Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 227-248
[Access article in PDF]
Marginalized Musical Interludes:
Tennyson's Critique of Conventionality in The Princess
In 1847, when Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Princess was first published, Victorian England was embroiled in a vast array of debates concerning women's role in society, placed under the canopy term "the Woman Question." Should women work? What kinds of education should they have? Was marriage to be their sole lot in life? Tennyson's response, couched in this seven-book novel-in-verse, has proven to be a contentious one for his readers then and for critics now. Tennyson's frame story introduces seven college men on holiday who take turns creating an inner story about a medieval princess rebelliously embracing these challenges facing women. Specifically, Princess Ida flees a contracted marriage to a local prince in order to establish a women's university where men are forbidden under penalty of death. But the Prince and two of his men, for love and for the sport of it, disguise themselves as women and invade the Academy, the Prince falling more deeply in love with Ida before they are discovered. When Ida still refuses to marry, the Prince's father declares war on her father's kingdom and ultimately the Academy is turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Tending to the wounded Prince, the "hard-hearted" Princess relents and eventually agrees to marriage while the Prince's two friends also claim wives from the university. Granted, the Princess espouses powerful feminist rhetoric throughout the poem, but her eventual marriage leaves nothing but a bad taste in the mouths of many critics. So, while F. B. Pinion praises the ending in that "Ida eventually recognizes the unnaturalness of feminist militancy," Marion Shaw reads the ending as Ida's "defeat . . . her reclamation into an unredeemed, unaltered marriage relationship." 1 Through these clever young men, Tennyson projects a progressive vision of women's community and educational aspirations but seems compelled to curtail this vision to accommodate the romantic ending of Victorian middle-class ideals. If so, he is not the first writer to fall into this happy-ending trap. [End Page 227]
Tennyson's narrative structure, too, tends to confirm conservative interpretations. As described in the frame, the college men at a middle-class luncheon party at Sir Walter Vivian's undertake to tell Princess Ida's story themselves despite the fact that there are numerous women in the audience-- "Aunt Elizabeth /And Lilia with the rest, and lady friends / From neighbour seats" (Prol., ll. 96-98). 2 Instead, the men invite the "ladies [to] sing us, if they will, / From time to time, some ballad or a song / To give us breathing-space" so "the women sang / Between the rougher voices of the men, / Like linnets in the pauses of the wind" (Prol., ll. 233-235, 237-239). Marginalized by the male narrators, the women are relegated to "mere" singing. Frank and Dillon note the similarity with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "Indeed, rules are set down for the passing of story from one speaker to the next. But in Tennyson the men tell the stories and the women sing only the interpolated lyrics. . . . Chaucer's Wife of Bath would obviously find these story-telling laws quite absurd." 3 Certainly, there are troubling gender and genre assumptions in the telling of Princess Ida's story-- "embarrassments" as Elaine Jordan calls the poem's "risks and explor[ations with] both gender and genre" (p. 97). By controlling the powerful, novel-like verbal plot, the men imply that, as musical lyrics, these songs are entirely emotive, inarticulate pieces in contrast to the more politically engaging verbal tale. The men insinuate that, because the women lack university training, they cannot handle the more intellectually challenging job of creating the main storyline. Additionally, while the men adopt a mock-heroic, idealistic tone in their story, the women set a more serious, realistic mood with their songs about contemporary domestic issues. Yet this becomes another reason to see the interlude songs as...