Submission and cross-dressing: Tennyson’s The Princess

tennyson-5We’re in the 19th century for the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, in the Victorian era, when the British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published an epic poem called The Princess, on the subject of what to do about bizarre ideas about women’s education, independence, and silly things like that.

The submission of Victorian women was expected due to their supposed intellectual inferiority. A woman who tried to educate herself was violating Nature, because women were to be angels in the house, and to stay there, expecting nothing more from life than to serve their husbands (because they would all of course get married), and to raise their children as perfect souls. The artist and critic John Ruskin was particularly annoying on this subject, since he believed in some terrifying double standards. The Victorian woman must be incapable of error, incorruptible, infallible (though I’d like to know where she was to get this wisdom if she wasn’t allowed to leave the house), and would rule men in her own domestic domain. If the woman of the home allowed danger or harm to enter the house, it was her fault, because then the house would not be a home. He made no space for the possibility that a man might bring the danger home (his list included disease, crime, drink, and false religion). A man might also refuse to be ruled by his wife. Imagine that.

tennyson-1Thankfully for common sense, these ideals, though widespread, were also widely disagreed with. Many Victorian novels (including those we teach now, for their alignment with modern thinking) will show you that middle-class women in particular were disturbed by these restrictions, because the plots seem to try to winkle them out of such restricted lives and show them a different way of living, even if they all rush nervously back to the drawing-room and predictable safety.

So where does that leave us with Tennyson? He published The Princess in 1847. It consists of a Prologue, and seven Books: this marks it as an epic in form alone. It’s one of Tennyson’s earlier works, but is very well-known because of some of the individual poems within it, called the ‘intercalary poems’. It’s very easy to read, because it’s written in blank verse, a classical conversational form in unrhyming iambic pentameters.

note the chaps in disguise
note the chaps in disguise

Here’s the story: Princess Ida retreats from male society and creates a university for women where nothing male may enter. This feminine intellectual paradise is infiltrated by the Prince to whom she is betrothed, plus a couple of his friends, all disguised in frocks. He tries to persuade her to relent and marry him after all, and then his aggressive father declares war on her father, and the university is turned into a war hospital. The poem ends with Ida being persuaded by the Prince that they can co-exist harmoniously in marriage.

This poem is a ‘problem poem’, but it’s designed to be a comedy (in the Shakespearian sense), in that the women are made to see the error of their ways through the gentle persuasion of love. The Princess has to surrender, although she ends the poem in a ‘triumphant union’ with the Prince. She is sad that she can’t continue her resistance to patriarchal society (conservative, brutal, instinctive, unthinking) or continue her mission of a separate educational establishment for women (an intellectual, futuristic and abstract goal).

The Princess really is a very odd poem, because it’s self-consciously archaic, and deliberately farcical in many respects. It begins with a hissy-fit by the Prince’s father, a mighty king, who is furious when Ida’s father sends a message that the Princess has decided not to marry his son. He stomps and rages, and tears things up, and vows to send an army to crush the Princess’s pride. The Prince, who seems a resourceful sort of chap, suggests that he goes to discuss things with the Princess, but his father, still in a right old temper, forbids him, Naturally, the Prince, and his two best friends Florian and Cyril – I don’t know why I can’t find the Prince’s name: perhaps he’s an Everyman character – disobey this petulant ruling, and slip out of the palace at night to travel to Princess Ida’s realm. But remember that this is a women-only realm: no men may enter. So the three gallant gentlemen dress up as women, and here’s where the farce begins. Cross-dressing is a staple ingredient in British comedy: we really do find it funny when men wear frocks. They register at the Princess’s university as gentlewomen students, and attend classes in philosophy led by, ta da!, Florian’s own sister, Psyche, with whom Cyril immediately falls in love.

photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess
photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess

Princess Ida is treated with respect in the poem, though there is a bit of undergraduate sniggering when she first meets the three adventurers. We know that they’re men fooling the girls, and so we can enjoy the humour of the situation where Ida gravely lectures them on how unnecessary men are, and how much better a society is when it is ruled by women. Ida is a symbol of heroic will rather than a spoiled girl who won’t do what the men want. She embodies heroic comedy, rather than the domestic comedy which is what all the marriage-making is about. Marriage is a comic symbol, the ultimate in joining and making.

