Theatrical Women

Emily Hodgson Anderson
University of Southern California

“I am sure that nobody could please me so entirely as yourself on the art of novel writing—the art of dramatic composition,” writes Mary Hoare to the celebrated novelist and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald. “Or,” she goes on to add, “(if it may be called an art) that of propriety of female conduct.”[1] Lauded here as one of the more talented members of the literary profession, Inchbald is nonetheless one of many women writers in the eighteenth century to craft both novels and plays. But she is also, as the quotation suggests, one of many women schooled in the “propriety of female conduct.” The terms of Hoare’s praise are provocative, in that they posit connections between a woman writer’s literary work and the current ideals of feminine behavior.

Nora Nachumi takes up such connections in her recent book, Acting Like a Lady: British Women Novelists and the Eighteenth-Century Theater (AMS, 2008). This is a book about how eighteenth-century women novelists represented gender in their novels, and about how these representations of gender were influenced by the novelists’ own exposure to the stage. Through exhaustively researched accounts of eighteenth-century conduct literature, actresses, and women playwrights, Nachumi links the theatricality of female conduct to a woman’s knowledge of the theater itself. And as Nachumi demonstrates, this is subject about which the eighteenth-century woman knew a lot.

The interdisciplinarity and breadth of Nachumi’s study—her application of theater history to studies of gender as lived and as written—make it an important contribution to several critical discussions. Specifically, Nachumi’s work aligns with recent re-examinations of eighteenth-century “theatrical women.” Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the British Theatre, 1700–1780, Laura Engel’s The Public’s Open to Us All: Essays on Women and Performance in Eighteenth-Century England, and my own Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction all, to varying degrees, explore connections between women’s theatrical involvement and theories of gender.[2] In this focus, we are indebted to works such as Lisa Freeman’s Character’s Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage, Ellen Donkin’s Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776–1829, and Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology.[3] In their own ways, each of these foundational studies exposes the intricacies of the eighteenth-century stage and reveals how rewarding it would is to consider a woman’s place on and around it.

Unlike these earlier studies, though, Nachumi is interested in the added dimension of genre. As Nachumi’s subtitle indicates, she focuses specifically on the relationship of women novelists to the stage. In this, her work is closer to my own, and we gravitate toward similar source material and anecdotes. Such parallels reinforce the prevalence of patterns, though we use these patterns in different ways. Whereas I explore evolutions in genre, Nachumi’s goal is to show “how the theatrical experience of women novelists helped those who desired to do so challenge repressive ideas about women’s nature and roles” (xxvi). To this end, Nachumi provides detailed accounts of conduct literature and eighteenth-century representations of gender.

From her opening two chapters to her final appendix, Nachumi presents the kind of thorough literary history that subsequent scholars will find invaluable. The book begins with two general chapters, “The Theatrical Woman and the Feminine Ideal” and “The Lady and the Novelist,” that provide a capacious overview of eighteenth-century conduct material and its applicability, first to women working for the stage, then to female novelists. Nachumi takes a broad view of women’s involvement with the theater, so that her opening chapter includes accounts of actresses, playwrights, spectators, and critics. Discussions here range from Aphra Behn to Charlotte Charke to Sarah Siddons. Her second chapter ends with an impressive overview of the novelists who shared this theatrical involvement, and her accounts here include theatrical families such as the Sheridans, actresses such as Mary Robinson, and theater-goers such as the Duchess of Devonshire and the Burneys. Nachumi’s ability to synthesize a vast amount of material is then balanced by her own shift to focused case studies of three major authors: Elizabeth Inchbald, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen.

Nachumi has a true talent for combining evidence, and anecdotes, from across an expanse of time. Her introductory chapters are at once erudite and accessible, while the appendix, which lists approximately 382 female novelists from 1660 to 1818 and charts their various connections to the theater, offers overwhelming evidence for the impact of the theater on women’s literary and social lives. It also makes available, as Nachumi points out, many writers who have not yet been studied, even as Nachumi’s work provides a helpful paradigm for future study. After such an abundance of evidence, her suggestion that “the ways in which these [still-obscure] women used theatrical images and practices in their fiction deserve additional analysis” (176) seems an understatement.

