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Reviewed by:
  • Acting Like a Lady: British Women Novelists and the Eighteenth-Century Theater
  • Jennifer L. Airey (bio)
Acting Like a Lady: British Women Novelists and the Eighteenth-Century Theater, by Nora Nachumi. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 2008. 347 pp. $94.50.

Critics of the eighteenth-century novel frequently ignore intersections between the works of female novelists and the British stage. Women who wrote novels were often involved with the theater in varying capacities, as actresses and playwrights, as the wives, sisters, and daughters of actors [End Page 376] and playwrights, and as audience members at both professional productions and amateur theatricals. Working against the scholarly tendency to study "one art form in isolation" (p. xviii), Nora Nachumi's Acting Like a Lady convincingly argues that exposure to theatrical productions "provided female novelists with images and tropes which helped them to dramatize the performative nature of female experience" and to "denaturalize conduct-book models of the feminine ideal" (pp. xviii, xxvi). Acting Like a Lady is a well-written and largely persuasive work, addressing an understudied aspect of the female artistic experience. If the initial chapters devote a bit too much space to an overview of recent eighteenth-century scholarship, Nachumi's readings of Elizabeth Inchbald, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen are compelling and will be of interest to scholars of both playhouse and novel.

In the first section, Acting Like a Lady surveys eighteenth-century responses to and beliefs about actresses (chapter one) and female novelists (chapter two). As restrictions on female self-expression became more stringent, many women sought out the privacy afforded by novel writing as a more freeing alternative to writing for the public stage. Simultaneously, women novelists sought legitimacy for their works by emphasizing the novel's conservative and didactic potential. The female novelist "had to at least seem to support traditional modes of feminine conduct" (p. 64). The "seeming" here is significant; for some female authors, Nachumi concludes, the appearance of social conservatism masked a subversive counter-discourse played out in theatrical references and imagery.

Nachumi culls together a great wealth of information in part one, and in part two, applies these materials to novels by Inchbald, Burney, and Austen to create three strong close readings of previously unanalyzed forms of interplay between page and stage. Nachumi begins by examining Elizabeth Inchbald's use of theatrical gesture in A Simple Story and Nature and Art. From her long career as an actress and playwright, Inchbald was intimately familiar with the language of gesture, and in A Simple Story, she relies on the subtext of body language to grant her female characters an agency otherwise forbidden them. In Inchbald's much darker Nature and Art, however, the display of feminine emotional vulnerability is powerless to move the hearts of men who themselves appear one way and act another.

Nachumi next discusses Frances Burney, who also had a long relationship with the theater, both as the author of unperformed plays and as a friend to David Garrick. Nachumi makes the persuasive argument that, for Burney, society's approval of the ladylike performance defines the lady, not the interior qualities of the woman herself. Despite her virtuous internal characteristics, Evelina can only become a "true" lady, Lady Orville, when that designation is applied from without. Likewise, in The [End Page 377] Wanderer, Ellis's experience is determined by "the subjective nature of how others perceive her" (p. 144). Nachumi's discussion of Burney is perhaps the strongest section of the work; the strength of this analysis derives from her ability to balance biographical information with attention to the material world of the playhouse and an eye to close reading detail.

Finally, Nachumi turns to Jane Austen; while not directly involved with the theater, Austen was a frequent viewer of both professional plays and private theatricals. Austen undermines the antitheatrical insistence that the theater's ability to manipulate audience emotion would lead female viewers to emulate the bad behavior of those onstage. Instead, Austen's ideal reader would "experience both a rational and an emotional response" to the text (p. 153). The reader of Mansfield Park would both celebrate Fanny Price's happy ending and recognize the...


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pp. 376-378
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