Panel 5: Gendered Narratives

The Banquet Given on the Occasion of the Opening of the Grainger Market, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1835 
Henry Perlee Parker (1795–1873) – Laing Art Gallery.

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Chair: Professor Katherine Newey – Chair in Theatre History, University of Exeter

Karenza Sutton-Bennett

Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Visual Representations of Charlote Lennox’s Diadactic Women

Charlotte Lennox published her didactic periodical, The Lady’s Museum (1760) as an experiment to garner more readers for her new novel, The History of Harriot and Sophia. The overall periodical gave women a diverse curriculum with articles on the proto-disciplinary topics of natural philosophy, geography and history; she critiqued the eighteenth-century notion that they were masculine topics. In my dissertation I argue Harriot and Sophia is the backbone of that curriculum with the subsequent articles as paratext, to help the reader gain a deeper understanding of the dichotomy between two starkly different educated sisters. In my presentation, I show how the images of the sisters help bring to life the didactic lessons of the periodical. I argue that Lennox uses the images as an integral part of her lessons on the differences between middle-class girls learning a polite and a practical education.

In 1762 the novel was published on its own as Sophia. As a monograph the novel comes off as flat, but it is rich as part of the curriculum in the didactic periodical. I agree with Jennie Batchelor’s assertion, “[w]e should read the narrative in its original context to unlock its full range of meaning” otherwise the novel is “a simple allegory in eighteenth-century form” because without the images and paratextual articles, it is a straightforward story of good behaviour triumphing over bad behaviour. [1] I examine how images and text work together to provide a stronger correlation between the sisters, how they visualize the distinct differences between a polite education that encouraged women to focus on the maintenance of their appearance, and a practical education that taught women proto-disciplines in order to become competent educators to their children.

Hannah Moss

Framing the Subject: Felicia Hemans’ ‘Properzia Rossi’ and the Sister Arts of Poetry and Sculpture

This paper will explore the intermedial nature of Felicia Hemans’ poetry through a close reading of ‘Properzia Rossi’ (1828). This ekphrastic poem takes Louis Ducis’ painting ‘Properzia de Rossi finishing her last bas-relief’ (1822) as its starting point, as signalled to the reader through Hemans’ practice of attaching prose prefatory content to her work.

Louis Ducis, ‘Properzia de Rossi Finishing her Last Bas-relief’, (1822).

In this case, an introductory biographical note provides the context for the poem, like a display card placed alongside a painting in a gallery. Presenting the basic ‘facts’ of Rossi’s life through reference to Ducis’ painting, this paratextual framing device is not simply a helpful supplement. Although the preface inevitably shapes how the reader views the ensuing narrative, it will be argued that it serves to function as a critique upon the legacy of women artists in the hands of men. Whilst Ducis’ painting may have shaped Rossi’s legacy as an abandoned woman, here it merely provides the pre-existing context for Hemans to step in and reclaim the narrative by switching to a first person poetic account, given in Rossi’s voice as she sculpts her bas-relief of Ariadne.

            The poem in fact blends the stories of a series of abandoned women, so that as Hemans writes of Rossi carving an Ariadne, it creates a mise en abyme with each story serving to frame the next. Rather than simply present an ever-repeating scenario, the similarities and the differences between each artist and their chosen art form enable each narrative to build upon the one it contains. Whilst on the surface ‘Properzia Rossi’ is a poem about unrequited love, it more importantly works to raise the status of women’s work through engagement with the sister arts of poetry and sculpture. The reciprocal relationship effectively works to raise the status of each form: when the poet carves with their mind, sculpture is raised to a liberal art, whilst the poet’s words gain civic importance for posterity.

Hannah Weaver

Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal: Performance, Gender and Space in Late Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh

Despite Presbyterian aversion to theatrical performance in eighteenth-century Scotland, theatre thrived in Edinburgh during the latter half of the century. Engravings, literary sources and architecture reveal the theatre as both a popular site of entertainment in Edinburgh as well as an important hub of protest and transgressive behaviour. Public theatrical performances were illegal in Scotland till the patent for the Theatre Royal was awarded in 1767, and both playwrights and attendees were prosecuted by the Kirk during the mid-eighteenth century. This provokes questions as to why and when did the theatrical scene in Edinburgh take-off to pave the way for today’s Festival city intrinsically linked to the performing arts.

