Gimcracks Legacy: Sex, Wealth, and the Theater of Experimental Philosophy
Chico, Tita, Comparative Drama
Experimental philosophy in the late seventeenth century depended upon what Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer have famously characterized as the "modest witness" that is, a gendered figure of authority, gentility, and privilege measured for "[his] moral constitution as well as [his] knowledgeability." (1) The modest witness was a subject position that emerged in "the laboratory" itself "a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members." (2) The authenticity of the "modest witness" was borne out of performance, policing, and collective agreement, but it also depended upon the idea that these practices produced a modest witness who merely reflected the results from scientific experimentation. (3) While the benefits of Shapin and Schaffer's work are multiple, their insights have invited a range of reconsiderations, most notably by Donna Haraway. (4) The role of the modest witness and the rise of experimentalism in general, contends Haraway, generated a model of gender difference that Shapin and Schaffer assume existed a priori. The scientific gentleman was distinguished from laboring (professional) men and women more generally by means of his intellectual modesty, that key practice of experimentalism, and this configuration exposes experimentalism as dependent upon this gender-in-the-making. The theory of the modest witness, as understood by Shapin and Schaffer, and as modified by Haraway, significantly expands our understanding of the culture of seventeenth-century experimentalism and its development into modern scientific practice. But the "modest witness" concerns what ends up being a winner of history--it is the source of modern scientific objectivity--and fails to account for variant identities and engagements with experimental philosophy outside of the confines of the Royal Society. In particular, the alternative discourse of the virtuoso emerged alongside, historically, the modest witness, and was its cultural and ideological antithesis, though some seventeenth-century skeptics suspected that the modest witness might actually devolve into a virtuoso. If the modest witness "factored out human agency" and acted as "objects' transparent spokesmen," (5) then the virtuoso was defined by his or her inability to overcome prejudice and desires, speaking for himself or herself rather than for the object, thus illuminating the cultural implications and potential of popular scientific practice.
The term virtuoso, first recorded in English in 1598, was not closely allied with natural philosophy until the 1640s; by the 1660s, it connoted an exclusively scientific interest. (6) As with the modest witness, to be a virtuoso one needed wealth and leisure (as one scholar notes, "he is a gentleman" (7)). Also, the virtuoso was motivated by a desire for reputation and social standing, even "snob-appeal." (8) The virtuoso originally had positive associations, referring to a man of learning, though once the Royal Society acquired its first charter in 1662, the meaning of virtuoso quickly transformed into a person engaged in "futile and indiscriminate study." (9) Virtuosos were also associated with the growing marketplace for optical and other scientific instruments, as well as the consumer desire for "public science" manifest in numerous print publications and lectures. (10) Scientific instruments were considered by some to be a luxury good, even a plaything for England's wealthy and fashionable or a toy for ladies. (11) Of course, experimental philosophers such as the virtuoso were, by this point, often considered amateurs and were thus not necessarily subject to the dictates of performance and collective agreement authorized by the Royal Society. But the contrast is revealing: if the Royal Society's modest witness is ideally a figure of authority, gentility, and privilege, then the theatrical virtuoso exposes the ways in which the practice of experimental philosophy is ideologically biased and socially grounded.
In what follows, I discuss two theatrical incarnations of the virtuoso, one a married male, Gimcrack in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676), and the other an unmarried female, Valeria in Susanna Centlivre's The Basset-Table (1706). (12) Given the theatrical motifs inherent to the Royal Society and the New Science--Haraway calls them "new theaters of persuasion" (13)--these dramatic representations of experimental philosophy offer a unique site of contestation and clarification. Shadwell's Gimcrack is drawn from the popular conception of the Royal Society practitioners and alludes to the famous experimental philosopher, Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia (1665), which was one of the first two books published by the Royal Society; he also served as the Royal Society's Curator of Experiments (1662), Cutlerian Lector in Mechanics (1664), and Gresham Professor in Geometry (1664). (14) As recorded in the Society's Philosophical Transactions, many of the weekly meetings, especially during the Society's first two decades, involved staging experiments and reading about others, work that depended upon Hooke's labor and expertise. (15) Due to the nature of his publications and his roles within the organization, Hooke was in many ways the public face of experimentalism. After Hooke attended a performance of The Virtuoso on 2 June 1676 at Dorset Garden, he complained in his diary that the audience knew the characterization of "Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, F. R. S" was a satire of him: "Damned dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed." (16) But Hooke's own role in the development of experimentalism and natural philosophy is complicated and vexed. Even within his own lifetime, Hooke's status threatened always to fall to that of a professional mechanic, rather than a gentlemanly natural philosopher. Moreover, as one biographer recently noted, Hooke "lost" the seventeenth-century public relations battle for scientific innovation to Isaac Newton. (17) Shadwell's Gimcrack is thus an immediate and satiric commentary on experimental philosophy, a parody of a person widely associated with the Royal Society, though not one of its powerful leaders. The poignancy and applicability of Shadwell's satire lingered long after the play itself, as numerous scholars have noted, if only to quibble over the specifics of Shadwell's scientific critique. (18) By the end of the century, William Wotton complained of "the sly Insinuations of the Men of Wit, That no great Things have ever, or are ever likely to be perform'd by the Men of Gresham, and, That every Man whom they call a Virtuoso, must needs be a Sir Nicolas Gimcrack." (19) In a 1710 paper of The Tatler, Joseph Addison penned Gimcracks will, in which the virtuoso bequeaths butterflies, shells, a "female skeleton" and a "dried cockatrice" to his "dear wife." (20)
Beyond the legacy of satire, however, Shadwell's Gimcrack and his later incarnation as Centlivre's Valeria more suggestively alert us to a specific set of associations with sexual desire and the circulation of wealth implicitly bound up with popularization and practice of experimental philosophy. In them, the ideal of the modest witness is recalibrated into theatrical characterizations that bear out the social and ideological stakes of natural philosophy's claims to privilege, prestige, and authority. As we shall see, for Shadwell, experimentalism ushers in the simultaneous depletion of sexual opportunities and personal wealth. For Centlivre, the theater of experimental philosophy enables a new model of female agency and independence.
