The Lady and the Unicorn

Today’s post was written by Betty.

Unicorn1

The picture above is one of a series of six tapestries entitled “The Lady and the Unicorn,” which were woven of silk and wool in Flanders toward the end of the 15th century. Embroidered on the top of the tent in this tapestry are the French words “A Mon Seul Desir,” which has become the title of this one. It has been translated in several different ways – “my one/sole desire,” “according to my desire alone,” “by my will alone,” and “love desires only beauty of soul.” Some interpretations see this tapestry representing love or virginity. The other tapestries represent the five senses: touch, sound, smell, sight, taste, and are titled as such. It has also been suggested that this tapestry could represent a sixth sense, that of understanding. The tapestries were rediscovered in 1841 in Broussac Castle where they had been stored without regard to climate change, causing damage. They were later restored nearly to their former glory, and are currently on display at Musee de Cluny, also known as Musee national du Moyen Age in Paris.

Lauren makes reference to the Lady and the Unicorn when Robert is talking to Charlotte about her childhood game of hunting unicorns. On page 46, he says, “You look like a lady in a medieval tapestry. All you need is the unicorn at your feet.”

Since I was familiar with these tapestries and had read another book about them, I decided to research them further. They were created in the mille fleur style, meaning thousand flowers, which was a popular motif in the Middle Ages. It refers to a background made of many small flowers and plants. The common denominator to all of the tapestries is that the unicorn is to the lady’s left, and the lion is to her right. Medieval symbolism was used heavily in art at the time, and referring to a chart of symbolism, I found the following information. The unicorn has the trait of a single horn and its behavior is interpreted as savage or loyal. It symbolized Christ, purity, and being invincible. The lion’s trait is “the king of beasts” with its behavior being strong. It symbolizes courage, strength, and faithfulness. Considering this, of course my mind wandered to our main characters, Charlotte and Robert. I hadn’t thought much about a character trait connection to these tapestries when I first read this book, but it is on my mind now. Do you feel any of these traits represent them? It is always exciting to me when art or other literary references are brought into a book. This also reminds of Lauren’s That Summer, with its heavy art influence. Of course I don’t know what Lauren intended in this book, but it is certainly interesting to think about. Here are all six tapestries as discussed on Tracy Chevalier’s website. She is the author of The Lady and the Unicorn, which I read in 2007.

Unicorn2

You can easily see the positioning of the unicorn and lion as described earlier. In our story, Robert’s reference to Charlotte having a unicorn at her feet makes me think of the ‘sight’ tapestry. Do you think Robert represents the unicorn? Is he to be tamed by Charlotte? Charlotte definitely fits the role of virgin from the descriptions given of her in this and previous books.

On page 47, at the end of their meeting together, Charlotte tells Robert how glad she is to have him back. Robert agrees, but then begins to think about how he is intending to become involved with unscrupulous people. His thoughts about not being deserving of Charlotte’s admiration made me think of this scene as a contrast in light and dark. Charlotte represents goodness and light, whereas the members of the Hellfire Club represent darkness and evil. In Robert’s own words, “the sour smell of port, and the hideous dark holes being burned in his soul,” come from the Hellfire Club. He has also felt guilty about leaving Charlotte so long ago. What are your thoughts regarding the tapestries and their part in the book?

If you are interested in further reading based on “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries, I would recommend Tracy Chevalier’s book of the same title. Tracy is also the author of Girl With the Pearl Earring, a book based on the art of Vermeer.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “The Lady and the Unicorn

  1. I can still remember the delight I felt at discovering the Musee de Cluny and in particular these tapestries. They are my favourite things in Paris (and there is some competition)!

  2. I love these tapestries too and have a Christmas tree ornament based on them which is a favorite of mine.

    My first real introduction to thinking about them beyond being pretty, medieval pictures came from Christina Hardyment’s Heidi’s Alp, which is a book published in the mid-1980s about an English family who took their four daughters through Europe in search of the roots of fairy tales- I still want to be a daughter in that family! Hardyment describes taking the girls to see the tapestries in the Cluny museum and ends with this passage:

    “We sat in the circular room specially constructed for the tapestries and looked at them carefully. Against a rich crimson background, thickly textured with flowers, animals and birds, six blue islands float, each with same sad-eyed lady, her lion and her unicorn. Five of them seem to be allergies of the senses: in one the girl plays a portable organ, in another the unicorn looks at itself in the reflection of a hand glass, in the third a pet monkey sniffs at a carnation, in the fourth it raises a sweetmeat to its mouth, and in the last the lady gently touches the unicorn’s horn.

    But the sixth, the central piece . . . remains a mystery. Written across the tent in front of which the Lady stands are the words “A Mon Seul Desir.” A maid is holding out a box of jewels and the lady- well is she taking that necklace out, or is she putting it back in? Controversy rages over this point; it divides the romantics from the rationalists. Let her take it out and the tapestry becomes the first essential cornerstone in a monument to love: she is accepting the gifts and the hand of the prince . . . let her be putting it back in and the tapestry becomes the end of the story: she is rejecting all the temptations of the world, all passions and sensations . . . the choice is yours.”

