Doing the Usual Things: Gender, Race, and Inwardness in Harley Granville Barker's the Marrying of Ann Leete and the Secret Life
Wixson, Christopher, Comparative Drama
For the Greeks, the hidden life demanded invisible ink. They wrote an ordinary letter and in between the lines, set out another letter written in milk. The document looked innocent enough until one who knew better sprinkled coal-dust over it. What the letter had been no longer mattered; what mattered was the life flaring up undetected ... till now.
--Jeanette Winterson (1)
Biographer and scholar Eric Salmon, editing a letter written by Harley Granville Barker, fusses over what he calls a mysterious "momentary aberration, or even a slip of the pen" on the playwright's part. In a letter to his second wife Helen Huntingdon, Barker describes a weak production of Shakespeare's King Lear he attended the previous night, marveling that the power of the "Cordelia-Lear waking scene" is able to shine through the "mistakes and shortcomings" and "sheer bungling and misapprehension" of the players. He quotes to Huntingdon two lines from the scene between Lear and his daughter: "'But as I am a man I do believe this lady to be my child Cordelia'; 'And so I am--I am?'" (2) Salmon finds Barker's "very curious" rendition of Cordelia's response "worrying" because it includes a final question mark that does not exist in the First Folio or in any extant version of Shakespeare's play: "Even allowing for the fact that he was (presumably) quoting from memory, it is hard to imagine how the question mark got there or what Barker intended to imply, either about the speaking of the line or about the character of Cordelia. It does not appear in any standard text of the play, and Barker himself makes no comment on the normal reading of the line in his own Preface to the play, published in 1927" (327). Barker transforms Cordelia's reassuring, repetitive utterance in the original ("And so I am; I am") into a more ambivalent confirmation of her identity ("And so I am--I am?"). (3) Barker's error has Cordelia both confirming and challenging the identity given to her by her father. The question mark changes the second "I am" into an interrogative expression of doubt that interpolates the 'T' of the first half of the line as stranger, as Other, transforming the exchange into a sublime moment of fractured identity for Cordelia.
Viewed more broadly, this apparent slip has profound symbolic resonance in relation to Barker's own plays, especially his representations of women. Indeed, his canon is filled with female characters that suffer within a male-dominated culture, relegated to roles as male redeemers, caretakers, and mere repositories for Victorian middle-class values. (4) For the most part, such characters, forced to capitulate to an oppressive social imperative for women, are treated sympathetically. While he provides very few who are successful in refusing the old poses in favor of more empowering ones, a handful of Barker's female characters struggle to gain, retain, and be recognized for their autonomy as they negotiate the transition between the Victorian and the Modern, searching for some kind of stable foundation for self-assertion and fulfillment. Ann Leete, in The Marrying of Ann Leete (1899), and Joan Westbury, in The Secret Life (1923), are resistant, active, and dynamic and so initially stand out among so many characters cast as mere patriarchal casualties.
Bookending Barker's twenty-year career in the theater, Leete takes place in a pre-Victorian world marked by the collision of domestic issues of manners with revolutionary economic and social change while The Secret Life depicts the empire on the verge of collapse, the last gasp of Victorian ideals. Despite their differences, these two plays among his others stand out in squarely addressing the problems of female subjectivity. (5) Like Barker's Cordelia, Ann and Joan possess a double-consciousness, and their Otherness is unusually expressed in conjunction with images of racial oppression, a paratactic juxtaposition that is unexpected and tenuous in the early play but which solidifies in the later one into a more complex critique of colonialist ideology. Indeed, Joan comes to stand not only for women under patriarchy but for the nation itself, hollowed out by the "absent spaces" produced by the war and decades of aggressive imperialism. Taken in tandem, the two plays become a forward-thinking political meditation that anticipates and calls for new models of cultural organization. (6)
As its title indicates, the plot of The Marrying of Ann Leete turns upon the marital exploits of youngest daughter Ann Leete. Patriarch Carnaby Leete used the marriage of his first daughter, Sarah, to align himself politically with the then powerful Whigs. As the play opens, both that marriage and the party have crumbled. Sarah has had an affair and is informed of the dictates of the separation by Mr. Tetgeen, her husband's representative. (7) As the agreement is read, Sarah reels at her imposed role as "a bad woman ... an idle woman!" even as she has "tried to do so much that lay to [her] hands without ever questioning." (8) Leete scrambles to marry his second daughter, Ann, to John Carp in order to secure a position with the emerging Tory leadership as Ann increasingly becomes aware of her sister's unhappiness and realizes she too will be "the instrument of political destiny" (29) in facilitating her father's defection from the Whigs and cementing his affiliation with the Tories.
