Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Cruelty of Hope

When is a closed box not a closed box?  The obvious answer is ‘When it’s a Jar’.  Apologies for the terrible joke but there is a reason and that reason is today’s subject: Pandora.

Pandora (1878) D G Rossetti
If you love the Pre-Raphaelites (and I take it you lot do) you will of course be familiar with Rossetti’s images of Pandora.  Monumental and unknowable, Jane Morris cradles that golden box with oddly tense fingers.  I always though that what Rossetti leaves out from the face he often expresses in those long, supple hands and Pandora’s mistake is evident in the weird tension of her fingers, unsure if they are prising the box open or desperately trying to shut it.  Rossetti loved the image of Pandora, returning to it over and over again...

Pandora (1870) D G Rossetti

Pandora (1869) D G Rossetti
It was when I was searching for these images I found the most beautiful modern representation of Rossetti’s Pandora

Splendid, anyway back to the story.  I began to think about Rossetti, Jane and Pandora and what it all meant.  For an artist to return to a subject repeatedly, you have to wonder if there is a meaning for them, a deeper resonance than just the making of beautiful images.  What do we know of Pandora?

Pandora (1898) J W Waterhouse
In Greek Mythology, Pandora was the first human woman, created as a punishment for the theft of fire.  In most versions of the story, she opens the box, which is a present from the Gods, out of curiosity (those women!  T’uh), although in some stories Pandora just chucks the box down and lets out all the bad stuff in malice.  Look again at Rossetti’s paintings of Jane Morris – she is looking at us, or at some unseen thing, not at the box which she is opening.  We the viewer are the object of her curiosity, about how we will react to all the ills of the world spilling out between her long, agile fingers.  It is possible to read this as Jane (the muse rather than the actual woman) unleashed the ills into Rossetti’s life, which coincided with (but was not directly the cause of) his decline in mental and physical health.

Study for Pandora Henry Rheam
The ‘feckless’ Pandora is a more traditional and common image: a nosy woman unwittingly destroying humanity, the Greek Eve, just because she couldn't resist a snoop.  It is easy to see a Victorian reading of female character in Pandora’s inability to do as she is told.  She is a cautionary tale for womankind, but also counterspeaks of the power of women.  She may be the incompetent wrecker of humanity, but that power is left in her hands.  Pandora, the woman, has the opportunity and the power to rain destruction down on everyone.

Opened up a Pandora's Box F S Church
I love the variation in the vessel that Pandora opens.  While properly a jar, the phrase ‘Pandora’s box’ is a metaphor for something innocuous that contains terrible power.  In Church’s illustration, it appears to be ‘Pandora’s Ottoman’ and you get the impression that there is a vast amount of evil inside, enough to ruin the world.  I think the horror of opening one of the smaller vessels would be the magician’s trick of endless plague and terror pouring from the tiny box.

Pandora Lawrence Alma Tadema
Also, it does seem rather necessary for Pandora to be naked, but I’m not judging.  Possibly she thought she’d left her pants in the box?  Anyhow, as we all know, the last thing out of the box was Hope.  Interpretation for this is that Hope is a salve for the evils, if not a cure.  It makes us resilient because we hope for the best in the face of all the evils that surround us.  There seems much argument as to whether life was ‘Hope’-less before the box was opened or whether we simply didn’t need Hope because it implies the need for a light at the end of a tunnel.  Mind you, look at Rossetti’s Pandora and I think a third query could be raised.  Maybe Hope is in itself an ill.  Did Rossetti ‘hope’ for a future with Jane but that hope was itself a torment?  Did Jane give Rossetti hope but that hope would have involved his friend being elsewhere, dead or absent and both of those tormented Rossetti?  I think a very interesting relationship that is often overlooked is that between Rossetti and William Morris.  We see only a seducer and a cuckolded husband, but there is something in Rossetti’s images of Jane that hints at a torment beyond adultery.  Again I have to mention Rossetti’s grief at the death of his wombat ‘Top’, just at the point when his relationship with Jane was moving into a second phase, more serious and destructive with the advent of Kelmscott and Iceland.  If Rossetti had no hope to be with Jane then their relationship would have remained an infatuation, but the hope of fulfilment meant the crushing of others in its path – the memory of Elizabeth, William and Jane’s marriage, Fanny’s hope of her relationship with Rossetti.

One thing seems sure, Rossetti’s Pandora has no mercy for us, no pity, no compassion.  That box is opening, ready or not.


  1. Remarkable. As ever, your insights are delightful. To you, paintings aren't only astoundingly beautiful, there's a sensual fairy tale misting through them. I knew very little of pre-Raphaelite before I recently came across this place, but I am now a fast fan and I thank you for that.

  2. Hi, what a brilliant and thought-provoking post, I have been thinking over a lot of the same points as I also spend way too much time pondering the love-lives of this lot. (A classier version of celebrity gossip). Having been ill I've been languishing watching costume dramas, and recently re-watching "Howard's End" I was reminded of my irritation that no mention is ever made of Jacky Bast after poor Len is dispatched by the bookcase (is that Forster's hint you can be too intellectual? I do love Charles's phrase of "Giving themselsves airs with their artistic beastliness ..." - it can make me laugh even on the worst day. Fanny is a bit like Jacky - the loose end that no-one wants to consider. Until you came along. Before your blog and book I didn't really consider her very much, it seems not to be spelt out by other writers just how long she was in Rossetti's life, when others came and went. But I always loathed the way William Michael kept her away from the funeral.

    I'm also reading "Parade's End" - loved the dramatisation. Talk about "artistic beastliness" - Ford M-F is very anti-Rossetti, but you can guess that his childhood consisted of Rossetti this, Rossetti that, and he had to have a teenage rebellion against it. Which lasted long beyond teenage years. Will end this ramble, Happy Easter all.

  3. Thanks for all the comments!

    Yes, I hadn't considered that before but Fanny is the Jacky Bast of the Pre-Raphaelites! I always felt horribly sorry for Jacky as all she does is love Len but isn't exotic enough for his artistic vision.

    Happy Easter all!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx