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  • Moving Parts and Speaking Parts: Situating Victorian Antitheatricality
  • Rebecca F. Stern

In her influential conduct manual, The Daughters of England, Sarah Stickney Ellis presents a portrait of a woman who has succumbed to “a selfish desire to stand apart from the many; to be something of, and by herself.” 1 Invoking the images and discourse of industrial labor debates, Ellis compares the spectacle of this woman’s failed attempt to manufacture a “cheerful . . . witty . . . animated, brilliant, and amusing” self to the spectacle of men forced to perform repetitive, unnatural actions that are neither original to themselves, nor conducive to the development of human character. Because, Ellis argues, such a woman’s achievements demand from her

ingenuity in the way of evading, stooping, conciliating, and sometimes deceiving; as well as . . . a continued series of efforts to be cheerful when depressed, witty when absolutely dull, and animated, brilliant, and amusing, when disappointed, weary, or distressed, . . . [w]e are led to exclaim, that the miner, the convict, and the slave have an easier and a happier lot than hers.

(D, 133; emphasis added)

In this essay, I will be arguing that, in her project of shaming the would-be exceptional woman’s attempt to construct herself, Ellis’s turn to the lexicon of industrialism is in no way random. 2 Rather, this smooth transition from dissimulation to mechanization is typical of the rhetoric of proper nineteenth-century subjectivity. Ellis’s horror at this woman’s behavior lies largely in the transparency of its artifice, so that the sacrifice of “nature” to class interests is condemnable not so much because it is unusual, but because it is detectable. Her repetitions of the gestures and signs of cheerfulness, wit, and so on, become scandalous because they strip those qualities of their essentialist claims and reduce them to manufactured products.

In the interests of clarity, let me offer an anachronistic example. In producing this essay, I found myself consistently haunted by a scene from Brian Forbes’s 1975 film, The Stepford Wives. In it, the heroine, Joanna, enters the home of her friend, Bobbi, only to find that, like the [End Page 423] other women of Stepford, Bobbi has fallen victim to a sinister genius. The genius, retired from a career of making robots for Disney, now plies his trade in Stepford, producing different figurines for a different small world. His domestic models are suburban angels in the house who slowly but surely kill and replace the human housewives of this sleepy California town. Horrified to find the previously feminist Bobbi dressed in something not far short of a French maid’s outfit, Joanna stabs Bobbi in the stomach. Instead of gushing blood, however, Bobbi simply gushes. “How could you do a thing like that?,” she asks Joanna, “when I was just going to give you coffee? . . . when I was just going to give you coffee? . . . when I was just going to give you coffee?” 3 In lieu of bodily fluids, Bobbi produces a series of repetitions, turning to the kitchen cabinet again and again, withdrawing teacups and dropping them to the floor as she continues to deplore Joanna’s rejection of her hospitality.

Given the mechanical quality of Bobbi’s repetitious politeness, I imagine I am not alone in finding it comforting that Bobbi ultimately proves to be an automaton. More disconcerting is the proximity of Bobbi’s behavior to what one might deem a “natural” display of social grace, so that the repetitions she makes visible as repetitions carry an ontological threat. Just as the scandal of her incessant lament for the coffee she will never serve lies in its repetitive, mechanical attitude, the scandal of the potential for the repetitions that constitute “natural” behavior to become visible lies in the precarious status of naturalness itself. The disdain with which Joanna receives Bobbi’s nearly parodic display of sociability does not, in fact, differ greatly from Ellis’s representation of the “evading, stooping, conciliating, and sometimes deceiving” woman; in fact, that Ellis refers to this woman’s “efforts to be cheerful when depressed, witty when absolutely dull, and animated, brilliant, and amusing, when disappointed, weary, or distressed” as a “continued series” suggests the ways...

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