Five Questions: Sarah Burdett on the Arms-Bearing Woman

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Sarah Burdett is an Associate Lecturer in English Literature at University College London; she will be joining the English Faculty at the University of Cambridge at the beginning of the new academic year. Her research focuses on Romantic-period women – writers, actors, playwrights, sportspeople and inspirations – and on the British stage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her new book, The Arms-Bearing Woman and British Theatre in the Age of Revolution, 1789-1815, which we discuss below, was published in June by Palgrave.

1) How did you first become interested in the figure of the arms-bearing woman?

Funnily enough, my motivation to study the figure was two-fold: part scholarly, part personal. At a scholarly level, it was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) which first did it for me; specifically, her adamance that she aims not to encourage women to turn their ‘distaff into a musket’. This image of women over-stepping the bounds of Wollstonecraft’s feminist agenda by adopting military personas and thereby, emulating men both mentally and physically – sparked an eagerness in me to learn more about arguments for women’s martial rights and perceived corporeal capacities, at a time when women across the Channel were creating uproar in Britain by partaking in armed violence en masse as part of the French Revolution. Turning my attention to the theatre really brought this project to life: reading about a female soldier is one thing, but seeing a woman perform impressive martial feats on stage is quite another. Coming from a literature background, I was fascinated to discover the extent to which the process of embodiment allowed the eighteenth-century actress to challenge gendered mores in ways that textual representations could not; and it was eye-opening to learn just how transformative performance contexts could be in transforming the female warrior’s identity on stage. I began looking into reviews of actresses including Sarah Siddons, Julia Glover and Fanny Kelly performing armed heroines in London, and before I knew it, I was hooked!

At a personal level, I was intrigued to find how many of the oppositional comments aimed at arms-bearing women and female soldiers (both real and fictional) in eighteenth-century British newspapers, periodicals and theatrical reviews correlated with misogynistic attitudes that I myself have tolerated in the past! I spent a decade playing football at club and county level and was so often being told (by the ill-informed, of course!) that my actions were ‘unfeminine’, ‘unsuited to my sex’, and even ‘dangerous’ for me to pursue (I very occasionally receive not dissimilar comments now about my continued lifestyle as a long-distance runner!). It felt oddly cathartic to pick apart the overt biases and political / ideological agendas prompting comparable criticisms of the eighteenth-century female solider: in a strange way, defending and celebrating the physical and mental capabilities of the women warrior felt like an inclusive defence and celebration of any woman who has ever been told that her lifestyle choice ought to be reserved exclusively for men. I hope that some of that comes across in the book!

2) What are the main trends you trace in representations of armed female combatants on stage between 1789 and 1815?

One of the key aims of my book is to dispel the outmoded scholarly consensus that the female warrior falls exclusively into one of two general camps on the eighteenth-century British stage: romantic and rewarded; or political and punished. These are certainly pervasive trends in eighteenth-century comedy: much has been written of the loving heroine who disguises herself as a solider in a ploy to reunite herself with her serving spouse before returning safely to the domestic realms, and scholars have also highlighted the replication on stage of the Harriet Freke-esque armed heroine who is mocked before being exiled from the narrative. However, my study looks to complicate the idea that the female warrior’s identity follows any kind of straightforward or stable pattern by magnifying the complex threads that interweave to shape and reshape her identity from one performance to the next. While I show the female combatant as becoming ripe for allegorical reappropriation across the revolutionary and Napoleonic decades, the events and people to which she (often very surprisingly) alludes vary from play to play, and are unforeseeably directed, and redirected, by contextual specificities including scenography, the actress performing the role, the venue at which the play is being performed, and materials circulating outside of the theatre. Despite this, there are certain epochal trends in the female warrior’s development towards which my book gestures: most notably, the emergence in the 1810s of a heroine whose degree of agency, heroism and destructiveness vastly surpasses that of her 1790s forerunner. The importation of new dramatic genres from Europe; the development of new stage technologies; and the progress of Napoleon’s campaign (most pertinently, his exploits in Spain) are all shown to accelerate the birth of a transcendently deadly armed heroine, whose startlingly devastating warfare becomes integral – peculiarly enough – to the triumph of virtue over vice.

3) To what extent do British theatrical representations of armed women draw on European and global histories, artistic traditions and political events?

A very large one! My book shows political and artistic developments occurring at home and abroad pivotally to impact British configurations of the stage amazon. I outline emphatically the extent to which Anglo-French, Anglo-Irish, Anglo-German and Anglo-Spanish affairs bear upon the female warrior’s portrayal and reception, causing her theatrical reputation to fluctuate perpetually in accordance with shifting national and international relations. Artistic innovations imported from Europe are equally significant. My book juxtaposes representations of armed women offered in native sentimental dramas and tragedies of the early and mid-1790s with representations indebted to the German Sturm und Drang drama and the French-derived melodrama at the start of the 1800s: a period which saw plays styled on each of these continental models enjoying vast popularity in Britain. This comparison allows me to illustrate the crucial role played by European theatrical traditions in facilitating the emergence of a refashioned female warrior, whose ‘foreignness’ renders her a paradoxically dangerous and profitable intruder on Britain’s patent stage.

4) Which of the plays you examined for the project would you recommend most strongly to other scholars?

I’d recommend Samuel Arnold’s military melodrama Charles the Bold (1815). Not only does it feature a cannon-firing heroine (I mean, come on!) but it offers a great example, in my opinion, of melodrama’s complex interaction with revolutionary and Napoleonic activity, at both a literal and affective level. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the licensing manuscript is the only surviving version of the play (available via the excellent Adam Matthew Eighteenth Century Drama database), so you do need to put up with the occasional difficult-to-decipher-word or two. But it’s well worth the effort.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m now working on my second monograph project, provisionally titled Staging Hibernia and Caledonia: Gender, Theatre, and National Identity, 1770-1832. Theoretically-informed by the work of Edward Said, the study strives to unpack historical negotiations of Celtic identity by grappling with the extent to which theatrical exhibition served to manipulate British conceptions of Ireland and Scotland as sites of cultural ‘Otherness’ across an epoch crucial to the formation of a stable British self. I’m also currently writing a journal article on sporting women in late eighteenth-century fashionable society, which homes in on the troubling (yet enticing!) figure of the female equestrian and huntress, by exploring her representation in 1790s stage comedy.