Genre and Gender: Time for an Inclusive Literary History

Elaine McGirr
University of London

In Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction (Routledge, 2009)¸ Emily Hodgson Anderson convincingly argues that the realms of fiction and performance open tantalizing spaces for female self-expression. She demonstrates how personal truths can be simultaneously expressed through and masked by the self-proclaimed lies of fiction and role-playing, thereby granting women, both characters and their authors, the opportunity to be—or rather the opportunity to play— themselves. This is a provocative argument, and one that offers a very welcome corrective to the usual discussions of Romantic identity and genre, the myth of the innate, modern, and “real” Romantic Self seen in studies like Dror Wahrman’s The Making of the Modern Self.[1] The idea that barefaced lies might speak truths—or as the poem in Anderson’s opening anecdote puts it: “all will be Real, that she only feigns,”—begs a tantalizing set of questions about authorship, genre, self-expression, and selfhood. I am less convinced that gender is equally implicated. Indeed, many of Anderson’s own examples involve both male and female characters, and one cannot help but suspect that an examination of male authors would discover that they, too, used “theatrical frames . . . to articulate truths and passions” (1). Nor am I ultimately convinced that biography can or should be read through the works. While repeated strategies and common themes may signal the author’s “real” feelings, literary fashions, and modes of expression must also be taken into consideration. The languages of sensibility and Romanticism are given rather short shrift here, and their inclusion would have made subsequent claims about “the self-expressive capabilities of artifice” more convincing (4). Anderson is right to remind us that adopting a persona or creating a fictional heroine or narrator can reveal aspects of the author, but it does not necessarily follow that it does, or that “the choice to write a novel or to play a role” is any different for women than for men (4).

The arguments for feminine difference felt unmoored, particularly as that difference, although frequently asserted, was never demonstrated. The claim that “women writers worked in multiple genres . . . far more frequently than their male counterparts” (3) is unnecessarily provocative and ultimately unhelpful, for instead of concentrating on what Anderson can and does demonstrate, it challenges the reader to come up with a list of male writers working in multiple genres. In addition to Anderson’s grudging admission of Henry Fielding and Oliver Goldsmith into her pantheon of cross-genre experimenters, I instantly conjured up Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Johnson, and John Dennis, and their ghostly presences haunted the rest of the monograph. Furthermore, Anderson’s own arguments and methodology demand inclusivity. She argues compellingly about the need to “bridge two fissures in current eighteenth-century scholarship”, which she identifies as studies of the novel and drama (2). She reminds us that “play-going was an integral part of eighteenth-century life and entertainment, for all classes”—and both genders (3). And she argues that a result of this cultural centrality was that “many eighteenth-century readers and writers were concurrently spectators, performers and playwrights” (3). This is as true of men as of women. If the generic divide Anderson complains of obscures the rich “discursive field” of the eighteenth century, then the even more arbitrary and artificial gender divide imposed here must be equally limiting. Finally, engagement with the male play of fiction would balance and nuance Anderson’s arguments about specifically female forms of self-expression: an argument about the singularity of women’s authorship or self-expression cannot be made in glorious isolation. This is not a critique of women’s literary history: I applaud the effort to devote more scholarly attention to the work of women writers and performers, but worry that this kind of study, arguing for the category of “woman writer” and examining its subjects apart from and in tacit opposition to the assumed normative category of “male writer,” only ghettoizes the writers being “reclaimed.”

In explaining women’s turn from drama to fiction, Anderson stresses the problems would-be playwrights faced in getting their work accepted and adequately performed, problems that were by no means limited to female playwrights, as Dennis, Smollett, and Johnson were wont to note. Theatrical outsiders of all stripes bitterly resented the “closed shop” of the Theatres Royal while simultaneously desiring nothing more than a chance to gain both the financial rewards and cultural capital of theatrical success. Indeed, Anderson gives the theater’s centrality short shrift when wondering what could possess women to turn and return to such a difficult and unwelcoming medium. While the scales may be reversed now, drama was considered to be as far superior to the novel as tragedy was assumed to be to comedy. The cultural capital and prestige given to a successful playwright must have been at least as desirable to Anderson’s subjects as it was to their male counterparts.

The book’s greatest contribution to the cross-generic study of theater and novels is found in the excellent close readings that make up Anderson’s analysis of the interplay between acting and being, or as she puts it: “performing the passions, performing the self” (7). Anderson adroitly marshals the tools of performance theory and theater history to interrogate the slippage between performing, passions, and self. She offers us the useful reminder that theatricality and emotional depth, or feeling and acting, need not be antithetical. The “ownership of emotion” is far more complex, bringing to bear both the ways in which theater “draw[s] emotions from us” and offers a physical vocabulary for articulating those emotions: actors’ bodies were meant to be legible, a “reliable signifier or internal emotion” or passion (8). But at the same time, actors were professional hypocrites, “putting on” feelings and identities that did not belong to them. Anderson makes much of the “persistent assumption that acting is insincere” as a paradoxical tool for “the authors in this study to use theatrical performance in an antithetical, self-expressive manner—and suggest a link between theatricality and emotional depth” (8). “Sincerity and feigning, reality and fiction,” she writes, “cannot be safely compartmentalized but exist together, in a dynamic relationship” (5). This is all very exciting, but does not go quite far enough for my liking. Anderson does not make enough of the fact that self-expression is not just a cry in the wilderness, but also a form of communication, and the communication of emotions or identity requires a shared language, one that by virtue of its ability to be learned and replicated is also always “put on” or acted. In order to be intelligible, we must also be artificial: we are all caught up in the “play of fiction.”

