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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