The Lady of Shalott and The Lady in the Looking Glass
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote “The Lady of Shalott” around 1830, during what is known as the Victorian Age. Virginia Woolf published “The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection” in 1929, during what is referred to as the Modernist Age. These works of art both deal with women who have important relationships with mirrors. The light in these stories has a great and different effect and meaning for each of these women. The importance and meaning of light are contrasted in these two tales, representing a change in writer’s attitudes toward light portrayal.
In Tennyson’s poem, the woman known as The Lady of Shalott, has been placed in a tower and told if she ever looks directly onto Camelot, she will be cursed. “A curse is on her if she stay / To look down to Camelot”(lines 40-41). She relies upon a mirror to reflect to her what happens outside her tower. Light is very important to her, as without the light there can be no reflections. It is through the use of this mirror that she glimpses Lancelot riding by, in the sunlight, “His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;”(line 100). She falls in love with him, and watches him ride away causing her eye to wander from the mirror to the road and on to Camelot. The light, which beforehand had allowed her glimpses of the world, is her undoing and the curse is upon her. Up until the point when the Lady decided to look toward Camelot, the light had been a positive aspect in her life.
The light was most often friendly for The Lady of Shalott, but it does not prove to be friendly to Isabella Tyson, the main character in Woolf’s “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection.” After returning from the garden, “At once the looking-glass began to pour over her a light that seemed to fix her; that seemed like some acid to bite off the unessential and superficial and to leave only the truth”(2456). In this story, the light is not a good thing. The light is too harsh and too bright, burning away all façade of Isabella and showing her to be a hollow woman. The light is a negative aspect of her life.
It seems that between the Victorian Age and The Modernist Age, the use and meaning of light in writing changed completely from being positive and helpful to being harsh and unwelcome.