I. "I Study Insects"
Thomas Shadwell's main character in The Virtuoso, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, has a passion for experimental philosophy. He devotes much of his leisure time and conversation to it, and expends a substantial portion of his income on expensive specimens and scientific instruments, including "microscopes, telescopes, thermometers, barometers, pneumatic engines, strentrophonical tubes, and the like"; (21) his nieces even complain that he has spent two thousand pounds on microscopes. We first meet him in his study--the home was the primary site of experimental philosophy in the seventeenth century--where he is learning to swim. (22) Flailing around in imitation of a frog's movements and lying prone on his library desk, Gimcrack scoffs at the idea of practicing in water and argues that "I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practic. I seldom bring anything to use, 'tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate end" (2.2.84-86). Sir Formal Trifle, an adoring orator, quickly seconds these sentiments: "To study for use is base and mercenary" (2.2.89). Their proclamations, of course, beg the question of utility, which was a key source of contemporary criticism of natural philosophy, such that Mary Astell, when discussing the "Character of a Virtuoso" asks, "what Knowledge is it? What Discoveries do we owe to their Labours? It is only the Discovery of some few unheeded Varieties of Plants, Shells, or Insects, unheeded only because useless." (23) Giving an even fuller voice to the mode of skepticism Astell indicates, Shadwell's play is littered not merely with "unheeded only because useless" discoveries, but with ridiculous experiments and outrageous claims: Gimcrack spends ten shillings each on eggs he is duped into believing have hair on the them; he brags that he tamed a spider that knew it was named "Nick" (after him); he stocks a vault with bottles of air from around England, air that he boasts is of various weights; and he claims that rotten wood and putrid flesh produce light enough for reading, and that he read a Geneva Bible by a leg of pork. In all of these instances, Gimcrack is characterized as one whose desire for any kind of experiment blinds him to actual observable phenomena. Gimcracks statement that "Knowledge is my ultimate end" thus functions as a general principle that Shadwell consistently undercuts by the obviously erroneous quality of the virtuoso's observations.
The privileging of theory over praxis is central to the play's rendering of natural philosophy, and in this way, Shadwell's characterization of Gimcrack is in line with other early critics. In Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, argues that if experimental philosophers could "find out more beneficial arts," then they might invent new sources of food or improve architectural designs or provide any number of practical solutions to social problems, enabling "men [to] live in unity, peace and neighbourly friendship." (24) Cavendish reiterates this critique throughout the fictional companion to Observations, The Blazing World. In it, an empress is presented with a variety of microscopical images, including the telltale flea and louse, that are so horrifying "that they had almost put her into a swoon." (25) Upon recovering, the empress immediately expresses sympathy for the beggars afflicted with vermin and this moment of empathy produces questions that underscore Cavendish's views of experimentalism: "after the Emepress [sic] had seen the shapes of these monstrous Creatures, she desir'd to know whether their Microscopes could hinder their biting, or at least shew some means how to avoid them? To which they [the experimental philosophers] answered, That such Arts were mechanical and below that noble study of Microscopical observations." (26) The empress's queries, answered by types such as Shadwell's Gimcrack and Sir Formal Trifle, point to the paradoxically speculative nature of experimental philosophy, and indicate Cavendish's rejection of the divide between theory and praxis that these microscopists slavishly uphold. Experimental philosophy, from Cavendish's perspective, is flawed because of its failure to provide utilitarian application. (27)
While Shadwell's Gimcrack thus can be read as coming out of this skeptical and satiric tradition, it is more notable that his preference for experimentalism is perpetuated at the expense of social observations and wisdom. On the topic of his Grand Tour, Gimcrack is asked, "Did not you observe the wisdom, policies, and customs of that ingenuous people [the Italians]?" and answers, "Oh by no means! 'Tis below a virtuoso to trouble himself with men and manners. I study insects" (3.3.86-89). Men and manners do not concern him, and yet the net result of his rejection is that men and manners plague him. Thus the play spends a great deal of its energy indicating the various costs of Gimcracks penchant for experimentalism, and does so in explicitly sexual and financial terms.
