Monthly Archives: July 2012

Can I forgive him?

Although I think that the title of Anthony Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? is very intriguing, I have, unfortunately, taken a very strong dislike to The Warden and to Barchester Towers, both of which I was so sure I would love.  My uncritical self just wants to say that I hated them because they bored me, which is true, to a degree.  But as I get deeper into my research for my dissertation on sensation literature, I think there’s a more “critical” explanation for why I hate Trollope (yes, hate–he really, really bores me!).

First of all, in his Autobiography, he describes his writing as “anti-sensational.”  I know that this is no reason to hate a Victorian author–lots of people who valued “Realism” would probably have described themselves as “anti-sensational,” including my beloved George Eliot.  (Although, I don’t think that “Realism” and sensation fiction were actually opposed, but more on that in the post about Steinlight’s “Why Novels are Redundant”).  But, reading this self-righteous “anti-sensational” description of Trollope’s work, I remembered a passage from Barchester Towers (the end of chapter 15) that I found fascinating when I first came across it, but also intensely disappointing.  Here it is:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe’s solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.” “How very ill-natured you are, Susan,” says Kitty with tears in her eyes: “I don’t care a bit about it now.” Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.

Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.

 I didn’t know what to make of this when I first read it, but by the time I had waded my way to the end of the interminable Barchester Towers, I knew that Trollope’s narrator was being sincere–there really was no interest in it to lose.  And this is what makes Trollope an “anti-sensational” author.  He democratizes the author/reader relationship, which is an admirably novel impulse, I think.  But I’m so conditioned to 19th-century narrative conventions of suspense that I can’t function as a reader if I’m not being kept in the dark. I like to “move along together” with writers like Hawthorne, who don’t mind keeping me in the shadows. And sensation literature maintains that rigid hierarchy of knowledge, in which the narrator knows everything and the reader only gets pieces of information whenever the narrator sees fit to dispense them.
But this very “anti-sensationalism” that frustrates me so much could actually supply a productive dialogue with the sensation literature that I want to study in this dissertation. So I wonder if I should propose a chapter on Trollope in my project….? For one thing, I’m still fascinated by the figure of the professional in sensation novels, and the process of professionalization… and it seems like most of the scholarship being produced on this subject takes Trollope as one of its objects of study.  That’s something I could research some more….
Also, Trollope wrote two plays, as far as I can tell: Did He Steal It? and The Noble Jilt. According the Trollope’s AutobiographyThe Noble Jilt was “a comedy, partly in blank verse, and partly in prose […]. The plot I afterward used in a novel called Can You Forgive Her? I believe that I did give the best of my intellect to the play, and I must own that when it was completed it pleased me much […]. The dialogue […] I think to be good, and I doubt whether some of the scenes be not the brightest and best work I ever did.” And apparently, Did He Steal It? was based on the plot of The Last Chronicle of Barset, which I should also research some more. The point here is that there is definitely some theatrical adaptation going on here, which fits right into my project. And potentially, I could look for some “anti-sensational” rhetoric that speaks directly to the subject of my project.
This is just an idea I’m throwing out there for myself, but right now, I’m really liking the idea of doing more research along this line….

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Realizations, Part II

After reading the Introduction, I skipped to Chapter 2 of Martin Meisel’s book: “Illustration and Realization.”  As the title implies, Meisel uses this chapter to distinguish between the Victorian concepts of illustration and realization. Realization, along with the verb form, “to realize,” “are often found in dramatic contexts,” Meisel says, “where they carry the sense of materialization, even reification” (29). This is the chapter that contains the quote Auerbach uses when she explains this concept–a quote that is worth reproducing again:

“Realization,” which had a precise technical sense when applied to certain theatrical tableaux based on well-known pictures, was in itself the most fascinating of “effects” on the nineteenth-century stage, where it meant both literal re-creation and translation into a more real, that is more vivid, visual, physically present medium. To move from mind’s eye to body’s eye was realization, and to add a third dimension to two was realization, as when words became picture, or when picture became dramatic tableau. Always in the theater the effect depended on the apparent literalness and faithfulness of the translation, as well as the material increment. (30)

