Tennyson tells his story within his own cultural assumptions about the role,status and behaviours appropriate to a 19th century upper middle class woman. His past is the fictionalised no when, set in a noplace conveniently labelled "Coventry".
Initially Lady g is moved by her “feminine instincts”. Her response to the starving poor is purely emotional. She doesn’t criticize the system or analyse the economic imbalance, nor is she apparently aware of her role in the imbalance. She is simply moved by pity. As such she is typical of Ingham’s previously quoted description: she is a: domesticated, middle-class wife far less rational than a man but intuitive , emotional with a natural maternal instinct and an equally natural nurturing ability.
She crosses the boundary from passive feminine empathy to masculine action by trying to effect a political change.
She doesn’t try to argue from economics or better production figures and she does it in the domestic sphere of female influence often described as “nagging” Eve did it, Lady Macbeth did it, but here we have our first transgression. Female influence in non domestic/political affairs is often presented in modern (post renaissance) literature as negative. Here, the influence is presented as being for the good.
Ironically, her husband reacts emotionally, in a non masculine manner. He reaches for the impossibility. Instead of saying “No”, or “Not till hell freezes over” he says ”when you ride naked though the town ”. Lady G now exhibits courage, which is a neutral quality, both men and women had courage, though male courage is typically physical, she rides out, she moves from private to public, domestic to political, and she makes a political change.
The illustration Holman Hunt did for the poem captures Lady G at a crucial moment.
She has removed her crown (referred to at the end of the poem) and is about to unbuckle her belt.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath
She linger’d, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud:
In Law, remember, for Tennyson and his readers, she is a feme coverte, a hidden woman, a woman covered by her Husband’s rank, station, personality, little more than a possession. She steps out from under the covers, and she does it by removing the “Earl’s gift”, iconically the predatory eagles who grasp her round her waist, linked to the polysemic “wedded” which precedes them. Her status as “Lady”, her wealth, whatever distinguishes her from the poor of the town, are the “Earl’s gift”; hers by right of marriage. By taking off the signs: the crown, the belt, her rich robes (and presumably the earrings?) she steps out as her self: dissolves the plural pronouns, the grammars of possession, the feudal hierarchy of marriage. In becoming naked, she sheds the cultural trappings, the insignia of her subjection. The crown is presumably here to mark her status as “lady”, but it is a status conferred on her. This leaves her “in the raw’ and raw to the sense of her own discovered individuality. It takes courage to get out of her Husband’s house, from under his shadow:
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d
Her sense of her own exposure is such that even the buildings seem to be staring at her. But she is protected in her enterprise. Presumably because of the nobility of her cause? The wind holds its breath (so as not to disturb her hair?) and Tom is blinded for thinking about peeking. She is able to return before the clock strikes twelve, to her position in society and culture, unharmed and, more importantly, undiminished. She has ridden clothed in “chastity” and effected change.
This is the crucial aspect of the story that attracted her later commentators and made Lady G an icon for the later nineteenth century woman’s movement. In a society where, for the middle and upper classes “reputation’, especially a woman’s reputation, was almost a social capital to be drawn on, Lady G preserves her essential femininity, which is after all on show to the whole town. She rides forth. Because she crosses from the feminine sphere to the masculine without abandoning her femininity, and for reasons that are recognizably feminine, she offers a role model to the countless women who were too intelligent and frustrated to accept the role society was trying to give them. Her model suggests you can have both an active life and a domestic one.