Purinton, "Feminist Utopianism and Female Sexuality in Joanna Baillie’s Comedies"
Utopianism and Joanna Baillie
Feminist Utopianism and Female Sexuality in Joanna Baillie’s Comedies
Marjean D. Purinton, Texas Tech University
The notion of Utopia is usually that of an ideal place that exists in imagination. In terms of Romantic writers’ deployment of “utopian,” however, the word suggests more than geographic displacement or imaginative worlds removed from reality. Regina Hewitt has pointed to the deployment of utopianism as a conceptual space in which present social conditions can be criticized. Hewitt explores this use of utopianism in tandem with what she terms “symbolic interactionism,” an interpretative position that Romantic-period writers found useful for analyzing and social processes and relationships. My reading of Joanna Baillie understands her plays as informed by feminist utopian thought that, as Lucy Sargisson in Contemporary Feminist Utopianism asserts, refers to “a way of seeing and approaching the world and to subsequent ways of representing what is perceived of the world” (1). For Sargisson, feminist utopian thought is multidisciplinary; it is expressed in a literary or textual artifact, and its methodology is transgressive. In other words, its function is to challenge and critique patriarchy, and the dominant relations and political realities that emanate from patriarchal structures (Contemporary 10-22). Baillie’s dramas certainly fulfill these definitional features of feminist utopianism. As Hewitt has suggested, feminist utopianism, like symbolic interactionism, seeks to create new conceptual spaces in which radically different ways of being can be imagined and in which different distributions of power, including sexual power, can be conceived (Contemporary 17-21).
Feminist utopian texts are dynamic, imperfect, speculative, metaphoric and open-ended. They contribute to critical engagements with political issues (Contemporary 25-37), and like feminism, they have a radically subversive potential; they can function as catalysts of revolutionary thought. Like feminism, this utopianism drives texts towards estrangement from prevailing standards of normalcy, appropriateness, conventionality. A feminist utopia creates and operates inside a new place or space that had previously appeared inconceivable so as to posit the possibility of different social, sexual, and symbolic relations (Contemporary 40-42). Like the pedagogical goals Baillie articulates for her plays in her introductory discourses and notes, a feminist utopia seeks fundamental paradigm shifts in the consciousness of the present so that social transformation can occur (Contemporary 42-57). Sargisson summarizes the ultimate function of feminist utopian thought that I argue informs and underpins Baillie’s dramas as that which “creates a space, previously non-existent and still ‘unreal,’ in which radically different speculation can take place, and in which totally new ways of being can be envisaged. In this space, transformative thinking can take place, and paradigmatic shifts in approach can be undertaken.” (Contemporary 63). In this essay, I want to explore the ways that three of Joanna Baillie’s comedies project feminist utopian thought engaged with early nineteenth-century debates about women as sexed and sexual beings: The Match (1836), The Second Marriage (1802), and Enthusiasm (1836).
Theatrical comedy is an interesting genre for this discussion because scientific concerns with corporeality and sexuality could be played out in the utopian theatrical spaces of the stage and the performative body. Like masquerade, theatre granted license for transgressive female sexualities and female sexual autonomy, ways of being that differed from the period’s prescriptive and increasingly encoded norms of “femininity.” Kristina Straub has argued, for example, that theatrical gender-bending made visible an awareness that feminine sexuality and gender identity could stray beyond the boundaries that were at the end of the eighteenth century emerging to define the sphere codified as female behavior (135-141). According to Sargisson, feminist utopias often focus on satire and irony, and she notes that while feminist utopianism has profound implications, it operates with “a subtle lightness of touch” (Contemporary 229). Even in comedic and satiric forms that suspended the stability of this dominant gender ideology, it remained particularly complicated for Romantic women playwrights to portray a body scientifically sexed as female and discursively gendered as feminine that might challenge prevailing medical accounts that devalued the female body as an aberration deviating from the male anatomical “norm.” At this time, medical science emerged as a discourse and practice that exerted powerful influences on codified “feminine” and “masculine” behaviors, roles, and bodies. According to Karen Harvey, the scientific and medical discourses of the late eighteenth century re-imagined women as sexually passive, but she emphasizes that what emerges at the beginning of the nineteenth century are diverse representations of the female body. Female bodies therefore inspired both fear and desire, creating considerable unease about female sexual desire (102-110).
