- Watched Women
Despite the hundred years that separate Lady Fidget from Lady Teazle, women have remained inscrutable to male spectators of the playhouse and parlor alike, or so the stories go. Investigating this popular trope, both Pritchard and Russell share a similar concern with how female bodies are read—or, more typically, misread—by increasingly anxious men.
Limiting itself to the actual years of the Caroline Restoration, Will Pritchard’s Outward Appearances surveys several thought-provoking points about what it means to be “looked-upon.” He assumes that men look at women more than women look at men—or at other women—and if you accept this premise, he supplies an impressive amount of historical primary evidence to track the effects of the “gendered” gaze. Pritchard focuses on the Restoration period’s “preoccupation with and ambivalence about women’s appearances and women who appear” and aligns this vexation with “larger epistemological questions about seeing and knowing” (22). He does not intend to provide scholarship on theater, but instead uses theatrical devices, texts, and settings to set up a cultural [End Page 113] reading of female presence in the late seventeenth-century city. His opening gambit introduces us to the paradigmatic figure of social-climbing bigamist Mary Carleton, the “German Princess” whose biography would rival that of Moll Flanders, and Pritchard returns to her throughout his study, letting her deviance stand as metonymy for cultural outrage about women who appear in public. Her impassioned self-defense synthesizes the discussion of gender identity, scopic anxiety, and rhetorical conceptions of self. If what you see is all of what you get, or, if “identity is manifested primarily in display” (46), then is it imperative to negotiate with (women’s) outward appearances?
The first and second chapters are complementary: one treats the “problem of female legibility,” and the other evaluates its “promise.” Acknowledging that the Restoration public became accustomed to seeing women on display on the stage, Pritchard begins by analyzing the double bind that constrained “proper” women. They had to be discreet and retiring, but they also had to display their virtue in public in order to prove its existence: “Women needed actively to display their good qualities before men’s (and other women’s) eyes, and doing so necessitated a degree of publicity” (77). The second chapter considers how and why male writers both brag about their masterful influence over women’s appearances, yet spout frustration at female inscrutability. Pritchard claims that “the alternation of these views . . . kept alive the fantasy of perfect female legibility and helped account for its never being fully realized” (80). He points out how scientific knowledge was grafted onto the epistemology of gender; the period’s “blend of positivism and caution” (65) characterizes the will to know women.
The remaining three chapters address “the somewhat abstract questions about female legibility” (81) by taking us to the playhouse, the park, and the New Exchange marketplace. The playhouse chapter presents standard evidence about anxiety over actresses’ bodies. Pritchard concludes the chapter by remarking that “the mask was reassuring to men” because it was “an empty sign that gains its meaning by metonymy; the container stands for its contents” (109–10), and I would have liked him to linger on this interesting point. The next chapter explores “the park’s fundamental theatricality” (144), arguing that its planned openness constituted an incongruous heterotopia, a highly blocked, open-air stage that could be innocent and wicked, natural and fake all at once. This section is the most literary, drawing upon pastorals and relevant plays to underscore the well-established trope of the “cultivated wild.” Pritchard reminds us that playhouse and park bleed into each other. The latter’s theater is as staged and publicized as the former, if not more so. More compellingly, the argument insists that the park is not merely a microcosm of professional theater, but the original site of staged theatrics and mischief. The final section on the marketplace...