We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

ASECS, Atlanta: On the Gothic, Actresses & Tiepolo · 13 April 07

Dear Harriet,

It’s been several weeks now since we’ve returned from Atlanta, and I’ve still not transcribed my notes. If I don’t do it soon, I will have lost the memory of what was said and perhaps not be able to turn my notes into a coherent discourse I can use. I transcribe my notes so as to make my going to these conferences more genuinely useful to myself—and anyone interested in the topics discussed who comes here to read these blog letters.

I’ve been too tired at night after I have typed letters from George Anne Bellamy’s Apology for her Life and had supper (and drunk I know not how many units of wine—unlike Bridget Jones who seems not to need to define what she means by units). At this point my lower back and shoulders are hurting me from stress, and I sleep with a hot pad & take tylenol when needed. So I have now accepted I can only do so much, and for a while shall set aside George Anne, and write about what I heard & participated in at the American Society for 18th Century Studies conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I will also describe what Jim and I saw in Atlanta and our adventures on the sleeper train after I’ve transcribed all my notes on the conference itself.

To begin, we came by a sleeper car train on Amtrak (to spare Jim the hard long drive) and arrived sometime after 7 in the morning. We had to leave our stuff at the inn we were staying at, have some breakfast (a coffee each), and walk there (20 minutes for me) so by the time we got to the conference, the first session had begun. Thus I managed to hear only the third and fourth papers in the session called “Romanticism and the Gothic.”

The coming session of the East Central group of the society is supposed to be on the topic of things across the Atlantic Ocean, so I was very glad to be able to hear William Wandless’s paper on Charlotte Smith’s Old Manor House (1793). You may not know in one of the most powerful sequences of the novel, the hero, Orlando, goes to America to fight in the French and Indian war (as people in the US used to call it when I was in grade school). According to Mr. Wandless, The Old Manor House is at once a sentimental, detective, and gothic novel in which we can discern Smith’s poetic temperament. He suggested the book manifested a cultural twilight in which countervailing forces (furies is how he termed this) very different from that of the earlier enlightenment are at work. We are as readers continually assailed by the deep distress of our sympathetic characters, and focus on the pathetic outsider, Monimia, the orphan heroine. Mr Wandless showed how poetry creates the book’s disquieting atmosphere, and suggested the poetry on the page is at odds with the novel’s attempt at realism.

I so love Smith’s poetry I herewith send you a sonnet which appears in Smith’s later novel, The Young Philosopher (1798):

Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night o’er the ocean settles, dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen, in the anchored bark, that tell
The watch reliev’d; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding ‘strike the bell.’

All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Mark’d by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar, the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray
The wavering reason lends, in life’s long darkling way.

I found some postings I wrote and sent to Eighteenth Century Worlds @ Yahoo when we read The Old Manor House together. I send them to you:

“From my Broadview edition and an old Oxford hardback of Old Manor House I gather scholars don’t know precisely what Smith read about the 1770s, but it’s also clear that her picture of the map, the kinds of slaughters and betrayals going on, and the
places and dates she does provide are genuine non-fiction. I found this part of the book genuinely gripping and fully imagined. When Orlando finally lands penniless, broke, gaunt, and makes his way painfully to the part of the country he came from (being thrown out of places as he goes), the book reaches a fine pitch of emotion and seascape.

The scenes of war on OMH parallel those in these other novels. Smith is anti-war and her scenes match up to scenes of later times and our own. Everywhere most people are betraying one another. Orlando survives only because a Native American finds him personally congenial. In England, without Orlando Monimia is a Fanny Price without Sir Thomas and Edmund Bertram to turn to and wait for recall.”

Barbara J. responded as follows:

“Having caught up with the group read (hurrah!), I would just like to say how much I am enjoying this book. The depiction of Monimia’s dependence and powerlessness is very involving. As is often the case, the more flawed characters are almost more interesting and almost seem to steal the show! I think the portrayal of people being persuaded towards taking questionable decisions for apparently right motives is very perceptive (e.g., Isabella and the General, Orlando and Monimia, Selina and Orlando, Orlando and his father)—it’s emotional blackmail, but presented as for the good of the family or for the good of one’s future, one’s conscience. It all provides a moral muddle which makes the reader think hard about the concept of duty, the relativity of right and wrong (for example, the maid, Betty’s playing with people’s emotions and the butler’s scheming). It really raises the question of how important the “house’s” (and therefore society’s) destiny and cohesion are, versus the life and rights of the individual.

It struck me how heavily this story relies on the Cinderella trope: the main character , Monimia, being oppressed almost because she is more attractive (physically and morally) than those around her: something which I also thought vis-a-vis Diderot’s The Nun. The main character in that work also reminded me forcibly of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, who is abused and vilified but refuses to answer back or defend herself – a decision that brings to mind Thomas a Kempis’s idea that however badly others treat you, the Christian response is to not respond, but to ensure that your own behaviour is impeccable. This seems today like an abuser’s charter. ”

The last paper of the “Romanticism and Gothic” session was an argument about how “Monk” Lewis influenced Walter Scott. This is not a usual stance; usually people writing about Scott like to see him as influenced directly by German and other Scots romantic texts as well as earlier learned Enlightenment ones.

The second session I attended, “Representing Theatrical Women: British Women of the Stage” excited me since I am now interested in actresses who wrote memoirs. This season on Eighteenth Century Worlds we allocated a month and one half to reading 20th & 21st century historical novels set in the 18th century as well as biographies (which are novelistic after all) of 18th century figures and I read Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, Life Mask (alas I didn’t finish it) and Claire Tomalin’s Mrs Jordan’s Profession. The second and third book confirmed my desire to keep reading and studying women’s memoirs, especially those of women treated as outcasts either because they took up a profession seen as unchaste or found themselves abandoned to a cruel or bigamous husband.

