Remembering Mrs Potiphar
Victorian reclamations of a biblical temptress
in Victorian literary culture and ancient Egypt
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This chapter examines the ways in which nineteenth-century writers and artists remembered the biblical tale of the wife of Potiphar, who attempted to seduce her husband’s enslaved advisor, Joseph. Potiphar’s wife was recalled throughout Western history as a prototype for immoral, aggressive female sexuality. Her profuse reappearances in Victorian writing and art, though, encouraged by the development of Egyptology and the rise of archaeological fantasy, complicate her character and her narrative. This chapter details the resurgence of Potiphar’s wife across a range of early and mid-Victorian texts, including Charles Wells’s verse drama Joseph and his Brethren (1823), the discussions surrounding Wells’s work by Pre-Raphaelites and Algernon Charles Swinburne in the 1870s and an edited poetry collection by Louisa Stuart Costello (1845). These writers and artists move beyond the biblical temptress to discuss the idea of a complex, sexually aware female character and to theorise the connections between the sexualised body and experimental aesthetic form. Mrs Potiphar’s mid-Victorian revival, this chapter demonstrates, propels the move towards considering ancient Egyptian femininity for models of modern female subjectivity and experimental art that would become more fully realised at the end of the century.

Editor: Eleanor Dobson

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