Saturday 7 September 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Naomi

Over the past few weeks I've looked at a range of female characters who appear in fictional Victorian trials, considering novels and short stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins. While I hope to come back to this topic, following up on suggestions from readers, for now I’m bringing this discussion to a close by returning to Braddon to review one last female witness, whose theatrical performance in court has implications for the convergence of the theatrical and domestic discussed in an earlier post.

A nineteenth-century divorce court
Naomi, a central character of the novella ‘As The Heart Knoweth’ (pub. 1903) appears as witness at her father’s inquest, succeeding in maintaining a calm demeanour when she has in fact murdered him herself. Braddon’s discussion of trials at this juncture makes the connection between court and theatre even more explicit than we have seen elsewhere:

‘[In the courts there are] tragedy and comedy, crime, treason, love, jealousy, all the throes and workings of human passions, all the shifts and expedients of human craft, exhibited in their naked realism. The strongest naturalistic novel or the wildest sensational romance is a fairy tale for children compared with the revelations of the Old Bailey, or the Inns of Court, or the Palais de Justice.’

This is not a straightforward alignment in any way. The court is a place of performance and Naomi’s performance allows her to get away with murder (‘she answered even the most trying questions quietly and firmly’) but Braddon’s narrator insists that the passions displayed in the court are natural – more natural than the realist novel – just as defenders of the theatre spoke of acting as the display of natural feelings.

What’s more, Naomi’s composure makes her not only an ideal witness and actress, but the perfect middle class wife. The vicar Gray admires her appearance at the inquest, noting that ‘that calm good sense of hers enabled her to suppress all hysterical and emotional demonstrations’. From the first moment of her appearance in the story Naomi’s fitness for the domestic sphere is based on her murderous qualities – she would be ‘a magnificent model for a painter who wanted a Charlotte Corday’.

Like Mrs Beauly then, Naomi’s quiet, respectable kind of display, which gives her the appearance of a Mary Barton or an Esther Lyon, is even more dangerous than the showy, over-sexualised performer like Phoebe or Lady Audley. Her naturalism and embodiment of middle-class virtues – the two most common areas of praise for real Victorian actresses – disguise her ability to transgress and the courtroom (a place of apparent ‘truth’)  is the perfect arena in which to pull this off.

‘As the Heart Knoweth’ is available in the same volume of short stories as ‘Sweet Simplicity’. If there are any other Victorian trials you think the Secret Victorianist should return to at a later date, let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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