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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 12, novembre 1998

British Women Playwrights around 1800: New Paradigms and Recoveries

Sous la direction de Thomas C. Crochunis

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005816ar

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Article

Acting Like a 'lady': British Women Novelists and the Eighteenth-Century Stage

Nora Nachumi

City University of New York


1

Over the past several years much work has been done on the way late eighteenth-century women novelists helped to create modern categories of gender. A considerable portion of this scholarship emphasizes the novel's link to conduct material and stresses the novel's didactic function. This essay focuses on another, less-discussed influence upon novels by women. Specifically, this essay proposes that the eighteenth-century theater helped shape the representation of gender by late eighteenth-century women novelists. Although, on one level, the theater helped reinforce conventional ideas about sexual difference, the theater also posed an implicit challenge to images of women found in conduct material. Consequently, I believe that images of the theater and allusions to it in novels by women often undermined contemporary ideas about women's nature and roles in ways that would have resonated with eighteenth-century readers.

2

The Foucaultian view of the novel as developed by scholars like Nancy Armstrong and Mary Poovey contends that women novelists, influenced by conduct material, helped to naturalize and disseminate ideas about women that ultimately evolved into the Victorian "Angel in the House." [1] Two crucial assumptions nourish this view. The first is Ian Watt's notion that the novel, as perfected by Fielding and Richardson, acted as a transparent window that gave readers direct access to characters' minds. [2] The second is Foucault's recognition that the novel's apparent transparency effectively masked its role in disseminating ideology. Based on these assumptions, scholars like Armstrong and Poovey have argued that the eighteenth-century novel helped naturalize and disseminate a conduct-book notion of female nature that insisted on a direct correlation between a woman's exterior attributes and her quality of mind. Despite their strenuous efforts to illustrate how such a correlation indirectly empowered women, one conclusion is inescapable: the equation of a woman's countenance and character inevitably made her the object of surveillance. Simply put, to behave in an unfeminine or unlady-like way was to reveal some sort of essential difference in one's character that made a woman into something akin to a monster. Both Poovey and Armstrong consequently acknowledge that the assumption that a woman naturally behaved in a lady-like fashion encouraged women to conform to a standard of behavior that prohibited their direct participation in public and political life.

3

The urge to prove one's autonomy is irresistible; at least it is to critics like Terry Castle, Catherine Craft Fairchild, Catherine Gallagher, Joseph Litvak and Ruth Yeazell, all of whom have persuasively argued that novels by women complicate, rather than disseminate, contemporary images of the feminine ideal. [3] Although Litvak talks about theatricality and Castle and Fairchild discuss masquerade, work which actively engages with the conventions of the eighteenth-century stage needs to be done. After cross-referencing Gary Kelly's list of "Women Dramatists, 1790-1830," the Index to The London Stage, Dougald MacMillan's Catalogue of the Larpent Plays in the Huntington Library, Allardyce Nicoll's "Hand-List of Plays" from volumes three and four of A History of British Drama, Dale Spender's list of women writers in Mothers of the Novel, Janet Todd's Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, and Cheryl Turner's list of British women novelists from Living by the Pen, I have found that at least 45 or almost 30% of the 156 women novelists published between 1760 and 1818 were playwrights, actresses or closely associated with someone who worked in the professional theatre. [4] The theatre was the predominant form of entertainment during the century and, if we take into account theatres outside of London, access to strolling companies of players, and participation in private theatricals, the number of female novelists who were regularly exposed to the theatre increases to the point that it is difficult to think of a novelist who wasn't exposed to the eighteenth-century stage.