Sexuality, as Roy Porter has demonstrated, was pervasive during the eighteenth century, and by the Romantic period, the public was fascinated with sexual anatomy, with reproduction, with erotic experience, and with the nature of masculinity and femininity (“Mixed Feelings” 1). Physiological myths characterized women as sexually insatiable, notions that can be traced to the numerous medical handbooks of the day (“The Literature of Sex Advice before 1800” 135-40). During the early nineteenth century, a fundamental shift in the definition of “sex” emerged, and the study of woman, her nature, her body, became the focus of scientific research with a significant reinterpretation of the female body in relation to that of the male, resulting, as Thomas Laqueur has shown, by 1800, in the old single-sex model which held that women had the same genitals as men, the only difference being their location, being challenged by a two-sex model based on the discoverable biological differences between male and female. The two-sex paradigm situated male and female as complementary but oppositional pairs, and the body of woman became the form upon which social relations were battled and redefined (154-63). Richard Sha reminds us, however, that the early nineteenth century experienced what he terms an “epistemological panic” that simultaneously engaged and resisted knowledge of human sexuality. Following Porter, Sha suggests that biological sex, as well as the boundary between normal and abnormal sexuality, was more fluid than oppositional during the Romantic period with both paradigms of hierarchy and complementarity at work. As sexuality, a term that Arnold Davidson explains does not appear in the OED until the late nineteenth century, was a concept undergoing the pressures of transition, the coherently gendered subject was also provisional and performative (37). Although there was no monolithic account of female sexuality during the Romantic period, discourses about sexuality derived from those concerned with anatomy and diseases, with a woman’s sexuality frequently linked to her reproductive system. Heterosexual coupling vitally promoted the social construction of the bourgeois, nuclear family, and the paragon of “motherhood” was exalted as the role for women, whose duty it was to fashion the morality of family and nation.
As medical science became developmentally “professionalized” and male-dominated, women increasingly became the object of the medical (male) gaze. The physician’s examination progressed from the conventional visual inspections and narrative accounts of symptoms to bodily penetrations with his hand and instruments. From the early nineteenth century, new diagnostic technology, such as the stethoscope and forceps, became available, and despite the diagnostic advances these instruments might bring, this invasion of “private spaces” on the female body often confounded the boundaries between “professionalism” and impropriety. Visual inspection of female genitalia became important in determining normal and abnormal categories of sex, with aberrations such as hermaphrodites and eunuchs as examples of medical pathology. Nineteenth-century scientists regarded hermaphrodites as deformed women, a grotesque form aligned with the female sex. As we have seen, the female sex was already devalued by prevailing medical accounts as an aberration deviating from the male anatomical norm. Women were, therefore, paradoxically perceived by science as sexually deficient, and as a result, incapable of erotic desires, or as sexually grotesque and consequently dangerous for their hyper-sexualized appetites. The theatre, then, allowed women playwrights to challenge the physical and social limits of female bodies. A number of the period’s comedies “perform” seemingly conventional “happily-ever-after” marital conflicts whose closures ensure, or imply at least, romantic love and heteronormative marriage, but carefully placed characters in those comedies suggest that female sexuality might be more improvisational and diverse than dominant and legitimate medical science wished to promote. If we read these comedies through the feminist utopian lens, then the ironic estrangement created by these characters makes the plays critical, transgressive, and open-ended.
