The Lady in the Mirror

Francesco Casetti argues in his essay “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations” that adaptation is much more than just formal variation of the same themes (Casetti 83). Casetti states, “To present a story that has already been told, means to explore how cinema [the new adaptation] is capable of renewing and intensifying the relationship between text, representation, and spectatorship” (Casetti 84). Of course, Casetti’s essay deals with adaptations between literature and film, but the ideas he discusses can easily encompass any other form of adaptation. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1871 adaptation of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 poem creates a new discourse between the poem and the prose; Phelps’s focus on the poor of the nineteenth century city creates new meaning around Tennyson’s poem just as much as the connection to Tennyson’s poem creates new meaning around Phelps’s short story. The direct connection between Tennyson’s original poem and Phelps’s prose adaptation creates an area of discourse between the two works that illuminates the conditions of the poor in the emerging cities of the nineteenth century.

Phelps’s short story, “The Lady of Shalott” adapts the title and many of the themes from Tennyson’s poem by the same name. The adaptation from poem to prose serves Phelps’s story by allowing for greater levels of development within the story. The spare nature of Tennyson’s poem means that it has to rely heavily upon shared cultural knowledge in order to create a textured and affecting narrative. Tennyson’s poem draws heavily upon the tales of King Arthur and Camelot to create imagery and meaning while keeping the poem to a relatively short length. Phelps’s prose, on the other hand, has plenty of space to create its own context within its own text. Phelps’s story completely removes any mention of Camelot or any of the characters from Arthurian Legend. In fact, the only reference to medieval the feudal system comes from the title of lady given to The Lady of Shallot. The ability of prose to be more or less self-contained gives Phelps’s story the ability to reference other texts in a much more subtle way. The extra room for embellishment within a short story allows it to take on larger cultural concerns than that of a poem.

Phelps’s story does more than just reuse and repurpose the title and character of Tennyson’s poem; Phelps’s story makes a reference to the fictional nature of The Lady of Shallot by directly mentioning Tennyson’s poem within the text of the story. While referring to The Lady being crippled from childhood, the narrator states, “This is a fact which I think Mr. Tennyson has omitted to mention in his poem” (Phelps 1871). This mention of Tennyson and his poem, “The Lady of Shalott” in the text of Phelps’s short story, “The Lady of Shalott” creates a discordance within the logic of the story. The discordance brings in to question the validity of the name and title of Phelps’s Lady and allows for the possibility that Phelps’s narrator is disguising the character’s actual name as The Lady of Shalott. Phelps’s story also drops the title of Lord from Tennyson’s name and replaces it with the more common title of Mister. While calling into question The Lady’s title could be considered an attempt at making the character more relatable to the setting of a nineteenth century American city, the lowering of Lord Tennyson’s title can only be seen as an act of political subversion.

In Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shallot resides in an island tower outside of Camelot (Tennyson 1-18). Camelot stands as the beacon of riches and power in Arthurian Legend. And towers are military structures that symbolize the extension of military control over an area. The lord or lady of the tower would be responsible for the protection and military control of the lands all around, but The Lady’s tower controls little more than fields of grain. The poem’s narrator states, “On either side the river lie/Long fields of barley and of rye,” (Tennyson 1-2). Tennyson’s Lady sits atop her tower separated from Camelot by the river and by the people who till the field. These fields are outside of the limits of Camelot, and the farmers know that they are in need of protection because of this need they celebrate their unseen protector (Tennyson 14-31).

Tennyson’s poem shows the connection between protector and exploiter in the feudal system. Just because the farmers know that they are in need of protection does not mean that they should be taken advantage of. Tennyson’s narrator states, “And thro’ the field the road runs by/To many-tower’d Camelot” (Tennyson 4-5). This is only the first of many mentions of products moving towards the city. The road and the river both flow toward Camelot, the mighty symbol of civilization (Tennyson 4-5, 13-14). The road and the river bring boats, barges, and horses, carrying the grain and other products to the city (Tennyson 20-23). King Arthur’s tales are stories of feudal lords and in the feudal system the wealth only flows one way, away from the peasants and toward the king. The river ever flowing to Camelot separates the Island of Shalott from the fields (Tennyson 8-13). This separation symbolizes the conflict of interest that The Lady has. She makes the claim to protect the farmers under her charge, but the road and the river that are the corridors of trade stand between her tower and the fields. While her tower may extend a small amount of protection over the fields, it mostly provides oversight of the movement of goods towards Camelot.

