A woman with a prominently absent wedding ring, a visitor with his hat still on the table, a newly decorated apartment… William Hunt’s <em>The Awakening Conscience</em> (1853) tells the story of a kept woman. <br><br>The woman has been singing Thomas Moore’s ‘Oft, in the Stilly Night’ (1818) of ‘cheerful hearts now broken...’<sup>1</sup> at the piano. On the ground in a state of abandon lies Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Tears Idle Tears’ (1847), lamenting ‘So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more…’<sup>2</sup>. Both works refer to the woman’s present struggles. Like the bird trapped under the table, like the glass-encased clock, she is prevented from escaping her disadvantaged state, perhaps through poverty, a lack of opportunity, or past mistakes.<br><br>The painting comes at a time in the Victorian Era where, despite its rigid conservatism, there was a growing consciousness of the plight of disadvantaged women.<sup>3</sup> Hunt reveals his sympathetic approach through the subtle interplay between the confines of the room and the outside world, which is directly visible to the woman through the open window, and indirectly to the viewer in the mirror. Her expression of wonder at the hidden sight and her rising figure illustrate the moment of awakening conscience. Hunt bestows on the woman the right to atone for past mistakes through self-renewal.<br><br>Hunt’s hopeful message did not go unchallenged. John Ruskin, an art critic of the time, pointed out the harsh reality awaiting a former mistress. The escape to freedom would only soil the ‘pure whiteness’ of the woman’s dress as ‘her outcast feet’ step onto the street.<sup>4</sup> To Ruskin the freedom reflected in Hunt’s mirror is simply that — an illusion.