The Lady of Shalott is a sweeping, epic tale of struggle in difficult times, triumph over adversity, and lots and lots of onions.
The novel is set against the backdrop of the French onion famine during the period spanning 1832-1838. With the cruel French winter of 1833 drawing in, it depicts the lives of the traditional onion farmers in the obscure onion growing region of Franche-Comté, as the community fights to survive the harsh times that have fallen upon them.
The bulk of the story involves the titular character, Colette, who becomes the head of her small onion farming clan after her father dies in an accident involving an ox-drawn onion thresher, and subsequently must make hard decisions about the family onion farm. Her quest to keep the family farm and make a place for herself as the first woman to run an onion farm is complicated by the extremely sexist times – at one point in the narrative her onion crop is threatened by a group of drunken men who believe that having a woman running an onion farm is causing the onion blight, and she must fight them off with the onion-wrangling hook which has been in the family for generations. Eventually Colette is accepted by the other farmers, and becomes the leader of a movement to stop bourgeoisie capitalists moving into the area and buying up land for a huge, soulless onion plantation.
Other side events are included to depict the hard life of the onion farmers in these troubled years, who nonetheless toiled endlessly to provide the rest of France with a steady supply of onions, despite the ever-dwindling harvests. Such terrible accidents as people being buried in onion-slides due to poorly stacked bales of onions; the horrible, lingering death that awaits anyone who eats of the Mocking Poison Death Onion; and the perils of being alone in a distant field when the fiercely territorial Onion Bears come down from the mountains to forage for their preferred food during the long, cold winter.
Though they struggle through hard times, eventually the community of farmers triumphs over the industrialists. Led by Colette - now called the Lady of Shalott by the farmers, who have accepted her as one of their own - they march on the dark, satanic onion factory, and burn it to the ground. The book closes with the happy scene of a traditional French onion festival, as the onion harvest is floated down the river to the centuries-old onion mill, the symbol of an enduring facet of French society that will never die out.
Written in 1887 by the orphaned daughter of an onion farmer, her name sadly lost, this is truly the definitive French novel. The Lady of Shalott has been required reading for children in French schools for over one hundred years, and has been adapted for the stage many times. The widely known version from 1905 has numerous additions, the most notable being the famous onion soliloquy, where Colette speaks of her love for the life of onion farming. This has been replicated in many later adaptations, and thanks to a slew of literalism from later directors, has resulted in the popular image of a woman passionately gazing at an onion held aloft, which now even graces the covers of the book.
Due to the classic nature of this saga, it was turned into a musical in 1972. Unfortunately, "For the Love of Onions!" lacked the pathos of the original story, or even the play, as it reduced this serious tale about the changes facing the onion farmers in nineteenth century French society into a happy musical with people dancing about in onion costumes. The song "Have You Kissed an Onion Today?" is notable only for the fact it is considered the worst song ever written.
The controversy over the musical is set to be repeated anew with the announcement of an adaptation of the novel into a film. Lovers of the book claim that this film will be as watered down as the musical, and probably feature singing as well. News of the inclusion of a romantic sub-plot absent from the book has not been well received, and the prospect of a prolonged scene involving Onion Bears attacking a village grates on the nerves of many who have read and enjoyed the book. Even worse, there are rumours that the noble onion will be replaced by a more family-friendly vegetable – The Hollywood backers are said to be pushing for pumpkins, to help sell the movie in America.
Despite the mistakes that have been made in attempts to bring this classic tale of onions, adversity, and onions to new audiences; the novel remains popular. Though the nuances of French onion farming are sometimes lost on readers from countries where sophisticated yet traditional practices such as onion joinery are not known, even outside France it is considered a classic work. No doubt it will remain so in the years to come.