Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Powerful Conservative Women

"To put it bluntly," writes the critic Jeffrey Cox, "powerful conservative women pose a particular problem to both traditional and revisionist literary histories."

In his essay "Baillie, Siddons, Larpent: gender, power, and politics," Cox argues that traditional literary histories have ignored women like Hannah More, whose 1777 play Percy was the most popular new tragedy by anyone--male or female--in England of the late 18th century. At the same time, feminists espousing a progress narrative in which heroic (liberal) women fight valiantly against patriarchy don't quite know what to do with an adamant conservative like More whom the male powers-that-be actively embraced.

As the title suggests, Cox's essay focuses on three powerful conservative women, playwright Joanna Baillie, actress Sarah Siddons, and Anna Larpent. (The last woman was the second wife of John Larpent, the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays from 1778 to 1824. Thus, she was married to the official censor of British drama.) All three, Cox argues, exercised agency and power, just not in the ways that we in the 21st century might have liked.

Cox says of Baillie, "while in her works she may not have been trapped by gendered roles, she was certainly an ally of ugly reactionary social and political forces." Baillie seems to have never interacted with the radical playwright and critic Leigh Hunt, in spite of the fact the two were practically neighbors. Yet she was quite close to the arch-Tory Sir Walter Scott, and even once gave him a ring containing hairs of Charles I, an act Cox argues was an expression of intense Royalism.

I find feminist critics quick to applaud Baillie's play The Trial, in spite of the intense traditionalism of the comedy's fifth act. After testing the love of her suitor Mr. Harwood, the character of Agnes resolves to put him through one final trail. Agnes claims that if Harwood will "prove that his love for me is stronger than his love of virtue" she will "give him up for ever."

Agnes writes a letter on the back of a love note sent to her by Harwood and arranges for it to fall into his hands. The false letter supposedly begs a certain lady not to "expose" Agnes, presumably for the loss of her virginity. Like a Desdemona conniving to get her handkerchief into the hands of a jealous lover, Agnes tries to supply proof of her own sexual misconduct. The use of Harwood's letter is not employed to show a betrayal of his confidence, but rather to supply proof that the confession could not have been forged. In essence, Agnes is ensuring that she would not marry any man who would agree to marry her were she not "pure."

Baillie's conservatism was perhaps matched by that of her favorite actress, Sarah Siddons. Naturally enough, Siddons sided with her little brother, John Philip Kemble, during the "Old Price Riots" of 1809 that followed the rebuilding of the theatre at Covent Gardens. When the previous theatre burned down, Siddons had claimed that her greatest loss in the flames had been a "piece of lace which had been a toilette of the poor Queen of France" Marie Antoinette. These are hardly the sentiments of a revolutionary.

Though often overlooked, perhaps the most powerful woman in late 18th- and early 19th-century British theatre was Anna Larpent. Cox probes Larpent's daily journals for evidence that she had tremendous influence over her husband's decisions to censor plays, and that she used it primarily to keep any serious discussion of politics off the stage. Mrs. Larpent read Baillie and admired Siddons. What she could not abide was any reference to the French Revolution.

As George Taylor pointed out in his book The French Revolution and the London Stage, the British were eager to represent the storming of the Bastille and other momentous events in France. However, these stagings had to take place in smaller "illegitimate" theatres, because the Larpents banned all political plays from the patent theatres at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Anna Larpent's notes specifically condemn Edmund John Eyre's Death of the Queen of France, even though it was sympathetic to Marie Antoinette. She also damned Richard Cumberland's Richard the Second which dealt with Wat Tyler's rebellion, refusing to allow talk of civil unrest even when historicized hundreds of years into the past.

Cox acknowledges that plenty of women on the left also wielded power in the theatre of the Romantic Era (citing Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Jane Scott), but he reminds us not to overlook extraordinary conservative women simply because their values don't line up with those of 21st-century liberal democracy.