In this section of Meisel’s argument, I can see some support for Auerbach’s equation of dramatic change and “realization” with the Christian narrative of original sin. Meisel quotes Charles Lamb, who describes his first experience of seeing a Shakespearian performance like this:

It seemed to embody and realize conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct shape. But dearly do we pay all our life after for this juvenile pleasure, this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance. (30)

So, “realization” was an inevitable outcome of the Victorians’ obsession with realism, but it wasn’t necessarily an unproblematic outcome; it was in constant opposition to the idealism at the other end of the literary spectrum.

Illustration, on the other hand, was an entirely different concept. According to Meisel:

It carried a sense of enrichment and embellishment beyond mere specification; it implied the extension of one medium or mode of discourse by another, rather than materialization with a minimum of imaginative intervention. Exemplification and enhancement by any means were inherited meanings that persisted in the word; but the pictorial illustration that we have in mind nowadays when we speak of a book with illustrations was not taken for granted before the 1820s, that is to say before the rapid effect of a series oftechnological innovations on the production of illustrated books. (30)

Another way that Meisel distinguishes between the two terms is to say that realization involves “giving concret perceptual form to a literary text,” while illustration mainly involves “interpretive re-creation” (32).

Obviously, numerous scholars of book history take the concept of “illustration” as their object of study, especially the illustrations of serial fiction, like Dickens’ novels. Meisel does not cover any of that in detail here, but he does note that in the theater, “the illustrative bent shows itself pervasively, especially in the classics, in acting as well as in the hypertrophic elaboration of decor” (32). Actors tried to uncover new “points” in Shakespeare (“fresh readings that would stretch the text and startle a jaded audience”), while other Shakespearian readers became interested in “the archaeological illustration of Shakespeare’s plays in the theater” (32). Interestingly, Meisel notes that these interests provide precedents for the modern creative director (32).

Meisel goes on to analyze the fascinating relationship that illustration had with realism. Topographic dioramas were very popular during this period; “[i]n most of these,” Meisel notes, “the appetite for truth and fact shared the stage with the appetite for wonder” (33). Additionally, the pictorial theater specialized in illustrating current events, much like our modern news shows. As Meisel says, “the theater provided a form of topical news show that served the appetite for ocular truth and mastery over time, space, and materials, and anticipated not only the illustrated news magazine, but the newsreel itself” (33-34).

This distinction between illustration and realization was really the main point of this chapter, so I’m going to end this post with a last quote from Meisel, which I find fascinating:

In a consideration of those common features that unite the several arts in the nineteenth century, and of the outright collaborations between the arts, illustration is certainly the more complex and problematical notion. But realization is the more neglected; and realization is central to the persistent pressure toward uniting a concrete particularity with inward signification, the materiality of things with moral and emotional force, historical fact with figural truth, the mimetic with the ideal. (36)

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Studying the 1860s, working in the 1970s, living in the 21st century

Studying the 1860s, working in the 1970s, living in the 21st century

In a special forum on “Victorian Theatricalities” in the journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, Richard Schoch laments that nineteenth-century theater scholars don’t reflect more fully on their interactions with their archives. He says, “It is a great vexation to me that historians of nineteenth-century theatre do not reflect sufficiently upon the status of the archives in which they work. There is not enough attention to what counts as evidence or documentation, who was (is) responsible for its survival and preservation, how archives shape our understanding of theatre history by making certain questions possible and other ones impossible. Our very idea of the theatrical past is determined by the more or less invisible structures of archives, in which H. Irving is much more visible than J. Grimaldi.”