In this paper, John Kay’s engravings will act as a starting point to explore the intersection of gender, sexuality and social behaviour in eighteenth-century performative spaces. His distinct portraiture is now most commonly associated with caricatures of Scottish politicians. Kay’s engravings depicting theatre, however, have been largely overlooked and provide rare snapshots of the Edinburgh stage. Importantly his work exposes the vibrant theatrical scene in eighteenth-century Edinburgh. This paper will examine the theatre as a performative and physically segregated space for both actors and patrons, to offer insight into why the theatre became so popular and significant in late eighteenth-century Edinburgh. From the perspectives detailed in the diaries of Elizabeth Grant and Mary Somerville, theatre allowed new freedom and economic power for elite women; whilst periodicals reveal the grittier side of the theatre as a site of protest and subversive behaviour for young men and sex workers. The writings of James Boswell, alongside Kay’s engravings, illustrated how the popularity of theatre partly stemmed from the praise and demand for London’s performers. This study hopes to further assess the extent of cultural exchange between London and Edinburgh through the lens of theatre.

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If you would like to ask our speakers a question, or make a comment, please ‘Leave a Reply’ in the comment panel below. Our speakers and chair will be checking this at regular intervals and will respond to you shortly. Please indicate if you are happy for your question to be addressed during the corresponding live session on Wed/Thurs (see Programme) and the chair will hope to call on you then.

8 thoughts on “Panel 5: Gendered Narratives”

  1. Dear Hannah,

    Thanks for this fascinating paper. I was especially struck by the John Kay’s print of Mary Anne Yates and Laurence Clinch playing the Duke and Duchess of Braganza. It’s one of the most remarkable images of theatrical performance in the period I’ve seen and I found your reading of it compelling. Here the audience are part of the show. But the more I looked at it, the most abstract it seemed to me. Is the placement of the women at the sides and the men at the top signalling something about gendered division of space. And is the manner in which the women, especially, seem to be squashed into their boxes saying something about lack of space in the auditorium? I read Kay as adopting a non-mimetic means of representing the experience of sitting in a cramped theatre, seeing other spectators as much as the actors. What do you think?


    1. Hello David,

      Thank you for these great questions and thoughts – Kay’s depiction of Braganza certainly gives the impression of a cramped space dictated by boundaries, where the lines separating the portraits could represent the very real physical boundaries in the theatre such as boxes or railings. This cramped atmosphere most likely reflected the reality of this particular performance where periodicals recalled the crowded auditorium on the nights the acclaimed actress, Mary Ann Yates, performed at the Theatre Royal.

      I agree that there is certainly a gendered aspect to Kay’s image in the arrangement of figures, which may reflect the layout of the theatre. The men, for example, are depicted on one row, clustered together and seeming to mimic the male space of the crowded theatre pit. Kay’s image also suggests the lack of interaction between men and women in the theatre with his choice to portray male and female figures as separate and facing away from each other, where the only heterosocial interaction takes place between the actors on stage. Kay has unusually chosen to depict the theatre as a homosocial and somewhat individual past time, which very much differs from contemporary portrayals of British theatre that often focus on the interactions between audience members.

      Thank you for your question,


  2. Really enjoying this panel.

    Hannah (Moss) – was wondering if there was a mezzotint of the Ducis painting and, if so, this was how Hemans saw the painting?
    Also, was wondering how much information about Rossi Hemans would have had access to? Would her total knowledge of Rossi’s life and work be based upon the Ducis image, or were there publications by this point that she could have accessed that included discussion of Rossi?
    The carved fruit stones are amazing – can’t believe Rossi was self taught. Is there any evidence Hemans would have seen an actual work by Rossi, or was her whole knowledge of Rossi’s work second hand?

