha’s beauty unveiled:

I gazed … at her face, and I do not romance – shrank back blinded and amazed. I have heard of the beauty of celestial beings, now I saw it; only this beauty, with all its awful loveliness and purity, was evil … I let my eyes rest upon her shining orbs, and felt a current pass from them to me that bewildered and half blinded me.

For all that Holly writes that he is wordless to describe Ayesha, he lingers over the looking at her, enjoying as well as condemning her beauty. Ayesha’s face is not the only one that is dwelt upon as significant in determining character and power. Holly is described, punningly as tree-like, but more importantly as an ugly `baboon’:

Short, thick-set, and deep-chested almost to deformity, with long sinewy arms, heavy features, deep-set grey eyes, a low brow half overgrown with a mop of thick black hair.

Holly himself describes his ugliness to the reader as he stands before a mirror. Holly is in fact not only the narrator of this tale, but the viewer of it. It is his choice of sights that the reader `sees’, and he therefore has quite a lot of power over the presentation and meaning of the story and its characters.

It is … the beholder who lends the beautiful thing its myriad meanings … and sets it in some new relation to the age so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps, of what … we fear that we may receive.23

Ayesha’s eyes might be magnificent, and contain the power of death, but they are strangely blind to inner beauty. It is Leo/ Kallikrates she has waited for and loved for centuries, her love kept alive by the preservation of, and her necrophiliac devotion to, his beautiful body. “Was the ancient Kallikrates nothing but a splendid animal beloved for his hereditary Greek Beauty?” asks the `Editor’ of the novel. The descriptions of Leo that Holly presents to the reader, do nothing to dispel this notion. Leo is a weak, ignorant man, more interested in hunting than in the information on the Sherd that starts his inherited quest. He spends a large part of the book unconscious, and his speech is full of comments that reflect poorly on his intelligence: “`Yes I shall go, Uncle,’ he repeated, `and if I don’t find the `rolling Pillar of Life,’ at any rate I shall get some first-class shooting.'”

However, flawed though she may be, Ayesha is not allowed to keep her power and beauty. “She … was associated with a new era in the fictionalizing of female power,”24 write Gilbert and Gubar. Daniel Karlin expands – “what happens to Ayesha is a Darwinian inversion, a `devolution’ from a higher to a lower form, which signifies Nature’s punishment of Ayesha’s female presumption.”25

The glorious eyes, too, lost their light … “Look! – look! – look! she’s shrivelling up! she’s turning into a monkey!” … She, who but two minutes gone had gazed upon us – the loveliest, noblest, most splendid woman the world has ever seen – she lay still before us … no larger than a big ape and hideous – ah, too hideous for words!

Here at last Ayesha’s Truth has been unveiled, she “is and always was a bald, blind, naked, shapeless, infinitely wrinkled female animal”26. The reason for her punishment soon becomes all too clear. Holly concludes:

Ayesha strong and happy in her love, clothed in immortal youth, godlike beauty and power and the wisdom of centuries, would have revolutionised society, and even perchance have changed the destinies of Mankind.

She has too powerful a gaze, flawed though it may be, which can overpower a man. She is too beautiful to be looked upon without making a man lose his reason. She must die, or unbalance the status quo.

“The definitive action of a modern romance hero, what he/ she does best, is looking.” This quote, with which I began, is an apt description of “The Lady of Shallot” and She. The female heroes of these texts cannot be allowed to take part in actively looking, or define or control being passively looked-at. It is considered ‘too dangerous’ for society. The inherent power of the look as used by the `other’ could change “the destinies of Mankind”. And yet both of these female characters dare to look, they dare and are punished, but nonetheless make the attempt. I believe that in these Romances the heroes, these `New Women’, can indeed be defined by their ‘looks’.


Armstrong, Isobel.
“Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott: Victorian Mythography and the Politics of Narcissism”; in J. B. Bullen, Ed., The Sun is God: Printing, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Beer, Gillian.
The Romance. Critical Idiom Series. London: Methuen, 1970.

