The Fair Dreamer, engraved by Illman Brothers (picture by Knut Ekwall)
This engraving, titled The Fair Dreamer, depicts a woman reclining on a tree trunk with one arm over her forehead and the other grasping a vine on the tree. She wears many petticoats that are pulled up to reveal her pointed shoes; she is young, and her accessories include a hat and parasol. Her outfit and the scenery indicate that the temperature is warm, probably summer. A boat is visible in the bottom right corner of the image, and she seems to be next to a stream or pond; the grasses around her are the kinds of greenery that grow near a body of water.
Looking at the image, the viewer can see that the woman is likely daydreaming. She is taking a break from her stuffy life within the home to visit somewhere she is not normally. By looking at the boat, the viewer can infer that she either rowed herself to this location or had someone else (likely a man) bring her there. Knowing some things about Victorian ideas of gender, it is more likely that the latter is the case. Women were too delicate to do such manly things as rowing themselves down a river, right? This idea of delicacy is echoed in The Woman in White with Laura Fairlie. Laura is considered so pretty and delicate that she is hardly left on her own for one moment. Even when she draws and Walter “sells” the drawings to make money for the household, he describes them as “poor, faint, valueless sketches” (Collins 479). Walter feels the need to take care of Laura and make sure she never finds out that he is not actually selling her worthless drawings; she is too delicate to hear news like this, and it would hurt her.
Like Laura Fairlie, the woman in the engraving was probably not left on her own when she went to do her ‘fair dreaming’ next to the water. She is arranged in such a position in the image that her artist has made it clear exactly how she came to be dreaming in that position and who is there with her. This image is a definitive reference to the ideas of gender in Victorian art and literature and perpetuates ideas that men had about the states of women’s minds and bodies.
4 thoughts on “Delicate, Worthless, “Poor, Faint, Valueless”: Oh, Fair Dreamer!”
This was a really interesting read of the piece. I appreciate how you read past the boundaries of the artwork – and started thinking about how the woman got there and what the implications of that journey are.
If we were to do a queer reading of this piece, we could go along with the other possibility you suggested – that she rowed there herself. Then she not only was escaping her stuffy life, but also the watchful eye of those around her, and finally free to daydream. Daydreaming, whether or not she’s supervised, is sort of a queer act, in a lot ways. It allows her to imagine another world where she’s free of her (gender) (social) (political) constraints.
What does it say about Alice in Wonderland that she isn’t accompanied by a man in her journeys as a guide? Interesting!
I find this woman’s positioning very intriguing. She doesn’t look very comfortable and it appears as though she has to hold onto the vine above her head in order to stay in the position she is in and yet she is supposed to be dreaming. She looks very “damsel in distress-esque” even as she is supposed to be peacefully asleep. She looks not only delicate, but precarious balancing on the trunk of this tree, potentially in need of saving at any time as she doses dangerously.
I think that the very carefully planned and contrived positioning that you pointed out with the woman’s posture and petticoats works in conversation with other art we’ve looked at. So often women supposedly in repose, sleeping or simply relaxing are in very uncomfortable and inauthentic positions. I wonder if we could contrast the male-centric ideals that these trends represent with Vanora in “The Yellow Drawing Room”. The ladies in Victorian art, including the dreaming woman here could easily be Vanora’s sisters: shallow and impressionable, perfect for the narrator. In contrast, Vanora is vivacious and solidly present and in control, more likely to climb the tree than languish against it. But Vanora’s life is exactly what vexes the narrator. His ideal, a vapid dreamer content to pose, is directly challenged by Vanora, who’s dreams are also ambition.
This woman, to me, appears to have fainted in a dramatic fashion, considering the hand over her forehead and the positioning of her body. She holds onto a branch in order to keep herself up. Like the other comments it seems to convey a teasing message of “damsel in distress” and in need of saving. I think its important to note the environment she is depicted in. She’s against a large tree with landscape in the background, no sight of civilization. Additionally, the boat and oars in the bottom right corner suggest she has traveled to this location, whether it be of her own free will or not is unknown. Therefore this pose could articulate a different meaning, one of actual distress. Or looking at it from the dreamer position, hence the title, she could have just traveled a far distance and is now exhausted because she is just a fair lady.
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