Hothouse Victorians: Art and Agency in Freshwater
The Victorian artistic community that grew up on the Isle of Wight around Tennyson and Julia Margaret Cameron has been reimagined in Virginia Woolf’s play, Freshwater (1923, 1935), and more recently in Lynn Truss’s novel, Tennyson’s Gift (1996). Whereas Freshwater should be read as modernist or post- Victorian, Tennyson’s Gift is neo-Victorian and postmodern in its form and attitude. Integral to both are the discontent of women and the disruption of gender norms. Therefore, this essay looks particularly at the question of female agency in a Victorian world envisioned in 1923-35 and one of 1996. In Freshwater, one sees a serious exploration of generational change and the desire for artistic freedom, especially through the character of Ellen Terry. Freshwater is a dress rehearsal for To the Lighthouse. Truss reimagines Freshwater by adding to Woolf’s cast the unstable Charles Dodgson, whose Alice in Wonderland becomes the familiarizing scaffolding for readers in a Victorian world that seems as strange as Wonderland did to Alice. Here, female agency is elusive – too-knowing little girls hold sway and adult women use their power, rather pathetically, to win and hold the undeserving men they love.
Featured Image Credits: Isle of Wight County Press – 11th January, 1913 | © Courtesy of Wootton Bridge Historical