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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’ |
Mary Russell Mitford

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Essay on the work of Mary Russell Mitford, by Mary Hambidge, May 2003

The Representation of Women in Early 19th-century Society as Challenged in Mary Russell Mitford’s Foscari (1826) and Julian (1823)

During the Romantic period there were many women involved in drama and theatre, although key recognition has historically been given to the male figures of the period such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. The purpose of this essay is to highlight some of the issues which are prominent in the drama of Mary Russell Mitford, who was a successful playwright of the Romantic period but whose work has received little attention.

The cultural gender ideology of the period discouraged women’s achievement in the theatre’s public world, and this achievement was made harder by the male-dominated nature of the business. The plays which will be discussed in this essay, Julian (1823) and Foscari (1826), are both historical verse tragedies which represent the fall of great men. How Mitford uses this genre of tragedy and history on the Romantic stage to dramatise the representation of women in her society, and therefore how she uses the stage as a tool to enter into the public, political sphere of contemporary debate, will be the main focus of this essay. I will also discuss how Mitford challenges the representation of women in early 19th-century society by developing her characters from passive, traditional representations of women into autonomous individuals in a patriarchal society. Mitford’s dramatisation of the tension between the public and the private, through the main female characters’ relationships with their fathers, will also be considered.

In order to set the discussion of the representation of women in context, it is necessary to look at how Mitford was treated as a female playwright; this will enable a fuller understanding of why she felt it necessary to challenge the traditional notions of femininity. Women playwrights of the Romantic period faced many predicaments due to their sex as, while dramatic writing held the promise of wealth and fame, they were also forced to try and maintain notions of sensibility deemed correct for middle-class women. This was a difficult task, as they needed to engage with the actor-managers who organised the production of their plays and whose ways of doing business conflicted with these notions of sensibility.

These kinds of strictures placed upon women could be viewed as a way of restricting their identities in order to allow the continuation of a masculine-dominated society. The problems women faced in a male-orientated society and business are evident in a letter about Mitford from Mrs Browning to Ruskin. Mrs Browning suggests that ‘perhaps if she had been a man with a man’s opportunities, she would have spoken rather than written a reputation …’ (Astin, 1930: 10). This comment further supports the evidence that women were oppressed by their society, as their views were not listened to, so they had to employ another outlet, such as the stage, in order to enter the public sphere.

Women had to work extremely hard to succeed in the society of the early 19th century. A comment made by Mitford while talking about leaving Three Mile Cross to move to her cottage in Swallowfield confirms this: ‘there I had toiled and striven, and tasted so deeply of bitter anxiety, of fear, and of hope, as often falls to the lot of a woman …’ (Astin, 1930: 106-107).

Mitford’s sense of agency in her playwrighting suffered when she wanted to get her first two plays produced because the theatre business was run by men. The first two plays Mitford wrote, Fiesco and Foscari, caused her many problems as she was made to revise them and they were still alternately accepted and rejected for months by Charles Kemble and William Macready. This demonstrates the authoritarian power that male figures held in the theatre business. After all this trouble, the two plays were then put to one side.

Undefeated, Mitford then wrote Julian, which was accepted by Kemble and Macready, and in which Macready played the lead role.

Mitford’s stoical determination to become a successful playwright can be seen in a letter to Sir William Elford in 1822,

To confess the truth, my dear friend, I am so thoroughly out of heart about Foscari that I cannot bear even to think or speak on the subject. Nevertheless the drama is my talent – my only talent – and I mean to go on and improve. I will improve – that is my fixed determination (The Letters of Mary Russell Mitford, 1925: 172).

Mitford encountered further problems with Macready with another play, Rienzi.
Macready, demonstrating his authoritarian powers, wanted Mitford to revise Rienzi before he would produce it, which she primarily objected to. After her experiences with Fiesco and Foscari, Mitford now seemed to be demonstrating some resistance in order to retain some agency in the creation of her plays. But due to the nature of the theatre business Mitford obviously had no choice if she wanted her play produced, and she eventually agreed to Macready’s terms. Presumably this sacrifice, although hard to make, was the lesser evil than not having Rienzi produced at all.