Joanna Baillie was well connected to the medical and scientific discourses of her day that placed women in anatomically and socially inferior roles. Her uncles, Drs. William and John Hunter, and her brother, Matthew Baillie, were renowned anatomists and physicians. The day’s medical opinions were discussed in her home and enacted in the family’s anatomical theatre, the Hunter School of Anatomy on Windmill Street in London, the site of scientific teaching and medical experimentation as well as dissection. Baillie dedicated her second series of the Plays on the Passions (1802), which includes The Second Marriage, to her brother Matthew (Burwick 49). It is not surprising, therefore, for medical motifs and notions to find a place in her drama. In Baillie’s comedies, what might appear as conventional treatments of heterosexual courtship and marriage, may, in fact, playfully challenge the medical and mythical discourses that sought to limit female sexuality. Despite the conventional domestic conflicts and stock characterizations of these comedies, they seriously confront the period’s scientific treatment of women and female sexuality. Baillie’s comedies suggest fluid female sexualities that are not necessarily linked to identity and that are not tucked neatly into taxonomies of biology that were becoming increasingly fixed during the nineteenth century. The women of Baillie’s comedies are not all fair maidens turned maternal wives; some might even be identified as Tommys, inverts, spinsters, enthusiasts, or prostitutes, but they point to the possibilities of rescripting cultural and medical meanings of female desires and erotic experiences. Although these women are embedded in scripts of normalizing and normative relationships, their place as aberrant characterizations undermines totalizing discourses, medical and social, that sought to contain them. Michèle Cohen has pointed out that the period’s discourses about the sexed mind constituted the male intellect as higher, deeper, and stronger than that of the female, and that part of that strength was his access to knowledge (i.e. science) (81). The estrangement from prevailing discourses about the sexed mind created by Baillie's comedies therefore contributes to anxieties about what constituted masculinity and femininity, and how the culture might define male and female sexuality in medico-scientific terms.
Catherine Burroughs reads The Match as a gentle mockery of the bluestockings’ salon sessions and their intellectualism, but my reading of Baillie’s comedy perceives feminist utopian thought at work in its criticism of female sexuality. In The Match, 32-year-old Latitia Vane seeks to live as a single distinguished woman, in a house of her own, as “the patroness of arts, the encourager of genius, the loadstar in society” (1.2.687). She seeks to invert gendered values and roles so that she might act “as a man” in society. Furthermore, Latitia wants a house on her own terms, one that has a “closet” for her curiosities. It “will be,” explains Latitia, “a cheerful spinster’s house, where literati will assemble, amateurs sit in council, curiosities be examined, poems read, and all the bon-mots of the town be repeated!” (1.4.689). Latitia might appear to be a caricature of a bluestocking or an “unsexed Amazon,” a parodic representation of radicals like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. Andrew Elfenbein has delineated the analogy between the Romantic genius, the alienated, marginalized artist, and homosexuality, the man or woman who shatters conventional gender categories (7-8), and so in this sense, Latitia portrays the Romantic genius asserting individuality in the face of conformity, gender and aesthetic. Like other independent-minded characters of Romantic comedy by women playwrights, Latitia refuses to put on the vestments of a husband.
Baillie’s comedy complicates Latitia’s “genius” when it places that genius in question. Latitia determines to secure a phrenologist, Dr. Crany, to read her nephew Lawry’s head so that she might suggest what education would be best suited to his talents. Dr. Crany admits that while his “science is still in its infancy” (2.3.693), it is nonetheless a proven one—“proved by a successive inspection of the skills of distinguished men, from remote antiquity down to the present day” (2.3.693). Brightly quips factitiously, “...what a saving of time and of reason there will be, when, instead of inquiring the past actions and propensities of a man, you have only to run over his head with your fingers and become acquainted with his character at once” (2.3.693). Dr. Crany performs his examination of Lawry’s head, his fingers “the organ of inspection” (2.3.694), and pronounces the boy fit for the study of mathematics. Thornhill retorts, “No wizard could have guessed better” (2.3.24). Dr. Crany is next invited to examine the head of Sir Kunliffe, and he discovers that Cameron “has the organ of destruction on his head” (2.3.695). Then the good doctor mysteriously disappears. Brightly rationalizes, “Who will live in amity and confidence with one who is scientifically proved to be predisposed to deeds of cruelty and destruction? (3.3.701). Indignantly, Sir Cameron wonders whether Dr. Crany has persuaded Latitia “that some terrible propensities are revealed on the surface of my pericranium” (2.4.696). He recalls the indignity of the examination by Dr. Crany: “His filthy fingers sprawling over my head for such a villaneous purpose: it is abominable” (2.4.696). These enactments of phrenology serve as paradigmatic analogues to physicians’ examination of women’s organs in which “filthy fingers” penetrated private spaces in “abominable” probings, frequently of little medical merit. Baillie’s comedy puts the medical profession, phrenology and gynecology, legitimate medicine and quackery, under examination and suggests that the same improbable practices that characterize the “proven science” of phrenology might be questionable in other “proven” medical sciences as well.
