She-Pirates: Early Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and Reality

John Massey Wright, 1777–1866, British. Pirates (undated). Watercolor with graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

In “The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and Other Pirates” published in 1721, witnesses have testified that when the she-pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny “saw any Vessel, gave Chase, or Attacked, they wore Men’s Cloaths; and, at other Times, they wore Women’s Cloaths” (28).  While this testimony proves that both female criminals were crossdressing on board the pirate sloop, it reveals an interesting characteristic that marked these two women seafarers different from their female cohort in the early eighteenth century:  they were not interested in concealing their feminine identity at all.  If this is true, one cannot help but wonder why Mary Read and Anne Bonny would even consider crossdressing when they had the freedom to choose what they would wear in the first place.  Through analyzing the trial record of the said she-pirates and Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, I argue that the crossdressing she-pirate was not just a literary fantasy but a possible identity that women could choose to adopt because of the unique social understanding of identity in early eighteenth-century society.

To figure out why Mary Read and Anne Bonny would want to cross-dress as pirates, we should begin by knowing that identity was not considered as “naturally” gendered in the early eighteenth century.  Therefore, the she-pirates’ crossdressing might not seem as uncommon an act as it is today.  According to Dror Wahrman, “[a]lthough expectations of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ were generally well defined, contemporaries did not perceive them as necessarily pinning down each and every individual” (40).  That is to say, “delineations of maleness and femaleness [. . .] are perceptual and relational rather than natural or self-generated” (Dugaw “Female Sailors Bold” 44).  In early eighteenth-century society, a biological male could be delicate and sentimental while a biological female did not have to be maternal and caring.  These seemingly “unnatural” identities would be met “with resignation, tolerance, or sometimes even appreciation” (Wahrman 40).  From this perspective, the she-pirates’ crossdressing should not be regarded as a serious transgression because they lived in a society that allowed more freedom in terms of gender and identity.  Although they would be expected to appear more feminine, femininity was by no means the only quality they could use to present themselves.

Yet Mary Read and Anne Bonny’s crossdressing denotes more than gender.  Indeed, the clothes they wore shaped the role they were playing.  As a letter in a 1711 issue of the Spectator notes, “People dress themselves in what they have a Mind to be, and not what they are fit for” (Addison and Steele 45).  Although the author was referring to his experience going to a masquerade, Dianne Dugaw reminds us that the eighteenth century was a period “in which pervasive metaphors of masquerading conditioned the very terms in which people thought and behaved” (Warrior Women 132).  Adopting a different identity was not a privilege for one attending masquerades, acting on the stage, or appearing in literary works—people would don on a different persona even in their daily lives by wearing different clothes.  This prompted Maximillian E. Novak to call the period “The Age of Disguise” (7), for one’s clothes, as Terry Castle indicates, “spoke symbolically of the human being beneath its folds” (55).  Early eighteenth-century society is unique for its belief that clothes are used “to make identity” (Wahrman 178, italics original).  Like going to a masquerade, a contemporary could alter their appearance and begin performing the role that their clothes designated.  There existed the possibility for one to have multiple identities instead of just one fixed persona.  This cultural belief thus provides the ground for women to wear a pirate’s outfit and begin acting as one.

Although the pirate identity was an option for women in the early eighteenth century, the pirate community was, unsurprisingly, not particularly friendly to women.  Captain Bartho Roberts, who was active at the beginning of the eighteenth century, clearly states in his often-quoted pirate code that “[n]o boy or woman [is] to be allowed amongst them [the pirates]” (Johnson 183).  On speculating why women would cross-dress to be soldiers in contemporary ballads, Dugaw also notes that if a single woman is undisguised in the predominantly male environment, she “was subject to harassment and violence” (Dugaw, Warrior Women 130).

Furthermore, Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell have noted that pirates “largely regarded women or indeed any sexual attachments at sea as a perilous distraction” (102); therefore, they avoided having them on board as much as they could.  While Marcus Rediker believes that Captain Roberts was “more straitlaced than most pirate captains” (9), it should be evident that the pirate profession was predominantly masculine and potentially dangerous to women.  Therefore, besides trying to perform the role of a pirate, another possible and practical reason for Mary Read and Anne Bonny to disguise themselves was that crossdressing would carve out a safe space for them to blend in the community that was predominantly masculine.

If we examine the descriptions of the she-pirates in the trial record, we can recognize that crossdressing certainly enabled Mary Read and Anne Bonny to mingle with the masculine pirate community.  According to a captive on the sloop, Mary Read and Ann Bonny “wore Mens Jackets, and long Trouzers, and Handkerchiefs tied about their Heads; and each of them had a Machet and Pistol in their Hands” (“The Tryals” 27).  Their outfits were obviously masculine, and the weapons in their hands enhanced their image as aggressive outlaws.  Additionally, other witnesses also reported that they have heard the she-pirates cursing and swearing, which further distanced them from the delicate feminine identity.  The testimony thus illustrates Dugaw’s observation that a woman disguised as a man “could move about the same world with safety and freedom” (Warrior Women 130).  As the trial record indicates, the female-pirates were “hand[ing] Gun-powder to the Men” and “very ready and willing to do any Thing on Board” (“The Tryals” 28).  While dressing up as pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were clearly not distractions to the crew but part of the crew that made pirating possible.  They were not particularly different from the rest of the crew.

A General History adds more to the function of crossdressing for the she-pirates by demonstrating that each has successfully dealt with hardships in their lives through crossdressing.  Dugaw suggests that two of the common reasons women would cross-dress in contemporary ballads were pursuing “true love” and “breaking out of custodial confinement” (Warrior Women 130, 135).  Johnson’s account shows much reminiscence of these reasons.  His version of Mary Read, as a newborn baby, was dressed and raised as a boy to pass for her deceased brother so that “the supposed grandmother should allow a crown a week for its maintenance” (Johnson 131).  Similarly, his Anne Bonny, being an illegitimate child, had to be “put into breeches as a boy” before her biological father could take her home to live with him (Johnson 139).  After failing to divorce her husband, Anne Bonny “consented to elope with him [Calico Rackam], and go to sea with Rackam in man’s clothes” (Johnson 140).  With these episodes of the she-pirates’ early lives, A General History further supports the idea that gender identity can be constructed in these ways during the period.

