An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 16, 2010

Saunders, Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism

Clare Broome Saunders, Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Reviewed by Katie Lister (

There have been many studies tracing the vogue for medievalism that flourished in the nineteenth century. Marc Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman; Kevin L. Morris, The Image of the Middle Ages in Romantic and Victorian Literature; Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in the Nineteenth-Century English Literature; Roger Simpson, Camelot Regained: The Arthurian Revival and Tennyson; and Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism, are but some examples. Thus, the field of nineteenth-century Medievalism seems, prima facie, demonstrably well mapped. There is, however, a glaring omission in our present appreciation: the inclusion of Medievalism by women. Clare Broome Saunders sets about remedying the scant critical attention nineteenth-century female medievalists have received in her recent publication: Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism. In a detailed and thought provoking study, Saunders considers how women poets, translators, biographers and artists employ medieval motifs to explore and comment upon controversial socio-political issues that were usually considered ‘off limits’ to female criticism.

Saunders not only assesses well known writers, such as Elizabeth Barret Browning, Lady Charlotte Guest, and Felicia Hemans from the original perspective of female Medievalism, but also brings a host of less well known yet vital figures to modern scholarly attention. Writers and artists such as Louisa Stuart Costello, Dinah Mulock Craik, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Florence Harrison, and Anna Jameson inform much of Saunders’ contextualisation and present her readers with an exciting host of ‘new’ authors for future critical consideration.

Saunders does not limit her study to one medium of Medievalism but sources material through novels, poetry, historical texts, personal letters and diaries as well as paintings and photography. The result of such an inclusive approach is the revelation that the relatively untapped canon of female Medievalism is surprisingly vast, and when one begins to look for it, it is apparent in rather embarrassing quantities. Saunders suggests that a primary reason for the paucity of critical research on the subject is that female engagement with medieval culture was initially considered a quaint ‘feminine’ hobby rather than a serious study of any kind. Regardless of intellectual merit, female endeavours in Medievalism were often patronised as “elegant little works” or “charming little volumes” (Saunders 2009, 26) rather than worthy contributions to the male dominated field of nineteenth-century Medievalism. Subsequently, from initial publication, female Medievalism has never commanded the gravitas freely given to the works of male medievalists like Tennyson, Sir Thomas Percy or Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

However, endowing female medievalists with the intellectual gravitas they rightfully deserve is not a primary focus of Saunders’ work (although she achieves this objective throughout). Saunders identifies a distinct ‘female’ Medievalism and considers it along the dominant ‘male’ strain to revel in women’s frequently satirical and contradictory use of Medievalism. Read against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval that characterised the nineteenth century, Saunders shows how women writers commented on ‘hot topics’ of the day from a safe, yet highly subversive position. Should anyone question if Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have dared to comment on the barbaric nature of the Crimean war, they could be swiftly silenced with a reminder that her “charming little works” spoke only of an imagined past and that such discussion was not suitable for ladies.

Saunders explores female responses to nineteenth-century warfare in great detail and in particular the paradoxical relationship that existed between women and war: While women are ‘forbidden’ to interfere with the politics of war, they are always directly involved as victims, inciters, or camp followers. Saunders goes on to apply this paradox to female presentations of the archetypal medieval warrior woman, Joan of Arc, who is revered both as a revolutionary nationalist and a lunatic adolescent. Saunders explains how women writers made Joan acceptable to the nineteenth-century palate by sanitising her from all masculine associations, downplaying her role as general and war strategist, emphasising her virginity, youth, and religious devotion, and presenting her as a ‘domesticated’ heroine with all the virtues of a respectable Victorian lady. Whilst expunging her ‘medieval’ virtues seems to weaken Joan’s status as a feminist icon, this process allowed women to cast Joan as a role model to young girls, retain her status as a strong woman, and defend her reputation from those who would cast her as a foreign, gender confused, emasculating abomination.
In tandem with the figure of the warrior woman Saunders explores the concept of ‘Queenliness.’ What makes for a good Queen and concurrently what makes for a good woman informs much of Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism. This is hardly surprising given the accession of the young Queen Victoria and the cult of chivalry that flourished about her.  Saunders explores nineteenth-century literary and artistic presentations of various historical Queens (e.g., Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I) as well as the fictional Queen Guinevere, and shows how nineteenth-century writers viewed their Victoria as a womanly ideal, the doting mother and wife. Saunders goes further and explores how Queen Victoria was able to draw upon the cult of medieval chivalry to secure her popularity whilst many female writers were deeply critical of the implicit gender structures that encourage female passivity. Just as Joan of Arc was made acceptable by ‘domesticating’ her strength, so too was the power of a Queen diluted by urging all women to become Queens in their own home.

In addition to demonstrating how Victorian women writers employed medieval motifs to popularise and accept Queen Victoria as monarch, Saunders gives over a large section of her work to investigating the female presentations of the adulterous, yet powerful Arthurian Queen Guinevere. Saunders traces female responses to Tennyson’s unsympathetic and condemnatory presentation of Guinevere in his Idylls of the King and reveals an earnest attempt by several female medievalists to reclaim Guinevere from his invective. Writers such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Violet Fane, and Sara Teasdale go some way in recasting the Queen as a victim of an unfeeling and impossible ‘perfect’ husband rather than the destroyer of Camelot. Other writers such as Landon and Costello choose to condemn Lancelot by heavily critiquing his role in the tale of Elaine of Astolat, known better as the Lady of Shalott. In showing Lancelot to be a medieval love rat, Guinevere is partially absolved of her adultery.  As with Joan and Queen Victoria, Guinevere is cleansed of her medieval associations and tempered with nineteenth-century respectability.

Although many female medievalists, such as Costello, Elizabeth Elstob, and Susannah Dobson, clearly wished to revive an antiquarian interest in Medievalism through their various translations of obscure texts, Saunders argues that female Medievalism can be predominantly characterised by a desire to subvert and contradict ‘traditional’ medieval motifs. Issues such as warfare, female leadership, sexual morality and women’s rights all find expression through the writings of these female medievalists. Whilst many nineteenth-century male medievalists look for an imagined medieval world to inspire and inform their modern world, women medievalists use the Middle Ages to explore controversial issues, particularly issues of gender, and cast the period as one fraught with problems and paradoxes. Saunders argues that at the centre of female Medievalism is the desire to grant the iconic and passive female an articulated voice, expressed by women who re-read and re-write medieval legends.

Katie Lister
University of Leeds