The Awakening Conscience

By Stephen Basdeo

William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Holman Hunt 1

Holman Hunt was a religious man and this was a companion piece to another painting of Jesus Christ entitled The Light of the World (1853).

Hunt had moral principles that were in line with most of his Victorian contemporaries. Through his art he wished to make a moral point about a story which was all-too-familiar to many Victorians: that of the adulterous married man who had a ‘kept woman’ or ‘mistress’. Often a very rich aristocratic or upper middle-class man would seduce a woman and pay for her to live in a fashionable apartment where he could have sex with her without arousing the suspicion of his wife. In G. W. M. Reynolds’s novel The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1844–56), for example, there are several aristocratic characters, and even the Prince Regent himself, who keep a woman maintained in an apartment at their beck-and-call.

Holman Hunt 2

And the woman in question here is being ‘well-kept’; she lacks a wedding ring yet she is frolicking around with another man—this would have been immediately obvious to the Victorians. Such women were usually from the poorer classes everything in the apartment is brand new, seen from the bright gleam of the varnish on the furnishings.

The clock is likewise an expensive item; it is gold when most people’s clocks in all but the grandest homes would have been relatively modest wooden constructions—this is certainly not what we would expect to see when we enter a relatively small Victorian apartment.

Holman Hunt 4

The man has essentially ‘trapped’ her in this lifestyle; she had nothing and he had everything. The idea that she is trapped comes from the cat under the table, who has caught a bird.

And when the man visits, he has one thing on his mind: sex. This is why Holman Hunt has depicted the man’s face as full of lust.

Holman Hunt 3

Usually the pair are used to probably having some fun and games beforehand, and on the grand piano which he has bought, the man is playing a tune: Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night:

Oft, in the stilly night, 

Ere slumber’s chain has bound me, 

Fond memory brings the light 

Of other days around me; 

The smiles, the tears, 

Of boyhood’s years, 

The words of love then spoken; 

The eyes that shone, 

Now dimm’d and gone, 

The cheerful hearts now broken! 

Thus, in the stilly night, 

Ere slumber’s chain hath bound me, 

Sad memory brings the light 

Of other days around me. 

When I remember all 

The friends, so link’d together, 

I’ve seen around me fall, 

Like leaves in wintry weather; 

I feel like one 

Who treads alone 

Some banquet-hall deserted, 

Whose lights are fled, 

Whose garlands dead, 

And all but he departed! 

Thus, in the stilly night, 

Ere slumber’s chain has bound me, 

Sad memory brings the light 

Of other days around me.

To the man, this is just some silly old tune written by a long-dead poet and is of little consequence. It is background music to the main event. But it is the playing of this tune which kick-starts the woman’s ‘awakening conscience’. She can remember the tune from her childhood and this reminds her of her ‘lost innocence’.

So suddenly she starts to repent of her life and does not want to have any more “fun” with the man who has entrapped her in this lifestyle. Finally, Holman Hunt makes clear that there is only one way out of this lifestyle for her: we see from the mirror at the back that she is looking out of an open window, signifying that for her to be truly free and regain lost innocence she must leave this apartment and, by extension, her lifestyle.

Holman Hunt 5

And if she does not take this opportunity to escape this lifestyle, Holman Hunt reminds us, through the discarded glove on the floor, what often happens to many mistresses: the man gets bored and abandons them.

Holman Hunt 8


Further Reading

Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.120-21

Marcia R. Pointon (ed.), Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)

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