The picture of Macready as a typical domineering theatre manager who views women as inferior in their talent is confirmed by a comment made by Mrs Barbara Hofland: ‘… Macready told me it was a wonderful tragedy – an extraordinary tragedy, “for a woman to have written”’ (Astin, 1930: 66-67).

The problems Mitford encountered with her plays when trying to get them produced demonstrates the position of women in the society of her time, and suggests a reason why women playwrights would use the stage as a tool to enable them to enter into the public sphere.

In Foscari and Julian Mitford uses the genre of tragedy and history to enable her to inhabit the masculine realm of politics on the stage and to resist the exclusion of female voices from public debate on contemporary issues such as gender equality. The public theatrical performance allowed women playwrights to enter into this public arena of English culture and to overcome the disabilities of gender. Mitford’s choice of settings for Foscari and Julian can be seen to be relevant to the discussion of the representation of women in society. Mitford mirrors Shakespeare’s style, as both plays are set in distanced Mediterranean countries. Mitford chose to dramatise historical events that took place in Venice, Italy in Foscari, and she chose Messina as the setting for Julian. The distance of Italy and Sicily from England allows for the events of the plays not to be paralleled with the events of the English monarchy, but the chosen locations are close enough for the audience and the readers to be aware of its culture, and these settings also therefore allude to the revolutionary decades in Italy and Europe. Italy and Sicily as the settings of the plays provide a moral ethos, as the audience and the readers of the period would have been aware that these places were wealthy, glamorous, romantic and were relatively independent. Mitford’s view on Sicily can be seen in the prologue to Julian,
Its scene, as inauspicious to our strain,
Is neither mournful Greece, nor kindling Spain,
But Sicily – where no defiance hurled,
At freedom’s foes may awe the attending world.

The settings of Italy and Sicily also suggest to the audience that there will be tensions between the political and the personal, as other plays which would have been well-known in this period, such as Othello and Venice Preserv’d, also present this kind of tension. Mitford is therefore conforming to audience expectations of a tragedy.

It is evident throughout the plays that Messina and Venice are ruled by powerful men and are patriarchal societies. This mirrors the kind of society which Mitford lived in, as this was also a patriarchal society ruled by George IV at the time the plays were written. Messina represented more of a cosmopolitan culture than England, however; this can be seen to be challenging the traditional, conservative way of structuring society.

Through the discussion of Foscari and Julian it will be suggested that Mitford dramatises the representation of women in society and then goes on to develop her characters to show that it is possible for women to have agency in a patriarchal society. Her works therefore enter the debate on equality between the sexes and suggest how society could be structured differently. Mitford is consequently foregrounding the conditions under which women lived in early 19th-century society, and challenging these conditions in order to suggest more autonomous ones.

At the beginning of Foscari the two female characters in the play embody traditional representations of women, passive and reliant upon the dominant men in their lives. Camilla and Laura are first seen in Act I, scene iii in an apartment in the Donato Palace. It is a short scene, barely two-and-a-half pages as written. Mitford introduces the characters in this setting and for this short length of time in order to represent the women in a way similar to that in which they are positioned in society. This first introduction of the characters portrays them as inactive and subordinate to the male characters in the play; this parallels women’s status in contemporary society.

The language used by Camilla and Laura throughout this scene is romantic and sentimental: ‘I am the blessedest creature that e’er trod/This laughing earth! There is but only one/Can hope to be so happy …’ (I, iii). This type of language is typical of traditional representations of women who are passive and only concerned with domestic affairs. It becomes evident during this scene that the female characters are subservient to the dominant male characters, and rely upon them for information about and from the public sphere. This can be seen when Camilla relies on her brother Cosmo to give her news of Foscari. This reliance on men exemplifies a woman’s position in early 19th-century society: women were expected to be domesticated and to stay at home whilst the men engaged in the public arena. The fact that Cosmo is Camilla’s lifeline gives him power over her. Cosmo’s power over Camilla is also shown when he arranges with Foscari, in Act II, that the latter should visit Camilla.

