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  • Doing the Usual Things:Gender, Race, and Inwardness in Harley Granville Barker's The Marrying of Ann Leete and The Secret Life
  • Christopher Wixson (bio)

For the Greeks, the hidden life demanded invisible ink. They wrote an ordinary letter and in between the lines, set out another letter written in milk. The document looked innocent enough until one who knew better sprinkled coal-dust over it. What the letter had been no longer mattered; what mattered was the life flaring up undetected … till now.

—Jeanette Winterson1

Biographer and scholar Eric Salmon, editing a letter written by Harley Granville Barker, fusses over what he calls a mysterious "momentary aberration, or even a slip of the pen" on the playwright's part. In a letter to his second wife Helen Huntingdon, Barker describes a weak production of Shakespeare's King Lear he attended the previous night, marveling that the power of the "Cordelia-Lear waking scene" is able to shine through the "mistakes and shortcomings" and "sheer bungling and misapprehension" of the players. He quotes to Huntingdon two lines from the scene between Lear and his daughter: "'But as I am a man I do believe this lady to be my child Cordelia'; 'And so I am—I am?'"2 Salmon finds Barker's "very curious" rendition of Cordelia's response "worrying" because it includes a final question mark that does not exist in the First Folio or in any extant version of Shakespeare's play: "Even allowing for the fact that he was (presumably) quoting from memory, it is hard to imagine how the question mark got there or what Barker intended to imply, either about the speaking of the line or about the character of Cordelia. It does not appear in any standard text of the play, and Barker himself makes no [End Page 497] comment on the normal reading of the line in his own Preface to the play, published in 1927" (327). Barker transforms Cordelia's reassuring, repetitive utterance in the original ("And so I am; I am") into a more ambivalent confirmation of her identity ("And so I am—I am?").3 Barker's error has Cordelia both confirming and challenging the identity given to her by her father. The question mark changes the second "I am" into an interrogative expression of doubt that interpolates the "I" of the first half of the line as stranger, as Other, transforming the exchange into a sublime moment of fractured identity for Cordelia.

Viewed more broadly, this apparent slip has profound symbolic resonance in relation to Barker's own plays, especially his representations of women. Indeed, his canon is filled with female characters that suffer within a male-dominated culture, relegated to roles as male redeemers, caretakers, and mere repositories for Victorian middle-class values.4 For the most part, such characters, forced to capitulate to an oppressive social imperative for women, are treated sympathetically. While he provides very few who are successful in refusing the old poses in favor of more empowering ones, a handful of Barker's female characters struggle to gain, retain, and be recognized for their autonomy as they negotiate the transition between the Victorian and the Modern, searching for some kind of stable foundation for self-assertion and fulfillment. Ann Leete, in The Marrying of Ann Leete (1899), and Joan Westbury, in The Secret Life (1923), are resistant, active, and dynamic and so initially stand out among so many characters cast as mere patriarchal casualties.

Bookending Barker's twenty-year career in the theater, Leete takes place in a pre-Victorian world marked by the collision of domestic issues of manners with revolutionary economic and social change while The Secret Life depicts the empire on the verge of collapse, the last gasp of Victorian ideals. Despite their differences, these two plays among his others stand out in squarely addressing the problems of female subjectivity.5 Like Barker's Cordelia, Ann and Joan possess a double-consciousness, and their Otherness is unusually expressed in conjunction with images of racial oppression, a paratactic juxtaposition that is unexpected and tenuous in the early play but which solidifies in the later one into a more complex critique of...


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pp. 497-519
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