Besides phrenology, other connections have been made between discourses of medicine, science and utopianism. Bishop George Berkeley, for example, in his 1744 utopian treatise, Siris, delineates his vision of a world cured of imperfections by tar-water. Carole Fabricant explains that, in Siris, Berkeley adopts the role of a physician capable of restoring ailing patients to a state of utopian health. His tar-water treatments, says Fabricant, were by their very nature a “challenge to the status quo, pushing against the narrow bound of any one class’s self-interest by articulating the vision of a society transformed through its embrace of the collective good” (278). According to Fabricant, Berkeley maintained a strong commitment to his utopian idea, even though it was framed in what we would now identify as quackery. While Baillie's own medical knowledge may question the legitimacy of phrenology as science, her satire of it in The Match may, like Berkeley's tar-water, function metaphorically as utopianism. Because phrenology and tar-water seem so far-fetched, we may not easily recognize the utopian potential to which they point and the critical posture they assume in relation to the "masculine" domain of medical science.
As I have indicated, medicine was becoming increasingly professionalized during the Romantic period, but there were just as many instances of quackery as there were legitimate science. The “non-normal” sciences, in fact, were theatricalized during the period and made the substance of itinerate lecturers, exhibitionists, and “peep” shows. Miracle cures and fast-acting elixirs were pandered to the public, regardless of their efficacy or unconventionality. The boundary between legitimate and illegitimate science was a fluid one, and both occupied center stage of public attention. Baillie‘s comedy Enthusiasm plays with British and French fascination with Mesmerism. According to T.C. Williams, the theory of animal magnetism was so widely accepted by 1790 that to consult a somnambulist or a mesmerist for problems of disease and health was almost a common practice. The movement brought an ever-growing band of entertainers who exploited “magnetic sleep” for the purpose of well-paying stage performances (61-62). In Baillie's play, The Second Marriage, Lady Worrymore, the former Arabella Gosling, is a high-toned, ardent enthusiast. She is hyper-enthusiastic about everything, whether it is her new husband’s parliamentary speech upon the Corn Bill, his portrait by Mr. Rougeit or Hugho’s juggling antics. Lord Worrymore finds his new wife quite a change from the demure Magdalene, his deceased first wife. His comments about Lady Worrymore’s exaggerated enthusiasm reveal her preoccupation with the period’s normal and non-normal sciences, including phrenology and anatomy:
Her boudoir is studded round with skulls like a charnel-house; and
bold and dirty creatures from St. Giles come into her very dressing-
room, with their rickety brats in their arms, to put their large misshapen
heads under her inspection, as the future mighty geniuses of the land.
Speaking birds, giraffes, and lectures upon Shakespeare have followed one
another in succession, to say nothing of her present little imp of a juggler;
and all in their turn are the sole occupiers of her ardent admiration. (1.1.591)
Lord Worrymore is jealous that his wife’s enthusiastic attentions have turned from him and his accomplishments to others whose relationship to her is not intimate. In an incident with Hugho, Lady Worrymore rewarded his juggling stunts with so much cream and comfeti, making him sick and feverish. She is, after all, not a single, independent woman, like Latitia of The Match, for she has her wifely duties to perform. Her affections were not directed solely to her husband. Like the Duke of Ferrara in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” Lord Worrymore is himself afflicted with what Lady Shrewdly diagnoses as “his own obtrusive eagerness for praise” (1.1.593). Lady Shrewdly predicts that Lady Worrymore may “get tired of this hurricane of enthusiasm, after two or three tricks have been played upon her credulity” (1.1.592), and she sets in motion a plot to have a draft of one of Lord Worrymore’s parliamentary speeches submitted to his wife for criticism but under the guise of having been written by the Irish orator O’Honikin, impersonated by Francis Blount.
