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Cleopatra Imagery in 19th Century English Novels: "Middlemarch" and "Villette"

I attend Wellesley College, where I am earning my degree in studio art and English with a concentration in creative writing.

Figure 2 "The Sleeping Ariadne."

Figure 2 "The Sleeping Ariadne."

Encounters With Cleopatra in the Novels

While both Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot include scenes within their novels—Villette and Middlemarch respectively—in which their principle female characters interact with the artistic renditions of Cleopatra, the difference in social standing and wealth between those characters dramatically affects their relationship to the image of Cleopatra. Lucy Snowe, Bronte’s main character in Villette encounters Cleopatra while alone at a gallery during her recovery from the debilitating nervous fit of depression. She contemplates the Cleopatra with scorn, before M. Paul Emanuel reprimands her, directing her eyes to paintings supposedly more appropriate to a woman’s sensibilities. In Middlemarch, Dorothea encounters a sculpture of Cleopatra while visiting Rome on her honeymoon trip with Mr. Casaubon. Remarkably, she is wholly uninterested with the statue; however, Will Ladislaw and his German painter friend busily argue over the comparison between Dorothea and Cleopatra.

Both encounters highlight their respective character’s modesty and English Protestant sensibilities in comparison to Cleopatra’s open sexuality and otherness. However, Lucy’s interaction more distinctly highlights the limiting roles available to self-respecting women and the way in which those roles are policed by men like Paul Emanuel, due to her lower economic and social status.

Real-Life Pieces of Art

It is rather important to note, that all the art works mentioned are in fact real-life pieces that existed at the time the novels were written. Some of which survive today. This shows that the imagery of Cleopatra in art and its seeming contradiction to English Protestant sensibility were pervasive enough to be used as a common point of comparison for these two female authors. In Villette, Lucy snow states that the portrait of Cleopatra was painted “considerably…larger than the life,” and “seemed to consider itself the queen of the collection” (223). To Lucy, Cleopatra is the epitome of useless excess, she is large, weighing “fourteen to sixteen stone,” and despite the “abundance of material—seven-and-twenty yards…she managed to make inefficient raiment” (223). If this weren’t enough, she surrounds herself with “vases and goblets…rolled here and there” along with “a perfect rubbish of flowers” and “an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery” to display her excess of wealth (223-224). The painting that Lucy describes is based upon a painting titled Une Almée (A Dancing Girl) by a Belgian painter named Edouard de Biefve who is best known for his large scale romantic history paintings (see figure 1). Bronte saw the painting at a show at the Salon de Bruxelles in 1842 (574). Although the original painting has been lost, a lithograph print has survived. The subject for the painting and print was Ansak, a famous Egyptian singer and the beloved of three sultans (Biefve).

In Middlemarch, the Cleopatra that Dorothea is compared to isn’t really a depiction of the queen of the Nile at all, it is “the reclining Ariadne, then called the Cleopatra” (188). The specific statue that Eliot refers to is in fact still on display at the Vatican Museum, and is known as The Sleeping Ariadne today (see figure 2). Although, “the sculpture is a copy of a 2nd century B.C. original from the school of Pergamon,” which predates Cleopatra, it was believed to be a sculpture of her because she “has a bracelet in the form of a serpent,” which was thought to signify that Cleopatra “killed herself with the bite of an asp” (Vatican Museum). Rather than emphasize the excess of the figure, Eliot emphasizes the lifeless “marble voluptuousness” of the sculpture in comparison to Dorothea, “a breathing blooming girl, whose form” was “not shamed by the Ariadne” (188-189). Nauman, the German artist, describes the contrast best, “there lies antique beauty, not corpse-like even in death, but arrested in the complete contentment of its sensuous perfection: and here stands beauty in its breathing life, with the consciousness of Christian centuries in its bosom” (189). The two depictions of Cleopatra are very similar, both are reclining, partially clothed despite an abundance of luxurious fabric surrounding them, and invite their viewer with a seductive gaze. The reason behind this similarity is not purely chance. Both writers chose these specific pieces of art because their pose and imagery perfectly embody the nineteenth century idea of otherness and dangerously seductive female sensuality.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Cleopatra Iconography