The second time the female characters are seen in the play is in Act III; again they are shown in an apartment in the Donato Palace. In this scene Camilla’s dependence on her father Donato, her brother Cosmo and her lover Foscari is again exemplified. Camilla is distraught when the men she relies on seem to have deserted her:

            And Cosmo comes not;
            He sends not to me – he that never broke
            His plighted word before! And Laura! Laura!
            Foscari is in Venice, is returned
            Triumphant, and he comes not, sends not … (III, i)

Mitford is conveying here the traditional female gender role – passive and powerless – which men of the time expected women to inhabit. This image is further conveyed when it becomes apparent that a feast for Foscari is taking place, yet Camilla and Laura cannot go. Mitford is showing here that women are excluded from public and professional life.

When Camilla is called as a witness to Foscari’s trial, she is led in by an Officer – this is symbolic of the male power which so far throughout the play has dominated her. Although in juxtaposition to this symbolic power it is during this scene that Camilla starts to display a stronger-willed side of her character, as she proclaims Foscari’s innocence in contrast to what her brother Cosmo believes: ‘He’s innocent! Oh, I would stake my life/On Foscari’s innocence’ (IV, i). This is a turning-point for Camilla as she now starts to show autonomy.

This turning-point shows the development of Camilla’s character and allows Mitford to enter into the public, political sphere by raising issues which are relevant to the contemporary debate on the equality of the sexes. Mitford is showing through Camilla’s character that women can become empowered in a patriarchal, oppressive society. Camilla as a powerful and active character continues into the last act, when she states that she is going against her brother’s wishes and will go into exile with Foscari. It is in this scene that her language changes to mirror her strength of character:

                                                Sir, I am not mad;
            I’m a Donato born, and drank in courage
            Even with my mother’s milk. What if I shake!
            Within this trembling frame there is a heart
            As firm as thine (V, i).

The settings Camilla is presented in throughout the play are symbolic to heer portrayal as passive or active. When Camilla is portrayed as powerless she is in an apartment in the Donato Palace, a place where she has been brought up and ruled over by her father and brother. However, when she starts to show independence of thought she is in a Hall of Justice. This place of political power in which Camilla expresses her agency can be seen to parallel the way Mitford uses the stage as a place to enter into the public sphere. Mitford is showing the possibility to women that they can have power in a patriarchal society, and that they can break free from the domination of men who try to regulate their identities and behaviours.

Once Camilla has expressed her individualism in the public arena, this then allows her to go on to express herself in the Donato Palace, ‘My heart is firm. I go …’ (V, i), a place where previously her individual expression was constrained.

The final scene, which is set on the seashore, could be seen to represent the outside world. Here, Camilla continues to convey freedom of expression. This demonstrates that Camilla is no longer restricted by a domesticated, oppressive role. Therefore, throughout Foscari Mitford has dramatised the representation of women in early 19th-century society and has challenged this notion by suggesting an alternative role for women and consequently an alternative structure for society.

Mitford continues the portrayal of strong female characters in Julian. In contrast to Camilla in Foscari, the main female character in Julian, Annabel,is shown to be an important character from the outset of the play. At the start of the play Annabel is shown to be strong and commanding: ‘Avoid the couch; come this way; close to me’ (I, i). She uses short, commanding directive sentences with an imperative structure, which convey an assertive character.

Although Annabel is portrayed in this way, she is at first presented in a domestic setting where she is nursing her husband Julian. Therefore Mitford can be seen to be experimenting with new ways to enact feminine roles whilst also conforming to a certain set of social expectations on the correct performance of feminine behaviours.

The importance of Annabel’s character is also exemplified when it is she who starts unravelling the sequence of events which led to the state which Julian is in: ‘… till that dread hour … he flew to meet the King/And his great father. He went forth alone; Frenzy and grief came back with him’ (I, i). Interest is created for the audience as the story is revealed piece by piece and the truth is clouded by what the characters think has happened: ‘Dark, dark at very noon, a father lies/Murdered by his own son’ (I, i). The scene ends as it began: with Annabel. She informs Julian that his father is alive. This continues to reveal Annabel’s importance in the play and demonstrates that she is an autonomous character who doesn’t have to rely on men to enable her to participate in the public arena. 

In contrast to Camilla in Foscari, Annabel is not ruled over by a father or brother; this supports the view that Mitford is continuing her portrayal of active female characters and is therefore also continuing her expression of her views regarding gender equality in the public, political sphere. Annabel is the only main female character in Julian, and although there are implications that she converses with another female character, Constance, off-stage, the fact that she doesn’t do this on stage suggests that Mitford is paralleling Annabel with the male characters and thereby displaying gender equality on the stage.