The first paper on John Dryden’s Conquest of Granada was not that informative as it was really a reading of the play, but the speaker did describe Elizabeth Howe’s book, The First English Actresses, 1660-1700. The second paper also was a literary analysis of a text: Patricia Chapman showed that although Aphra Behn claimed she was writing just to entertain, and Thomas Shadwell claimed he wrote to teach morality, in fact (from a feminist standpoint, a word she never used), Shadwell’s plays support the amorality of his brutal deluded cruel men and present women as simply vicious (cheating wives), and Behn’s plays insistently seriously critique social behavior, particularly norms for marriage, from a genuinely ethical point of view. Behn shows women must marry for money, how sexual relationships are controlled by a capitalist economy, and sex is a commodity to be sold. She asked but did not answer the question, Why did Behn present herself as not writing moral plays?

The third paper gave me for the first time some insight into why there is this continual praise for Eliza Haywood’s work, which, dear Marianne, is just awful—badly written, laden with hectic cliches, salacious, as amoral as Shadwell’s plays. The speaker admired Haywood because she succeeded in the marketplace.

Perhaps it’s that Haywood’s desperate careerism is generally admired?

It was the fourth paper that had new content as it was based on documents about the life of an actress, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831).

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) painting of Siddones, 1785

Helen Brooks argued that Siddons consciously acted out off and onstage a new model for femininity which worked to make actresses as a group (and Siddons in particular) respectable. Ms. Brooks suggested a new domestic ideal became dominant in the later part of the 18th century, and Mrs Siddons presented herself as working on the stage as an actress as part of her loving mother role. She was pregnant often, and on more than one occasion presented her children on stage to justify some competitive conduct as well as chose to enact roles where the the character was a loving mother. Siddons performed Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother and in Southerne’s Fatal Marriage had her real son enact the fictional character, Isabella’s fictional son. Siddons encouraged reprints of poster of herself and her son. Ms. Brooks admired Mrs Siddons’s use of the self-sacrificial maternity norm because it forwarded her career, and suggested Mrs Siddons was paving a route for other actresses to follow which would protect them. Ms. Brooks also thought that at the same time Siddons was undermining the idea women’s primary role was motherhood as she was clearly a professional woman supporting herself and her family. She compared the way Siddons was treated in the public press to the way Nell Gwynn, Charles II’s mistress had been.

I questioned her to suggest that the motherhood ideal and Siddons’ successive pregnancies were not what secured Siddons’s respectability and solvency. I had just finished reading Claire Tomalin’s Mrs Jordan’s Profession where Tomalin showed that Dora Jordan was similarly endlessly pregnant, and the poor woman went so far as to breastfeed in the green room before and after performances, and herself enacted the self-sacrificing partner and mother with two different men, the first of whom had promised to marry her and then reneged, and the second of whom, the Duke of Clarence and future William IV, appears to have promised to provide for her for the rest of her life. Dora Jordan died in France, broke, young, vilified, alone, sick, her children having been taken from her. Her first daughter, the product of a rape she endured early in her career died a suicide in the US.

What protected Mrs Siddons was the “Mrs,” legal marriage and staying with her husband1. We were asked to admire Mrs Siddons because she had been successful —itself a matter of chance and luck as much as strategy. Another member of the audience questioned the idea that Siddons’s enactment of motherhood as her primary goal undermined the new domestic ideal.

Siddons may have succeeded in using the motherhood ideal to mask the real nature of her daily life (endless work as an actress, with other people caring for her children) to her contemporaries. This ideal may have shown other actresses how they could present themselves so as to prevent the public from regarding them as (in effect) prostitutes available to rich men who wanted to “protect” them (abduct, rape, or support). This may have helped the English actresses after her to gain respectability.

Still, the hard reality was the only husband Sarah Siddons could attract and hold was someone who himself had no connections or means to support her and their family. She was lucky he was not already married to someone else (bigamy seems to have been common) and was a decent loyal partner. Having the children and acting out ideal motherhood is not what protected her; had her children been illegitimate they were in danger of being treated badly. It may be that like Dora Jordan, Sarah Siddons lived to act, but this kind of passionate idealism was not brought out in the session. Instead Siddons was shown as a calculating self-presenter. In Life Mask Emma Donoghue dramatized her as a woman who played the sort of role where she kept herself above everyone else, who was probably uncomfortable in public situations off the stage. In one of the few writings by her that have survived, we see how getting others to treat her with dignity was intensely important to her way of getting through life.

It was then time for lunch. Jim had gone to one session, on art: there was a paper on Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun and Virgil and one on Giambattista Tiepolo’s ceilings. He said the second had disappointed him. Probably the paper had not been concrete or provided new solid information about the art of the kind Jim would have enjoyed.

As has often been noted, it’s the details of Tiepolo’s paintings that are fascinating:

from The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743)

So we set forth to walk around Atlanta until we found a relatively inexpensive restaurant which served modest lunches. I had French onion soup with a croissant-looking object in the middle of it, and he had pasta. Pre-sweetened (and very sweet it was) iced tea in huge glasses.

I’ll break off here and continue tomorrow or the day after that. Not only can I not at once work on an etext edition of Bellamy online while I’m writing blog entries, from now on I’m from now on going to write shorter entries when I transcribe notes from conferences. I will not try to cover as many sessions per entry and simply write about them in chronological order instead of rearranging the material thematically.

A toute a l’heure, my dear,
Sylva going off to have a glass of wine before supper

1 See my argument about how women were connected to society through marriage in ”’A Hole in the Manuscript big enough to put your finger through:’ the misframing of Anne Murray Halkett’s autobiography”

Posted by: Ellen

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