Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Joanna Baillie's Reflections on the Passions: The "Introductory Discourse" and the Properties of Authorship

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Joanna Baillie's Reflections on the Passions: The "Introductory Discourse" and the Properties of Authorship

Article excerpt

IN 1800, SARAH SIDDONS PLAYED THE FEMALE LEAD, LADY JANE, IN JOANNA Baillie's new play, DeMonfort. This turn of events was no doubt gratifying to Baillie not only because of her friendship with Siddons, but because Siddons was the foremost actress of the turn-of-the-century English stage, the source of a veritable "Siddonsmania." Siddons was also the favorite of Edmund Burke, whose tearful spectatorship inspired him to write his infamously excessive idealization of Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France. (1) Yet, as Julie Carlson has argued, the extraordinary impact of Siddons' power, particularly her power over males in the audience, had at best equivocal effects on advancing the power of women more generally. (2) As the "incomparable" Siddons, she acted as an exception to common femininity rather than as an example for emulation.

And by many accounts, her performance of Lady Jane in De Monfort was a failure. As James Boaden, one of Siddons' biographers, asserts in an often-quoted review,

   Mrs. Siddons did her utmost with the Countess Jane. But the basis of
   the tragedy was the passion of hatred, and the incidents were all
   gloomy, and dark, and deadly. On the stage, I believe, no spectator
   wished it a longer life, and it is to the last degree mortifying to
   have to exhibit so many proofs, that the talent of dramatic writing
   in its noblest branch was in fact dead among us. (3)

Historians of the theater have done much to complicate Boaden's verdict, though much of this work has acknowledged that Baillie's career, so promising in its heyday, was in the long term a historical failure. And this same work has offered explanations of this failure in terms of the erasure of women from the history of drama generally. I do not contest this approach, given Baillie's lapse into obscurity after the 1820s; I suspect that her disappearance until recently is indeed intertwined with what Anne K. Mellor calls Baillie's use of the theater "to restage and revise the social construction of gender"--an admittedly ambitious enterprise. (4) However, my purpose in this essay is to supplement the context of theater history through which much of the Baillie recovery has emerged. The theater is indeed a distinct problem in terms of authorship; Paulina Kewes, for example, describes in detail the particular barriers to originality posed by the material conditions of theatrical production in the latter half of the eighteenth century. (5) But I want to maintain a general focus on literary production in order to discuss relations between Baillie's position as a woman author and her primary purpose as an artist: representing the passions. I claim that Baillie not only uses the theater, but also uses her own powerful theoretical text, the "Introductory Discourse" to A Series of Plays (1798), to attempt to construct authorship in a way that circumvents barriers--essentially, barriers of passion--that pose particular problems for women's authorship generally at the turn of the nineteenth century. These barriers are strongly suggested by the limits to female activity Carlson describes in the case of Siddons' career. Female power is a threat, contained by the language of exceptionalism-incomparability--which acts to block the exemplarity of women. Powerful women, that is to say, cannot be models, cannot circulate as objects of emulation beyond the surfaces of fashion. Such strictures certainly act as impediments to female authorship insofar as the "author," in the broad sense described by Foucault, constitutes a power over the circulation of texts, a reproductive power. The construction "female author" is a point of departure for an understanding of gender oppression insofar as the two terms of the phrase operate as an inhibition to reproduction--to emulation--by canceling out the woman writer as a productive example to either men or to women.

Siddons' devoted fan Edmund Burke theorized related gender barriers at length (although hardly as such) in his precocious aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). …

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