While Johnson’s narrative successfully adds spice to the story, the dramatic depiction inevitably makes the account seem more fanciful than real.  As David Cordingly indicates, a reason that made Mary Read and Anne Bonny so popular is that they “were the only women pirates of the great age of piracy that we know anything about” (59).  However, besides a few brief accounts, our knowledge of them mainly comes from “The Tryals” and A General History.  While most scholars would deem the trial record somewhat credible, there are concerns about Johnson’s work, for its content cannot be cross-checked and the author is still somewhat of a mystery.  A comparison of the two could also reveal gaps in the history.

Indeed, one telling difference is that A General History seems to suggest that a cross-dressed identity only works for a specific occasion, which is conventional in contemporary literary depictions of women crossdressers.  As Dugaw notes, disguised heroines in ballads “do not remain at sea or in camp,” for they “almost always bring about the disclosure of the disguise and a ‘return’ to ‘normal’” (Warrior Women 155).  Thus, in Johnson’s account, we can find that by crossdressing Mary Read lets the comrade she loves “discover her sex,” and she is immediately recognized by him as “a mistress solely to himself” and a woman he would court “for a wife” (Johnson 132).  As soon as the war is over, the two “bought woman’s apparel for her, [. . .] and were publicly married” (Johnson 132).  When she reveals her feminine identity, she abandons the borrowed identity for good.  While it is true that Mary Read crossed-dresses as a soldier later in the narrative, it happens after her husband dies, and she joins a different regiment.  She could not resume her previous persona.

It is also interesting to note that the crossdressing patterns for Mary Read and Anne Bonny are highly similar and formulaic in A General History.  They were both illegitimate baby girls who were raised as little boys.  As they grew up, they resumed their feminine identities to get married.  Upon facing a critical challenge in life, both cross-dressed again to become pirates who eventually pleaded after being sentenced to die.  An identity is never recycled—at least not in the same context.  Johnson’s account thus seems to be following the contemporary literary convention that favored the “return” of the crossdressers, which seems to imply that a she-pirate would eventually return to “normal.”

However, this “return” motif is nowhere to be found in the trial records.  As the witnesses clearly stated, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were able to don and shed their pirate identities in order to suit their needs.  When they were performing their pirate duties, they wore men’s clothes; when they were off duty, they had the option of wearing women’s clothes.  This not only reflects the ideas that the pirate as an identity can be borrowed by changing clothing but also demonstrates that it is an identity that women could assume and resume without creating much fuss.  The fact that Calico Rackham’s crew knew that Mary Read and Anne Bonny were women and continued to work with them as their comrade suggests that the she-pirate was not a mere literary construction—it was something like an acceptable persona for women in the early eighteenth century.  Mary Read and Anne Bonny pleaded their respective cases not because their pirate identity was incompatible with reality reality but because it was a practical decision that would prolong their lives.

It is true that we do not have many records of she-pirates and that the case of Mary Read and Anne Bonny does not represent the whole picture of she-pirates in the early eighteenth century.  Yet the fact that they were rarely mentioned does not mean that they were not an option.  As both “The Tryals” and A General History demonstrate, women could cross-dress to present and perform different identities.  “The Age of Disguise” thus allowed women like Mary Read and Anne Bonny the freedom to become pirates not only in the realm of imagination but also on board Calico Rackam’s pirate sloop.  Thus, she-pirates should not be regarded as a female fantasy—at least not in the early eighteenth century when Mary Read and Anne Bonny were freely expressing themselves while sailing under the black flag.

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele.  The Spectator.  Edited by Gregory Smith.  J. M. Dent, 1907.  Hathi Trust, hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015050175952.

Burwick, Frederick, and Manushag N. Powell.  British Pirates in Print and Performance.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Castle, Terry.  Masquerade and Civilization:  The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction.  Stanford:  Stanford UP, 1986.

Cordingly, David.  Under the Black Flag:  The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates.  New York:  Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Dugaw, Dianne.  “Female Sailors Bold:  Transvestite Heroines and the Markers of Gender and Class.”  Iron Men, Wooden Women:  Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700- 1920.  Ed. Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.  34-54.

—.  Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850.  Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1996.

Johnson, Charles.  A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.  Ed. by Arthur L. Hayward, 1926.  New York:  Routledge, 1955.

Novak, Maximillian E.  “Introduction.”  English Literature in the Age of Disguise.  Ed. Maximillian E. Novak.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1977.  1-14.

Rediker, Marcus.  “Liberty beneath the Jolly Roger:  The Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Pirates.”  Iron Men, Wooden Women:  Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700- 1920.  Ed.  Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.  1- 33.

“The Tryals of Captain John Rackam, and Other Pirates (1721).”  British Piracy in the Golden Age:  History and Interpretation, 1660-1730.  Ed. Joel H. Baer.  Vol. 3.  London:  Pickering & Chatto, 2007.  1-66.

Wahrman, Dror.  The Making of the Modern Self.  New Haven:  Yale UP, 2004.

“No less than High Treason”: Libel and Sensationalism in the Careers of Jacobite Periodicalists George Flint and Isaac Dalton

Unknown artist after Thomas Malton the Younger, 1748–1804, British. Newgate (1799). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The early eighteenth-century British press was a hotbed for propaganda wars:  in the midst of the Succession Crisis, both Whig and Tory writers in London kept their fingers on the pulse of foreign affairs, war, and national politics.  Renowned writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele published on local goings-on, religion, and literature in their notably Whig periodicals, The Spectator and The Tatler.  Henry Fielding satirized Jacobites after the Rebellion of 1745 in The Jacobite’s Journal.  Though far less popular, the pro-Tory and pro-Jacobite press was booming, as well.  One pair of British periodicalists that quietly rose to notoriety was duo George Flint and Isaac Dalton, who published a series of treasonous Jacobite journals from 1715 to 1717.  Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick ran from 1715 to 1716 and landed Flint, its author, in Newgate Prison after he was arrested in July, 1716 for seditious libel.  He continued to write and have his periodicals published, though, and produced Robin’s Last Shift in 1716, which became The Shift Shifted later that year, and Shift’s Last Shift in 1717 as it attempted to outrun further government censorship.  Dalton, his printer, was arrested and imprisoned four separate times for offences to the crown.  Though their individual timelines are fascinating by definition, it is also worth investigating Flint and Dalton’s popularity and skill as periodicalists.  After the first arrests, Flint began to keep a log of their prison experiences, as well as the subsequent involvement and arrests of their family members, which proved quite popular with readers.  Through their persistence and command of pathos, Dalton and Flint’s periodicals provided both strength and exposure to the Jacobite movement in a time of unmatched government suppression.

