Renovating the closet : nineteenth-century closet drama written by women as a stage for social critique
Lee, Michelle Stoddard
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My dissertation, "Renovating the Closet : Nineteenth-Century Closet Drama Written by Women as a Stage for Social Critique," contributes to a new understanding about nineteenth-century closet drama through three distinct and innovative texts: George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy (1868), Michael Field's Stephania (1892), and Augusta Webster's A Woman Sold (1867). I contend that these three women writers employed the closet drama, a genre written in dramatic form but intended to be privately read or performed, to critique the social, cultural, and ideological limitations placed upon women of their time. In their symbolic use of the genre and innovative experiments with form, Eliot, Field, and Webster created a new stage on which their female protagonists challenge belief systems, institutions, and conventions that confine their gender roles, sexual identity, and social power. My chapter, "'Angel of the Homeless Tribe' : The Legacy of The Spanish Gypsy," shows how George Eliot melds the conventions of epic narrative with those of Victorian closet drama and reveals a dynamic connection between the character development and genre. Eliot's canonical novels are famous for their indictment of the limited roles Victorian culture offered to women. Equally famous are the tragic destinies of her rebellious heroines: they end up dead, unfulfilled, or virtually imprisoned. But scholars have failed to notice that in her experiment with The Spanish Gypsy, Eliot created a female epic: Fedalma, a woman of fifteenth-century Spain, becomes the leader of her "Gypsy" nation, sung into the future by an admiring bard. Eliot's formal experiment makes The Spanish Gypsy an important text for understanding how genre shaped gender representation in Eliot's canon, and in Victorian literature generally. My chapter, "'Something of His Manhood Falls' : Stephania as Critique of Victorian Male Aesthetics and Masculinity," offers Stephania as Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper's commentary on the predominantly-male Aesthetic and Decadent movements of the 1890s. Through the pseudonym Michael Field, Bradley and Cooper wrote their way into, and claimed their own space inside, a very exclusive males-only closet. The chapter demonstrates how Stephania, set in Rome 1002 A.D., reclaims agency for a Victorian artistic "sisterhood" adulterated and exiled by a "brotherhood" of male Decadents (who saw woman as a nemesis to social order, personal salvation, and creative production), both through its form, and its cast of three: Stephania, Emperor Otho, and his old tutor Gerbert. Stephania, a former Empress turned courtesan bent on revenge for her husband's murder, challenges homosocial exclusivity and ultimately triumphs as a symbolic queen and emperor. Successful in her plan to bring down Otho through her seduction and manipulation of both men, Stephania is redeemed and saved; she has restored social order. In its resistance of the boundaries and expectations of the closet drama genre, Stephania projects a new ideology for Victorian womanhood and female authorship. My last chapter, "'I Could Be Tempted' : The Ev(e)olution of the Angel in the House in A Woman Sold," presents A Woman Sold as an early example of Augusta Webster's strategic social rhetoric, as her use of the closet drama acts as a structural metaphor for the sociomythological confinement of the nineteenth-century middle class woman. I investigate how A Woman Sold exposes the notion that marriage for nineteenth-century middle class women symbolized a closet of social and cultural paralysis, as grown from a history of socially and culturally institutionalized gender expectations. At the same time, I demonstrate how Webster employs irony through a nexus of genre, narrative, and form to support and advocate for opportunities outside marriage that encourage female agency to develop. Essentially, the fundamental argument in this dissertation hinges on the ways in which Eliot, Field, and Webster revised the conventional closet drama to renovate and, in turn, reveal the metaphorical and literal closets that confined social and cultural possibilities for nineteenth-century women.
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