Many of Shadwell's plays are concerned with uncontrolled female sexuality and desire, (28) and The Virtuoso is no different. Gimcracks own marriage plot leaves him with a wife (his second) known for her sexual promiscuity. His nieces, Clarinda and Miranda, mock Lady Gimcrack for her sexual experience and pretensions ("Thank Heav'n we have not had the age and experience of your ladyship" [2.1.259-60]), and Lady Gimcrack later has quick liaisons with their beaus, Bruce and Longville. But The Virtuoso is also an equal-opportunity critic, staging several interrelated plots about thwarted sexual relations, illicit amorous intrigues, and transgressive erotic secrets. Because Gimcrack refuses to allow any sort of marriage plot for his nieces, Bruce and Longville contrive to act as virtuosos themselves to gain an audience with Sir Nicolas and thus have the opportunity to court Clarinda and Miranda. Sir Formal Trifle, Gimcracks most loyal defender, and Sir Samuel Hearty, who wears a disguise to gain access to the household, also desire Gimcracks nieces and are peremptorily locked up in the vault together. Sir Formal's passion is quickly redirected when he feels (in the dark) Sir Samuel's "silken garments" (4.1.5), claiming that Sir Samuel has "the prettiest, softest, and [sic] dissolving hand I ever had the honor to imprint my kisses on. She has inflam'd me mightily" (4.1.19-21). When Sir Formal is discovered with "a lewd Creature" (4.3.115) (Sir Samuel in drag), Gimcrack protests that it is a "reproach to all virtuoso's" (4.3.116), though Gimcrack himself has a mistress (named Flirt) whom he earlier tried to pass off as a virtuosa. And the crotchety Uncle Snarl is exposed as having a sexual penchant for rods ever since the days he was a schoolboy at Westminster; he tells his mistress, "Do not spare they pains. I love castigation mightily" (3.2.71), and in the play's final act a bully rogue saucily asks Snarl, "Sir, do you very much delight in birch?" (5.4.153). No wonder, then, that when Gimcrack dispenses medical treatment to the locals, the majority of them suffer from syphilis. Most of the transactions between the play's characters are determined by their desire for sex, and Shadwell engineers the plots so that most desires are ridiculed or pilloried; only the marriages of the nieces, a comparatively minor event in the play and even haphazardly arranged, are socially legitimate forms of sexual desire.
However, rather than reduce Gimcracks experimentalism to a backdrop for a sexual farce, Shadwell utilizes the virtuoso's passion for natural philosophy as the mechanism through which his world crumbles. Midway through the play, caught up in the praise and admiration of Bruce and Longville (false though it is) and in sharp contrast to his initial repudiation of utility, Gimcrack begins to make great and far-fetched claims for the effects of various inventions. A "speaking trumpet" or a "stentrophonical tube" (5.2.43, 44) will render the need for numerous clergy redundant, for only one parson will be needed to preach to the entire country. With the clergy thus reduced in number, the monarchy may seize church lands; this same invention could eliminate the need for ambassadors (and their expense) as well. In the process of imagining incredible uses, Gimcrack threatens to make all sorts of people obsolete, replaced by technology. Gimcracks bragging begins to circulate and invites a particularly dangerous social response from the laboring classes: a mob of ribbon weavers--roused by Snarl--is outraged by Gimcracks claims about mechanical loom that will leave them without work. In hasty and frightened response to the threats of the crowd's attack, Gimcrack renounces the utility of experimental philosophy altogether and pleads, "Hear me, Gentlemen, I never invented an engine in my life. As Gad shall sa' me you do me wrong. I never invented so much as an engine to pare cream cheese with. We virtuosos never find out any thing of use, 'tis not our way" (5.3.76-79).
Although Shadwell may have been alluding to a 1675 uprising of silk weavers protesting the invention of an automatic loom, this scene only briefly entertains the question of labor unrest and social upheaval in the face of scientific advancement. (29) The threatened attack instead precipitates the play's more narrow focus on the personal repercussions of experimental philosophy, namely Sir Nicholas's sexual and financial abandonment. Earlier in the play, the Gimcracks find themselves in a scene of mutual discovery--Sir Nicholas with Flirt and Lady Gimcrack with Hazard--and they reach a stalemate of accusation, each spouse pretending to be injured by the other's sexual infidelity, while through asides the audience learns that Flirt and Hazard have been having a love affair as well. Once the amatory concerns and connections of the nieces are cleared up (they are paired off with Bruce and Longville), the play makes way for a final showdown between Sir Nicholas and Lady Gimcrack, with the virtuoso swearing to his wife that he'll be "reveng'd on all your lewdness" (5.6.1) and Lady Grimcrack promising the same. Gimcrack attempts to replace his wife with Flirt ("To you [Flirt] I give possession of all here, Madam. [To Lady Gimcrack] Out of my doors" [5.6.7-8]), but his rejection has no efficacy: Lady Gimcrack announces that she is financially independent with "a settlement for separate maintenance" (5.6.11) and that she has proof of his criminal conversation. Indeed, with her living secured, Lady Gimcrack can thus take the upper hand in their battle: she has broken into his closet to discover correspondence "from your several whores" (5.6.3) and threatens to "publish your Letters into bargain and send 'em to Gresham College" (5.6.16-17). Faced with such exposure--to be revealed as a lewd virtuoso "will be worse than all the miseries can happen to m," he laments (5.6.19-20)--Sir Nicolas, with little bargaining power of his own, both offers and asks for forgiveness: without missing a beat, he says, "Hold, madam, I have thought on't; and to show how much I can be a philosopher, I am content it should be drawn battle betwixt us. Do you forgive, and you shall find that I can do so too" (5.6.20-23). He preposterously offers a truce of the vanquished.