But is it a good poem? Is it enjoyable? It does use many different tones, which shows that, in trying to do too many things, Tennyson was never going to succeed. It’s also a right old mix of genres, using the heroic, the comic, the domestic, the epic, the lyrical, the idyllic, almost all at the same time. Good professional showmanship of technique, but is it good art? Some attempts at genre effect fail completely: the poem is framed by a Prologue and a Conclusion set in a standard mid-Victorian country-house party, and the seven Books of the poem are supposed to have been narrated by seven different speakers (to whom we were introduced in the Prologue), yet their voices are indistinguishable. They were supposed to have different personalities and points of view, yet the background society from which they come is so conventional, that in comparison with this fantasy landscape of Princes and Princesses, they are all the same.

tennyson-2Something I rather like about this poem is that it is particularly British. It uses Arthurian and chivalric ideas and terminology as a basis for the university experiment, and for the actions of the three young male invaders, who are knights errant on a quest in the service of love. It is totally fantastical, utterly unrealistic, a delirious exercise in sheer romantic silliness. The great Victorian satirists Gilbert and Sullivan saw its potential immediately, because this was the inspiration for their magnificent comic operetta Princess Ida. The Princess is fun to read; do try it.

The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser

fq6In this week’s Really Like This book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in the English Renaissance, pricking across the plain with the Red-Crosse Knight, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This is the biggest and most elaborate courtly flattery ever written, and it’s not even complete. Edmund Spenser was a subject of Queen Elizabeth, the first of that name, and she was a very experienced, very wily old lady of 66 when he wrote the poem to gain her favour. No doubt she was flattered and mightily amused when he personified her as Gloriana, Belphoebe, the Fairie Queene and the Queen of Love in an epic on the moral virtues. It was planned as a poem in 12 books, with each book consisting of 12 cantos, and each canto consisting of 12 stanzas, which were verses of 9 lines each. Spenser only managed to write the first six books, which means he completed nearly 8000 lines of verse. And that was only half of what he had planned. Some fragments of later cantos exist, but the poem effectively halts at the end of book 6. The Faerie Queene is the western world’s longest poem from this period, an action epic, and a Renaissance version of the chivalric romance. Spenser wrote a long letter to Sir Walter Raleigh explaining what he meant with the poem, which is one of the easier ways to get to grips with it before reading.

fq2The first thing to notice is that it’s an allegory: a work where characters are not rounded personalities as we would expect them to be in novels, but flat, and unchanging. They represent qualities, symbols, abstract concepts. This makes the multitude of characters very easy to remember: they don’t change, and they are simple black and white personifications. The aim of the Faerie Queene is to show how a gentleman ought to behave, through a series of adventures where knights battle with monsters, and are frequently rescued by King Arthur.

fq-1Whoa. What is King Arthur doing in a Renaissance poem? Arthur was from the middle ages, the Dark Ages even, a character who emerged after the Saxon invasions and was established long before the Normans, 400 to 600 years earlier than Edmund Spenser. Arthur belongs to a literary tradition that began with relatively primitive poems about military muscle and ended with delicate philosophical discussions about love in a fantasy boudoir. He doesn’t fit in the Renaissance world of Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Essex. However, Arthur is also an allegorical figure. In Spenser’s day he was still thought of as the perfect knight, and was, obviously, very well known. As a figure in a poem dealing with the twelve moral virtues, he would have no ulterior motives, or be anything other than a perfect kingly paragon of virtue.

The plot of the poem is, broadly, that Prince Arthur is on a quest to find his beloved Faerie Queene, an allegorical portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and is continually interrupted by entering the adventures of other characters. Spenser separates the figure of Arthur completely from the ‘matter of Britain’ that we usually associate him with (by which I mean Lancelot, Guinevere, the Holy Grail) by transplanting him into a totally different fantasy landscape. Queen Guinevere doesn’t exist in this new incarnation of Arthur’s story: he’s a single knight in pursuit of a new lady as the object of his courtly love, the Faerie Queene herself. In the six different books of the poem, Arthur functions as the all-conquering knight to rescue those in need.