4

On one level, it seems that the theatre actually helped reinforce what, by the end of the century, were conventional ideas about sexual difference and the place of women. By the end of the eighteenth century, England had undergone a cultural revolution in which the middle-class consolidated around an identity of their own, an identity that enabled them to successfully end a history of economic and ideological dependence upon the aristocracy. As the home became distinct from the workplace, conduct books and educational tracts for women propagated notions of female nature that made women, or "ladies," the repositories for whatever characteristics were considered inconvenient for business. Gradually, the efforts to define certain qualities and certain kinds of learned behavior—like innocence and modesty—as both feminine and "natural" to women resulted in the construction of a feminine ideal, the middle-class "lady." By the end of the century ideas about gender and class intersected to construct identity—what was conventionally understood to be "male" was defined against what was understood to be "female." Apparent exceptions to the norm, "actors and actresses . . . served as marginal cases, as others whose differences help[ed] to define dominant notions of sexuality and gender." [5] The opposition of "public" and "private" kinds of behavior thus complicated oppositions between genders among classes at the end of the century.

5

However, in other ways, the theatre undermined the very dichotomies it seemed to enact. For instance, all different classes mingled at the theatre, regularly challenging the "urbane control" of the middle-class spectator (Straub 2). Actors costumes, roles which required that actors impersonate gentry, and the personal status achieved by some actors also drew into question assumptions about the inherent nature of class. Meanwhile, women who wrote plays or acted violated all rules of feminine conduct. As Ellen Donkin explains, writing plays

conferred upon women a public voice. It gave them some control over how women were represented on stage. It required that they mingle freely with people of both sexes in a place of work that was not the home. It made ambition a prerequisite, and, perhaps most importantly, it offered the possibility of acquiring capital. [6]

As in the case of female playwrights, the actress's difference from conventional standards of feminine conduct also tended to question the construct of woman as man's submissive opposite. Actresses like Mary Ann Yates, Dora Jordan, and Sarah Siddons were stars, idolized in their own right. At various points in their careers these women earned as much or more as the highest paid actors. As members of a profession which required their public display and celebrities whose private lives tended to "go public," these actresses and others challenged the assumption, implicit in the work of many conduct-book writers, that female sexuality was the passive and private opposite of male sexuality.

6

Although both actresses and women playwrights became increasingly respectable as the century progressed, this respectability was almost always secured by representing them in domestic terms, as wives, mothers, or—in the case of playwrights—as protegees of a male theater manager like David Garrick (Donkin 25). Speaking of actresses, Straub explains this phenomenon in terms of the threat they posed to conventional notions of sexual difference: the more male dominance came to depend upon "a femininity defined as masculinity's opposite," the more the actress's "inherent challenge to the gendered, opposing spheres of public and private" required containment (Straub 89). However, it seems that the effort to recuperate women involved in the theatre created as many anxieties as it attempted to quell. Contemporary debates about the propriety of private theatricals illuminate the problem: if actresses could be ladies, then the possibility also existed that ladies could be actresses. It was a possibility that the conduct material of the period strenuously, if ineffectively, tried to deny.

7

Conversely, many novels written by women influenced by the eighteenth-century theatre undermine conduct-book definitions of female nature through their use of theatrical images and conventions. These novels point out a resemblance between their heroines and the figure of the actress, a move which foregrounds the heroine's corporeal presence in ways which enable her to contest or evade contemporary definitions of the feminine ideal. In A Simple Story, for example, Elizabeth Inchbald's knowledge of a codified language of theatrical gesture endows her heroines with an expressive capacity that transforms the hero from guardian to lover and from tyrant to father. [7] As an actress and playwright, Inchbald came of age at a time when audiences were trained to recognize that every emotion "had its . . . recognized manifestation in outward behavior." [8] Throughout the novel the character's gestures reveal their suppressed emotions, dramatizing the way patriarchal authority silences both men and women. Ultimately, the expressive power of the heroines' bodies endows the heroines with the power to contest logocentric authority. Faced with Matilda's unconscious body, or the image of Miss Milner lying dead in her grave, Dorriforth is forced to experience emotions that lead to a reconciliation with his daughter, whom he accords a limited form of autonomy.