Etherington, Norman A.
The Annotated She. Bloomington, Indiana, 1987.

Frye, Northrop.
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Gilbert, Sandra M. & Gubar, Susan.
No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century: Volume 2, Sexchanges. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Haggard, Rider.
“About Fiction,” The Contemporary Review, February (1887), p. 172-180.

Haggard, Rider.
She. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, no date.

Karlin, Daniel, Ed.
She: World’s Classics. OUP, 1991.

Magil, Frank N.
Masterplots: Revised Edition, Volume 10. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersy: Salem Press, 1976.

Mulvey, Laura.
Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillan Press, 1989.

Pearce, Lynne.
Woman, Image, Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature. Harvester, 1991.

Ricks, Christopher.
Tennyson. Macmillan, 1972.

Saville, Julia.
“The Lady of Shalott: a Lacanian Romance,” Word & Image, 8 (1), (1992), 71-87.

Shannon, Edgar F. Jr.
“Poetry as Vision: Sight and Insight in The Lady of Shalott”, Victorian Poetry 19 (1981), 207-223.

Tennyson, Alfred.
The Lady of Shalott, 1842 version. In English 214/314 Romance Reader. Nedlands: University of Western Australia, 1995.

Secondary Texts

Armstrong, Isobel.
Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. Routledge, 1994.

Auerbach, Nina.
Woman and the Demon. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Etherington, Norman A.
“Rider Haggard, Imperialism, and the Layered Personality.” Victorian Studies, 22 (1), (1978), 71-87.

Joseph, Gerhard.
“Victorian Frames: The Windows and Mirrors of Browning, Arnold, and Tennyson.” Victorian Poetry, 16 (1), (1978), 70-87.

End Notes

  1. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 24.
  2. Gillian Beer, The Romance (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 10.
  3. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 61.
  4. Mulvey, p. 16.
  5. Alfred Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott”, 1842 version; In English 214/314 Romance Reader (Nedlands: University of Western Australia, 1995), p. 99-102. All of the quotes from The Lady of Shalott are from this source.
  6. Julia Saville, “The Lady of Shalott: a Lacanian Romance,” Word & Image, 8 (1), (1992), 76-7.
  7. Saville, p. 77.
  8. Lynne Pearce, Woman, Image, Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature (Harvester, 1991). p. 73. Pearce is quoting Elaine Jordan’s `Monologues and Metononymy’.
  9. Isobel Armstrong, “Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott: Victorian Mythography and the Politics of Narcissism”; in J. B. Bullen, Ed., The Sun is God: Printing, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 57.
  10. Pearce, p. 72.
  11. Armstrong, p. 57.
  12. Saville, p. 78.
  13. Saville, p. 78.
  14. Armstrong, p. 57.
  15. Christopher Ricks, Tennyson (Macmillan, 1972), p.81.
  16. Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., “Poetry as Vision: Sight and Insight in The Lady of Shalott”, Victorian Poetry 19 (1981), p.208.
  17. Armstrong, p. 93-4.
  18. Rider Haggard, She (Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, no date). All quotes from She will be from this edition.
  19. Norman A. Etherington, Introduction to The Annotated She (Bloomington, Indiana, 1987), p. xxxiv
  20. Rider Haggard, “About Fiction,” The Contemporary Review, February (1887), p. 173.
  21. Frank N. Magil, Masterplots: Revised Edition, Volume 10 (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersy: Salem Press, 1976), p. 5955.
  22. Haggard, “About Fiction,” p. 176.
  23. Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century: Volume 2, Sexchanges (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 4. Here Gilbert and Gubar are quoting from Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist”.
  24. Gilbert & Gubar, p. 22.
  25. Daniel Karlin, Ed., Introduction to She: World’s Classics (OUP, 1991), p. xxiii.
  26. Gilbert & Gubar, p. 21.

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