‘Before the Coming of the Sinful Queen’ by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale


Before the Coming of the Sinful Queen by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Accession number: 1911P67

Date: 1910-11

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, though working rather later than many of the Pre-Raphaelites, owed much of her style and inspiration to them. Working as a painter, designer and illustrator, she also drew on similar literary sources, and this work, which provided the final illustration to an edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1911, is an example of this.

In Tennyson’s final Idylls, ‘Guinevere’, we see the Queen in a nunnery where she has retired from the world after the final battle put an end to Camelot. A ‘garrulous novice’, not knowing who this older nun is, tells her stories of what happened at Camelot:

so glad were spirits and men
Before the coming of the sinful Queen.”

Then spake the Queen and somewhat bitterly,
“Were they so glad? ill prophets were they all,
Spirits and men: could none of them foresee,
Not even thy wise father with his signs
And wonders, what has fallen upon the realm?”

The Queen, whilst portrayed as genuinely remorseful, cannot help but attempt to defend her former behaviour by indicating that perhaps it was not only the ‘sinful Queen’ who caused the downfall of King Arthur. Later in the poem, Guinevere cries, then, believing that the novice has been told to get her secrets out of her, she loses her temper. After the novice leaves her in fright, she enters a trance in which she recalls her previous life and her husband and lover. She then sees Arthur (who may or may not be a hallucination), who berates her for the wrong she has done. Her repentance after Arthur has left is increased:

Then she stretched out her arms and cried aloud
“Oh Arthur!” there her voice brake suddenly,
Then–as a stream that spouting from a cliff
Fails in mid air, but gathering at the base
Re-makes itself, and flashes down the vale–
Went on in passionate utterance:

“Gone–my lord!
Gone through my sin to slay and to be slain!
And he forgave me, and I could not speak.
Farewell? I should have answered his farewell.
His mercy choked me. Gone, my lord the King,
My own true lord! how dare I call him mine?
The shadow of another cleaves to me,
And makes me one pollution: he, the King,
Called me polluted: shall I kill myself?

Her repentance is complete, and her ending is peaceful, if not happy: she becomes the Abbess:

Then she, for her good deeds and her pure life,
And for the power of ministration in her,
And likewise for the high rank she had borne,
Was chosen Abbess, there, an Abbess, lived
For three brief years, and there, an Abbess, past
To where beyond these voice there is peace.

These passages all appear to be echoed in Fortescue Brickdale’s work. The Guinevere she depicts is not the beautiful Queen of Camelot and lover of Lancelot so often the subject of paintings, but an older woman, with a lined and tired face whose very posture speaks of sadness and loss. The bread she carries is possibly part of the good works she does in the nunnery, and she is a restrained and unhappy figure. Yet she retains the bearing of a queen: her upright stance – despite the bowed head – is echoed by the flowers, pillars and decorative column which appear in the background. The bright splash of colour also indicates that her life is not now devoid of beauty or happiness; despite the context, it is a poem with hope of redemption for even a sinful Queen.