The Lady of Shalott and the ‘Cult of Dead Women’


I was going to include this video of the Lady of Shalott in my group five post on but after Dr. Ullyot showed a slide of the Waterhouse painting I figured that some intrepid googler would beat me to the punch to I decided to post it now just in case anyone wanted to hear the poem in addition to reading it. The animation of the painting is remarkably done but the song is very long so you might want to check out another video.

I have also includAYCBAIG_10313603317ed some other paintings from the Victorian Era of Ophelia, and one called Lady Lilith by Dante Rossetti, who was one of the more important of the MMA_IAP_1039650946Pre-Raphaelite painters.

These were part of what Dr. Adrian Kessler (U. of C) called ‘The Cult of Dead Women’ images that were popular with the Victorians.


Many of these paintings featured pale complexioned women with bright red/pink cheeks and were representations of the growing admiration for the pale, ephemeral beauty that women had when they had contracted tuberculosis, then called consumption.

This also shows up in Operas like Manon Lescaut  and La Boheme by Puccini and La Traviata where the main character dies at the end in the arms of hARMNIG_10313470355er lover (usually while singing a bloody difficult aria. The Victorians were fascinated by death. If you want to see some of the more macabre customs search hair jewelry and memento mori.






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6 Responses to The Lady of Shalott and the ‘Cult of Dead Women’

  1. amsovak says:

    So fascinating. I am particularly intrigued by how other characters such as Ophelia all fit into the same type of niche as the Lady of Shalott. Very depressing!

  2. mrubling says:

    The Victorian fascination with women and death is quite an interesting subject. I can’t help but notice how many of these depictions, whether in artwork or poetry, are by men. It seems like in many cases, the female subjects meet their untimely ends when their chances of fulfillment, their roles as women in relation to men, are disrupted.

    It’s also interesting to compare the way in which male artists and female artists differed in their portrayal of the female subject. For example Rossetti’s illustration presents The Lady of Shalott with, as you mention, strong facial features of full lips, white skin and vulnerable in comparison to strong Lancelot. In contrast, artists such as Elizabeth Siddal or Inez Warry; her clothes are plain, her body in simple form with no emphasis on her sensuality.

    Good job on your post!

  3. rwhittaker says:

    I loved the Loreena McKennitt video, thanks so much for posting! I find it interesting that the Lady of Shallot in the paintings had, as you mentioned, pale complexions with bright red/pink cheeks. In the poem I can only see that Tennyson commented on the Lady of Shallot’s appearance once, when Lancelot muses that “she has a lovely face” (1166, line 169). Was this look that the Lady of Shallot seemed to have due to the obsession with “ephemeral beauty that women had when they had contracted tuberculosis” or does Tennyson in fact give a description of her appearance somewhere else? Interesting to see that she does have a very similar appearance in each of the painter’s works despite no descriptive characteristics except for lovely.

    Great post!

  4. ullyot says:

    The McKennitt song is lilting and beautiful, worth listening to as you read the poem — though as I recall, she does skip over a couple of stanzas. (She’s also done renditions of a couple of Shakespeare’s songs.)

    If anyone can point to musical treatments of any other texts we’ve read (Shelley?), please do! Thanks for this, Carol.

  5. madelynbrakke says:

    Thanks for this post Carol! I do not know much about this time era, but (of what I do know) find it very interesting. Although these stories and painting are known as “The Cult of Dead Women” (which isn’t exactly welcoming) it is interesting to see a different side of women during this time period. I did not realize how many female characters parallel in plot lines and will definetly look more into this!

  6. Athena G. Csuti says:

    Thanks for posting this bit of art and cultural history! The context helps, and it’s fascinating.

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