Flint first published Weekly Remarks on December 3, 1715—just months after the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland and northern England, and only days before the Pretender himself would land on Scottish soil.  For years, tensions had been brewing between the Whigs, who supported the Hanoverian ascendancy to the British throne, and the Jacobites, who supported the Stuart line of succession and were planning to take immediate action.  With James II still in France, the Earl of Mar called a war meeting in Braemar, Scotland, to discuss plans for the rebellion.  In the fall of 1715, the Jacobites failed to capture Edinburgh Castle, but were successful in taking Inverness, Castle Gordon, Dundee, and Perth—“virtually the whole of Scotland” (Sinclair-Stevenson 96).  However, both the Scottish and English Jacobite forces failed to make an impact against the government armies in October when they fell in both the battles of Sheriffmuir and of Preston.  Shortly after, James sailed from France to Scotland; the December 24 edition of Weekly Remarks reports “this Day or Two, That the Pretender is Landed,” and that a number of Londoners were heard singing Jacobite ballads in the streets (Weekly Remarks, 4: 23-24).  Not long after arriving, however, James escaped from Scotland before the government began to severely persecute the Jacobites.

In his introduction to the first installment of Weekly Remarks, Flint claims the publication would be the source of “a pretty clear and impartial Judgement” (Weekly Remarks, 1: 1).  Each Saturday, the journal printed the news of a number of countries (like Spain, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain) and paired entries with a “Remarks” section, in which the author editorialized on that week’s foreign affairs.  For this Flint was arrested and tried in the summer of 1716:  the Old Bailey criminal court record states he “confess’d he was concern’d in writing the said Libel with another Person, which was to be of a different Nature from any yet publish’d:  That the Prisoner was seen to write some Part of the said Paper.  That it came from his own Hands to the Press.  And that he had own’d to my Lord Townshend and others, he wrote it for his Bread” (“Trial of George Flint”).  Though he had been arrested and imprisoned earlier that year for printing Robin’s Last Shift,I Dalton was again indicted and imprisoned alongside Flint; he was found guilty of cursing King George and attempting to pay prison guards to drink to the Pretender’s health.  He was also charged with seditious libel for printing Weekly Remarks, but “the Evidence failing in fixing that particularly, for which he was cried, upon the Prisoner, he was acquitted” (“Trial of Isaac Dalton” July, 1716).

Dalton would be found guilty of two more crimes related to his Jacobitical printing activities:  in November of 1716, he was charged with seditious libel for printing The Shift Shifted.  In May of 1717, he was again found guilty of libel—this time for printing a pamphlet (titled “Advise to the Freeholders of England”) a number of years previous to his work with Flint.II  This resulted in two additional imprisonments to be served following his July sentence of one year at Newgate, as well as fines to be paid and a day spent in the pillory.  In the article “Liberty and Libel:  Government and the Press during the Succession Crisis in Britain, 1712-1716,” P. B. J. Hyland describes this punishment as “a symbol of the ministry’s triumph, and perhaps to avenge its earlier humiliation” (Hyland 881).  But the Weekly Remarks would not be put down so quietly, no matter the efforts the government took to silence Flint and Dalton.  Through their own writing (before that privilege was taken away) and the interference run by family members, they continued to publish their periodicals, condemning the treatment of prisoners at Newgate and the overall actions of the government with a renewed passion.  One excerpt from the August 18, 1716, edition of The Shift Shifted describes Flint’s imprisonment as unthinkable and cruel.  As they starved and endured overly cramped quarters, the inmates were punished for attempting to share their rations with one another.  Flint himself “contracted another cruel Sickness,” and his wife was soon also sent to prison for helping publish The Shift Shifted (The Shift Shifted, 16:94).  The account, a dramatic exercise in pity and shock, reads,

“Yet his Wife for endeavouring to help her Husband, (which most think to be a Wive’s Duty) and in a way which she could not think unlawful, is also close imprison’d, and cannot be let out upon Bail, tho’ the Husband (beside the Bail) offers to take upon himself whatsoever his Wife can be charg’d with.  Now one would think her Crime could be no less than High Treason, and at the same time it is alledged to be no more than Ordering the Carriage of a few News-Papers.”  (The Shift Shifted, 16:94)

Neither man was stranger to this kind of rhetorical appeal.  In remarking on the Battle of Sheriffmuir in the December 3, 1715, edition of Weekly Remarks, Flint describes the horrors seen by the Jacobite soldiers on the battlefield:  they stood “like Motionless Statues, seeing their Friends cut to pieces by one third of their Number” (Weekly Remarks 1:5).  But perhaps the most provocative account Dalton and Flint provide is another entry in the August 18 edition of The Shift Shifted, following Dalton’s July arrest.  In an sensationally dramatized fashion, it details the subsequent arrest of Dalton’s sister, Mary, for continuing to print the treasonous periodicals after Flint and Dalton were arrested:

