BSECS 2020: Heroines, Hoops, Heels, Witches & Ghosts: Femininity & the Natural, Unnatural & Supernatural. Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Panel

This year at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, the Women’s Studies Group were represented by three fantastic panellists: Tabitha Kenlon, Alison Daniell and Carolyn D. Williams. The session was chaired by Yvonne Noble. This panel was well attended and allowed for a lively discussion, closely linked to the papers. Below is the panel proposal, which provides a little more detail with regards to the overall idea for the panel and the individual papers.

This panel considers different ways in which ideas about the natural, unnatural and supernatural on the one hand, and the characteristics and capabilities of women on the other, can become ambiguous and complicated when brought into contact with each other.

Dr Tabitha Kenlon, in ‘A Handbook for Heroines: Acting the Part in Northanger Abbey’, invokes performance theory to argue that Jane Austen’s heroine, by refusing to adhere to all the rules presented to her by conduct manuals, draws attention to the performative elements of ‘nature’. Although conduct manuals assured readers that women were naturally disposed to certain activities and temperaments, writers nonetheless felt obliged to remind women to behave in ways that, if truly natural, should have required little effort. In this respect they were not so different from the Gothic novels that Catherine found so delightful, and whose popularity gave concern to anxious moralists. She must adjust her own actions to fit the story she is really in, while learning to distinguish between malicious deception and required social performance.

Alison Daniell’s ‘Of False Hair, Bolstered Hips and Witchcraft: The Regulation of Women’s Bodies and an Act of Parliament that Never Was’ discusses the Matrimonial Act 1770 (or, as it is more commonly known, The Hoops and Heels Act 1770), which ostensibly permitted husbands to divorce wives who had seduced and betrayed them into matrimony by using perfume, make-up, heels and other commonplace beauty aids; the wives were also to ‘incur the penalty of the laws now in force against witchcraft, sorcery, and suchlike misdemeanours’. It is a fake: it was never passed, or even debated, by Parliament and its provisions do not exist anywhere in law. Yet it is referenced in a number of academic publications and has been quoted, re-quoted and published in newspapers across the globe for over 175 years. This paper analyses possible legal sources for its provisions and discuss some of the cultural factors associating women’s power over men with witchcraft and a mutable female body. It will also suggest a more prosaic origin for the myth than the emotive combination of witchcraft and divorce we know today.

In ‘”Overcome by the horror of the piece”: Women and Ghosts on the Eighteenth-Century Stage’, Carolyn D. Williams considers some cultural, gendered and theatrical implications of Sarah Siddons’ belief that in Macbeth, Act III, scene iv, when Banquo’s ghost twice appears to Macbeth at a banquet, Lady Macbeth sees it too. Critical opinion has generally opposed her view of this episode, despite contemporary evidence that she made it work on stage. The presentation will conclude with some brief workshopping of a few key moments in the banquet scene, and of one line in Act V, scene i, the sleepwalking scene, once offered as self-evident proof that Siddons’ views were untenable, but which could take on additional, and powerful, resonance if these views are respected.

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