Similarities can be drawn between Camilla and Annabel, as both pledge their allegiance to their lovers when the latter are arrested. When Annabel does this, however, her self-defamatory language contradicts the fact that she is acting with empowerment: ‘We’ll go together to the States. We’ll save thee. We, feeble though we be, woman and boy,/We’ll save thee. Hold me not!’ (III, i). Mitford is showing here that Annabel is trying to display some political power by having an influence on the State, just as Mitford herself wants to display political power by expressing the unrestrained character of women on the stage. One of the male characters, D’Alba, a powerful nobleman, does try to restrict Annabel when he tries to force marriage upon her, ‘One whom thou lov’st, stands in my danger. Wed me/This very night … Wed me, or look to hear/Of bloody justice’ (IV, iii). This restraint and control that D’Alba tries to force upon Annabel is both physical, as he locks her in a tower, and mental as he attempts to blackmail her with the threat that if she doesn’t agree Julian will be killed. Annabel continues to show her strength of character throughout this scene as she refuses D’Alba and continues to act resourcefully and independently. Annabel takes positive action to try and get out of the situation: ‘What if I hang my rosary from the casement? There is a brightness in the gorgeous jewel/To catch men’s eyes, and haply some may pass/That are not pitiless’ (IV, iii). This is the only time in the play where Annabel is forced to rely upon a male character, but this does not harm the portrayal of her character as strong and powerful.

When Julian arrives and his life is threatened Annabel acts in a selfless manner by dying for Julian. This is unusual in a tragedy, as here Annabel has made the decision herself to die. Throughout Julian Annabel shows she is a powerful character who is independent and self-governing. Therefore Mitford has challenged the traditional role of female characters as usually portrayed on the stage at this time.

Julian continues to challenge the traditional representation of women in society as a female actress, Maria Foote, was cast in the role of Alfonso, King of Sicily. Maria Foote was a hardworking actress and was cast in many parts on the stage (see appendices for pictures of Maria Foote in some of her roles). Due to her popularity and the fact that she was famous, many speculations were made about her when she wasn’t acting on the stage, for example it was rumoured that she was in hiding having an illegitimate child. The male biographers of the period often used actresses as objects for the projection of their own sexual attitudes and beliefs about gender identity. These men were more interested in the physical responses that women’s bodies could incite, and the sexual content of their private lives, than their achievements in acting. With rumours circulating about her it is likely that Maria Foote encountered many of the problems that Mitford faced, as she was also a woman working in a masculine-orientated business.

The audiences of the Romantic period expected that a character’s gender identity would be performed according to a prescribed set of cultural expectations, although this is challenged in Julian because a female actress playing a male character could be said to legitimise the portrayal of homoerotic desires. Homoerotic desire between Alfonso and Julian is hinted at at the end of the play, when Julian mirrors Alfonso’s language. Alfonso says: ‘My Julian, Look on me. Dost thou know me? I’m thy cousin,/Thy Comforter’, to which Julian replies: ‘She was my comforter’ (V, i). The way Julian refers to Annabel as his ‘comforter’, as Alfonso has just referred to himself as Julian’s ‘comforter’, hints at homoerotic desires.

The audience’s expectations are also further challenged through the character of Alfonso as played by a woman. Although Alfonso does not play a huge part in Julian the plot is focused around an act that he was involved in. Alfonso is the patriarchal ruler of Sicily, and the fact that his character is played by a woman highlights the issue that the female sex is normally considered subordinate in the public, political arena. This then enhances Mitford’s notions of challenging the representation of women in society.

As previously mentioned, both Foscari and Julian depict tension between the public and the personal. It is mainly through the male characters in these plays that this tension is seen and the main themes of morality combined with public power become evident. In both of the plays the majority of the male characters are shown to be immoral, for example by plotting and trying to usurp the throne, and it is because of their actions that the two eponymous characters are torn between the public – what is the morally right thing to do for the State – and the personal – their relationship with their respective fathers.