To do Good and Suffer Evil, is to act a Royal Part; and therefore I am not a little pleas’d that it is faln to my Share, to undergo so much Evil for endeavouring to do good to my Country … However, to imprison a Man for a Fancy, tho’ he be thereby ruin’d, we wave that as a Trifle, a Nothing to Moloch.  But to take his young Maiden Sister only for happening to receive a little Money for him; for this, I say, to cram her into a Messenger’s, and thence bring her directly to the Bar, all overwhelm’d with Tears and Confusion, without a Moment’s Preparation for her Tryal, and there after a Fine of 30 Marks, appoint the beautiful young modest Maiden to remain confin’d for a Twelvemonth in a loathsome Gaol, conversing with the Strums of Newgate.  Suppose she have innocently assisted her Brother in his Distress, does that (call it a crime) come up to this Punishment?  Was ever such a Virgin ever so unmercifully expos’d for such a Crime.”  (The Shift Shifted, 16:94)

As McDowell asserts in The Women of Grub Street:  Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730, Dalton was clearly crafting his words in an entirely gendered way to gain sympathy from the public for his and his sister’s situation:  “Isaac Dalton represented [Mary] as a sentimental heroine in the merciless clutches of an oppressive ministry … as a genteel young lady” who ultimately “became a martyr to the government” (McDowell 108-109).  And it worked.  Randall McGowen notes that the pillory “inflicted humiliation and brought notoriety to an offender, at least as much as physical suffering” (McGowen 123).  But the crowd that assembled the day Dalton was pilloried at Newgate did not curse at him or throw rotten tomatoes his way; they cheered him on and collected money for him to pay his fines instead (Hyland 881-882).

Flint and Dalton’s powerful publications accomplished what the English government wanted to avoid at all costs.  As Kathleen Wilson argues in “Inventing Revolution:  1688 and Eighteenth-Century Popular Politics,” they and other Jacobite journalists had become successful critics of Whig ideology, penning vivid editorials on the party’s corruption and abuse of power.  They believed “the government was a trust, based on popular consent, in which people of all ranks had residual rights separate from those of their representatives.  These included the rights to a free press, to lawful assembly, and to canvass public affairs and protest against bad governments and bad laws” (Wilson 372).  When those rights were infringed upon, Flint and Dalton were quick to remark on it in their writing, and their subsequent arrests only bolstered the frenzied reports featured in their periodicals.  They had amassed a following—both among fellow Jacobites, and among the pro-government Whig newspapers that continuously reported on their misdeeds and run-ins with the law.  What started out as an underground effort to undermine the politics of their enemies quickly became an intense and public battle that gave the Jacobite movement new exposure in London.  In using descriptive storytelling, interrogating moral and ethical norms, and appealing to the sympathies of their audience, Flint and Dalton brought the Jacobite movement to the forefront of English politics by changing the government’s own game.

Notes

I.  See both the March 17 and 31, 1716 editions of James Read’s The Weekly Journal, Or, British Gazetteer, Being the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick for briefs on Dalton’s original arrest.

II.  See both the November, 1716 and May, 1717 trials of Isaac Dalton on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

Works Cited

Flint, George.  “Great Britain.”  The Shift Shifted, Or, Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick.  August 18, 1716.

—.  “Great Britain.”  Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick.  December 24, 1715.

—.  “Introduction.”  Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick.  December 3, 1715.

Hyland, P. B. J. “Liberty and Libel:  Government and the Press during the Succession Crisis in Britain, 1712-1716.”  The English Historical Review 101.401 (1986):  863-888.  JSTOR.

McDowell, Paula.  “‘To Run Oneself Into Danger’:  Women and the Politics of Opposition in the London Book Trade.”  The Women of Grub Street:  Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  1-120.

McGowan, Randall.  “From Pillory to Gallows:  The Punishment of Forgery in the Age of the Financial Revolution.”  Past & Present 165 (1999):  107-140.  JSTOR.

Read, James. “Great Britain.”  The Weekly Journal, Or, British Gazetteer, Being the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick.  March 17, 1716.

—.  “Great Britain.”  The Weekly Journal, Or, British Gazetteer, Being the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick.  March 31, 1716.

Sinclair-Stevenson, Christopher.  Inglorious Rebellion:  The Jacobite Risings of 1708, 1715, and 1719.  New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1971.

“Trial of George Flint, July 1716 (t17160712-5).” Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed May 1, 2019.  https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“Trial of Isaac Dalton, July 1716 (t17160712-4).”  Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed May 1, 2019. https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“Trial of Isaac Dalton, November 1716 (t17161105-81).”  Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed 1 May, 2019.  https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“Trial of Isaac Dalton, May 1717, (t17170501-54).”  Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed May 1, 2019. https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“My Poor Nerves”: Women of a Certain Age on the Page

Portrait of a Lady (1768), John Russell, 1745–1806, British. Oil on Canvas. Yale Center for British Art, Bequest of John N. and Dorothy C. Estabrook.

When Mrs. Bennet complains of her “poor nerves” and her husband sardonically replies that he is long acquainted with them, we as readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are to laugh.  The laughter may die into an awkward chuckle when the reader is a 40ish-year-old woman and realizes that most likely Mrs. Bennet is as well.  While her daughters come of age and dance at balls and flirt with officers, Mrs. Bennet is perhaps experiencing perimenopause or menopause and the end of one stage of a woman’s life.

When women’s lives are divided into maid, mother, crone, it is easy to overlook the moment between early motherhood and old age.  How did (and how do) women deal with life in their forties when their children are entering that “most interesting” and “most trying” times of their lives while they themselves are in “the most dangerous”?  Are they objects of ridicule?  Paragons of wisdom?  Are they even visible at all?

Menopause in Early Modern England (and Now)

As a 43 -year-old woman, I am finding that perimenopause, like greatness, is something that one finds thrust upon you.  It is also something that people do not discuss much even in 2019.

When Deanna Raybourn pronounced herself a “crone” on Twitter and welcomed questions about her newly menopausal state, numerous women responded.  Here at last was someone opening up in a public way about what has been considered a private milestone and offering to give advice to others in the process.  It was an act of bravery and of generosity and a welcome opening for people to talk more publicly about their bodies.