Britomart of Book 2
Britomart of Book 2

Each book is about one of the moral virtues. Book 1 is about Holinesse, the second is about Temperance, the third is about Chastity, with a female knight as the hero, the immortal Britomart. The fourth book is about friendship, the fifth is about justice, and the sixth is about courtesy. Each book tells the adventures of a different knight, and that knight’s lady, and the monsters they encounter, the temptations they struggle with, and how they embody their book’s particular virtue. The story is very stylized, and utterly unrealistic, which can be explained by thinking about how story, as tales told in poetry, was evolving in English literature. By the sixteenth century, when the Faerie Queene was written, readers of romances and poetry were a bit bothered about the apparent disinterest that much earlier writers, for instance Chaucer, had in noticing the difference between fact and fiction. Renaissance readers felt that romance needed to be quite clearly romance, and narratives of exploration and discovery needed to be believable and true, and usable as guidebooks. The form of the narrative wasn’t important: a poem about the exploration of the New World would have been quite acceptable as an emigrants’ guide. What mattered was the presentation of facts as facts, and fantasy as fantasy. So the characters in the Faerie Queene do not show anything like real-life behaviour. They are also unfazed at encountering cave-dwelling monsters, talking trees, processions of foul fiends in the wilderness, or dragons. This is all standard, and this is why the Faerie Queene is such fun to read, if you like that sort of thing.

Una and the Lion, from Book 1
Una and the Lion, from Book 1

Book 1 is a self-contained epic on its own, and is thus the one book most widely studied in university classes. The story is also very attractive: the Red-Crosse Knight (who represents Holinesse) begged the Faerie Queene at her court to be allowed to undertake his first quest. He was weary of hanging around the court as a junior untried squire: he wanted action. So, graciously, the Faerie Queene, or Gloriana, agreed that the next quest to be announced at court would be his. The next day, a maiden of great purity arrived, asking for help from a brave knight to rescue the kingdom of her father, the Emperor, which was being terrorized by a dragon. Gloriana announced that she had just the knight for the job, a most experienced and doughty warrior; may I introduce the Red-Crosse Knight?

You will have spotted that Gloriana was not telling the maiden what the knight had told her, and I’m not quite sure why: I haven’t looked deep enough into the critical literature to see what the experts think of this apparent continuity flaw, or deliberate falsehood by the queen of truth and beauty. Anyhow, the maiden, whose name was Una, gladly accepted the knight’s service, and off they went. Almost immediately (because this story does not hang around, each canto has quite a bit of action) Una and the Red-Crosse Knight are misled and separated by a wizard called Archimago, disguised as a holy friar, and a strangely smiling lady called Duessa. These two are better known to Spenser’s original readers as Satan and Duplicity, and they force the two holy heroes to endure many trials and terrors, all connected with belief, and with chivalry, and the terrible lure of Catholicism, before being rescued by Prince Arthur. That ends Book 1, and we enter Book 2 with gusto, appetite whetted for more fantastical adventures.

fq7To understand the odd religious bias again Catholicism, we need to remember the persecution dealt out to Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth, and the persecution dealt out to Protestants during the reign of her elder sister, Mary I, or Bloody Mary, a generation earlier: practical effects of the history of the Protestant reformation in England. Spenser was aiming to please his own particular Protestant queen, so he packed this first book of the poem with spectacularly simplistic, negative messages about Catholicism. These too are part of the poem’s fascination, in decoding and untangling what Spenser’s audience would have understood immediately.

We do not need to read the Faerie Queene in translation: it is remarkably accessible in Elizabethan English. If you can understand Shakespeare you’ll be able to understand this. But I suggest that you try it as an audio book or CD, if you’re nervous about antiquated spellings putting you off your stroke. English has changed much less in sound from Elizabethan times than it has in its spelling, so focus on what the words sound like. On the other hand, if you can get hold of one of the lovely nineteenth- or early twentieth-century facsimile editions of the Faerie Queene, you can enjoy the classic layout of the stanzas of each canto in double columns, and the helpful rhymes at the start of each canto that summarise the action.