I have not gotten far enough in my research to reflect sufficiently about most of these questions, but I’m definitely fascinated by the question of who is responsible for the survival and preservation of the microcopy archive of nineteenth-century drama at UC Davis. The first thing I find fascinating is that I probably have access to more nineteenth-century plays in this library than I do to nineteenth-century novels… I don’t know for sure that that’s true, but I do know that there are thousands of nineteenth-century plays preserved on microcopy in the library, and that the section of nineteenth-century literature is relatively compact, and diluted with a mass of critical works that don’t count as “nineteenth-century literature.” If my hypothesis is right, and there are more plays preserved here than novels, you’d be tempted to think that plays were/are more important and/or popular than novels. Except that the plays are housed in the confines of an outdated technology–microcopy–that no one has bothered to (or had the funds to) digitize and update. In the few months so far that I have been working on this project, I have not seen anyone even go near the microcopy machines. Of the three machines available, one works, and the other two have focus knobs that don’t seem to work anymore. Does anyone still read things from microcopy? Does anyone ever read these plays? How many of them are even available in another format? My favorite one so far, an adaptation of Lady Audley’s Secret by George Roberts, is not available anywhere in any format other than microcopy (and of course, in its original manuscript form in whichever archive out there has the original).

The different formats of play vs. novel in this library makes an interesting statement about archives and canon-formation, since I imagine the entire set of nineteenth-century plays on microcopy was probably one set price back in the 1970s, or whenever the library purchased these plays. And I imagine that this one microcopy archive has lasted them at least 30 years, if not longer, whereas they’ve probably had to replace countless copies of individual novels over the years. So a D-list archive finds a place on the library shelves, probably because it’s cheap, compact, and won’t need to be replaced anytime soon. This is all speculation on my part, but it’s 2012, and I’m reading plays off microcopy. I think I’m right about this. Essentially, the archive gets preserved because nobody needs to be around to preserve it. Then, the few (or maybe just one?) people who come in to read these plays turn into time travelers, reading ancient plays on ancient technology (not unlike reading a conventional book, I suppose, which is a much more ancient technology than microcopy!).

How I get the plays from the microcopy into my dissertation involves even more technological mediation, since I either have to transcribe them into a Word document, or record myself reading them in a podcast, or take pictures of the screen and upload them into my photo-editing program. If Marshall McLuhan is right, and the medium is the message, then my struggles to get these plays from one screen to another is an important process to reflect upon. For example, on the microcopy reader, sequence always causes me a huge headache, since the way I have to move the machine to get from one page to another is not intuitive for me. My transcription of the play into a Word document is so comfortingly linear–I can read from top to bottom in one direction. For now, the takeaway message for me is that machines tell us how to read things, and that was just as true for Victorians as it is for me. Charles Reade and M.E. Braddon played with this concept in their novels, and George Roberts is picking up on that in his theatrical adaptation. Or at least I think he is. I need to go finish transcribing his play. Back to the microcopy reader!

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July 24, 2012 · 10:12 pm

Le Drame (1860), by Honore Daumier

Le Drame (1860), by Honore Daumier

Martin Meisel analyzes this painting, observing that the actors onstage embody the faceless ideal, while the more individualized audience members embody the Real (8).

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July 18, 2012 · 5:10 am

Realizations, Part I

Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, by Martin Meisel, is a voluminous work that may, perhaps, be the most important book I read for my project.  At 438 over-sized pages, this book basically focuses on all artistic production in the nineteenth century, heroically refusing to limit itself to just one movement, form, or sub-period.  One of Meisel’s ambitions, he says in his Introduction, is “to suggest ways of organizing and perceiving representational art that cut across medium and genre and constitute a common style” (3).  So, he looks at points of connection between pictorial art and pictorial theater, between pictorial theater and narrative, between narrative and art, and between all the beautifully monstrous permutations in between.  This book is such a glorious production that I think I’m going to measure all other works of scholarship against this.