Abject as he actually is at that moment, the play swiftly compounds his humiliation in specifically financial terms. Immediately following his offer of reconciliation to Lady Gimcrack, the Steward enters to announce that "several engineers, glassmakers, and other people you have dealt with for experiments" have seized "all your estate in the country" (5.6.27-29). Grasping for something to save him, Gimcrack turns again to Lady Gimcrack, now looking at her as a source of income, and repeats his promise to forgive her. Lady Gimcrack's rejection of his now fiscally worthless offer is swift: "No, Sir, I thank you; my settlement is without incumbrance" (5.6.36). And Snarl--Gimcrack's uncle--turns out to have just married his mistress Figgup, thus in practicality ensuring that Gimcrack will not inherit Snarl's estate. Gimcracks final economic alternative resides in his nieces, and so he proposes that they lend him money. Clearly having already sensed a bad money manager (among his other flaws) in their uncle, both Miranda and Clarinda defer to their new guardians who are in control of their fortunes (Bruce and Longvile, respectively). And with his monetary future doomed, Sir Nicolas tries to comfort himself by reflecting that he still has Flirt: "I have something left yet; and here's one loves me, she has told me so a thousand times," he muses (5.6.126-27). But Flirt warns him: "Sir, trust not to that; for women of my profession love men but as far as their money goes" (5.6.128-29). Thus is Sir Nicolas Gimcrack "deserted by all" (5.6.130), with only his experimental philosophy to pleasure and support him. The modesty of Gimcracks reformation is this: Sir Nicolas vows that now he must devote himself to practical study--that experimental philosophy must be for utility, rather than merely for speculation and its associated pleasures: "Well, now 'tis time to study for use: I will presently find out the philosopher's stone; I had like to have gotten it last year, but that I wanted May-dew, being a dry season" (5.6.130-32). Of course, the possibility that an impoverished and abandoned Gimcrack will thrive, even with his new drive for practicality, is limited, to say the least.
The sources of the play's critique are various. In terms of experimental philosophy, Gimcracks enthusiasm for fancy and speculation are absurd in the face of common sense. Although experiments to him are always grounded in the material world and are not, in essence, instances of magical thinking, divine intervention, or astounding miracles, they are presented to the audience and to majority of the characters in the play as outlandish and fundamentally unbelievable. Missing from Gimcracks practice is the authenticating process of selection and confirmation espoused by Robert Boyle and the other leaders of the Royal Society, as well as any sense of the modest witness. In the world of the Royal Society, experiments were considered a performance that was subject to collective verification through witnessing and adjudication. In the world of The Virtuoso, this authorizing structure is reduced to a parodic performance in the scenes where Bruce and Longville pretend to agree with Gimcrack only as a way to gain access to Clarinda and Miranda, and Gimcrack sees himself--his reputation, status, and even value--in all of his experiments. The Virtuoso implies that the popularization of experimental philosophy encouraged such buffoonish and self-interested behavior.
Most remarkably, Shadwell's characterization of the virtuoso insists that experimentalism has sexual and financial implications. Gimcracks science blinds him to the sexual activities and proclivities of those around him and thus he is like the father in the eighteenth-century erotic poem, "The Microscope" who is prone to be distracted by the seductions of microscopy (he is "wont to pore / On Flies and Maggots by the Hour") such that his daughters decide to use the microscope to perform a little experiment on their sleeping brother, "For Lechery and Learning sake." (30) But The Virtuoso does not merely make Gimcrack a blinded fool: instead, Shadwell's play adds to Gimcracks faults by exposing him as sexually voracious, often using experimentalism as an excuse for sex. When Lady Gimcrack easily finds evidence that Gimcrack himself is a "lewd Virtuoso" this revelation promises to devastate his reputation as a natural philosopher. The financial expense of experimental science is equally as threatening and precipitates Gimcracks final isolation at the end of the play. Experimental philosophy is a non-generative activity, draining the estate's finances and ruining Gimcracks sexual opportunities. Thus the play concludes with Gimcrack financially depleted and sexually abandoned. All he learns--and this is a limited and parodic reformation--is that he needs experimental philosophy to produce for him, to effect tangible results. The possibility of Gimcrack being productive, however, is unlikely at best.
When Captain Hearty--her father's chosen suitor--and Valeria meet in act 2 in The Basset-Table, they immediately speak at cross purposes: he is looking to "Voyage towards the Cape of Matrimony" and she wants conversation with men "only to improve and cultivate the Notions of my Mind." (31) They also speak through their particular prejudices, the navy and experimental philosophy. To Captain Hearty, Valeria is a "tight little Frigate"; to Valeria, Captain Hearty, because of his experience traveling, is a potential source of new scientific information (2, p. 219). Their exchange immediately confirms that they are an unsuitable match, and moments later, Captain Hearty explains that he has no interest in Valeria: "The philosophical Gimcrack I don't value of a Cockle-Shell" (2, p. 222). (32) In a phrase, he deploys his emphatically nautical rhetorical register ("cockleshell") and, more significantly, explicitly alludes to Shadwell's character. Given the complex figuration of experimental philosophy, sex, and wealth in Shadwell's The Virtuoso, Centlivre's allusion to Gimcrack is more complicated than a mere satire. The reading I offered of The Virtuoso requires that we consider Valeria's status as a Gimcrack not only through the epistemological and social stakes of natural philosophy--she is devoted to her experiments, to the exclusion of social knowledge--but also in terms of the play's larger interrogation of sexual and financial values.
By the time of The Basset-Table, thirty years after The Virtuoso, scientific instruments had fully entered the London marketplace and made experimental philosophy available to an even greater number of amateurs and, to some, a fad for the urban beau monde. (33) Centlivre's play entertains the possibility that Valeria's devotion to natural philosophy is itself merely a fashion. Through the satiric voices of her cousin, Lady Reveller, and her cousin's maid, Alpiew, Valeria's preoccupations are presented as the frivolous activity of modern young women in London, in short "Whimsies" (2, p. 217). When Sir Richard introduces his daughter as a"Girl of sober Education"--that is, immune to the seductions of urban life--Alpiew counters that Valeria's practice of experimental philosophy is, in fact, a "greater Foil[y]" than "Gaming, Parks or Plays" (2, p. 219) and that "Philosophy suits our Sex, as Jack-Boots would do" (2, p. 217). To tease Valeria, Lady Reveller suggests that her cousin "bestow [her] Fortune in founding a College for the Study of Philosophy, where none but Women should be admitted; and to immortalize [her] name, they should be called Valerians, ha, ha, ha" (2, p. 218). Though uttered in jest, the term "Valerians" suggests a model of educated, self-determined young women, not too distant from the learned ladies envisaged by Mary Astell in the 1690s.
