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The author's acknowledgments liken this volume in the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism series to "the epilogue in relation to the mainpiece play ... in many ways paratextual to Romanticism as it is conventionally understood" (xii). The analogy to paratexts is apt: readers looking for the "theatre" of the title must attend to 125 pages of prologue on theatrical forms of sociability before arriving at Russell's insightful analyses of the female sociability invested in such conventional sites of theatre as The Clandestine Marriage, by Garrick and Colman, and Frances Abington's performance in The Maid of the Oaks. However, these discussions are ultimately the richer for Russell's early mapping of "domiciliary sociability," a term she uses to refer to "elements of the authentic public sphere in the private realm," and to activities ranging from assemblies to card parties by which elite women claimed "a role for themselves in mid-eighteenth century public culture" (11).
Russell is concerned to recuperate the cultural centrality of fashionable women, and to explore "the anxiety which the increasing visibility of these women generated" (1). Her notion of sociability evolves not from sentimental prescriptions for sociable conduct, but from the cultural discourse arising from scandals such as the bigamy case of Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston (given full treatment in chapter 7) and the Duke of Cumberland's trial for engaging in criminal conversation with Lady Grosvenor (83–87). This makes for lively reading.
The book opens with two chapters on Teresa Cornelys, whom Russell wittily calls "fashionable sociability's sun queen" (73). With focused consideration, she traces the network of female aristocrats who patronized Cornelys (thereby imbuing her with cultural authority) and her entertainments at Carlisle House. More might have been made, perhaps, of the fashion in which Cornelys's own background as a performer authorized her construction of public taste. Russell carefully locates Cornelys's masquerades in an admirably detailed historical context, noting influences such as the King of Denmark's private masquerade in 1768, and convincingly links them to contemporary critiques of luxury and effeminacy, suggesting that "it is possible to identify ... the licentiousness of the carnivalesque in the process of becoming the licentiousness of the market" (43). [End Page 309]
Of particular interest in these chapters is Russell's figuration of "masquerade intelligence" as a mechanism enabling the spread of domiciliary sociability. Masquerade intelligence included the society news, reports of entertainments, and advertisements of renovations and decorations of Carlisle House that Cornelys inserted into periodicals to puff her entertainments. Russell contends that newspapers' growth in the 1770s was not only reflective of that decade's political turmoil, but also of "the expansion in fashionable sociability epitomized by Carlisle House" (24). She makes strong claims that Cornelys's "consistent and unmistakable" voice in the press carved out a "powerful discursive space for fashionable sociability" (29, 37). This argument later returns to enhance a close reading of the opening scene of The School for Scandal, in which Snake and Lady Sneerwell talk of insinuating paragraphs of false intelligence into the papers (203), and also features in an analysis of the press's representation of the Female Coterie as symbolic of a dangerous "incursion into the male homosocial domain of the club/ tavern" (80).
Russell next discusses assembly rooms, including Almack's and Pantheon, and outlines the means by which these commercialized public spaces contended with or contributed to the amplification of women's powers of domiciliary sociability. Readers of Frances Burney's Evelina will view with interest Russell's interpretation of that novel's Pantheon scene, and her sense of the Pantheon as a venue that allowed women "to perform as sociable subjects in their own right" (102). Here and elsewhere in the book are sharp observations, well grounded in readings of both verbal and visual texts, regarding the ways in which tickets functioned "not only to regulate access but as a sign or token of that access which denoted the visitor's sociable capital" (33).