    In my research I’m increasingly interested in the ways that an understanding of marble and sculptural technique and materials can be discerned in literary texts. From the quotes you gave, it felt like Hemans doesn’t pay close attention to this and foregrounds, instead, the relationship between poetry and sculpture (the lines of the verse associated with the contours and marble veins of the sculpture). Have you found any evidence that Hemans became interested/invested in a deeper appreciation of the techniques and materials of sculpture?

    Sorry for so many questions. Happy to ask all (or any!) of the above in the live session if easier to reply then.

    Thanks, Claudine.

    1. Many thanks for your questions, Claudine!

      Yes, I’d be very happy to answer in more detail during the live coffeehouse session, but I’ll outline some of my thoughts here for anyone to read who can’t attend.

      Yes, there was a print if Ducis’ painting engraved by Alexandre Vincent Sixdeniers, and I believe this is what Hemans’ would have seen. It is unlikely that Hemans saw any of Rossi’s work first-hand (when her husband abandoned her and fled to Italy she did not follow), but would have relied primarily upon Ducis’ image as well as the account provided in Vasari’s Lives. One reason I think that Hemans was largely unfamiliar with Rossi’s artistic output is that I don’t know of an actual image of Ariadne by Rossi (if anyone does, please do correct me).

      Ducis mythologizes Rossi’s legacy as akin to that of Ariadne, and Hemans’ interest in talented yet abandoned women sees her take on this version of events herself. However, I find it particularly interesting that she relies on such second-hand accounts given that the poem responds by foregrounding the first person voice of experience.

      Like you say, it doesn’t seem like Hemans necessarily knows a great deal about the technical process of sculpting, but she is interested in the legacy provided by sculpture and its potential to allow her to enter prevalent political/cultural debates.


  3. Hi Hannah (W), I’m really struck with your use of highly descriptive sources to think about space after hearing both this and your paper at the BSECS PG seminar series. I wonder if you could talk a little more about if/how this relationship (between space and description) is a broader element of your thesis.


    1. Hello Freya,

      Thank you for your question, it has prompted some useful self-reflection on my research. I think the prominence of descriptive sources in my work most likely reflects my efforts to understand different experiences of space. Descriptive sources most often transform seemingly static buildings such as the theatre into evolving, fluid and multi-faceted social spaces. It is in these complex spaces that I can explore the key themes of my thesis: the permeable boundaries of polite and impolite, and the relationship between behaviour, space and gender in the eighteenth century. I have found that examining descriptive sources can help to dissect ideas of polite and impolite as defined by the author and aid understanding of how these opinions shifted depending on the time and place. I also consider social groups in my thesis that often go undocumented by their own voices in text so descriptive sources, such as Ranger’s List mentioned in my BSECS paper, can offer another way to determine and locate their urban experiences beyond the brief statements in burgh records.


  4. Dear Hannah (Moss)
    That was a fascinating and nicely nuanced paper from which I learned a lot! I shall now go and read Hemans’s poem! I was wondering about Hemans’ familiarity not only with a print after Ducis, as mentioned by Claudine (there is indeed one of 1818 in the B M by Alexandre Vincent Sixdeniers) but also of 18th century English women sculptors, such as Anne Seymour Damer. Have you made use of Alison Yarrington’s publications about Damer? I included details of these and of S Quin’s article on Rossi in a piece I wrote about Henrietta Finch as a sculptor in the Burlington Magazine in May 2014. (I can send you a pdf). I liked the 1783 review of Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting which picks on W’s account of Damer and describes her as being “in a walk more difficult and far more uncommon than painting”.
    Thank you again for such a thoughtful paper!

    1. Dear Malcolm,

      Thank you very much for your kind comments and for sending over the pdf.

      It’s really interesting that you mention Damer as one of my thesis chapters focuses on how women writers such as Hannah Cowley responded to Damer in their characterization of women sculptors. I don’t know the extent to which Hemans knew of Damer, but I would certainly be interested to explore whether there are any possible connections or mentions.

      I think the reason that Hemans chooses to look back to Rossi rather than to her contemporaries is that she is conferred with a degree of status through precedence, and that the passage of time enables her to think about how legacies are shaped.


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