From Valeria's perspective, experimental philosophy is an opportunity to redefine what a fashionable life might be. In this spirit, Valeria transforms her dressing room into a domestic laboratory where she uses her prized microscope to perform experiments on various specimens, including a "huge Flesh Fly" (a present from her beau, Mr. Lovely) and a fish that she begins to dissect under the microscope (2, p. 217; 3, p. 227). To acquire suitable specimens for her microscopical experiments, Valeria sends her servants out for vermin and, more notably, converts normally fashionable accoutrements into gross bodily matter. She reports with pride that she has "dissected [her] Dove" and tries to trade a piece of jewelry for her cousin's "Italian Greyhound," which she would also like to dissect (2, p. 218). Valeria consistently transforms the signs of female fashionability and sophistication into objects for experimental philosophy. In a scene that sharpens the difference between Valeria as a virtuosa and her cousin, the fashionable Lady Reveller, as a social satirist, the cousins discuss the existence of gall:
Valeria: ... Cousin, will you believe there's any Thing without Gall.
Lady Reveller: I am satisfy'd I have one, when I lose at play, or see a
Lady address'd when I am by; and 'tis equal to me, whether the rest of the Creation have or not.
Valeria: Well, but I'll convince you then; I have dissected my Dove--and positively I think the vulgar Notion true, for I could find none. (2, p. 218)
Their exchange illuminates the cousins' rhetorical--and intellectual-differences, namely Valeria's tendency toward literalization and Lady Reveller's playful, and figurative, repartee. Valeria's understanding of gall is as a physical condition, bile secreted by the liver, while Lady Reveller is interested in its figurative connotation as something bitter, virulent, or rancorous. (34) Lady Reveller is the wit of the play, transforming Valeria's interest in gall into an occasion for raillery, but Valeria remains intent on philosophical discovery and determination, developing opinions based on her personal, pseudo-scientific observations. In this way, Valeria appears to be a direct descendent of Shadwell's Gimcrack, unconcerned with men and manners.
Centlivre deviates from Shadwell's model, however, by using experimentalism as Valeria's guiding principle in all matters; it is not merely a cover for illicit sex and wasteful consumerism. Just as Valeria's devotion to experimental philosophy informs her daily activities and opinions, it likewise determines her amorous connections. (35) Midway through the play, we see that Valeria is enmeshed in a courtship with one Mr. Lovely. From Valeria's point of view, Mr. Lovely is a natural philosophy enthusiast himself; he sends her specimens as presents and he attends to her while she is busy with experiments. Thus she greets him in her dressing room at the beginning of act 3 with an invitation to peer into her microscope: "O Mr. Lovely! come, come here, look through this Glass, and see how the Blood circulates in the Tail of this Fish" (3, p. 227). To Valeria, her dressing room is not a site of theatricality, artifice, or illicit sexuality, as I have argued elsewhere was common in the early eighteenth century. Instead, Valeria's dressing-room laboratory is a space more deeply associated with women's education, autonomy, and possible independence, a transformation enacted here through the practice of experimental philosophy. (36)
To understand more fully the significance of Valeria's dedication to experimentalism, we ought to recall that hers is a subplot in a play devoted to thinking through the effects of women's inclinations. The main plot concerns Lady Reveller's basset-table, a place where fortunes and reputations are raised and dashed with a turn of the cards. Various servants are given the play's opening lines to complain about being on duty throughout the long nights of gaming at Lady Reveller's, and her uncle (Valeria's father) Sir Richard is angered by "the vast concourse of People" who traipse in and out of the house like "a Parade for Men of all Ranks, from the Duke to the Fidler" (1, p. 205). As Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace reminds us, gambling was tied to aristocratic self-display and to the possibility that gamblers were merely performing that identity. Moreover, as a vehicle for the unpredictable transfer of wealth, the gaming table threatened to undo traditional social hierarchies because participants, such as the underclass or women, could acquire power through this newfound, if "irrationally" acquired, wealth. (37) Gambling, in The Basset-Table, is explicitly tied to female agency in the opening act when Lady Reveller rebuffs Sir Richard: "Lookye, Uncle, do what you can, I'm resolv'd to follow my own Inclinations" (1, p. 206).