I’ll start with Auerbach’s Private Theatricals, which I’ve summarized in my previous posts.  I really liked Auerbach’s connections, although it seems like everything in the nineteenth century becomes ghosts and demons pretty quickly in her works.  And just judging based on the feeling the book left me with, I think Auerbach is, at some points, trying to paint the Victorian mind as equating any kind of change with the original fall, and so anyone who changes becomes suspect.  Therefore, the anti-theatrical prejudice persisted even as theater flourished, presumably following some paradigm of Foucauldian paranoia, whereby we revel/wallow in the things that terrify us.  I’m really ready to buy into Lynn Voskuil’s revision of this anti-theatrical prejudice reading of nineteenth-century history, but it’s not really the focus on anti-theatricality that bothers me about Auerbach’s analysis.  What leaves me a little unsatisfied is that she glances at a few representative works of nineteenth-century theater, like East Lynne and Peter Pan, but she’s really interested in biography.  Biography is really, at the end of the day, her object of study, I think.  This spawned a tradition of other nineteenth-century scholars who wrote books on how influential the theater was on X form of literature, without really looking at any plays in great detail.  This is fine–I like all that interpretive work.  But I just think it leaves a gap, especially in the area I’m interested in: novels that were rewritten as plays.

This is where Meisel comes into the conversation.  I feel like Auerbach says, “Hey, theater really influenced the way Victorians conceptualized the life cycle.  Let’s look at some biographies and novelistic bildungsroman to see how that works,” which is wonderful, but not as majestic as Meisel.  Meisel basically says, “Hey, every form is connected to every other form.  Let’s look at all the forms to see how they’re connected.”  This sounds like a more diffuse argument, but Meisel addresses that directly:

Such diffusion encourages the normal disposition of cultural critics and historians to find that everything connects to everything else. The problem is compounded  where the arts are concerned, since there analogy is a legitimate mode of action; it is how invention and imagination work. In the arts, both patrician and popular, the obscure transforming leap of the imagination sometimes eludes chains of cause and effect, networks of demonstrable influence, chartings of source and stream. But where such sensible canons of proof  cannot provide a limiting corrective for the intuitions of a rationalizing interpreter, the critical ground turns to quicksand. This discovery of analogies and pointed differences […] is itself the work of the imagination, and risks degradation from the imaginative to the imaginary. […] Unregulated analogy has been the plague of those who would generalize about period style. Not knowing how to take analogy seriously enough has been the defect of traditional historians of the several arts. (4-5)

Meisel deals with this difficulty in this way:

In the end the critic-cum-historian has to remember, for reassurance, that seeking connections, making analogies, and constructing dialogues are not his own bizarre peculiarities, but are much more characteristic of the inventive minds and dispositions that called forth the pictures, plays, and stories here discussed. (5)

This was an interesting meditation for me to think about in relation to my own project.  In the arts, analogy is a “legitimate mode of action.”  A playwright reads a novel and decides it would make a good play. Or a novelist decides s/he wants to write plays too.  So we could just keep making comparisons until the cows come home. But making connections is what creative minds do, so I think I’m on the right track by looking at scenes of writing and scenes of performance in these works.  I’m looking at the way writers represent the connections they’re making through scenes of writing and performance. This is all really broad, but I think that’s part of Meisel’s point. He’s not just looking at three different forms of representation; he’s looking at the points at which those forms intersect and show the implicit connections between all forms of representation.

Anyway, he moves on to talk about the role of gesture in these different forms–stereotyped gesture as opposed to individualized externalization of internal feeling. “The aesthetic problem for the age,” he says, “was to incorporate such individuation, for which it had an enormous appetite and which it perceived as the real, with the glamor and readable moral and intellectual coherence of the faceless ideal” (8). Here’s a great quotation:

The nineteenth-century artist, especially the Victorian artist, working for a comprehensive audience, had a double injunction laid upon him. He found himself between an appetite for reality and a requirement for signification. Specification, individuation, autonomy of detail, and the look and feel of the thing itself pulled one way; while placement in a larger meaningful pattern, appealing to the moral sense and the understanding, pulled another. (12)

“In its own terms,” he concludes the Introduction, “it is an art seeking the technical means and structural matrices for what was surely the most paradoxical of aesthetic enterprises, the Realization of the Ideal” (13).  I can definitely see all these things happening in the sensation novel and its theatrical adaptations, so for now I am going to use “realization” as a lens through which to look at how these adaptations are rewriting writing.