Menopause was a rarely spoken and private subject in the eighteenth century as well.  In the late eighteenth century (that conduct book loving age), the “first popular guidebooks for the menopausal woman appeared, some of which were reportedly sold out in a few months” (Stolberg 412).  Laura Gowing finds that “[i]t is still hard to recover women’s knowledge and interpretations of the body” (10), and most discussions of menopause are to be found in medical journals but not in women’s diaries or letters.

Then, as now, menopause generally arrived at age 50 but a woman was not considered old until 60 when it was certain she could no longer conceive.  Menopause was called “the cessation of terms” or “flowers” or “courses” (Read 37).  As Gowing notes, “Much vernacular printed discussion of the female body was specifically aimed at helping women conceive.  Sexual difference was discussed not in abstract terms but as the basis for heterosexual sex and conception” (19).  This means that when women are no longer fertile, their bodies are no longer objects of medical interest.

However, some historians see menopause as a “socially induced set of symptoms” and suggest that “modern physicians may have created a problem of personal identity” (Crawford 25).  Women most likely experienced actual symptoms–medical records show complaints of “flashings”–but those symptoms were subsumed in general ideas of old age.  Michael Stolberg explains that “[a]round 1740, an anonymous English practitioner marketed his secret purgatives and uterine drops against the disorders ‘that most women labor under, when being between forty and fifty years’” (422).  With no medical cure for the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, some women relied on quack cures for help.  Even now in the twenty-first century no real relief exists and women are told to take herbal supplements, exercise, do yoga, and eat right.  Turning to doctors for symptom alleviation was and is a fruitless endeavor.

Mrs. Bennet

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have been married for 23 years (Austen 5) when the novel opens.  Even if she married at 25, she’d be 48 at the oldest.  Most likely she was married at a younger age–Mr. Bennet, “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour,–that youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to real affection for her” (152).  This implies a younger woman, perhaps in her teens.  If she married at 18, she is 41 at the novel’s open.

Austen tells us that the Bennets expected an heir for “many years after Lydia’s birth” (197), but if “marital fertility had frequently concluded by age 40” (Botelho 53), this explains the lack of a pregnancy even in a youngish woman.  “Reproduction was a public business and women’s bodies a public domain” (Botelho 57), and Mrs. Bennet, who is unable to produce an heir to end the entail, finds her body’s failure to be public indeed.  For women who have exchange value as marriagable virgins and use value as fertile wives, their value and their identities had to be in flux in the time between motherhood and grandparenthood.  As Patricia Crawford notes, “After her child bearing was over, a woman was no longer powerful and less feared” (32).  Mrs. Bennet simply becomes ridiculous.

Her public and ridiculous body becomes symbolic of her failures as a mother.  “The female body was a public affair, the target of official regulation, informal surveillance, and regular, intimate touch by women and men,” writes Laura Gowing (16).  After Lydia elopes with Wickham, the spectacle of Mrs. Bennet’s hysterical but non-sexual body replaces the spectacle of Lydia’s sexualized body in her home.  The family is afraid of Mrs. Bennet’s loud cries and talk with Hill, but Hill and the other servants would know the bodies of all the women in the household well.  Women’s bodies may be considered private but “most houses were built around shared space” (Gowing 23), and five menstruating daughters produced a lot of linen.  What is happening in Mrs. Bennet’s body and, by proxy, the public sexualization of Lydia’s body, has been old news with any of the women scrubbing sheets.

The focus of Pride and Prejudice is on young women’s bodies, on “the most trying age” and “most interesting time” of their lives.  Lois Banner quotes one woman’s description of menopause as “the dangerous age”:  “between 40 and 50” “‘we are all more or less mad’” (Banner 273).  The Bennet household is in a dangerous age–the daughters must be married before their father dies and the entail takes effect, and Mrs. Bennet feels this necessity both in a financial and biological sense.  There is no heir.  Time has run out.  “You do not know what I suffer” (4) and “nobody can tell what I suffer” (76), Mrs. Bennet tells her family.

She also practices old age.  “At our time of life”(6), she often says of herself and Mr. Bennet.  “It was so pleasant at her time of life to consign her single daughters to the care of their sister, that she might not be obliged to go into company more than she liked,” writes Austen (67).  She is trying on cronehood, but in true middle-age fashion, she cannot help but see herself as still young.  Mr. Bennet tells her she is as handsome as her daughters, and she does not deny it.  She “still loves a red coat in [her] heart” (21).  Despite these occasional forays into youth, she seems very aware that menopausal women should shift into being grandmothers which, with the entail, could illuminate her desperation to make five single daughters into five married mothers.

Film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice tend to portray Mrs. Bennet as an older woman even if the actress portraying her is in her 40s.  Allison Steadman was 49 when she played Mrs. Bennet in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.  Brenda Blethyn was 59 in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice.  Sally Phillips is the closest in age to the novel version of Mrs. Bennet at 46 in the 2016 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (IMDB).  Movie shorthand for a mother of grown daughters is a woman in her 50s or 60s, which is how Mrs. Bennet is visually constructed.  The liminal age of the young women between parents and husbands that is the subject of the films is easily rendered visual:  the Bennet sisters are young and beautiful and capless.  The liminal age of perimenopause is invisible and elided.

Lady Susan

We often to look to Austen for the romcom pattern, for stories about young people growing up, learning about life, and finding love.  However, her middle-aged women are just as fascinating.  Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bates, Lady Catherine, Lady Russell–and Lady Susan.  In Lady Susan, Austen’s 1794 (?) novel, we see an almost middle-aged woman attempting to seduce a younger man who could be her daughter’s suitor.  Lady Susan is 35-years-old and a widow but not past childbearing age which makes her both marriageable and dangerous, for as Gowing explains, “Sexually experienced and past the age of child-bearing, imagined as both lustful and undesirable, their [middle-aged women’s] ventures into sexual talk, still less sexual acts, could scarcely be contemplated with equanimity” (22).