However, Tennyson’s poem draws attention away from the plight of the poor farmers and the unfairness of the feudal system, and draws attention to the beauty and spectacle of Camelot and the lords and ladies heading that way that. Early on, Tennyson’s poem states, “And thro’ the field the road runs by/To many towered Camelot” (Tennyson 4-5).The poem plays up the image of Camelot by touting its military might with the mention of its many towers. And it continues to play up the inviting nature of Camelot by reiterating the idea that everything is moving toward the fabled city. The poem mentions Camelot eighteen times (Tennyson 5-167). In fact, only one stanza fails to include the name of the city, Camelot. The one stanza than fails to mention “Camelot” replaces the word with Lancelot, who is likely the best known of Arthur’s knights (Tennyson 77). The description of Lancelot continues on for thirty two lines (Tennyson 77-108). Lancelot is decked out with a gemmy bridle, a silver bugle, and a thick-jeweled saddle, and all of these riches travel along with him to Camelot (Tennyson 82, 88, 92). The critique of farmer’s treatment in Tennyson’s poem only comes to light after reading Phelps’s story.

In Phelps’s story, the political subversion cuts both ways. It comments on the feudal system that gives rise to the titles of lord and lady, and it shows the connection between the feudal system and the nineteenth century American version of capitalism. The Lady in Phelps’s story stands both condemned as oppressor of the poor and celebrated as one of the poor oppressed. In Phelps’s story the lady’s tower is the tenement building in which she lives. This building is in the middle of the ghetto, and the ghetto is in the middle of the city (Phelps 1871). The Lady’s tenement building shares none of the amenities of a medieval tower which houses a regal lady. The Lady lives in the attic room of an old ramshackle tenement. The room in infested with rats, a hole in the wall lets in the weather year round, and the stairs have no rail (Phelps 1871). In Tennyson’s poem, the fields separate the Lady from typical civilization on every side by food products that they do not have any claim to, and Phelps’s story does the same thing with the products of the people’s labor. Phelps’s tenement/tower is surrounded by people. These people, the residents of the ghetto could be considered to be her subjects that she watches over, and she watches over the flow of the products that they create from the poor of the ghetto to the coffers of the city. While the poor people of the ghetto are surrounded by the opulence and beauty of the nineteenth century civilization’s crown jewel, the modern city. Like the medieval feudal system the nineteenth century city is built on the backs of the poor for the benefit of the rich.

Phelps’s Lady only ever sees the world through her mirror (Phelps 1871). This mirror shows her dual identity, how she lives as one of the poor but sees the lives of the lives of the poor through the eyes of the eyes of the rich. When The Lady sees waves in the mirror, Phelps’s narrator says, “They have green faces and grey hair. They threw back their hands, like cool people resting, and it seemed unaccountable…. Besides this, they kept their faces clean” (Phelps 1871). The green faces and grey hair of the waves conjures images of American presidents printed on paper money. According to Wikipedia.com, American dollars had a green printed back and black ink printed on the front (United States Note). The back face of is green ink and the fine detail in the black ink of the portrait on the front makes the hair look grey. These waves of American currency double as people, as the poor of the ghetto. They have hands to throw back and rest. The “unaccountable” resting wave people mirror the typical stereotype of the poor as lazy and irresponsible. And the description of clean faces represents the way that the people of the city that benefit from the conditions of the poor can willfully ignore the cultural and economic pressures that force the poor into their lives in the ghetto.

In Tennyson’s poem, the poor farmers that provide the economic income that allows for the continued existence of the city of Camelot have a connection to the products they make by following the growth of the grain from planting to reaping. But Phelps’s story alienates the poor people from the process of production. The characters of Phelps’s story do not get the satisfaction of producing an entire product. This story shows the poor of the nineteenth century city as a cog in a much larger machine. Sary Jane is constantly sewing (Phelps 1871). She sews together the cloth that was created in a factory out her sight. And the workers in the factory that create the cloth are removed from the growing, reaping, and processing of the cotton that goes into the cloth. Neither Sary Jane, the people that create the cloth, nor the people that grow the cotton get to be involved with the selling of the nankeen vests that Sary Jane or any of the other countless seamstresses sew. As the only mention of jobs for the poor In Phelps’s story, Sary Jane’s never ending repetitive job stands in as a typical job of the nineteenth century poor worker.