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Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians (Part IV)

This final chapter is called, appropriately enough, “Death Scenes,” and focuses on the fact that “[d]ying well was an art, and the theater made the most of it” (94). According to Auerbach:

Theatricality–teasing, pyrotechnical, and self-creating–scattered the spirit’s immutable majesty. Death was life’s last great moment of change. Most of us imagine death as negation, obliterating hope and consciousness forever, but Victorian death scenes embrace it as a final source of the integration lives promise and deny. If life cannot realize us, dying must, for there is nothing beyond. (89-90)

One of the relevant examples of this that Auerbach uses is Little Willie in East Lynne, whose death is followed closely by Lady Isabel’s.  Another example that I found interesting was Auerbach’s reference to “Comyns Carr’s 1895 adaptation of the revered Idylls of the King” (97). Aaand… my master’s thesis on Idylls of the King comes back to haunt me, like the specters of the divided self that haunted the Victorians, haha. There’s certainly lots of death in Idylls of the King, but I never would have thought of Tennyson’s poem being adapted for the stage (Henry Irving played Arthur). Fascinating.

Here’s more Auerbach:

Dying literary characters become the central actors of their stories; they cast off the fragmentation that thwarted them in life. The dead in Victorian poetry are not merely actors, but omnipotent stage directors as well; they do not only dominate their world, but order it. In the nineteenth-century imagination, death gains stunning power, even though it has lost the one power our own century has learned to live with: it no longer kills. (100)

This is where Auerbach brings in the figure of the Victorian ghost:

Ghosts epitomize the powers of the Victorian dead. Like Victorian actors, they invade ordinary life with insistent visual intensity, becoming incarnations of unspoken faiths–in this case, faith in a self even death cannot contain or quench. (101)

Ultimately, “all Victorian ghosts are actors in their obsession with their own visibility” (106).  Also, death brings a final sense of identity to the self: “Only death brings the self into its inheritance, one so mighty it cannot be killed. Bearing a legacy of potential grandeur like that which determines the Victorian life cycle, the living stagger, but the dead walk” (109).  I like all of these quotes, because I like the connections that Auerbach is able to draw between the figures of the actor, the ghost, the subject of biography, the madwoman, and even the typical Victorian individual.  However, in future posts, I intend to critique some of these connections, via Lynn Voskuil’s excellent study entitled Acting Naturally.

Before I leave Auerbach, however, I will incorporate one final quote (the last words of the book!), which I think encapsulates her entire argument:

I suggest that the source of Victorian fears of performance lay not on the stage, but in the histrionic artifice of ordinary life. Playing themselves continually, convinced of the spiritual import of their lives, Victorian men and women validated those lives with the sanction of nature but feared that nature was whatever the volatile self wanted it to be. The theater was a visible reminder of the potential of good men and women to undergo inexplicable changes. Its menace was not its threat to the integrity of sincerity, but the theatricality of sincerity itself. The specter that audiences called the actor performed lives they recognized as their own. (114)

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Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians (Part III)

This second chapter is called “Patterns of Conversion,” and focuses on adulthood, or the middle of the life cycle, where the mature self supposedly achieves its sense of unity.  As Auerbach puts it:

Like the child who, in his closeness to death, seemed to guarantee the self’s integrity, the adult rising to wisdom on his dead selves threatens to explode before he can save himself and his trusting reader.  The child who seemed so treasured a repository of readers’ eternal selfhoods vanished on examination into a fantasia of stage gestures.  In the same theatrical spirit, development toward maturity resembles the ruthless self-obliterations and self-creations of the actor. (56)