Blount puts on a bombastic and convincing performance—a performance that is as moving as mesmerists’ demonstrations. A servant observing the show remarks, “I’ve seen the stage doctor at Barth’lomew fair, but he is but a joke to it” (2.4.603). We learn about Lady Worrymore’s enthusiastic response through a conversation between servants. One asserts that Blount’s reading was so impassioned that Lady Worrymore “has nearly as hard work in admiring him as he with his eloquence...” (2.4.603). The servant adds, “Heaven help her to a sorberer way of commending folks, for her body's sake! She'll be in a fever by evening” (2.4.603).Another servant disagrees that Lady Worrymore is weakened by the orator’s intoxicating performance: “...she’s an able-bodied person enough, for all that she casts up her eyes, and smells at her bottle of salts so often” (2.4.603). Lady Worrymore’s physiological and psychological reactions to Bount’s performance recall accounts of those enthusiasts who witnessed magnet therapy. Women frequently experienced orgasmic convulsions, followed by a state of languor and happiness. According to Mary Terrall, it was generally believed that under the influence of their powerful and excitable imaginations, women could produce effects on their own bodies, sometimes resulting in a sexual crisis due to the “total disorder of the senses” (263). Mesmeric treatments were seductive, much like Blount’s speech, Hugho’s juggling acts, the Shakespeare lectures, and her own scientific experiments were to Lady Worrymore.
Although Lady Worrymore comes to pardon the frolic, she makes an effort to rationalize her enthusiasm by assuming the role of the weak and dependent female that medical science, and Lord Worrymore, might have scripted for her to follow. For when Lady Worrymore discovers that her “personified Eloquence” (3.3.611) is Francis Blount and that the discourse she has admired is actually of her husband, she holds her head to one side, assumes an air of diffidence, and says: “...the tremor of my nerves has rendered me quite unfit, for the last twelve hours—O, much longer!—to judge of any thing. It is better for me to take care of my own fragile frame, than to concern myself with what is, perhaps, beyond the power of my poor capacity” (3.3.611). Lady Shrewdly perorates what might appear to be Lady Worrymore’s and the audience’s lesson: “A wife who has taste enough to admire the talents and genius of her own husband, is most happily endowed” (3.3.613). But Lady Worrymore’s reply, the final line of the play, places Lady Shrewdly’s statement in a different context, for she says “(gravely and demurely) I suppose she will be reckoned so” (3.3.613). Like the phrenology that The Match puts into question as a paradigmatic analogy to gynecology, Enthusiasm offers mesmerism as paradigmatic analogue to medically proscribed femininity. Legitimate science found it useful to the socially constructed notion of gender dichotomy and complementarity to find medical causes for female weakness, and Baillie’s comedy suggests that the same scrutiny to which mesmerism and enthusiasm were being subjected might be applied to medical understandings about female sexuality that were not so easily associated with quackery. Like tar-water and phrenology, enthusiasm or mesmerism here functions as feminist utopian thought by offering what Sargisson call alternative “unruly thinking” (Contemporary 128) seeking to unsettle “scientific” paradigms. Judith Slagle maintains that the comedy is about male/female relations (265), but I argue that these superficial sexed positions betray a much deeper utopian critique about how medico-science defined oppositional and hierarchal sexualities. Baillie’s deployment of mesmerism as a metaphor of utopian thought destabilizes the culture’s dominant relations between mind/body and suggests different enactments beyond that binary dynamic.
Joanna Baillie was probably well acquainted with the ongoing disputes between reputable medicine and quackery about women’s bodies and sexuality. The anatomical display and descriptive discourses about women’s bodies brought both normal and non-normal sciences to the brink of obscenity. John Roberton, a surgeon of dubious qualification who practiced as a specialist in venereal diseases in Edinburgh and London, was involved in a public debate with Edinburgh surgeons, including John and William Hunter and his archrival, Matthew Baillie. Baillie believed that medicine should be asexual, and Roberton’s belief in the sexual foundation of medicine reflected changes in how the functioning of the female body was understood. Roberton rejected the older (William Hunter) notion of the uterus as an independent organ and advocated ideas about the active nature of female organs of generation and female sexuality. His iconoclastic ideas were considered obscene by more conservative surgeons. Imagine the outrage when Roberton dedicated his 1811 treatise On the Diseases of the Generative System to Matthew Baillie. The two began an acrimonious correspondence that Roberton prefixed as a separate pamphlet to the fourth edition in 1817. Matthew Baillie called Roberton’s publication an “obscene book,” adding, “I hope I shall not be readily suspected of encouraging so gross a violation of morality and decorum.” Roberton countered, “...the greater part of a physician’s professional duties are really what you would term obscenities.” As Roberta McGrath has pointed out, the Roberton/Baillie correspondence emphasizes the slippery boundary between the medical and the sexual. Roberton’s work made medicine appear to be sexual at its core; furthermore, both medicine and pornography depended on similar visual imagery for their understanding of sexual subjectivity (40-50).
