Props and the Figure of the Governess

I’m still not finished with No Name, but since I’m incorporating a chapter on East Lynne, I thought I’d start trying to make some connections between these texts and my larger project.

Now that I’m interested in props, I see a major connection between these two texts: costume and disguise. Specifically, both novels revolve around female characters (both disinherited in some way), who disguise themselves as governesses in order to get close to people removed from them by strict social conventions. First of all, I think the idea of novelistic characters writing scripts for themselves and then donning costumes that correspond to their characters implies the inevitable theatrical adaptations that resulted from these novels. Especially in the case of No Name, there are many ways in which the novel is already a play.

However, I wonder what else the governess-disguise can imply about the ways in which props function. First of all, props are representational. Props help tie these sensational and melodramatic genres to the genre of Realism, which focused so specifically on mimetic representation. The successes and failures of these costumes could tie into the larger generic debates that these novels may have been having with the theatrical adaptations, or with other novels of the period. 

Props can also be transformational. In fact, props are meant to literally transform the space of the theater into the space of the home, the sea, an island…. whatever “other” space the scene is attempting to represent. These governess disguises transform Lady Isabel and Magdalen into marginal figures that have an uncharacteristic level of social mobility (uncharacteristic because most novels depict governesses as having a very small level of social mobility). In other words, the governess disguise allows them to enter spaces from which they would otherwise be banned. In the same way, the portrait in Lady Audley’s Secret is transformational, in that it ends up freezing Lady Audley in its frame. We might even see the gold bars in Foul Play as transformational, since the trade routes of both the novel and the play make it quite easy to exchange the gold bars for Helen–her theatrical “double” is actually a prop. 

That brings up another characteristic of props: their portability. Props can move from one place to another, different actors can interact with them in different ways, and the audience can have very different levels of access to them. For example, this brings me back to my question about the portrait in Lady Audley’s Secret: how much of it does the audience get to see? The portability of props is a big deal in No Name, when Magadalen has to get out of her governess costume quickly, and when she has to figure out how to mail her costume back to Captain Wragge. Portability is also an issue in Foul Play, where the means of transportation and storage are such a huge element of the plot. In fact, portability is a huge issue in most detective plots of the period, since circumstantial evidence is often small, portable, and easily collectible (is a detective another type of collector?). 

I will end here, and keep thinking about this.


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