According to Auerbach, conversion (“the little death-in-life, the dying unto the corrupted self”) is the “paradigmatic Victorian passage to maturity” (56).  Conversion, in the Victorian period, was conceived of in a variety of ways, including the bildungsroman (in the world of literature), Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis (in the world of science), and the Carlylean man (in the world of cultural critique).  Auerbach has some awesome quotes, so I’m just going to keep quoting her:

Although the pattern of conversion that shapes so many Victorian novels and biographies is fueled by this hope of orderly progress to spiritual immutability, it is also troubled by fear of incessant theatrical metamorphoses. Victorians cast their life cycles into inspirational allegories. In theory, maturity was the reward of a solemn ritual of conversion, whose religious content is translated into simultaneous self-destruction and self-glorification: dead selves are the price of conquering adulthood. But the perpetually dying self […] might be nothing more than shadows of its own recurrent deaths. (58-59)

Auerbach connects this sense of constant change to anti-theatricalism, using Jonas Barish, who says: “To change, clearly [for Puritan teachers] is to fall, to reenact the first change whereby Lucifer renounced his bliss and man alienated himself from the Being in whose unchanging image he was created.  As a result, the actor, his trade founded on change, becomes a lively image of fallen man, the one who renews the primal degradation every day of his life, and so places himself beyond the pale” (61).

This chapter goes on to focus on Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte and John Forster’s biography of Charles Dickens–two prominent Victorian “lives” that embodied the anxieties and possibilities of the theatrical self.  I’m not particularly interested in Victorian biography at this point, so I’m basically taking from this analysis the idea that the theatrical self was a paradigm of identity in the Victorian period, and that it interacted in problematic ways with the period’s ostensible anti-theatrical prejudice.  The chapter goes on to muse that “[c]onversion contains the seeds of perversion”:

That noble Victorian enterprise of mighty self-making always threatens to produce, not superior mutations, but monsters. The potential chaos of conversion underlies the obsession, in popular literature, with such hybrids as fairies, wolfmen, white rabbits with pocket watches, vampires, owls singing to responsive pussycats, all manner of unclassifiable anomalies, lost somewhere between the animal and human species. (76)

I think this is clearly evident in sensation novels and their emphasis on madness and lunacy (c.f. Anne Catherick, Lucy Audley, Arthur Wardlaw, etc.). Both Lady Audley and Arthur Wardlaw participate in “that noble Victorian enterprise of mighty self-making” and become “not superior mutation, but monsters.”  To some extent, even Lady Isabel/Madame Vine could be put in this category, although perhaps she’s closer to the Penfold/Seaton/Hazel model of self-making.

My reference to Lady Audley after the above quotation continues to interest me, given Auerbach’s conclusion of the chapter with an analysis of women’s roles on the fin-de-siecle stage.  Earlier, she notes that “in 1895, [Henry] Irving became the first British actor to be knighted” (77), so clearly acting was becoming more socially acceptable as a profession.  During this same time, she continues, “Jean Martin Charcot’s clinic at the Salpetriere, which flourished in the decades (1870-1900) when Irving ruled the British stage, made stars of its mental patients. Madness gave them the range of identities ordinary women, onstage as well as off, were forbidden to display” (81).  Auerbach goes on:

All these women, hysterics and saints alike, became stars of disease by unfurling their multiple selves. All underwent orgiastic, dramatic, and public “conversions” that displayed their spiritual virtuosity; all transformed private moments of vision into public spectacles. (82)

This clearly relates to Lady Audley, who ends up in a Belgian mental institution thanks to the dramatic “unfurling” of her multiple selves.  So, the anti-theatrical prejudice ends up stabilizing conventional gender roles and marginalizing women whose madness makes them into actors.