8

While Inchbald focuses on the expressive power of the heroines' bodies, other novelists, like Frances Burney, suggest a resemblance between the heroine and the figure of the actress to foreground the opacity of women's exteriors. Burney's friendship with David Garrick and her engagement in debates about whether actors actually felt the emotions they represented on stage informed her reading of conduct material, significantly shaping her own sense of women's nature and roles. Through the use of theatrical imagery, Burney dramatizes the impenetrability of her heroine's exteriors, undermining the conduct-book notion of a direct correlation between a woman's appearance and behavior and her quality of mind.

9

Inchbald and Burney are only two of the many women whose involvement with the eighteenth-century theatre, and with each other, helped shape the representation of gender in novels at the end of the century. Maria Edgeworth, herself the author of several unproduced plays, corresponded with Inchbald. Jane Austen, who was an avid theatre-goer, was profoundly influenced by Edgeworth and Burney. I propose that the use of theatrical images and tropes that complicate the representation of gender in late eighteenth-century novels by women is a by product of a "critical conversation" between these women and other female novelists, playwrights, poets and actresses. Writers like Joanna Baille, Elizabeth Blower, Frances Brooke, Charlotte Charke, Hannah Cowley, Elizabeth Griffith, Harriet Lee, Sophia Lee, Charlotte Lennox, Hannah More, Anne Plumptree, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Robinson, Frances Sheridan, Charlotte Smith, and Jane West, all need to be read in light of their involvement with the eighteenth-century stage.

10

In many different ways, the eighteenth-century stage profoundly influenced the representation of gender in novels by late eighteenth-century British women novelists. Although each novel is necessarily unique, the use of theatrical images and conventions in many late eighteenth-century novels by women is part of a tradition, already acknowledged by scholars of the Victorian period, that draws into question ideologically dominant notions of gender by drawing attention to the artificiality of the roles their heroines are obliged to fill. Through the use of theatrical images and conventions, these novels instead call attention to the heroines' exteriors and, in doing so, offer their readers ways to contest or evade the surveillance that disciplined female conduct during the period. Simply put, novels by women who were actively engaged in the eighteenth-century theatre force us to consider the question, "what does it really mean to act like a lady?".


 

Notes

[1]

Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and The Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[2]

Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

[3]

Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization:The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986); Catherine Craft Fairchild, Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1993); Catharine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Joseph Litvak, Caught in the Act: Theatricality and the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Ruth Yeazell, Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[4]

Gary Kelly, "Women Dramatists, 1790-1830" (unpublished bibliography); The London Stage, 1660-1800; A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments and Afterpieces, Together with Casts, Box-Receipts, and Contemporary Comment (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968); Dougald MacMillan, Catalogue of the Larpent Plays in the Huntington Library (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1939); Allardyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama, 1660-1800, vols. 3 & 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955) Part II: Hand-List of Plays; Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen (London & NY: Pandora, 1986); Janet Todd, Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, 1660-1800 (Totowa, NJ: Roman and Allanheld, 1985); Cheryl Turner, Living By the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (London & NY: Routledge, 1992). See also, Judith Phillip Stanton's "Statistical Profile of Women Writing in English from 1660 to 1800," in Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts (New York: Greenwood, 1985) pp. 247-254. Stanton lists 157 women novelists, and 48 women playwrights writing between 1760 and 1800. Although Stanton's figures are more generous than mine she does not list individual authors. Consequently, there is no way to tell how many of the novelists she cites were also playwrights. Stanton does note, however, than about half the novelists and two-thirds of the dramatists wrote in other genres.

[5]

Kristina Straub, Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 87; hereafter abbreviated as Straub.

[6]

Ellen Donkin, Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776-1829 (New York: Routledge, 1995) p. 18; hereafter abbreviated as Donkin.

[7]

Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story (1791, London: Oxford University Press, 1967).

[8]

Joseph Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975) p. 68.

Auteur : Nora Nachumi
Titre : Acting Like a 'lady': British Women Novelists and the Eighteenth-Century Stage
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 12, novembre 1998
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005816ar
DOI : 10.7202/005816ar

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