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  • The Devil Inside:London's Slums and the Crisis of Gender in Shaw's Widowers' Houses
  • Sandra Joy Russell (bio)

When the young novelist Bernard Shaw began collaborating with critic William Archer on what would become his first play, Widowers' Houses, he did so in the wake of London's 1885 Housing Act—a measure that enabled the Metropolitan Board of Works to develop homes for the working classes. Although Shaw's partnership with Archer dissolved and the unfinished play was set aside, he returned to it seven years later to see its completion and first production in December 1892. Importantly, the urban-historical context in which the play is situated reveals widespread political and economic corruption at the heart of a city wrestling with the impact of the Industrial Revolution. And yet while Widowers' Houses does not seek to resolve London's housing crisis, the play is indicative of Shaw's increasingly radical aesthetic—and political—assault on the formulaic traditions of Victorian theater. In particular, Widowers' Houses is a paradigmatic example of Shaw's commitment to the artistic and cultural role of theater in relation to London's urban social welfare. As James Woodfield suggests, the play's subtlety unearths shame, and in doing so, reminds its audience of their complacency.1 As a space for the exploration of ideas, theater, for Shaw, provides an outlet for the staging of social anxieties; in the case of Widowers' Houses, he dramatizes the troubled relationship between London's ongoing problem of inadequate housing and social class. Although the plot corresponds neatly to the predictability of a conventional, romantic comedy, Shaw's portrayal of London's fragmenting center and the relationship between gender and urban decay highlights a moment of crisis not only for the living space of the poor but also for the social misdirection of the city's wealthy inhabitants. [End Page 86]

In terms of plot, the play, in aligning with standard Victorian theater, does not present a particularly original structure. Shaw focuses primarily on the romantic interplay between its hero and heroine: Harry Trench, the poor, yet aristocratic, young doctor; and Blanche Sartorius, the play's headstrong, aristocratic heroine. Within their romance, he highlights economic concerns such as money and housing as intermediate bargaining points within their societal and marital expectations. However, Blanche's role within this somewhat predictable social comedy is both unusual for the time and critical to Shaw's subtle performance of social commentary, in that he conveys London's reality through a comedic performance of gender relations, particularly marriage. As Julia Bush describes in Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power (2000), for a Victorian woman, a "suitable" marriage was expected during this time. Such unions "were the key to successful perpetuation of the heredity landed aristocracy and thence to upper-class domination of national life."2 Marriages among the elite were often political, and Blanche and Trench's engagement is no different. Like most couples during this period, a proper marriage sought to maintain class status while also fulfilling the societal duties of the respective parties. Shaw's dramatization of gender roles, however, departs from its audience's expectation, and his portrayal of Blanche, in many ways, defies a Victorian understanding of what a woman ought to be. Like the sphere of housing, she operates as a symbolic space wherein her worth and position are continually negotiated. In "City A/genders," Sophie Watson characterizes the city's relationship to gender in terms of its spatial construction as follows: "At the macro level how cities are organized has real effects on women's lives"; in particular, the ways in which urban planning and development occur "have tended to reflect, and also reinforce, traditional assumptions about gender."3 Widowers' Houses works within this binary of spatial and social, placing the housing crisis alongside shifting notions of gender and marriage. Blanche's marriage to Trench, although ultimately her decision, is indeed part of the social expectations of the time, and her bargaining functions as a device for connecting audience to narrative and ultimately to the city's looming and pernicious social conditions. Woman, in this way, is woven into the social understanding or urban space, with Shaw...


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pp. 86-101
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