The socio-medical solution to this conflict seemed to create separate classes of women—some for passion, some for pleasure. By the 1830s, there was a clear division of labor between sexualized working girls and sexually anaesthetized middle-class women, women (McGrath 51) who, like Lady Worrymore, had been robbed of their enthusiasm. It was also in the 1830s when spinsterhood began to be recognized as a serious social problem. Bridget Hill points out that “there was no acknowledged place for the single woman” (11), a condition that Baillie would understand personally. The place of the spinster, the asexual woman, is the subject of Baillie’s comedy The Second Marriage, despite its being identified as a play about the passion of ambition. Middle-aged Lady Sarah marries Anthony Seabright so that she might be respectably married and so that he might find her familial and friends’ connections helpful in his quest to secure political, social, and economic advancements. For Sarah, it is her first marriage, but for Anthony, it is his second, a “convenient marriage” (1.2. 201) only nine months following the death of his first wife, Caroline, who had richly fulfilled her maternal role by providing Anthony with several children.
Sarah is certainly not welcomed into the Seabright household, and the ways in which the characters talk about her gives us a sense of societal views toward spinsters, even spinsters turned stepmothers. The Reverend Beaumont refers to Sarah as “a disagreeable vixen” who will tyrannize over Seabright’s family (1.2.201) as “an ungracious step-mother” (3.1.211). For Beaumont, Seabright “has married a woman who is narrow-minded naturally,” a disposition strengthened by her circumstances, for “she has long been left, as a single woman, to support high rank upon a very small income, and has lived much with those to whom begging and solicitations are not disgrace” (3.1.212). Susan Beaumont asks her husband, “Do you think I will ever enter the house where that woman [Lady Sarah] is the mistress, unfeeling, indelicate, uncivil?” (3.1.213). Sophia Seabright laments to her father about her stepmother: “But she will never be so good as my mother: she will never love you as my mother did” (1.3.204). Anthony reluctantly comes to recognize, “...I have taken to my bosom—I have set over their innocent heads, a hard-hearted, narrow, avaricious woman, whose meanness makes me contemptible, whose person and character I despise!” (5.3.226). His new wife’s “minute economy” irritates Anthony that he admits, “it comes across me every now and then like the creeping of a spider: it makes me mad” (3.2.214). Even the Seabrights’ gardener refers to Lady Sarah as a “hanged jade!” (2.2.207), “as unlovely a looking piece of goods as ever I looked upon. See how she stares at everthing about her, and curls up her nose like a gherkin!” (2.2.205).