“I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan,” writes one character, “and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must be in fact ten years older” (143).  Lady Susan flirts with Reginald, a young heir loved by her daughter, and he falls in love with her.  When his father hears of a potential marriage with Lady Susan, he writes a warning to Reginald, saying her age is a “material objection,” but her conduct is so egregious that “the difference of even twelve years becomes in comparison of small account” (152).  Lady Susan is fleeing a friend’s home after she seduced her friend’s husband, and she takes full advantage of her relatively free position as a widow to indulge her sexual desires.  She could be the cliche of the lusty widow but is drawn so well by Austen that the reader can’t help but fall in love with her as well.  Lady Susan is a complicated character, a villain as well as a likable protagonist.  Her age is made clear in the novel and is a factor within the plot.  It is interesting that Austen made a middle-aged women between husbands the main character of a novel in her juvenilia but did not again dwell so closely on older women in her later novels.  The adult Austen chose to write about women who were marketable.

Conclusion

As women now talk more about menopause and about the transitions of the 40s, perhaps we can extend those conversations to the middle-aged women on the pages of the novels we read and teach and study.  Instead of seeing these women as “old,” we need to recognize that they are in flux and, like their marriageable daughters, their identities are shifting.  This dangerous time can be just as interesting as the trying time.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  New York:  Norton, 1993.  Print.

—.  Lady SusanSanditon and Other Stories.  Ed. Peter Washington.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.  Print.

Banner, Lois.  In Full Flower:  Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.  Print.

Botelho, Lynn.  “Old Age and Menopause in Rural Women of Early Modern Suffolk.”  Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500.  Ed. Lynn Botelho and Pat Thane.  London:  Pearson, 2001.  43-65.  Print.

Crawford, Patricia.  Blood, Bodies, and Families in Early Modern England.  London:  Pearson, 2004.  Print.

Gowing, Laura.  Common Bodies:  Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England.  New Haven:  Yale UP, 2003.  Print.

Read, Sara.  Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.  Print.

Shail, Andrew and Gillian Howle.  Menstruation:  A Cultural History.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.  Print.

Stolberg, Michael.  “A Woman’s Hell?:  Medical Perceptions of Menopause in Preindustrial Europe.”  Bulletin of the History of Medicine 73.3 (1999):  404-428.  Print.

 

A visual version of this paper is available here. 

The Director’s Reflections on Staging The Mysterious Mother

When Cynthia Roman, Curator of Prints at the Lewis Walpole Library asked me if I would be willing to stage Horace Walpole’s 1768 The Mysterious Mother as part of the year’s “Walpolooza” events, I hesitated at first. Like Walpole himself, who “did not think it would do for the stage,” I nonetheless realized that I too “wish to see it acted” [1].  For those who are not familiar with the play, the story opens with Edmund, Count of Narbonne, returning to his ancestral home from the crusades with his friend and fellow soldier Florian. Edmund was banished by his mother, presumably because he arranged to sleep with a lady’s maid, Beatrice, the night after his father’s death. Edmund has had no contact with his mother for sixteen years, though she has sent him money from the estate she has inherited (a breach of patrilineal protocol motivated by her late husband in his love for her). Edmund assumes that she is being manipulated by the priest of the adjacent abbey, Father Benedict, and his protégé Father Martin, but on his return, he finds her defiant, refusing to confess, yet tormented. She is convinced she has hallucinated her husband’s ghost when she first sees him. Edmund, stunned by his mother’s majestic demeanor in the midst of her distress, nonetheless hopes for a reconciliation through his newfound love for her young ward, Adeliza. The Countess misunderstands the proposed union, thinking that Florian loves Adeliza. Father Benedict begins to connect the guilty dots, seizes the moment for his vengeful triumph over the Countess, and hastily marries Adeliza to Edmund who, when they come to seek the Countess’s blessing, instead drive her to the horrified confession that Benedict has been trying to extract for years: that her sexual longing for her husband, who unexpectedly died before he could return to her bed, drove her to disguise herself as the maid her son Edmund was to sleep with that night and put herself in his bed. Edmund is unaware of the bedtrick, but the Countess knowingly has sex with her son. They conceive Adeliza and launch a lifetime of alienation and guilt. When the secret finally explodes in the revelation of a now-double incest plot, the Countess commits suicide with a dagger. Edmund, shattered, vows to return to the wars while Adeliza retreats to a convent.

Walpole had declared it “delicious entertainment for the closet,” but our task was to bring it out of the closet. The Mysterious Mother’s incestuous “secret sins” led both Walpole and friends to claim it was too “disgusting,” too “dreadful,” and altogether too much for the London stage. Yet Walpole made surreptitious efforts to stage it and printed multiple editions [2].  Private readings, including one organized by Frances Burney at court while she was Keeper of the Robes for Queen Charlotte, introduced small audiences to its “dreadful” charms, and the Rev. William Mason’s commentary angled for a stage-ready version, in which the Countess’s crime would become accidental so that she could deserve pity and forgiveness, in true Aristotelian fashion. Walpole rejected these suggestions as undermining his main point, the Countess’s deliberate decision and the weight of her ensuing guilt. Burney and Coleridge both proclaimed their disgust with play and playwright after reading it, but Burney’s Edwy and Elgiva owes something to it, while a less squeamish Shelley, inspired by Walpole, dove headlong into the gothic-incest nexus with The Cenci. My ambivalence about this tantalizing offer mirrored the ambivalence of the author and early readers: is this something that could be done in public? Was this, as Walpole feared, “a tragedy that can never appear on any stage?” Reader, we did it.

Hypertheatricality on a Budget 
As George Haggerty has noted in Queer Gothic, stage tech after Walpole became more hypertheatrical, especially in Lewis’s The Castle Spectre. We tried to produce the hypertheatricality the play evokes and helped to usher in using digital projections and animations. With the help of Alice Trent’s design, we unfolded Walpole’s tale in the valley between a shadowy gothic castle and a monastery, as fog rolled, thunder rumbled, and crows cawed. The 55-minute production, with all tech run out of Keynote, included 26 discrete animated slides with sound cues. The soundscape began with Ola Gjeilo’s 2012 “Ubi Caritas,” an homage to medieval choral textures. Other sound cues included short pieces of Gregorian chant, favoring those performed by Benedictine nuns and monks. The Countess entered to a child singing “Ave Maria.” A Greek orthodox boy’s choir layered over droning became our “chorus of orphans,” with their ghostly outlines floating in the foreground. A clap of thunder erupted from a dark screen, underscoring the Countess’s unraveling as the action transitioned to a garden with a blasted monument in act III. A final thunderclap and a screen that flickered against rain, then faded to black, closed the play. It was campy, dark, and effective.