Therefore, read in relation to the play's main gambling plot, with its performative display of rank and power, irrational circulation of wealth, and potential to upend social hierarchies, Valeria's practice of experimental philosophy should also be considered a form of play and self-fashioning, and a means for Valeria to articulate and to manage her self-interest and value. While others have suggested that scientific practice was mobilized in the early eighteenth century to subordinate women, it is especially noteworthy that Valeria's practice of experimental philosophy engenders a mode of resistance and self-determination. (38) Empiricism, as Richard Kroll argues in an earlier dramatic context, can function "as a way of thinking, as a way of behaving ... [that] could likewise prove subversive." (39) Therefore, when Lovely proposes that they elope, Valeria refuses and explains that her angry father will destroy her laboratory: "What," she asks, "and leave my Microscope, and all my Things for my Father to break in Pieces?" (3, p. 228). As the play makes clear, her refusal is to the point. Centlivre not only displaces paternalistic fury from the daughter's body onto her belongings, and thus presents the specter of the patriarch's tyrannical authority (only to undermine it later, when her father is duped to accept Mr. Lovely), but also opens up a space for Valeria herself to insist upon her worth apart from the marriage market. By transforming her dressing room into a laboratory and her luxury goods into specimens, and by valuing her "Microscope, and all [her] Things" more than an elopement with Mr. Lovely, Valeria momentarily at least holds on to her self-fashioning as a virtuosa devoted to--and safeguarded by--her own theater of experimental philosophy. In many ways, then, Valeria's characterization can be viewed as proto-feminist. (40) Historically, too, it is notable that Centlivre's characterization of Valeria anticipates (by several decades) the mid century advocacy of experimental philosophy for women. For example, Eliza Haywood's The Female Spectator No. 17 recounts a young woman who performs microscopical experiments in the garden and parlor, to great social and intellectual effect, and the instrument maker, Benjamin Martin, published a two-volume guidebook, The Young Gentleman and Lady's Philosophy (1759-63), that features a brother and sister who perform (and explain) a variety of scientific experiments at home.
However, Centlivre's endorsement of the virtuosa in The Basset-Table is uneven, seemingly tolerant but not unequivocal. While Valeria is not humiliated and exposed as Gimcrack is by the end of The Virtuoso, she is not fully successful within the play. In this way, Valeria is an example of what Laura J. Rosenthal calls Centlivre's "feminist individualism" which introduces the possibility of female agency only to explore its contradictions. (41) The limit of Valeria's agency is manifest first in the contrast between Valeria and Mr. Lovely and their competing interpretations of female privacy and agency. In Mr. Lovely, Valeria believes that she has a philosopher companion, but his response to her invitation to look at the blood circulating in the fishtail points to the erotic, rather than philosophical, nature of his attentions: "Wonderful! but it circulates prettier in this fair Neck" he counters (3, p. 227). Valeria's dressing room to Lovely is a place for sexual play and indulgence, a figure for female sexuality; it is not the female laboratory that Valeria envisages. The play makes clear that Mr. Lovely is merely indulging Valeria's fancy for experimentalism as he would a tedious hobby. After Valeria announces that she has discovered a tapeworm in a dog's cadaver, he mutters, "I wish they be not got into thy Brain" and then quickly flatters her, "Oh you charm me with these Discoveries" (3, p. 227). One need only recall Mr. Lovely's opening conversation with his friends, in which he describes standing by during her experiments and making fun of them behind her back. Even though he goes so far as to imitate his own, false admiration of her passion for experimental philosophy, Lovely, in fact, believes that he "deserve[s] her by mere dint of Patience" (1, p. 210). Sir James Courtly, who later stages a fake attack on Lady Reveller, suggests a powerful motivation for Lovely's attention: wealth. Valeria is worth twenty thousand pounds to her future husband and Lovely--a soldier--needs to raise his own fortune. Valeria remains blind to Lovely's dissembling and, when he presses her about his amatory rival, Captain Hearty, she reassures him of her love and loyalty (3, pp. 227-28); the play suggests that if Valeria does not see that Lovely misleads her, then it is less an indictment of her than of him. The play also indicates that the virtuosa not only requires wealth, but is also a source of it.
While Valeria's turn to experimental philosophy allows her to follow her own inclinations, even if problematically and naively, her attempts at self-determination are more sharply delimited by the pressure of her father's will. Sir Richard dreams of English colonial expansion and values his daughter exclusively in those terms: she is quite literally reproductive material for the first empire. In this way, The Basset-Table conjoins a desire for empire with the particularly domestic concern of a daughter's marriage, forging a relationship between colonial and national concerns that shapes many plays of the period. (42) He first plans to marry Valeria to Captain Hearty, an ill-suited coupling that I describe above. When approached by the fictitious "Captain Match" (Valeria's beloved, Mr. Lovely, in disguise), Sir Richard is delighted by the idea that his daughter will marry a sailor bound to travel and who, like Sir Richard himself, is known to hate the French. The prospect of an alliance between Valeria and "Captain Match" thus warms Sir Richard's jingoistic, patriarchal heart. To him, Valeria is a vehicle for her father's descendants who will help to found a global Britannia and he muses that his grandsons (and they will be grandsons) will be "Heroes of my Nation.--Boys, all Boys,--and all Sailors. / They shall the Pride of France and Spain pull down, / And add their Indies to our English Crown" (4, p. 241). Sir Richard's interest is in producing a militaristic legacy to enlarge the dominion of the nascent British Empire, with little care for his daughter's thoughts, much less her future husband's fortune; for him, the goal is to recuperate the patriarchal loss that a daughter institutes in the newly capitalistic economy of the eighteenth century, (43) and he views that compensation in imperialistic terms.
