Coventry wife who bared all

Lady Godiva
February 28, 2003

Lady Godiva was due for an overhaul - there had been nothing new of value on this household name since Ronald Clarke and Patrick Day's Lady Godiva: Images of a Legend in Art and Society , cataloguing an exhibition held in Coventry in 1982 - and the present work certainly does the subject justice.

The central theme of any discussion on Godiva must, inevitably, be what Daniel Donoghue terms "the dynamics of the voyeuristic gaze - the surreptitious viewing of an eroticised body on display". He states that: "The legend dramatises the taboo associated with voyeurism, but it is typically invoked only to be circumvented."

The historical Godiva is the subject of the first chapter, "Godgifu of Mercia". Although the wife of one of the most powerful men in England, Leofric, earl of Mercia, Godgifu held considerable property in her own right, including Coventry. This immediately disposes of the traditional motivation for the famous ride - to relieve the townspeople of the harsh taxes levied on them by her husband. Any such taxes would have been levied by her.

The familiar legend does not appear until the early 13th century in the chronicles of various monasteries (especially St Albans), some of which had benefited directly from the "good gifts" - the etymological meaning of her name in Old English - dispensed during her lifetime. In the etymologising manner so beloved of medieval clerics, her name was soon analysed as meaning "Good Eve", although in the second chapter Donoghue draws an interesting comparison with a very different and perhaps surprising character, the wife of the contemporary French fabliaux .

A Godiva parade through the city of Coventry - famous for its late medieval cycle of mystery plays and civic processions - is first securely attested in 1678 as part of the mayor's procession inaugurating the annual Great Show fair. Donoghue, however, does his best to support an early 19th-century anecdote in which the Godiva parade is seen as a deliberate mockery of Corpus Christi processions dating from the break with Rome.

Undoubtedly the most interesting chapter is that devoted to the other major player in this drama, himself a household name, Peeping Tom. Indeed, as the author notes, the two figures are a means of defining each other: "He is hidden while she is on public display; his gaze is active and she is its passive object; his social position is low and hers is high; he is wicked and sheis virtuous; his sexuality is questioned while hers is affirmed; his conscience feels guilt where she feels shame; he is punished and she is rewarded."

The statue of Peeping Tom recorded as having been shown to a visitor in 1659 is probably the same wooden figure now in Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

The final chapters trace the popularity of the legend in the art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Tennyson's poem was published in 1842, and by 1856 Queen Victoria was giving Albert a small silver statue of a naked Godiva on horseback.

One of the strangest literary manifestations of the legend must surely be Dr Seuss' The Seven Lady Godivas (1939; reissued 1987), described by him as "an adult book with naked ladies", but the image has also been put to the service of commerce as the logo of a Belgian chocolate firm. John Collier's subtly erotic painting of c. 1898 is reproduced on the dust-jacket, while other Victorian paintings appear, in an unacceptably murky state, inside, along with stills from films.

This is a useful and authoritative book, but the author has not been well served by his publisher, as it is expensive with poorly reproduced illustrations.

Malcolm Jones is lecturer in folklore and folklife studies, University of Sheffield.

Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend

Author - Daniel Donoghue
ISBN - 1 4051 0046 X and 0047 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £12.99
Pages - 159

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