Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers

By Catherine B. Burroughs | Go to book overview

to neglect a variety of “theoretical moments” that occur in a wide range of texts and performance situations.

The problem of women’s erasure as critical thinkers and theorists— this book’s main focus—was addressed by Anna Jameson (1794–1860) midway through the nineteenth century. Looking back to the era traditionally called the British Romantic period, Jameson wrote that Goethe once said of some woman: “She knew something of devotion and love, but of the pure admiration for a glorious piece of man’s handiwork—of a mere sympathetic veneration for the creation of the human intellect—she could form no idea” (Commonplace Book v-vi). Jameson challenged this commentary by retorting that this might have been true of the individual woman referred to “but that female critics look for something in the production of art beyond the mere handiwork, and that ‘our sympathetic veneration for a creation of human intellect,’ is often dependent upon our moral associations is not a reproach to us. Nor, if I may presume to say so, does it lessen the value of our criticism, where it can be referred to principles. Women have a sort of unconscious logic in these matters” (309; my emphasis).

Although Jameson suggests that women’s critical judgments are largely intuitive, her phrase “the value of our criticism” points to an obvious fact that nevertheless must be underscored when the subject of women as theorists arises: not only have women thought critically about the theater arts throughout history and in many cases put these thoughts into writing, but some of these writers, like Jameson, have looked critically at the problems women theorists encounter when moving from “the closet” to engage critics in public space.

By focusing on Joanna Baillie, the most important female British playwright between Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) and the twentieth century, my book explores Baillie’s theory of the stage in the context of the writing produced by middle-to upper-class women who wrote for and about the London theater between 1790 and 1840.1 (Texts by women writers whom we more commonly associate with the Victorian period are also included here when these works concern subjects related to British Romantic theater.) In this study, I look closely at some of the strategies British Romantic women writers used to represent their gendered positions in those places traditionally (but problematically) called public and private spheres.2 My aim is to explore a number of the ways in which these writers’ conceptions of femininity influenced their speculations and generalizations about theatrical practices, as well as those social performances for which theatrical analogies were sometimes used.

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