If we read The Basset- Table solely through characterization, then, it appears that Valeria's experimental philosophy offers only a temporary and ultimately unsuccessful means through which she pursues her sexual and intellectual desires. Indeed, Sir Richard increases the pressure on Valeria to the point of forcing her into marriage. But the question of Centlivre's view of experimental philosophy is not exclusively evident in the characterization of Valeria and requires that we turn to the play's plot, precisely the attribute that won Centlivre praise from her contemporary critics, most notably Richard Steele in The Tatler. (44) Some scholars have encouraged us to reconsider what plot means in Centlivre's plays, suggesting that Centlivre's plots reveal her views of society and are also a means to improve social relations. (45) More recently, John O'Brien has identified plot in Centlivre's plays as a site of ideological critique and reformulation, "imagining how the bold strokes of theatrical action might render the plots of patriarchy obsolete." (46) In The Basset- Table Centlivre's plotting ensures that Valeria's inclination for experimental philosophy and for Lovely are maintained (even if they are at odds with one another), and there is every expectation that Valeria will continue her experiments while married. Centlivre's plotting also stymies Sir Richard's attempts to throw his fortune and his daughter's future reproduction into the mapping of the empire. To the end, The Basset-Table specifically locates Valeria's sense of independence in experimental philosophy, for this not only allows her to thwart the conventions of female sociability and fashion, but also gives her the intellectual means of valuing herself outside of the marriage market. With the ruse to trick Sir Richard almost complete--"Captain Match" is all along Lovely, though Valeria does not realize this--Valeria refuses her assent, citing the stoic Epictetus as her model. Sir Richard scoffs at her response in revealing terms:
Ay, you and your Will may philosophize as long as you please,--Mistress,--but your Body shall be taught another Doctrine,--it shall so,--Your Mind,--and your Soul quotha! Why, what a Pox has my Estate to do with them? Ha? 'Tis the Flesh Housewife, that must raise Heirs,--and Supporters of my Name;--and since I knew the getting of the Estate, 'tis fit I shou'd dispose of it,--and therefore no more Excuses, this is your Husband do you see,--take my Word for it. (4, pp. 240-41)
In this response, the playwright gives full voice to the father's blustery--and of course unsuccessful--attempt to define Valeria solely as "the Flesh Housewife." At the precise moment that he insists upon his daughter's value only to extend the patriarchal line, Sir Richard is being duped into condoning the spouse of her choice, a simultaneity that indicates the sharpness of Centlivre's critique. The plot of The Basset-Table punishes the jingoistic, patriarchal father for reducing his daughter to a sexual commodity. Therefore, the final circumvention of Sir Richard's narrow-minded reading of his daughter's value indicates the extent to which The Basset-Table, even if unevenly, uses experimental philosophy to redefine what it means to be a young woman in London, recuperating the virtuosa from the web of satire and anticipating the mid-century education movement that would come to celebrate her agency and intellectual independence.
Taken together, The Virtuoso and The Basset-Table can be said to reflect the larger trend of the effeminization of popular science in the eighteenth century. But their particular relevance is in how they present experimental philosophy within the context of domestic relations--especially pertaining to sex and wealth--and likewise imagine how experimental philosophy fosters acts that either enhance or diminish one's status and hopes for success. What becomes apparent is that the figure of Gimcrack, so often a throw-away allusion in critical accounts to signify a narrowly satiric response to the Royal Society and its experimental programs, more accurately registers the value systems embedded in the practice of experimental philosophy. In fraught tension with the virtuoso, the Royal Society's theory of the modest witness envisages a category of identity that works to render its privileges both invisible and paramount, a fantasy of self-control, gentility, and prestige. This ideal attempts to erase what we have seen as the period's persistent association among the practice of experimental philosophy, sexual regimes, and the circulation of wealth, a linkage that shapes the characterization of the virtuoso. Shadwell's prescient drama, The Virtuoso, renders those associations embarrassingly visible, while likewise imagining the potential for whole-scale loss endemic to hopes for technological advancement; the original Sir Nicholas Gimcrack is humiliated not by the ridiculousness of his experiments, but by a series of sexual and financial losses. Centlivre, building on Shadwelrs social critique, simultaneously exposes these institutional privileges and reconfigures them in the service of feminine self-determination. In so doing, The Basset-Table ultimately imagines and safeguards a model of agency available through the practice of experimental philosophy, in which the virtuosa does not embody a privileged and self-effacing objectivity, but necessarily and powerfully speaks for herself.
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(1) Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 59.
(2) Shapin and Schaffer elaborate: "The space where these machines worked--the nascent laboratory--was to be a public space, but a restricted public space, as critics like Hobbes were soon to point out." Additionally, "In these respects, the experimental laboratory was a better space in which to generate authentic knowledge than the space outside it in which simple observations of nature could be made" (Leviathan, 39).
(3) That is, "the literary display of a certain sort of morality was a technique in the making of matters of fact. A man whose narratives could be credited as mirrors of reality was a modest man; his reports ought to make that modesty visible" (Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan, 65).
(4) Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second Millennium.FemaleMan[c]_Meets OncoMouse[TM]: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 23-30.
(5) Haraway, Modest_Witness, 25.
(6) Walter E. Houghton, Jr., "The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth Century: Part I," Journal of the History of Ideas 3 (1942): 66, 71-72.
(7) Houghton, "The English Virtuoso: Part I," 53.
(8) Walter E. Houghton, Jr., "The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth Century: Part II," Journal of the History of Ideas 3 (1942): 204, 211. Houghton, "The English Virtuoso: Part I" 63. Mary Astell wryly observes that "the Knowledge, they boast so much of, is no more than a Register of their Names, and Marks of Distinction only" (Mary Astell, An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex [London, 1696], 103).
(9) OED and David Walton, "Copernicus or Cheesecake? Faultlines and Unjust Des(s)erts: Notes towards the Cultural Significance of the Virtuosa," Cuardernos de Filogia Inglesa 9, no. 2 (2001): 48.
(10) Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), xxiv-xxv.