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Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians (Part II)

This first chapter is called “Little Actors,” and follows the trajectory of childhood (as part of the book’s larger project of following the trajectory of the life cycle).  As most studies of Victorian childhood have found, “[c]hildren in Victorian novels are illuminated presences because they die so often.  Dying is what they do best; often, they are expected to die even when they don’t” (21).  Also:

Their main distinction is a responsiveness to death that saves them from open-endedness, turning their beginnings into endings.  Their truncated lives are the unbroken, self-complete, perfectly symmetrical circles of eternity.  Children on the edge of death have no time to forfeit their best selves. (21)

Again, this reading of childhood privileges the supposed Victorian ideal of the complete, integrated self: “[t]he dying child repudiates the lie of others’ lives, embodying instead our lost original perfection” (23).  Apparently, the “self-complete” child was an antidote to the mutable, theatrical self that the Victorian middle class so feared.

Auerbach goes on to read Jane Eyre and Pip as two archetypal Victorian children who come into self-awareness through what she calls “visual realization” (32), borrowing the term from the Victorian pictorial theater.  She uses Martin Meisel to explain “visual realization,” and this quotation seems very helpful to me:

“Realization,” which had a precise technical sense when applied to certain theatrical tableaux based on well-known pictures … meant both literal re-creation and translation into a more real, that is more vivid, visual, physically present medium.  To move from mind’s eye to body’s eye was realization, and to add a third dimension to two was realization, as when words became picture, or when picture became dramatic tableaux. (32)

“To be,” Auerbach concludes, “was to be seen” (32).  I find this Meisel quotation very useful because I think that “realization” would be a good lens through which to look at theatrical adaptations of sensation fiction.  I’m even wondering if Charles Reade’s inclusion of facsimiles of handwritten notes into Foul Play could be a form of “realization,” since it translates text into a more “real” and “physically present” medium.

Anyway, on a different note, one of the tidbits from this chapter that I found fascinating was the fact that in 1804, Master Betty–a 13-year-old child actor–was playing Hamlet, Macbeth, and other adult protagonists.  According to Auerbach, “this weirdly charismatic boy outdrew all adult competitors, including the novice Edmund Kean, whom the Romantics were to cast as their type of genius” (35-36).  She continues:

Until the 1860s, when the theater began to court middle-class respectability, stage children were miracles of virtuosity, not adorableness.  In the space of a performance, child stars whirled from youth to age, female to male, burlesque to tragedy, and back again. (36)

Of course, this is part of the contradiction that Auerbach is pointing out: the idealized, self-contained child of Victorian fantasy was actually an actor, both literally and figuratively.

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Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians (Part I)

This is Nina Auerbach’s famous book on anti-theatrical prejudice and Victorian life-writing.  This post is going to summarize her Introduction, “Trees and Transfigurations.”

It seems like this book responds to another classic Victorianist work, Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, which I definitely need to read.  Sincerity and Authenticity dates back to the 70s, I believe, and seems interested in the cultural touchstones that make up the Victorian legacy.  Going for the obvious deduction, I’m extrapolating that sincerity and authenticity (as Trilling says, “the insistent claims of the own self” [10]) are two elements of something that we could call the “Victorian legacy” (Auerbach’s words, 10).

The Victorian ideal, Auerbach (following Trilling) insists, consisted of a stable, autonomous bedrock of selfhood.  And this (impossible) ideal led to the anti-theatrical prejudice that Auerbach claims was so rampant in the nineteenth century.  Life-writing was so attractive to the Victorians because it was “authentic”–not creatively, playfully, unpredictably fictional.  But…

As sources of truth, though, lives could be dangerously like masks.  Living was so significant that sages strained to shelter it from contamination; the theater became the primary source and metaphor for meretricious, life-destroying activity. (4)


Reverent Victorians shunned theatricality as the ultimate, deceitful mobility.  It connotes not only lies, but a fluidity of character that decomposes the uniform integrity of the self. (4)

There were many problems and complications with this anti-theatrical prejudice, not the least of which is the fact that theater was immensely popular for the entire nineteenth century.  Another problem was that Shakespeare had already achieved godlike powers by the nineteenth century, and he was, unfortunately, a playwright.  According to Auerbach,