Foscari is represented as a moral character. He is introduced to the audience as a good soldier who has been fighting and has gained a victory for his country, which exemplifies that the public domain is important to him. This attribute of morality and wanting to do the correct thing for the State is emphasised when Foscari is outraged at the actions and consequent immorality of some of the other characters: ‘Thou not Doge! Erizzo climb into thy honoured seat/Honoured by thee! Or thou, Donato, thou/Join with this false, ungrateful, heartless Senate,/This shadow and this mockery of wisdom …’(II, i). Foscari’s strength of feeling at the attempted dethroning of his father, the Doge, shows his equally strong sense of duty to the personal. It is through this relationship that the tensions between public and private are seen in Foscari.

The father-son relationship is shown to be continually strong throughout the play, and the tension between public and private is seen when the Doge is placed in the predicament of having to try his son with regards to the accusation that he has murdered Donato. Foscari’s morality and strength are shown when he doesn’t allow his father’s role as the Doge to impact upon their relationship: ‘Then I shall sometimes see,/For surely he will show it me, thy name,/Thy writing, something thou hast touched. ’Twill be a comfort’ (V, i). In contrast to this is the tension between the public and the private as seen affecting the Doge. This is shown through some of the descriptions of the Doge looking old and weary after Foscari’s sentence.

The relationship between the Doge and Foscari indicates that they both have strong family values, but it is public duty which has caused them to be physically torn apart in their private lives.

Julian is also shown to have strong family values, and in this play it is also the attempted usurpation of the throne, by Julian’s father Melfi, which creates tension between the public and the private. Although Julian has witnessed his father trying to kill his cousin Alfonso, whom he considers dear to him, Julian continues to express his love for his father. He is essentially being pulled between what is morally right for his country, and his relationship with his father. He feels guilt that he has stabbed his father: ‘Dark, dark at very noon, a father lies/Murdered by his own son’ (I, i). However Julian also feels that his actions were necessary, not only to save his cousin, but also to do what was right for the State. ‘The King, I say,/The rightful King, the only King! I’ll shed/The last drop in my veins for King Alfonso’ (II, i).

In contrast to Julian, Melfi shows his immorality and uncaring nature for his family, and consequently his private life, by going against his promise to Alfonso’s father that he would look after him. Throughout the play Julian tries to balance his private life with his public life, but the predicament he is placed in by his father’s attempted usurpation of the throne causes tension between these two spheres. Julian’s constant endeavour to create this balance, and the morality of his character, are what lead him to confess to being the only guilty party. This suggests that Julian feels that it would be an immoral act to reveal that it was his father who tried to murder Alfonso, so in order to clear his own conscience and release the tension that has been created between the public and the private, Julian puts himself forward as the only guilty party. When he could reveal what has really happened, he doesn’t, and this protects his father and exemplifies Julian’s strength of character and his commitment to his family. Therefore, throughout both plays it is the main characters’ relationships with their fathers that tensions between public and private are played out.

The way Mitford portrays Julian’s relationship with his father seems to parallel her own relationship with her father. Mitford’s father was a gambler, and the issues raised in Julian suggest that although she did not agree with her father’s habits she felt that she should stick by him because she was his daughter. This issue suggests that as well as using the stage as a place where she could enter the public sphere to air her opinions on contemporary issues, such as gender equality, she could also use it as a place to express other issues that were important to her, such as family values. This therefore supports the view that Mitford conveys her experiences, views and opinions through her work for the stage.

This can be seen through another prominent theme in both of the plays, as previously mentioned: public power. This is an important issue in the plays as it emphasises the position of women in society. Both of the plays are about usurpation of a throne, and this exemplifies another important issue with regards to the position of women, because the power is patriarchal. This shows Mitford’s dramatisation of the society and culture of the early 19th century.

It is interesting that the male figures who try to gain public power, Count Erizzo and Melfi, are already in positions of power. Mitford can therefore be seen to be portraying these characters as always seeking more power over their countries, just as men were trying to do in the early 19th century by not allowing women to be considered equal or to occupy positions of power by excludign women from public and professional life.

In conclusion, in Foscari Mitford is dramatising the representation of women in early 19th-century society and entering into the contemporary debate on gender equality by challenging traditional notions of femininity. This demonstrates that Mitford is using the stage as a tool to enable her to enter into the public political sphere, a place which had previously been inaccessible to women.