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Reviewed by:
  • Women's Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain
  • Nina Auerbach (bio)
Katherine Newey , Women's Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), ix + 269 pages, hardback (ISBN 13: 978 1 4039 4332 3).

Katherine Newey's book about Victorian woman playwrights has two laudable aims: to 'make visible … previously invisible women writers' and to incorporate theatre history into the larger field of Victorian studies, 'which has consistently ignored the theatre as a significant element of nineteenth-century culture' (1). Newey more or lessaccomplishes the first, providing abundant information about hitherto obscure women, if not quite bringing them to life; but her book is too narrow and skimpy, and too analytically weak, to bring theatre history into the wider context of Victorian studies.

The great strength of Women's Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain is its range. Beginning with Romantic drama in the 1820s and 1830s, whose few women writers were inhibited by the stigma of 'exceptionalism', Newey moves through the supposed cultural legitimacy of women's tragedies; the commercial plays written between the 1820s and the early 1860s, culminating in the mid-1860s vogue for women-centred sensation drama; the loftier, less lucrative closet dramas of the 1870s; and, by the fin-de-siècle, the fame of Ibsen's feminist plays (first translated and promoted by women) and of suffrage drama. Despite Newey's fastidious avoidance of what she calls 'triumphalism', her book has something of a happy ending: by the fin-de-siècle, women's livesand women writers were one theatrical norm, not the constrained exception. Our experiences were, for a time at least, acceptable on the stage.

Few Victorianists will know Newey's cast of characters, at least not as playwrights. In roughly chronological order, she discusses the plays of Isabel Hill, Felicia Hemans, Mary Russell Mitford, Caroline Boaden, Eliza Planché (wife of the better-known playwright James), Elizabeth Conquest, Mary Ebsworth, Elizabeth Phillips, Mrs Denvil (who comes stripped of a recorded first name), Clotilde Graves, Madeleine Lucette Ryley, George Eliot (yes that George Eliot), Augusta Webster, Eliza Keating, Catherine Gore, Florence Bell, and Florence Marryat; such early, and unsung, translators of Ibsen as Catherine Ray, Henrietta Frances Lord, and Eleanor Marx; the suffrage writer Evelyn Glover and the patriotic rabble-rouser Mrs F. G. Kimberley.

In restoring these women, Newey has done heroic archival resuscitation. There are excellent discussions here, especially of Catherine Gore, usually derided for her 'silver-fork' novels, as a covertly political playwright. But Mrs Denvil is my favourite. Like many of Newey's women, [End Page 151] Mrs Denvil was a hard-working if anonymous member of a theatrical family. Her actor-manager husband, touted in the 1830s as the next Kean, became a bankrupt in the 1840s. To keep the precarious family company afloat, Mrs Denvil churned out melodramas for seamy bookings at East End theatres while her daughters played pantomime fairies. Mrs Denvil's prolific if marginal output never made her famous, but her obscurity did save her from the moral condescension that surrounded the 'exceptional' woman playwright.

But the book founders when it confronts stellar works, or fails to confront them. While copious on writers most of us have never heard of, and shrewd about the sanctimoniously sexist journalism that subordinated their work, Newey skims over plays successful enough to have lasted into our times. She omits full discussion of the notorious Joanna Baillie in the 1820s because 'of all nineteenth-century women playwrights her work has been the most thoroughly discussed in recent revisionist scholarship' (5). No doubt this is so, but most Victorianists won't have read that scholarship, nor have most feminists or most scholars interested in the nineteenth-century theatre. By eliding the most visible, and probably most interesting work, Newey mutilates her study and limits her readership to a small field.

In the same presumably anti-elitist spirit, Newey's detailed discussion of sensation fiction and melodrama includes a long (not entirely accurate) discussion of Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd, which she sees as revolutionary because they are steeped in a woman's perspective; but she unaccountably ignores the most popular melodrama of the century...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0133
Print ISSN
1355-5502
Pages
pp. 151-154
Launched on MUSE
2007-05-09
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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