This production was an elaborate staged reading, many months in the preparation but with less than three days to work together in person. The embodiment of the play was always, therefore, an “as if” proposition. To realized what we could of a production, we used the simplest of blocking that allowed actors to navigate the space with certainty while holding scripts in hand. We played in the Yale Center for British Art’s lecture hall, with its raked auditorium seating, a 33 x 16 stage, and fixed lighting. The auditorium’s side stairs allowed the actors to enter to the final strains of “Ubi Caritas.” We used the arc created by a fixed overhead spot to establish the playing area. The corners of the space were comparatively dark and served as retreats or hiding spaces for eavesdropping characters. The edge of the lit area formed a circumnavigational path for the tormented Countess. The monastics used it as well, adding serpentine, labyrinth-like patterns as they disgorged their plots to secure the Countess’s confession. With no back stage or wings, the cast took seats on the front row corresponding to the spaces of the castle and the monastery.

The final scene of The Mysterious Mother

Though the staging was fairly simplistic, there was nothing low-budget about the space and the costumes. The rich costumes, rented from various theatre companies in the area, were nearly fully realized versions of Lady Diana Beauclerk’s drawings, which lent the production a grandeur and gorgeousness beyond the scale of a staged reading. Their gilded details shone in the stark light and clean grey lines of the signature Louis Kahn concrete walls of the Center for British Art. Those walls played a leading role in the production and were forced into the part of visual straight man to the irreverent, haunting, yet campy production. Onto their smooth surface we projected a ruined castle among cliffs and roiling fog, then a ruined monument. Turning Kahn’s high modernism into grey castle walls felt wicked, and we contemplated the architect spinning in his grave as the projector forced the concrete monument to modernism to bear the image of the ruin and the emotional chaos of the fall of the house of Narbonne.

Incest, Camp, and Queerness
As I told the cast early on in our abbreviated process, the only way out of such a play is over the top. The deliberate shock, the “too horrid” subject of incest made the first players at the first private theatrical version of the play giddy. We came to sympathize with George Montagu’s house full of “schoolboys” (George Osborn, John Burgoyne, Capt. George Boscawen), who gleefully read and memorized parts of The Mysterious Mother in 1769. Jill Campbell has observed that Walpole’s use of incest in particular in both The Mysterious Mother and The Castle of Otranto is the displaced sign of queer desire. In our 21st-century performance, the play’s queerness energized moments of campy, panto over-iteration and exaggeration. The campiness of the gothic, with its exaggeration of horror, the in-joke of its material bed-trick, and its queerness avant la letter came out in our initial laughter, our campy gestural exaggerations, and the embodiment of the perverse passion at the center of the story. The young men strutted, Adeliza melted, and the priests gleefully rubbed their hands together in a pantomime of villainy. We ran the risk of laughter, our own and the audiences, while trying to use exaggeration to find the horror of the situation. It is was both fitting and an additional gift from the universe that of the rented costumes, Florian’s (Gilberto Saenz’s), had been made for a young Nathan Lane.

Asking a Blessing

Nunning Up 
In order to make the play performable in an hour, David Worrall had removed most of the theological and discursive monologues, but the presence of religious debates over agency, will, and guilt haunted our cut. The Countess’s refusal to submit to Catholic authority, in the form of her would-be confessor Benedict, defines the action of the play. Set in Narbonne, France, with its unfinished gothic cathedral, at some point immediately after the Reformation, the play is as much about the Reformation as it is about incest. The Countess’s majestic outline and her genuine psychological torment, which she refuses to mediate or absolve through religious confession, make her modern. She is Walpole’s attempt to “exhibit a character whose sincere penance was not degraded by superstitious bigotry,” a walking trope of defiance to clerical authority that also forced her to bear her own sins. Georgina Lock, in her widow’s weeds and with regal bearing, gave us a Countess who could defy Benedict but then implode under the weight of her guilt, folding in from the solar plexus, from the womb, as she contemplated the horror of her situation. Her majesty, wilting into near collapse, was the gestic signature of the erotic and religious crisis at hand. She dislocates guilt from a religious to a secular realm and bears her own sins. As a woman who refused to be sexually passive or religiously compliant with the Mother Church at the dawn of the Reformation, she defies the terms of both gender and piety in favor of a modernity that embodies the tension between spiritual and secular accounts of the human condition.

The nunnery and the abbey are familiar locations for transgressive figures. Convent porn is almost a cliché in the eighteenth century, with the monastery, especially after the Mad Monks of Medmenham, close behind. George Haggerty has more thoroughly mapped out the connection between “the heteronormativity of sexual violence and the patriarchal law of the father on which Catholicism depends” that leaves sexuality and religion “inextricably bound” in the English cultural imagination [3].  Knowledge becomes carnal knowledge; secret sins are both religious defiance and sexual perversity. Having two Yale Divinity graduates, one an Episcopal priest (the Rev. Justin Crisp) and the other a Roman Catholic theologian and performance studies scholar (Charles Gillespie) playing the evil priest-tormenters added a delicious frisson for those in the know, but they also brought their own reflections on Reformation history and the concept of confession to the performance. The Iago-like incommensurability of Gillespie’s Benedict and his determination to extract the Countess’s confession and to claim her as a confessing Catholic is fueled by the contest between a passing orthodox and an emerging secular age. Benedict’s fight for her soul and his parting words, “Who was the prophet now? Remember me!” signify for him the triumph of Papal authority over her defiance. Outside the circuit of heterosexuality, he finds a way to inseminate from the space of the seminary by other means.  What Stuart Curran has noted of The Cenci applies to The Mysterious Mother: “the paternal power in this play is almost mystical, a direct reflection of God’s authority and the Pope’s. A daughter’s rebellion, like an angel’s, opens an intolerable breach in the fixed hierarchy of nature, which tyranny or no, must be maintained” [4].  Walpole revels in the rupture, glorifying it in the Countess’s regal bearing and steadfast refusal to submit to the authority of the church, yet he also finds himself architecturally enthralled by the Catholic church and thematically drawn to themes of guilt, sin, and transgressions that will out.