The specific depictions of Cleopatra mentioned above fit into a larger system of iconography in the nineteenth century dedicated to depicting the otherness of women from different ethnic backgrounds. Much of the imagery generated by European artists at this time was deeply influenced by European colonization of Africa and India. One of the most important facets of this iconography and imagery was the sexualization of foreign or ethnic women. This new genre fit easily within an already well established template for the Madonna or the Venus. In fact the statue that the German artist mistakes for Cleopatra is actually a depiction of Ariadne, who in Greek mythology was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë. She is best known for her role in helping Theseus slay the Minotaur. Regardless of the original intention of the artist, at Eliot’s time the sculpture was considered a depiction of Cleopatra. Cleopatra, as a woman of African descent represented well the idea of the other and of the sensuality that these women were thought to represent. It was a kind of sexuality that was simultaneously intriguing, repulsive, and threatening to Western men of the period. We can see this repulsion in the way that both M. Paul and John Bretton react to the painting. M. Paul calls Cleopatra, “a superb woman—a figure of an empress, the form of Juno” (228). Yet although Juno is the Greek goddess of marriage and childbirth, she is not a woman he “would want as a wife, a daughter, or a sister” (228). Meanwhile, Dr. Bretton outright dislikes her, claiming, “my mother is a better-looking woman” and that the “voluptuous types” are “little to my liking” (230). Dr. John’s dismissal of Cleopatra as simply a “mulatto” exposes his own racism which represents a larger school of thought at the time. M. Paul’s reaction is one of initial attraction, but also of repulsion. Cleopatra is beautiful and seductive—a forbidden fruit—but she is not modest, nor is she submissive, two things which M. Paul greatly values in a woman as seen by his harsh and unwarranted criticisms of Lucy on those very topics.

Censorship and Female Modesty in the 19th Century

A large part of M. Paul’s negative reaction had to do with whether or not the painting was fit for an unmarried woman like Lucy to look at. The idea of censorship and the choice of whether to look, says a lot about Lucy and Dorothea respectively. Although Lucy claims that she is repulsed by the blatant sensuality and excess depicted in the painting, we cannot fully trust her words. She says herself that there was a “struggle between Will and Power” in which, “the former faculty exacted approbation of that which it was considered orthodox to admire; the latter groaned forth its utter inability to pay the tax” (222). Lucy’s choice to look, even after M. Paul reprimands her, saying that she has an “astounding insular audacity” that only “des dames” or married women have, exposes her own desires (225-226). She even “assured him plainly” that she “could not agree in this doctrine, and did not see the sense of it” and in doing so outright contradicts M. Paul (226). Of course, to modern women the idea that a woman’s body was not fit for a woman to view is ridiculous, but at the time men believed that if women saw a woman’s body depicted in a sensual or suggestive way that it would compromise their purity or corrupt them. Lucy is defying these standards simply by looking at all.

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Meanwhile Eliot tells the reader that Dorothea, “was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor” (189). By choosing not to look at the sculpture at all, Dorothea is censuring herself. This fits perfectly with Dorothea’s initial desire to work within the system and to fulfill the kind of role of womanhood she believes it is her duty to fulfill, that of loyal and modest wife who eagerly serves her husband. Eliot suggests that Dorothea did not enjoy the art she saw in Rome because the “Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on art chiefly of the hand-screen sort” (193). Clearly Eliot would have us believe that Dorothea’s “ardent” and self-denying nature which so likens her to Saint Theresa, is directly related to her sense of Christian modesty, which denies art and especially art depicting Cleopatra (3). The key difference revealed here is in outward appearances versus inner values. Lucy believes that she should dislike the Cleopatra because it offends the modest sensibilities expected of her, yet she is undeniably attracted to it, meanwhile Dorothea is so indoctrinated as to wholly censure herself.

The Limited Roles Available to Women

Dorothea’s denial of excess in the name of her religious notions, does not mean however that she was content with the roles available to her as a woman. In the chapter directly following the scene with the sculpture of Cleopatra, Dorothea weeps despite the fact that she has “no distinctly shapen grievance” and has “married the man of her choice” (192). Dorothea imagined before her wedding that married life would give her purpose. She falsely believed that being married to Casaubon would allow her to achieve her intellectual ambitions that far surpassed what was thought necessary or appropriate for women during her time. After her marriage, she finds that Casaubon really does not want to be her teacher, nor does he want to foster her intellectual growth, he simply “thought of annexing happiness with a lovely bride” (280). Once Casaubon is dead, Dorothea insists upon never remarrying despite the expectation that she as a young widow without children and with property should think of remarrying. Of course, she does break this promise by marrying Ladislaw, but for a short while she learns to exact her own will and be the mistress of her own destiny, something not available to her before as an unmarried or married woman. Even her choice to marry Ladislaw is in its own way an act of defiance because she loses all her property and wealth. This was Dorothea’s small way of creating space for herself within the limited roles available to her as a woman.