Anderson uses each of her case studies to illustrate a different way in which the slippage between what she calls “acting as” and “acting as”occurs. Thus, for Eliza Haywood, elaborate role play offers masks under which real desires may be gratified and heartfelt feelings expressed. In contrast, the silence and repression favoured by Frances Burney’s heroines inexorably leads to breakdowns and the delirious breaking out of their passionate secrets. Unlike most Haywood scholars, Anderson sees more continuity than evolution or re-creation in Haywood’s career. She juxtaposes Fantomina (1724) and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) to argue that far from being “diametrically opposed, both adopt strategies of self-conscious performance” to achieve their desires (37). In Anderson’s reading, Haywood presents masking as the ultimate form of self-expression: adopting a persona “becomes . . . the conduit for self-defining characteristics” (41). Furthermore, as identity is best understood as a process of becoming rather than an assertion of being, the repetition of role playing allows the performer to continue to define herself, to test out new roles and improve her performances. This reading of Haywood’s work is a welcome revision of the old scandalous-Haywood-becomes-virtuous-Haywood narrative, but it would have been even more compelling if Haywood’s engagement with the rhetoric and performances of self had been contextualized. What is striking about this reading of Haywood is that it demonstrates not that Haywood was singular but that she was in tune with her competitors and collaborators like Colley Cibber and Henry Fielding.

Repetition is also central to Anderson’s reading of Burney, which she formulates as “forgetting the self” (46). Burney’s strategy is the reverse of Haywood’s, for her heroines—and the author herself, according to Anderson—stage insensibility rather than rehearse their passions. Swooning, falling into fits, and running into madness become strategies for female characters to finally release repressed desires and to be spectacular without being indecorous. While I found Anderson’s readings of Burney’s texts mostly convincing, again I was less sure about her claims for Burney’s singularity. Pamela’s swooning protected her chastity and convinced Mr. B of her true character, while Clarissa’s slow march toward death served as a template for multiple episodes in Cecilia (1782). Jane Shore, the 1714 she-tragedy enjoying a phenomenal revival in the 1790s, also dramatized “drawn out physical and mental suffering” (61). Like Albany’s fallen love, Jane Shore is left to starve in full pitying view of an audience moved to tears, but not to assistance. To claim that such characters offer insight into Burney’s own mind demands that we ask the same of Samuel Richardson and Nicholas Rowe, whose popular novels and plays were the height of fashion, but did not, I suspect, expose their tortured souls.

Masking, repetition, and didactic effect also characterize the next two case studies, Elizabeth Inchbald and Maria Edgeworth. Anderson argues that Inchbald’s characters mediate their passions by playing them through intermediaries or masks. She argues that “characters and author alike split into roles that allow them to re-approach emotions and traits as if they were not their own. This process renders these feelings more personal than if they remained suppressed or went unacknowledged” (102). Subjectivity is therefore a “dynamic process” rather than fixed, although this is not to claim that the self is inchoate or hopelessly fragmented. For Edgeworth, the play of fiction has pedagogical import. “Learning here is linked to emotional experience” and passion (124). As with Anderson’s other examples, Edgeworth presents acting not as an end in itself, but as the means to the end of self-discovery, self-improvement, and self-expression.

Anderson does a good job of explaining how contemporary acting theory, which celebrated the progression of passions and provided an accessible physical language for their articulation, offered possibilities for both self-expression and self-preservation. She reminds us that while the physical language of gesture and facial expression was widely understood, it was also inherently ambiguous: a blush might signify shame, resentment, innocence, and/or knowledge (89–90). And of course, while we can only display one gesture—or speak one word—at a time, we often feel multiple, conflicting emotions. Expressing these complex emotions so that they can be understood either by readers, audiences, or other characters will always create simplification and thus ambiguity. The breakdown of gestural acting, like the dashes and broken sentences of sensibility, signifies the rush of feelings and accurately represents “the human condition of emotional flux” (91). Anderson’s analysis of the ways in which the breakdown of the physical and verbal grammars of self-expression are the places where complex and arguably “real” communication is found is compelling and, as she demonstrates in her chapter on Burney, even these breakdowns are stage managed. Despite my reservations about attempting to decode the author through his or her characters, I am convinced by Anderson’s argument that we are all engaged in the “play of fiction,” writing and performing our characters.


[1]  Dror Wahrman’s The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 2004).