Others will have to accept Nachumi’s invitation, as she selects canonical authors for her own analysis. Indeed, as she explains, she chooses these women “precisely because of their canonical status” and because “the positions of all three regarding contemporary ideas about feminine nature and the proper conduct of women remain subject to vigorous debate” (xxi). For example, whereas many critics argue that Inchbald’s first novel is “an endorsement of patriarchal forms of authority,” Nachumi reads it instead as a challenge (104). Drawing upon Inchbald’s own theatrical training, Nachumi sees gestures in A Simple Story (1791) as the most reliable expression of a woman’s mind, while the ability of gestures to earn a sympathetic response from observers grants the women who use them “a limited form of autonomy” (105).[4] Readings of Burney’s first and last novels form the subject of chapter 4, and in these novels the figure of the woman is much more opaque. Both Evelina (1778)and The Wanderer (1814), according to Nachumi, “dramatize the indefinable nature of women’s hearts, demonstrating that, like actresses, ladies are often not what they seem” (117). “Seeing Double,” her final chapter, on Austen and the home theatricals in Mansfield Park (1814), focuses again on the spectatorial response. But unlike Inchbald, who endorsed the sympathetic reaction elicited by gestures and the stage, Austen is critical of observers who would “lose themselves” in a play. Instead, Nachumi contends, Austen’s narrator forces us to maintain a “divided perspective” on this novel and the characters in it. The lesson here for readers (and not just female ones) is the importance of preserving a “rational and emotional response to the plays they watch, the novels they read, and the fictions they encounter in their daily lives” (153).

The range of perspectives demonstrated in Nachumi’s own readings, from the comparative agency of the woman as actress to the comparative agency of the woman as observer, leads her back to her title phrase and opening question. These novelists don’t necessarily answer this question—“What does it mean to act like a lady?” (xvii)—so much as re-pose it. The epilogue ends by asserting that the eighteenth-century stage “called into question what does it mean to act like a lady?” (177): the question, and the instability it represents, is ultimately what Nachumi wants to reinforce. As she concludes, “the central contention of Acting Like a Lady is that many British women novelists influenced by the theater knew that to act like a lady was, in a sense, to perform a role” (174).

Given this payoff, though, it isn’t precisely clear that the stated shift from early to late eighteenth-century theories of femininity—the shift that Nachumi summons to explain her final focus on late eighteenth-century novelists—is more than a superficial one (xx). A related question, about how these earlier theories of femininity are characterized, then emerges. Nachumi begins by asserting that the theater “offered women an alternative to models of female nature that insisted on a direct correlation between their appearance and their quality of mind” (xvii). For Nachumi, conduct literature endorses an ideal of feminine transparency that the theater comes to challenge, and her extensive examples from relevant conduct material suggest that this is true. But it might not be the whole truth. For conduct literature also includes many “paradoxes of propriety,” to use Mary Poovey’s phrase, that could in turn inform women’s involvement in the theater, rather than the other way around.[5] Nachumi suggests as much when she states that, rather than creating, theater “tapped into a profound anxiety over the sincerity of feminine conduct” (2, emphasis added). Such a phrase implies that women were considered “theatrical,” in the hypocritical sense, even before they started writing for or acting on the stage.