Lucy similarly finds the roles available to women wholly unsatisfying, but without the wealth and beauty that Dorothea possesses, she is unable to achieve the kind of independence that Dorothea found for herself. When M. Paul directs her gaze to “La vie d’une femme” (The Life of a Woman), commanding her to “sit down, and do not move…until I give you permission,” he outlines what he and the rest of society believed to be the only honorable roles available to women; that of young girl, wife, young mother, and widow (225, 574, see figure 3). Lucy describes these women as “grim and gray as burglars, and cold and vapid as ghosts” (226). She goes on to lament, “what women to live with! insincere, ill-humored, bloodless, brainless nonentities! As bad in their way as the indolent gipsy giantess, the Cleopatra, in hers” (226). Unlike Dorothea, Lucy is very forward about her frustrations regarding the roles allowed to women. She tells us plainly that these roles leave no room for the woman to be her own unique person and reduces her instead to her relationship to men. Lucy is frustrated because each representation does not value the woman’s intrinsic worth as a singular person, it instead values her only relationally in regards to the men in her life. Furthermore, Lucy believes that since she has neither wealth nor beauty that this kind of approbation is not available.

Figure 3 "The Life of a Woman: Pity - Love - Sorrow" Fanny Geefs

Figure 3 "The Life of a Woman: Pity - Love - Sorrow" Fanny Geefs

The Issue of Truth

One main reason Lucy takes issue with the paintings is the fact that these roles are not truthful in the sense that they are not truthful to human nature or her wants and needs as a person. One of the reasons that she dislikes the Cleopatra and La Vie de Une Femme so much, is that they do not speak to her own truth. She calls the Cleopatra “an enormous piece of claptrap” (224). Lucy states while in the gallery that, “there were fragments of truth here and there which satisfied” in the form of portraits that seemed to “provide clear insight into character” or nature paintings that showed the beauty of nature as it really is (222). She dislikes paintings that “are not a whit like nature,” with fat women parading around like goddesses (222).

Similarly, Dorothea is drawn to the simpler beauties in life. While in the Vatican, surrounded by thousands of art objects she chooses to direct her gaze to a streak of sunlight on the floor (189). Similarly, Will Ladislaw “turned his back on the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican and was looking out on the magnificent view of the mountains from the adjoining round vestibule” (188, see figure 4). Both Ladislaw and Dorothea literally turn away from artifice in search of the truthful, natural beauty in front of them in the world. Like Lucy, Ladislaw’s issue with his German friend’s desire to paint Dorothea boils down to the truth of the painting. He takes offense to the fact that his artist friend believes his painting would be “the chief outcome of her existence” (190). The painting of Dorothea is not truthful because it is reductive in the same way that her comparison with the Cleopatra is reductive. Will tells his friend that, “your painting and Plastik are poor stuff after all. They perturb and dull conceptions instead of raising them. Language is a finer medium” (191). In this quote Eliot herself is peeking through; she is letting us know that her written depiction of Dorothea is more truthful than a painting could ever be, because to paint her would be to reduce her to the single role associated with the particular iconography employed in the painting. As we can see both Lucy and Ladislaw’s negative reactions are based upon the lack of truth in the visual representations of women due to their reductive quality.

Figure 4 "Belvedere Torso"

Figure 4 "Belvedere Torso"

Idea of Christian Moral Superiority

In many ways, the comparison between the two female protagonists and their Cleopatra “antithesis” emphasizes the same points, but the key difference lies in the opportunities available to them as women. In many ways, Cleopatra has many of the things that Lucy wishes she herself possessed. Yet, while Cleopatra is wealthy and beautiful, Lucy feels that she has an English Christian moral superiority. Meanwhile, Dorothea has wealth and beauty like Cleopatra does, except according to Will and the German artist she has something more because of her Christian purity. Nauman tells Ladislaw “if you were an artist, you would think of Mistress Second-Cousin as antique form animated by Christian sentiment—a sort of Christian Antigone—sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion” (190). Interestingly, Nauman who does not know Dorothea immediately relates her to Antigone, a martyr from Greek mythology. Will echoes this sentiment saying, “I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom” (219-220) Yet while it may seem that Will sees this as a fatal flaw, he too is attracted by it. Part of the reason her finds her so enthralling is due to her wifely dedication to Casaubon. “The remote worship of a woman throned out of their reach plays a great part in men’s lives, but in most cases the worshipper longs for some queenly recognition, some approving sign by which his soul’s soverirgn may cheer him without descending from her high place. That was precisely what Will wanted. But there were plenty of contradictions in his imaginative demands. It was beautiful to see how Dorothea’s eyes turned with wifely anxiety and beseeching to Mr. Casaubon: she would have lost some of her halo if she had been without that duteous preoccupation” (218).

Image of Cleopatra as Metaphor for Lack of Female Autonomy

The monarchial language used in the quote above ironically draws attention to the fact that the historical Cleopatra has one thing that these two women both severely lack—the ability to choose their own destiny and exert their own will. Cleopatra is threatening in a way that neither Lucy nor Dorothea are, because she was a woman who ruled over men through her cunning. Both authors included comparisons to Cleopatra to praise and highlight their modest, English Protestant values, but also to lament their lack of power. Importantly, the difference in social standing and wealth between these two characters affects the way in which men and they themselves conceptualize the roles available to them and their relation to the Cleopatra.

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