Friday 2 August 2013

Sister Act; or, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage?

Nineteenth-century actress Helen Faucit
In his preface to Basil (1852), which I reviewed last month, Wilkie Collins writes the following about the relationship between novel writing and play writing:

the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction…one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted…all the strong and deep emotions which the Play-writer is privileged to excite, the Novel-writer is privileged to excite also.

Here the metaphor of sisterhood is used to express similarity between the stage and page – difference of form (one ‘narrates’, the other ‘acts’) excites the same emotions in the reader or viewer.

In his later novel No Name (1863), Collins literalises this metaphor in presenting us with a novel which strips down the formal distinctions between play and novel, divided as it is into ‘scenes’ of action, alternated with different forms of narrative. In this novel the stage/page similarity or sisterhood is also played out in the stories of two sisters – one domestic (like the novel), one dramatic (like the stage). While Collins does not effect a complete reversal of expectation, Magdalen, whose name, actions and temperament all point to a stereotypical view of the actress is opposed to the domestic sphere, is undoubtedly the heroine of the piece and there is much in the novel which suggests her similarity to the dutiful Norah. Not only is Norah the model for Magdalen’s first forays into acting, but the elder, domestic sister’s quiet reserve is shown to be pretence – good acting – through the narrative intrusions available to the novelist, allowing us to see scenes which are effectively ‘off-stage’, when Norah releases her emotions ‘alone’ in her room. Sensation fiction suggests that the home is the scene for drama which is often criminal – keeping your daughter off the stage does not mean she won’t learn to act.

Collins was not the first novelist to make use of a pair of sisters – one dramatic, one domestic – to consider the position of women in the home, and the relationship of the novel to the stage. Geraldine Jewsbury’s wonderful The Half Sisters (1848) had gone even further, depicting the rise to prosperity and social recognition won by the talented actress Bianca, opposed with the adultery and degradation of her sister Alice, who is kept sequestered in the middle-class home. The stage – traditionally seen as a dangerous space for women – is preferable to what Collins called elsewhere ‘the secret theatre of the home’. Mary Elizabeth Braddon does something similar in the much later A Lost Eden (1904). Flora acts, but it is her sister Marian who encounters something very close to stage villainy in the novel.

This isn’t just about keeping readers guessing or sanitising the theatrical profession – although both impulses are definitely at work here. The metaphor of sisterhood is a useful one as it allows for variation as well as a fundamental kinship. In these novels, Jewsbury, Collins and Braddon expose the kinship between the Victorian home and the Victorian theatre, and the writing forms each is most associated with. The result is a clear challenge not only to contemporary attitudes towards the theatre and the home, and the women who inhabit them, but to our critical assumptions about the literary worth of genres.

Do you know any other fictional pairs of Victorian sisters, where one or both takes to the stage? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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