Nachumi does acknowledge the way that assumptions about feminine transparency “constantly threatened to unravel” (6). As she puts it, “if ladylike behavior was natural to women, why would they require instructions about how to behave?” (6). But the goal of all such conduct literature is, in her argument, to resolve such objections. Poovey’s reading of conduct literature, on which Nachumi draws, exposes instead the contradictions inherent in the descriptions of femininity produced by such materials. The very proliferation of such conduct books indicates not just the corruption of a world from which young ladies will need protection, but also the notion that “female sexuality was still assertive enough to require control.”[6] The fear, noted by Nachumi, of a woman’s naturally passionate nature transforms the dictates of modesty endorsed by these manuals into a kind of practiced hypocrisy, much like the kind that Mary Wollstonecraft, at the end of the century, will lament.[7] The strict repression, the self-effacing behavior advocated by many of these manuals encouraged a woman to display “no vanity, no passion, no assertive ‘self’ at all.”[8] In this formulation, modesty seems to mask or efface those qualities of mind “naturally the more impetuous” in her sex, rather than to convey them.[9]

On the flip side of Nachumi’s equation, what it means for women to act “in a theatrical sense” (133, but the phrase recurs other places as well) also isn’t perhaps as stable as she would like. Her repeated usage of the phrase indicates that it stands for a kind of overt hypocrisy, which she opposes to the conduct book feminine ideal. Yet the fact that actresses were known for their private lives and the fact that these private lives were often, purposefully, invoked in the roles they played, complicates this opposition. As Freeman has shown, acting in the eighteenth-century theatrical sense involved an incredibly complicated play between an actor’s role and his or her life offstage.[10] Nachumi acknowledges in her early chapters that actresses throughout the century “used the stage as a forum for self-representation” (17–18; see too 23), a fact that on one hand supports Nachumi’s claim that all forms of “self-representation” in this century are seen as roles (16). Yet this same fact also destabilizes the binary she later sets up, between “the sincerity of feminine conduct” and acting “in a theatrical sense” (2, 133). Considering her investment in “actual theatrical practices” (xviii), Nachumi’s own use of theatrical metaphors to describe the workings of novels and feminine conduct feels slippery. What it means for novels to “dramatize” female experience isn’t always clear (75); nor is it certain what is meant by “a sense of female experience that was implicitly theatrical” (xxii).

But in many ways these uncertainties support Nachumi’s final thesis, in that they show just how vexed female identity in this time period truly was. More than anything, Nachumi’s contributions demonstrate the value of bringing theater history, and theatrical practices, into dialogue with literary and gender studies. She closes with a set of questions about “the relationship between novels and the technical innovations in the theater”: she suggests that changes in lighting, scenery, and costuming might inform new “representations of female identity . . . no longer at odds with models of female subjectivity fostered by novels” (177). Through these questions, and the future research made available by her appendix, she promotes a kind of interdisciplinary approach that I hope many future scholars will take up.


[1]   Letter from Mary Hoare to Elizabeth Inchbald, 22 February 1807, The Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald: Volumes One and Two, ed. James Boaden (London, 1833) 2:361, emphasis in original.

[2]   Felicity Nussbaum, Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the British Theatre, 1700–1780 (Philadelphia, 2010); Laura Engel, The Public’s Open to Us All: Essays on Women and Performance in Eighteenth-Century England (Newcastle, 2009); Emily Hodgson Anderson, Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction (New York, 2009).

[3]   Lisa Freeman, Character’s Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage (Philadelphia, 2002); Ellen Donkin, Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776–1829 (New York, 1994); Kristina Straub, Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton, 1992).

[4]   For my alternate reading of gesture in Inchbald, see Anderson, “Revising Theatrical Conventions in A Simple Story: Elizabeth Inchbald’s Ambiguous Performance,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 6 no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2006): 5–30. Also see my chapter, “Acting as Herself: Elizabeth Inchbald and Mediated Feelings,” in Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction (77–106).

[5]   Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago, 1985), 15.

[6]   Poovey, 21.

[7]   Mary Wollstonecraft seeks to combat the hypocritical conduct that sentimental codes of conduct required of women. Such codes, as she saw them, threatened to make dissimulation into the defining characteristic of the sex. See, for example, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [1792], ed. Miriam Brody (New York, 1992), 129, 131, 180–85.

[8]   Poovey, 21.

[9]   From The Ladies Library (1722), quoted in Poovey, 21.

[10]   See Freeman.