"She’ll moan and cry and give herself as no sane woman would"
The Lady of Shalott
Public DomainThe Lady of Shalott - Credit: William Holman-Hunt
The word hysteria comes from the Latin hystericus, meaning ‘of the womb’. The cause of madness, therefore, has historically and linguistically been linked to the female reproductive organs. Women’s madness and overt sexuality were seen as practically synonymous in Victorian times, and cures for ‘mad’ women included attempts to control menstruation and, at worst, clitoridectomy.

As women were not meant to feel sexual pleasure, Antoinette's very pleasure in their lovemaking is one of the reasons that Rochester's ability to love her is circumscribed, and why he thinks she is mad.

 

   

 

Women’s hair has also been seen as a symbol of their sexuality, and wild, loose hair was often indicative of a wild, loose woman. Victorian artists and writers were particularly interested in the significance of women’s hair.  See Elizabeth G. Gitter’s ‘The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination’.

William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott is perhaps the most famous example of this fascination. Depicted at the moment of her transgression in looking out of her window, the woman’s hair has fanned out wide. The image is powerfully sexual, yet the entrapment of this web of hair is, according to the narrative of Tennyson’s poem, aimed solely at the lady herself.