 

Notes

  1. Horace Walpole to Montagu, April 15, 1768, Correspondence, 10.259.
  2. Mason to Horace Walpole, May 8, 1769, Correspondence, 28.9.
  3. George Haggerty, Queer Gothic (Chicago: U Illinois P, 2006), 64.
  4. Stuart Curran, Shelley’s Cenci: Scorpions Ringed with Fire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 67.

Abridging Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother

Having been the one who abridged Walpole’s five-act semi-Shakespearian play down to a c.45-50 minute running time for this staged reading, I was amazed at the underlying economy of Walpole’s dramatic writing. Those familiar with his Castle of Otranto will no doubt share a sense of that novel’s flat characterization but here his characters are expressive, singular, readily identifiable and distinguishable.  We were fortunate to have such good players for Benedict and Martin, bringing out the friars’ dedicated manipulation of a situation they had readily recognized for what it was and then deliberately utilized for their own ends.  In lots of ways, it was their show.  How brutally gentle Walpole’s anti-Catholic, anti-French, aims were delivered. 

 

Bringing the Text to Life

Like many in Walpole’s own day, my appreciation of The Mysterious Mother prior to the staged reading at the Yale Center for British Art in May 2018 was largely textual, and, as a reader of the play, I have long admired Walpole’s blank verse, his deft use of dialogue, the intricate network of metaphor, imagery, and allusion that he weaves from the opening lines of the Prologue onward. Of course, it is a cliché to say that performance brings an otherwise moribund play-script to life, but in this case, the claim could not be truer. Misty Anderson’s masterful direction of David Worrall’s careful abridgement of the play charged The Mysterious Mother with new vitality, by turns amplifying its tragic dimensions, exploring the full extent of its horror, and even bringing to light some rather unexpected moments of humor. To say that my understanding of Walpole’s play has been enriched through this experience is an understatement, and my participation in this extraordinary event is bound to remain a highlight of my academic career.

Playing Walpole’s Friars

Charlie Gillespie and Rev. Justin Crisp playing Friars Benedict and Martin in Walpole’s play The Mysterious Mother. May 2, 2018.

Playing Friars Benedict and Martin was something of a “too close to home” sort of experience for us—Charlie is a Roman Catholic layperson and a scholar of religion and theatre, and Justin is a priest in the Anglican tradition and a theologian. Conspiracy in religious garb (and cowls!) fuels The Mysterious Mother’s Oedipal engine, with mastermind Benedict and his sycophant-sidekick Martin using the age-old tools of guilt, shame, and doubt to manipulate the Countess of Narbonne and her family in grotesque and shocking ways that make for extraordinarily fun parts to play.

The anti-Catholicism of Walpole is in full force here, clearly, to which we were both sensitive as scholars and practitioners of high church traditions. It became a welcome challenge to balance these monks’ almost campy plotting (delicious scenes of secretive meetings and villainous monologues inviting the audience to hiss or delight at their evil genius) and the seriousness of their misdeeds.

For Justin, playing so obvious an exemplar of clerical vice was something of a cautionary tale, the vulnerabilities and risks of pastoral power put on display here in a way more vivid than even the most brilliant page of Foucault. And certainly, in the wake of the clerical sex abuse crisis, all religious leaders could use more attention to the ways that spiritual authority can go horrifically awry.

For Charlie, the play’s refusal to distinguish between sacred, political, academic, and theatrical power circulated through our concrete lecture hall turned gothic churchy-stage.

This production represented a conscious confrontation between interwoven identities and historical consequences. We walked to the sound of familiar Latin chants; we adopted postures and gestures we learned through our ordinary ritual practices. To embody these characters endorsed this play’s relevance to both historical and contemporary interpretations of religion but also illuminated shifting cultural attitudes toward Walpole’s “obscenity” and Christianity’s meanings.

For all that, The Mysterious Mother has a great deal in common with the religious tradition it so roundly chastises, namely its obsession with the supernatural, the miraculous and the providential—whether in the guise of mysterious weather patterns (lightning-blasted monuments!) or tragic necessity. In the end, Walpole dramatizes something much more interesting simply than a new atheism-style critique of the immorality and hypocrisy of religious belief: the cracks and fissures in modernity’s supposedly areligious veneer, the return of the repressed, the tremendous fascination of mystery.

Playing Walpole’s Countess of Narbonne

Georgina Crisp as the Countess of Narbonne, Gilberto Saenz as Florian, and Charlie Gillespie as Friar Benedict in the staged reading of Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother

As soon as I was invited to play the Countess, I felt the adrenaline rush I usually feel before going on stage. What a role for a woman of a certain age!  An aristocrat who has a daughter by her son and usurps, by the standards of the time, his right to rule the Duchy – all based, allegedly, on a real French mother. I love playing transgressors and Walpole made me feel for the Countess because she is eaten by guilt and threatened by conniving clerics.  However, I was nervous – having spent at least ten years reading, watching and talking about drama, instead of performing it. Moreover, I’ve performed way more comedy than tragedy, but it would do no justice to Walpole to play the eloquent script for blackly humourous laughs… even if the audience spotted them. My character had to take herself seriously. I think we all felt like that about our characters.

Georgina Lock as the Countess of Narbonne, Carlos Guanche as Count Ormond, and Charlie Gillespie as Friar Benedict in the staged reading of Walpoles’s The Mysterious Mother

The Countess is a very physical character and I enjoyed locating her in my own body – standing tall to express status despite her gut sickening at what she constantly remembers doing. The more I read the script and looked inside her lines, the more I could believe her extreme actions – and Misty and the cast egged me on to express them. The short rehearsal and deadline added to the urgency and “now or never” fun… although I must say I would love to do it again.