Godiva (or Godgifu) (fl. 1040-1080) was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to legend, rode naked through the streets of Coventry, in order to gain a remission of the oppressive toll imposed by her husband on his tenants. In the Victorian period, the women’s movement looked to Godiva as an inspiration for disempowered women. She was/is seen as a woman who breaks out of the stereotype that women belong in the private, domestic domain. The poem is written in blank verse.
The critic Daniel Donoghue describes Leofric’s identity as “defined by a crass materialism which makes Godiva as much a possession of his as the diamond in his ear” (87).
- Identify specific contrasts made between Lady Godiva and the earl. Note how Godiva’s initial powerlessness and the Earl’s superiority are presented.
- Note how Godiva breaks the stereotypical contrasts by becoming active and leaving the domestic sphere.
- Find examples for how Tennyson shows that Godiva’s action is intrinsically good? e.g. she is compared to light, the retribution is wrought against the Peeping Tom.
- Consider why the poet has used of internal focus (description as if from the point of view of the character) for the walls and gables.
Her hair. An important feature because:
- “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for acovering” (I Cor. 11.15).
- Godiva’s hair is a sign of femininity.
- It is also a symbol of status, evidence of “wealth and leisure” (Synnott 384).
- In medieval Europe, married women only wore their hair down in the privacy of their homes when they were with their husbands (Donaghue 30). Godiva is bringing the privacy of her nakedness and her loosed hair into the public realm.
- Godiva’s hair is also a symbol of her eroticism. In the legend her hair is not a sufficient covering as it leaves her legs exposed. Tennyson’s poem says, “And shower’d the rippled ringlets to her knee” (line 47). Seeing an ankle was erotic enough for the Victorians!
- Godiva being on horseback also adds to the eroticism. Godiva’s eroticism is another source of her power.
Gender reading perspectives
- Lady Godiva takes control: ‘she took the tax away” (line 78). Godiva takes it away, not Earl Leofric.
- Her nakedness encourages prurient interest
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