When Seabright learns that Sarah is in no position to increase his finances, he is willing to send her packing North to her old Scottish castle. Vowing to make his sister independent of Anthony, Lord Allcrest announces: “I come to rescue my sister from a situation unworthy of a daughter of the house of Allcrest, and she shall go home with me” (5.3.226). Anthony shouts at his brother-in-law: “Take her in heaven’s name! I received her not half so willing as I resign her to you again” (5.3.226). The stage directions indicate that Anthony takes “(Lady Sarah’s hand to give her to her brother, which she pulls away from him angrily, and going to Lord Allcrest, gives him her hand as an act of her own.)” (5.3.226). Sarah will return home, a married spinster now, not legally single, not legally divorced, not even a stepmother, for she is not afforded occasional visits with Tony and Sophia Seabright, the children with whom she eventually made some maternal connections. Words spoken by Lady Sarah throughout the play also shed light upon her characterization, her sexuality, her complicated female role in the play as well as in the Seabright home. She first appears in scene two of act two, criticizing her new husband. She says to Anthony: “...you are too profuse, and too careless, in every thing” (2.2.207). Sarah has engaged Mrs. Pry to lay down some new prudent and frugal regulations for the family. She is highly critical of Sophia who resists the advances of Sir Crafty Supplecoat. To her young step daughter, she says: “When a young lady is industrious, and is not always reading nonsensical books, or running up and down after children, or watering two or three foolish flower-pots on her window, she can do a great many things for herself, that enable her to appear better dressed than girls who are more expensive” (2.4.208). It is ironic that Sarah gives Sophia advice about the role of the beauty myth in the marriage market, an economy that she has obviously not negotiated well. She may be aware that young Sophia has adapted to a maternal role better than she, for she chastises Sophia’s choice of vestments: “What gown is that you have put on to-day? It makes you look like a child from the nursery” (2.4.208). Alluding to Supplecoat, Sarah adds, “...it is of great importance to have a daughter of a large family well and early settled in life” (2.4.208). Admonishing Sophia’s “nursery-school breeding,” Sarah curiously instructs, “Don’t be uneasy! You have little chance, I’m afraid, of being molested by him” (2.4.210), an allusion, perhaps, to a violent crime committed against herself at an earlier time in her life. According to Bridget Hill, where violent crime against women was concerned, most cases of rape went unreported as women were unwilling to face the publicity associated with accusations (107-108). Here Sarah projects onto Sophia her own anxieties about what it means to be a woman who has no place, via marriage and motherhood, in a family. What we see in the characterization of Lady Sarah is the pathology of spinsterhood, its poverty, its sexual deprivation, its potential for abuse.
Despite her brother’s insistence that medicine was asexual, Joanna Baillie’s comedies side with Roberton in their assertion of the intricate connections between medicine and sexuality. Catherine Burroughs reads The Second Marriage as a comedy expressing an “ideology of domestic insularity” (163), but Baillie’s play may pose this ideology ironically in the context of medical science’s public presentations of sexed bodies and gender roles. It is not a coincidence that she is writing her plays at the time when medical science made bodies into texts, scrutinizing and examining their organs, skeletons, and brains to discern what passed as male and female. Baillie’s texts have, in turn, provided us with the bodies from which we can discern the complicated relationships between theatre and science, between performance and sexuality, relationships in which feminist utopianism underpins the conceptual analysis and social relations performed by an emergent ideology that cast female sexuality as the “other.” It was not only medicine that at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century turned to science for its utopian potential. Post-industrial revolutionary machines similarly fascinated the public as “other” in contrast to their humanness. Mechanical humans, such as the automatic chess player designed in Hapsburg in the 1760s, captivated spectators as much as theatricalized bodies put on display by medicine. According to Simon Schaffer, these mechanical humans were captivating commodities as well as metaphors for social order. These “production utopias” were aimed a reducing human labor and became models for self-management. They projected masculine knowledge of mechanically determined laws (129-150). In this utopian space, bodies were transformed into self-regulating machines. These utopian bodies, like those we have seen in Baillie’s comedies, gesture toward the creation of transgressive inversions and subversions of codifying phenomenon and offer, what Sargisson, call spaces where a new utopian consciousness can be articulated (Utopian Bodies 70).
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1 See Regina Hewitt’s Symbolic Interations 119-124; “Improving the Law,” 50-55; Michael Wiley’s Romantic Geography 44; and Lucy Sargisson, Utopian Bodies 6-12.
2 In a Marxist analysis of culture, Fredric Jameson asserts we must recognize the simultaneously ideological and utopian functions of an artistic text. According to Jameson, all class consciousness and all ideology are utopian by their very nature insofar as they express the unity of a collectivity 286-99. Sargisson’s feminist utopia, on the other hand, advocates an open-endedness and multiplicity that differs from the unity of Jameson’s socialist utopianism.
3 See Frederick Burwick 48-50 and Victoria Myers 340-341 for a discussion of the Baillie family backgrounds in medicine.