    I’ve never decided which it is in all the years since I first read this passage but I do think it applies to Charlotte and Robert, though in their case, is Charlotte taking on/out the mantle of Robert’s rationalism and Robert, Charlotte’s romanticism? Or maybe I’m overthinking this after way too many days spent snowbound in the northeast lately!

    • Abby,

      What interesting comments! I looked up Christina Hardyment and her book. It sounds like a really delightful story from a first hand impression. I agree it would be great to be in that family. A teacher friend told me her husband planned a trip through Germany one summer which was a trip to visit fairytale sites. She said there is an official tour designed for that.

      I had read about the mystery associated with A Mon Seul Desir, and there are several interpretations. I like your thoughts relating to Robert and Charlotte – no you are not overthinking it. Let’s talk about that again at the end of the book.

      Hope you are surviving your snow and at least have power. It would be a nice time to curl up and read and tune out the world outside. It is cold here in Virginia, but we only had about an inch of snow with the first storm. The northeast has really been pelted – stay warm!

    • Abby,

      Now that we’re at the end of the book, I think I can safely say Charlotte is taking out the necklace in the unicorn tapestries reference. After much deliberation, she has accepted Robert, flaws and all, and believes in their love. If she were putting it back, she would not have agreed to marry Robert. My thoughts are that Charlotte has learned to live in the real world, accepting of all of its challenges and disappointments, but she still maintains the hope she discovered in her fantasy world of books that helped her survive through some very difficult moments in her life. I feel Robert wanted to exist in Charlotte’s fantasy world at first (the roof top scene) because he had experienced so many terrible events both before leaving Girdings and during his time in India. He was so ashamed of himself for stealing the money when he ran away and for leaving Charlotte alone in an unfriendly world. Also, his experiences made him feel unworthy of Charlotte. In the scene at the palace, after his proposal, I felt like I wanted to cry when Robert said, “Are there any terms you can name that I could fulfill to your satisfaction?” They were just not communicating with each other. However, at the end, I think Robert finally forgave himself and wanted to try one last time to win Charlotte. In the last scene where she accepts him after following his trail of jam tarts, it seems like their marriage will be a combination of romantic and realistic love. One of the reasons I liked this book was because of the fairy tale theme throughout.

      Please tell me what you think.

  3. Betty,

    I first came across Heidi’s Alp because Hardyment also wrote another book about traveling around England with her daughters in search of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazon series, which are about children sailing all over the British Isles and I grew up reading them. I like her blend of travel narratives and literary/historical ponderings.

    I’ve read Night Jasmine before and yes, I agree that that particular discussion on Charlotte and Robert is one to be saved for the end of the book.

    I’m on sabbatical from being a history professor this semester and will be heading on a research trip later this month and I’ve been home doing the secondary reading for that particular book project for the past several weeks. So my frustration with the snow has been having to cancel visits with friends and colleagues during all the blizzards, though it does also mean that I’ve particularly enjoying all the Pink discussions!

    • I will definitely try to get some Hardyment books. They sound intriguing.

      What will you be researching? It sounds exciting. Historical fiction is my favorite genre because of all the interesting places I get to journey and things I get to learn.

      • I love historical fiction too! It’s one of the things that made me interested in history in the first place. Who are some of your other favorite authors?

        I teach early American history and my new book is looking at rebellions in the American colonies in the 1760s and the ways in which their participants used law to justify their actions and the ways in which law was used to either condemn or support the rebellions in turn. I’m starting with an event known as the Regulator Rebellion which was in North Carolina in the late 1760s so that’s where I’m going for my research trip.

      • So exciting, Abby! I just retired in June after teaching 5th grade for 23 years. In addition to Language Arts, part of that time I also taught U.S. History from the ‘first Americans’ coming over on the land bridge through the Civil War. It was easy to integrate with LA and I loved creating writing projects to go along with what we were studying.

        My favorite HF authors usually write about England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France. They include Sharon Kay Penman, S. J. Parris, Diane Haeger, Philippa Gregory, and Deanna Raybourn (and Lauren of course). I’m finding a lot of overlap between HF and mystery and romance. Who are your favorites – any who write about American history?

        Are you a member of Goodreads? If so, send me a message through there. I would love to talk further. I’m just setting up my bookshelves there.

        Again, thanks for your comments and good luck on you research trip. I didn’t know about the Regulator Rebellion, but just looked it up. I think some similar things happened in VA with the westward settlement and conflicts with Scotch-Irish settlement.

  4. Betty,

    Yes, I’d be happy to talk further about favorite books and history on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m not a member of Goodreads but don’t mind listing my university email address here (it being available to anyone who looks up my university’s website) if you would like to email me- it’s abigail_chandler@uml.edu

    Abby

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s