Every time that Sary Jane shows up in this story, she is sewing nankeen vests, “at sixteen and three-quarter cents a dozen” (Phelps 1871). But for her labors she gets very little in return. According to tenement.org, the rent for a New York tenement during the 1870s would run between eight and fifteen dollars per month (Lower Eastside Tenement Museum). In order to make the eight dollars for rent, Sary Jane has to sew at least five hundred and seventy-six nankeen vests per month and more if she and the lady want to eat. Sary Jane must average just over 19 vests per day just to afford rent. If she works sixteen hours per day, she has to sew one vest every forty minutes of every waking hour of every day. Sary Jane seldom makes enough to cover much more than just the rent. Just like in Tennyson’s poem, the goods flow away from the people that produce them.

When speaking about the grain that the farmers sew, Tennyson’s poem states that the grains of barley and rye “clothe the wold [sic] and meet the sky” (Tennyson 3). The narrator shows the importance of these grains with the romantic description. The grains clothe the world. To clothe the world literally would keep the planet warm and protected from the elements, but in this case, the world is referring to civilization. Sary Jane’s nankeen vests literally preform the function that the grain figuratively performed in Tennyson’s poem. Sary Jane’s vests cloth the world or at least the people in it. The clothing of the world with grain protects civilization by keeping fed the people that comprise the civilization. Her constant sewing references back the farmers working in the fields of Tennyson’s poem. But the farmers of Tennyson’s poem have an advantage over the poor workers of Phelps’s story. They are working with actual food products. If they are not being compensated enough to buy their own food, they can eat the grain that they are growing. However, In Phelps’s story, Sary Jane and other workers of the nineteenth century city make an inedible product. If they are not being compensated enough to buy their own food, they go without. In the scene that she goes in search of food, Sary Jane comes back with only a lemon for her dinner (Phelps 1871). And this lack of nutrition does not bode well for Phelps’s Lady, who had been crippled from a young age.

Both Tennyson and Phelps use the breaking of the mirror as the impetus for The Lady’s death. But Tennyson’s Lady dies because of a curse and Phelps’s Lady dies because the lifting of a curse. When the mirror shatters in Phelps’s story, The Lady is no longer cursed to see the world through the eyes willfully ignorant eyes of the rich. When the doctor comes to check on The Lady, His eyes are finally opened to the true horror of the treatment of the poor. He is shocked by the conditions in which The Lady lives and claims that she could be cured if only she gets moved to better conditions and given treatment. But Just like The Lady, who is incapable of changing her situation due to her inability to move, the doctor seems to be paralyzed by the by the enormity of the institutionalized problem that he is faced with. Instead of actually taking care of her himself, he sends for the board of health and goes on vacation. The doctor like so many of the others that had seen glimpses of the life of the poor hands off his responsibility to help to someone else. And The Lady follows the doctor and goes off to take her rest instead of doing something to fix the societal problems. Only, The Lady’s restful vacation from her stressful existence in the city is one in which she cannot return. The Lady’s restful vacation from her life is death.

Tennyson’s poem and Phelps’s story work together to create a field of discourse around the unfair treatment of the poor in the medieval feudal system and the capitalist society of the modern nineteenth century city. While Casetti shows that the ideas brought up in the original occurrence of a story inform the reading of the ideas that come up in the adaptation Tennyson’s poem into Phelps’s story shows that the ideas of the adaptation can also inform the reading of the original.

Work Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

“Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. <http://www.tenement.org/encyclopedia/housing_rent.htm&gt;.

Phelps, Elizabeth. “The Lady of Shalott | Robbins Library Digital Projects.” The Lady of Shalott | Robbins Library Digital Projects. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott (1842 Version) | Robbins Library Digital Projects.” The Lady of Shalott (1842 Version) | Robbins Library Digital Projects. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

“United States Note.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.

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