(11) Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Science and Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956), 22; and Gerald Dennis Meyer, The Scientific Lady in England, 1650-1760: An Account of Her Rise, with Emphasis on the Major Roles of the Telescope and Microscope (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955), 37.
(12) The English version of Moliere's Femmes Savantes (1672), Wright's The Female Vertuoso (1693), features one Lady Meanwell and her daughter, Lovewit. These virtuosas are thoroughly satirized, much like Gimcrack and unlike Valeria.
(13) Haraway, Modest_Witness, 29.
(14) Ellen Tan Drake, Restless Genius: Robert Hooke and His Earthly Thoughts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 16-23.
(15) Marie Boas Hall, Promoting Experimental Learning: Experiment and the Royal Society, 1660-1727 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 3, 22.
(16) The Diary of Robert Hooke, ed. Henry W. Robinson and Walter Adams (London: Taylor & Francis, 1935), 235.
(17) Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 1-15.
(18) Nicolson, Science and Imagination, 113, 142; Claude Lloyd, "Shadwell and the Virtuosi," PMLA 44 (1929): 472-94; and Joseph M. Glide, "Shadwell and the Royal Society: Satire in The Virtuoso," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 10 (1970): 469-90.
(19) William Wotton, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (London, 1697), 418.
(20) Joseph Addison, The Tatler 216 (26 August 1710).
(21) Thomas Shadwell, The Virtuoso, ed. Marjorie Hope Nicolson and David Stuart Rodes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 2.2.298-300. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text.
(22) Stephen Shapin, "The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-Century England," Isis 79 (1988): 373-404.
(23) Astell, 103.
(24) Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, ed. Eileen O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 51-52.
(25) Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, in Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson (Ontario: Broadview, 2000), 173.
(26) Cavendish, Blazing World, 173-74.
(27) Ann Battigelli, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 93-94.
(28) Jean I. Marsden, "Ideology, Sex, and Satire: The Case of Thomas Shadwell," in Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, ed. James E. Gill (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 47-48.
(29) Judith B. Slagle, "'A Great Rabble of People': The Ribbon-Weavers in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso," Notes & Queries 36 (1989): 353-54.
(30) "The Microscope," in Female Inconstancy Display'd in three Diverting Histories ... To which is added, Several Diverting Tales and Merry Jokes (London, 1732), 41-43.
(31) Susanna Centlivre, The Basset-Table, in The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, 3 vols., facsimile reprint (New York: AMS, 1968), vol. 1, act 2, p. 220. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text.
(32) According to the OED, "cockleshell" refers to a single-valve shell. Its third and fourth definitions are suggestive: "3. A small frail boat or vessel" and "4. Shallowness, unsteadiness. Obs." (The fourth definition includes a quotation from Shaftesbury's Characteristics : "III. 160 We shall find the ridicule rising full as strongly against the professors of the higher as the lower kind. Cockleshell abounds with each.")
(33) For example, in his 1691/92 Cutlerian Lecture to the Royal Society, Hooke lamented that microscopes were used only for "Diversion and Pastime" (Robert Hooke, "Discourse Concerning Telescopes and Microscopes," in Philosophical Experiments and Observations , ed. W. Derham, facsimile reprint [London: Cass, 1967], 261).
(34) These are the OED's first and second definitions, respectively.
(35) This operates on a more practical level, too. When Valeria hides Lovely under a tub and tells her father a "Bear's young Cub that I have brought for Dissection" is inside, Valeria's science even helps her, albeit briefly, safeguard her amatory plot (3, p. 228).
(36) Tita Chico, Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2005), 25-45. Valeria's view of her dressing room is in contrast, too, to that offered in The Humours of Oxford (1726). The character "Lady Science" is told to leave the gentleman's study (the site of experimentation) and stay in her dressing room.
(37) Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace, "A Modest Defense of Gaming Women," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 31 (2002): 21-39.
(38) Daryl Ogden, The Language of the Eyes: Science, Sexuality, and Female Vision in English Literature and Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 32-49.
(39) Richard Kroll, "Instituting Empiricism: Hobbes's Levianthan and Dryden's Marriage a la Mode," in Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 41.
(40) Katharine M. Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 100; Patsy S. Fowler, "Rejecting the Status Quo: The Attempts of Mary Pix and Susanna Centlivre to Reform Society's Patriarchal Attitudes," Restoration and 18th-Century Theatre Research 11, no. 2 (1996): 52; and Eleanor Mattes, "The 'Female Virtuoso' in Early Eighteenth-Century English Drama," Women and Literature 3, no. 2 (1975): 8.
(41) Laura J. Rosenthal, Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 206.
(42) For a discussion of this relationship between empire and the domestic in the period's drama, see Bridget Orr, Empire on the English Stage, 1660-1714 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1-27.
(43) Ruth Perry, Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 19-20.
(44) Richard Steele, The Tatler 19 (24 May 1709).
(45) Douglas R. Butler, "Plot and Politics in Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife," in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820, ed. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991), 362, 370.
(46) John O'Brien, "Busy Bodies: The Plots of Susanna Centlivre," in Eighteenth-Century Genre and Culture: Serious Reflections on Occasional Forms; Essays in Honor of J. Paul Hunter, ed. Dennis Todd and Cynthia Wall (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001), 166.…
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Publication information: Article title: Gimcracks Legacy: Sex, Wealth, and the Theater of Experimental Philosophy. Contributors: Chico, Tita - Author. Journal title: Comparative Drama. Volume: 42. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2008. Page number: 29+. © 2009 www.wmich.edu/compdr. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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