[Ruth] had let down her long waving glossy hair, and was standing absorbed in thought in the middle of the room, when she heard a round clumping knock at her door… in walked Sally, with a judge-like severity of demeanour, holding in her hand two widow’s caps of commonest make and coarsest texture. Queen Eleanor herself, when she presented the bowl to Fair Rosamund, had not a more relentless purpose stamped on her demeanour than had Sally at this moment.
Who is Queen Eleanor and why is she presenting a bowl to someone named Rosamund? Gaskell, as always, has cheerfully thrown in an allusion that deepens our understanding of Ruth’s feelings in this moment right before she has her beautiful hair cut off. For her, it is a moment of deep mortification of body and soul. Ruth knows she has sinned, but she quietly and stoically submits to Sally’s instructions. She knows this action is inevitable.
Queen Eleanor refers to the famous Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who lived in the 12th century. Eleanor is remarkable for being the only woman who was queen of both England and France, a feat she accomplished when she married Henry II, who would become king of England two years later. Eleanor’s first marriage — to Louis VII, King of France — had been annulled just weeks before her marriage to Henry II. (An annulment means that the church acts like you were never married, since marriage is a sacrament and divorce unacceptable.)
Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was a tumultous one. Henry even had Eleanor imprisoned for fifteen years (from 1173 – 1189) because she supported her son Henry’s revolt against his father.
But Gaskell alludes to a different story about the stormy pair.
Henry II was notorious for his infidelity. His long-term relationship with Rosamund de Clifford — the Fair Rosamund — has become the stuff of legends, though little is known for sure about Rosamund or her relationship with the king. Legend has it that Henry set Rosamund up at Woodstock, a royal palace near Oxford. Eleanor became increasingly jealous of Henry’s long-term relationship with Rosamund, though she had generally turned a blind eye to his other affairs.
So Eleanor — after, the legend says, finding her way through a labyrinth designed to keep her away — visited Rosamund and presented her with a choice: die by the dagger or die by poison. This is the “bowl” of poison that Gaskell refers to. It is a choice that is not really a choice. Ruth is also presented with a choice that is not really a choice.
The legend of Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund persists, even as historical research has shown that the truth is probably very different. There is some evidence to suggest that Rosamund died in a nunnery around the same time that King Henry II passed away. But Queen Eleanor remains one of the most intriguing queens in history and this story only part of her long legacy.
- ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’ on Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_of_Aquitaine>
- ‘Rosamund Clifford’ on Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosamund_Clifford>
Featured Paintng: “Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund” by Evelyn de Morgan