At the opening of the play, Ann understands herself as "nothing ... nobody ... [only] part of her family," (41) a blank to be filled in by her father, as Cordelia is by Lear. The play begins with Ann screaming as she is unexpectedly kissed in the darkness, a moment that awakens her sensual desire and suggests to her that there may be more to her identity than merely being her father's pawn. (9) Throughout the play, she grows stronger in her desire to live according to this new sense of herself, creating friction as it clashes with her status as an object within a transactive marital economy. Although Ann initially seems resigned to go through with the arranged marriage, she unexpectedly proposes to and marries the estate gardener, John Abud, rejecting her father's world characterized by unnatural female submission, marital unhappiness, and emotional hypocrisy. Her choice recalls a similar decision made by her brother George who disgraced his father by marrying Dolly, the daughter of a local farmer. However, embracing the "natural" and disavowing rank and privilege have more serious consequences for a woman than for a man. George retains his Markswayde privileges and his rank while Dolly is not received by his social peers and Ann will be forced to relinquish everything when she marries down. (10) Despite the costs, Ann believes that she can create a reality within which her inner self can make the voyage out and within which she can fulfill her ideals of integrity and eugenic productivity.
Ann's decision to marry the gardener and its symbolic resonance have all the earmarks of a view of nature as regenerative and redemptive and anticipates the Modernist fetishization of the primitive and the pagan. Taking seriously her feeling that "a woman's profession is marriage," (30) Ann, by marrying, believes she has taken a proto-Lawrentian leap of faith away from the fallen world into a more authentic mode of being, aligned with Nature and alive with Edenic promise. In the Markswayde garden, Abud, endowed with a kind of vegetable magnetism, exhibits qualities of gentleness and humility. Yet Barker is careful not to represent Ann's decision as a simplistic, soft-core class fantasy in which desire transcends the politics of culture. Refusing to sentimentalize their attachment and "play such games at love", Ann wants to "understand [their union] as a simple thing" and, in response to Abud's sexual advances, she redefines the way she wants him to view her: "Think of me ... not as a wife ... but as a mother of your children" (90). Barker's portrayal of Ann is part of a trend among many of the "New Drama" playwrights who feel that "the liberation of the woman as an independent agent is closely linked to her willingness to bear children. Like Shaw, [Barker] somewhat ambiguously links the 'new woman', an independent self-sufficient being, with the concept of procreation." (11) Many female characters in such plays have an ambivalent status, drawn by male playwrights as simultaneously repudiating traditional female roles yet embracing their maternal function in the cultivation of what Shaw calls the life force. Designating her body not as a sexual commodity but as a garden--as productive space--Ann attempts to gain symbolic control of her body, echoing a dominant strand of emergent feminist fin de siecle discourse. (12)
The world of the play taints this revivifying power of reproduction by conceptualizing it purely in socioeconomic terms. Sarah, in act 2, points out that "babyhood in the abstract ... is beautiful" (31) but the reality of siring offspring is bluntly articulated by Carnaby, who sees that "the begetting [of his son George] was a waste of time" (57) due to his disappointing marriage. Early on, George advises Abud that he "must marry ... some decent woman; we want gardeners" (50). The implication of his statement is that marrying for love is a privilege of the wealthy, and that the lower orders must marry in order to produce a steady supply of labor. George's working-class wife seems to personify such perceptions of maternity. Offstage for much of the play due to her pregnancy, Dolly appears in act 4 as …
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Publication information: Article title: Doing the Usual Things: Gender, Race, and Inwardness in Harley Granville Barker's the Marrying of Ann Leete and the Secret Life. Contributors: Wixson, Christopher - Author. Journal title: Comparative Drama. Volume: 43. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2009. Page number: 497+. © 2009 www.wmich.edu/compdr. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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