The nineteenth-century Shakespeare came to stand for human inviolateness, not for poetry or the theater.  The Victorian mission to redeem him from theatricality is part of a cultural passion to preserve all lives from their inherently deceitful potential.  It is scarcely possible to be ourselves without acting ourselves, but to be sincere, we must not act.  (8)

So, according to Shakespeare, even respectable men play many parts in their lifetime–life is, partially, about acting like oneself.  And Auerbach goes on to show that famous Victorians like Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, Carroll, Browning, Tennyson, Braddon, James, Eliot, etc. all “wrote for the theater, longed to write for it, or, failing to achieve theatrical success, transplanted theatrical values into the works that made them famous” (13).  And thus, coinciding with a cultural prejudice against the theater was a pervasive fascination with the theater that influenced not only the theater itself, but also life-writing, novels, and culture as a whole.  Auerbach says:

To antitheatrical Victorians, the theater was a subversive anticulture whose illusions and seductions lured souls away; but in fact the Victorian theater shared–and eventually, self-consciously aped–the paradoxes of Victorian culture as a whole. […] Apparently a freeing, frightening world apart, the theater mirrored the society that alternately ostracized and adored it. (17)

Auerbach ends her Introduction by comparing actors to ghosts.  Ghosts “stand in tantalizing relation to the ideal of the own self,” but they are also “manifestations of grandeur and supreme authority” (18).  “If ghosts are actors,” Auerbach contends, “actors are regularly represented as specters, emanations, doppelganger, apparitions, of the natural self.  Actors and ghosts both appear as unnatural impositions on authentic being” (18).

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Lady Audley’s Secret, by Colin Henry Hazlewood

Act I:  Opens with an interaction between Luke and Phoebe.  We learn that Alicia and Robert are engaged.  Everyone is getting together for Sir Michael’s 70th birthday.  Robert is late because he has run into his old friend, George Talboys, who accompanies him to Sir Michael’s birthday party.  Alicia introduces them to Lady Audley via a miniature she carries with her.  George recognizes his “dead” wife, wanders off, and ends up confronting Lady Audley.  They have a long exchange, in which George vows vengeance.  Lady Audley throws him down a well, not suspecting that Luke Marks has seen everything.

Act II:  Alicia complains to her father that George’s disappearance has postponed her marriage to Robert.  Luke confronts Lady Audley with his knowledge and extorts money from her.  She promises to bring him 100 pounds at the tavern she bought for he and Phoebe upon their marriage, four months prior.  After he exits, Robert enters, having returned from London, where he was searching for George.  He converses with Lady Audley, and then eventually confronts her with his suspicions that she is Helen Talboys, and that she has done some sort of mischief to George.  They agree to be eternal foes, and then Robert offers to let her leave Audley Court in exchange for his silence; otherwise, he will publicize his suspicions.  After he leaves, Lady Audley accuses him to Sir Michael and Alicia of hitting on her, and asks Sir Michael to banish him from Audley Court, which request Sir Michael promptly complies with.  Robert heads to Mt. Stanning, where Luke is drunk and bragging about that fact that he has a secret about Lady Audley.  Robert tries to get him drunker so that he’ll talk, but Luke just falls asleep.  Lady Audley comes to give Luke his extortion money, but when she sees Robert and Luke together, she decides to set fire to the inn to silence both of them.  She sends Phoebe back to Audley Court while she sets fire to Mt. Stanning.  Alicia intercepts them on the road to Audley Court with the news that Sir Michael has suffered a fit.  Phoebe sees Mt. Stanning burning, and intuits Lady Audley’s role in it when Lady Audley tries to prevent her from returning.  Robert intercepts the abduction Lady Audley is trying to carry out.  He denounces her as a murderess, and a dying Luke shows up to corroborate his story.  Then Alicia shows up to say her father is dead.  Then George shows up to say that he is alive.  Then Luke dies and Lady Audley goes mad.

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