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Politesse and the Woman at Risk: The Social Comedies ofMarie-Thérèse De Camp Adrienne Scullion The actress and playwright Marie-Thérèse De Camp (1774-1838) is described—bybiographers ofher more famous daughter,the actress, diarist, and playwright, Fanny Kemble—as dedicated to outdoor pursuits (principallyangling and riding),moody, and,later in life, eccentric in her behavior.1 She is additionally recorded as unimpeachably chaste, virtuous ,and respectable,ahabitual member ofthe London's Swiss congregation . Despite this reputation, the whiff of scandal touched her in 1795 when, as one ofthe young leading lights ofthe company ofthe Theatre Royal Drury Lane, she caught the inebriated attentions of the theater's actor-manager,John Philip Kemble.Heburstintoherdressingroom and pressed his unwanted attentions upon the young lady—an incident that both Ellen Donkin and Claire Tomalin quite justifiably describe as an attempted rape.2 The resulting furor attracted swift help and little damage seemed done to either party. However, immediately thereafter Kemble apologized in a remarkably public manner. The Times ran an announcement: I, John Philip Kemble, of the Theatre Royal, Drury-lane, do adopt this method of publicly apologizing to Miss Decamp, for the very improper and unjustifiable Behaviour I was lately guilty oftowards her; which I do further declare her Conduct and Character had in no instance authorised, but; on the contrary, I do know and believe both to be irreproachable.— January 27, 1795.3 The affair seemed to be over until, in 1800, Charles Kemble, John Philip's younger brother, announced his desire to marry his vivacious costar, De Camp. The elder Kemble at first refused to allow the match, 235 236Comparative Drama eventually agreeing to it only if the couple would wait until Charles's thirtieth birthday. Thus, despite both being successful actors, in command ofexcellent incomes,andpotentiallyindependent,Charles Kemble and Marie-Thérèse De Camp waited the allotted span to marry, on 2 July 1806, with the blessing of the Kemble clan, and the determinedly patriarchal John Philip giving the bride away.4 The odd collision ofthe indecorous and the prudent, the foolish and the circumspect that we see in John Philip Kemble's early association with his future sister-in-law frames not only De Camp's biography but also the lifestyle ofthe familyinto which she married,a familythatworked hard to secure its status as respectable pillar of late Georgian and Regency Britain, despite the source of their fortune resting in the somewhat dubious world ofthe stage.5 Particularly revealing as regards the mythology of the Kembles are the subjective opinions of De Camp's daughter, Fanny, who ascribes to her family the values of polite society, order and respectability earned and learned by them all: Whatever qualities ofmind or character I inherit from my father's family I am persuaded that I am more strongly stamped with those I derived from my mother, a woman, who, possessing no specific gift in such perfection as the dramatic talents of the Kembles, had in a higher degree than any of them the peculiar organisation of genius. To the fine senses of a savage rather than a civilised nature, she joined an acute instinct of criticism in all matters of art, and a general quickness and accuracy of perception, and a brilliant vividness ofexpression that made her conversation delightful. Had she possessed half the advantages of education which she and my father laboured to bestow on us, she would, I think, have been one of the most remarkable persons ofher time.6 De Camp's"vividness ofexpression,"as well as her keen eye for the rules, regulations, and affectations of the polite society to which success, fortune , and studied respectability admitted the Kembles, is the very stuff of her dramas. De Camp's plays are set in polite and respectable society, but they are emboldened by the threat ofexpulsion from it and a narrative interest in seduction plots, the nature ofreputation, and in the complex role of the young gentlewoman at moral risk. De Camp seems fascinated by the (sexual) tensions contained within the artifice and politesse ofsociety. Adrienne Scullion237 It was an interest shared by many parts of her audience, as evidenced in contemporary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 235-258
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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