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“Oh Doctor, Doctor, don’t expect too much of me! I’m only a woman, after all!”: The (Dis) Embodiment of Lydia Gwilt in Collins’s Miss Gwilt

by Jonathan Buckmaster

Introduction

On 22nd November 1876, the Fun newspaper reported the following incident:

An unrehearsed performance of the Sanitorium scene from Miss Gwilt has been given with some success in Shrewsbury Gaol. Carbonic acid gas was introduced into the cells with the splendid result of one dead character and nine insensible. How to maintain our prisoners at the smallest cost to the community has long been a problem. Here we have its solution. Gas main ’tain ’em, and say they died from over ’eating [sic]. (209)

The Miss Gwilt referred to is Wilkie Collins’s adaptation of his own 1866 novel Armadale, which was first performed in Liverpool in December 1875, before a twelve-week season in London from April 1876. While the Fun is making a satirical point, it indirectly hints at one of the central concerns of the play, namely the struggle for control of the non-conforming body.

Despite substantial critical interest in Armadale, its theatrical “twin-sister” Miss Gwilt has received limited attention and even scanter praise. Lines such as Lydia Gwilt’s cry of “Oh Doctor, Doctor, don’t expect too much of me! I’m only a woman, after all!” (“Miss Gwilt”, 30) are typically seen as symptomatic of the difference between the Lydia of the novel, the dangerous and assertive adventuress, and the more passive instrument of the play.

Jim Davis calls Miss Gwilt a “somewhat ruthless adaptation” of the novel, and considers that “a complex novel has become a conventional melodrama, only partially drawing on the more complicated psychology of characterisation evident in the original” (176). Catherine Peters similarly observes that “on the page the play seems, compared with the novel, thin and uninteresting” (378). Richard Pearson, who otherwise champions Collins’s dramatic work and recognises the complex relationship between Collins’s novels and plays, feels that Collins creates “a fractured and failed adaptation” (347), which is “a text that bears the name but hardly the substance of the original” (336).

Armadale examines the construction of the self through its themes of names, doubles and inheritance, and Miss Gwilt also goes through a process of renaming (through its title), creating a physical “stage double” for the problematic character of Lydia Gwilt who leaves the audience to ponder how much of Collins’s original characterisation she “inherits”. Pearson frames this in negative terms, feeling that a dual “identity theft” takes place, as Lydia steals the Armadale name and Collins “steals the characteristics of his own novel and trades on these as the basis of his play” (335). In casting Collins’s creative act as a criminal one, Pearson regards the adaptation as something beyond the pale of some sort of aesthetic law, and echoes the language of Robert Stam’s description of “fidelity criticism”, that branch of adaptation studies concerned with the “violation”, “betrayal”, or even “desecration” of originating texts (Stam 54).

Indeed, most critical accounts of Collins’s play cannot entirely shake off what Robert Stam calls “the chimera of fidelity”, which prowls the margins of adaptation studies (54). Here direct comparisons between the novel and Collins’s stage remediation are typically made to serve a rhetoric of loss. For example, in Armadale Lydia controls and authors a significant part of a very text-oriented narrative, including diaries and letters, such as the one which is pivotal to the original disinheritance plot. However, in Miss Gwilt this backstory is pared down and Lydia’s other writings are removed, prompting the view that Lydia’s role is significantly weakened. Pearson feels that Collins builds “a space for innocence and victimisation” around Lydia, rather than the guilt and calculation she is associated with in the novel, and Peters proposes that Collins “soften[s]” the problematic assertiveness of Lydia to the point where Doctor Downward both plans the disinheritance plot and coerces Lydia into becoming his agent – “Lydia becomes, in fact, a stereotyped female victim, the tool of the male villains” (337).

However, this article will provide a more positive interpretation of Miss Gwilt, which diverges from these predominantly comparative and “fidelity”-based approaches and considers the non-textual aspects of this adaptation. In particular I will focus on the actress that Collins chose to play his title character, Ada Cavendish. Cavendish brought a variety of extra-textual associations to her embodiment of Lydia that affect our reading of the play and colour our re-reading of the novel as well. Through an examination of the reviews and advertisements for her performances, I will argue for her centrality to any critical appraisal we make of the play, as to some extent she even sidelines its official “author”, Collins himself.

Before considering Miss Gwilt in more detail, it is worth briefly considering the suitability of the sensation novel for the stage. For some, there was a straightforward relationship between the two; for example, Richard Holt Hutton announced in The Spectator that “The melodrama of the cheap theatres is an acted sensational novel” (932). However, although Collins famously called the novel and theatre “twin sisters”, their sibling relationship is not always an amicable one, and adapting his work presented particular generic problems for Collins (“Basil”, xiii). For example, as several theatre critics noted at the time, the length and complexity of novels such as Armadale was unconducive to extensive representation on the stage. The Pall Mall Gazette notes that “The dramatic form is, in fact, peculiarly unfavourable to the realization of those stories of complicated intrigue and sensational incident of which Mr Wilkie Collins is the most successful producer”, while Dutton Cook similarly noted the difficulties in mounting a play based on “a novel quite exceptional in regard to its elaborateness and complexity” (314). The Daily News admitted that “the plot, which in its leading features is probably familiar to most readers of fiction, is too intricate and complicated to be traced closely” in the necessarily compressed experience of a theatrical production (17 April 1876, 2).

Moreover, when one considers one of the important intentions of the sensation novel, to bring such middle-class terrors as adultery, murder and disinheritance into the home (on an artistic level within their narrative and on a physical level within a text brought into the home for consumption), then by relocating to a safe distance from the home and into a space prescribed for acting and pretence, would seem to compromise this.

However, while the staged sensation narrative removes distasteful material from the home, the enclosed physical space of the theatre offers its own possibilities. The conclusions of both Armadale and Miss Gwilt involve the release of toxic material into a claustrophobic space, and if we develop Sandro Jung’s assertion that “the doctor’s sanatorium becomes the ultimate theatre”, then this becomes an apt metaphor for the performance of a potentially unhealthy sensation story to a theatrical audience (96). Consequently, Cook describes “the atmosphere throughout” the play as “oppressively miasmatic” (317) and Fun felt it was a “most unhealthy drama” (26 April 1876, 185). The Liberal Review also gives a sense of this entrapment when they describe how “For four hours [Collins] contrives by this piece to chain the attention of his audience and keep them in a state of excitement which is at times positively painful” (qtd. in The Era, 19 December 1875, 7).

Thus rather than having to work into the body via the brain as when reading the novel, this presentational method enables the effects of sensation to work their way directly into the body through immediate apprehension and visual consumption. Indeed, the staging of sensation could be seen as the final logical step in the production of a particular kind of effect. Henry Mansel described the “galvanic battery” experience of sensation fiction as “carry[ing] the whole nervous system by steam” (487), and within the physical space of the stage the more tangible appeals of the sensation genre to the nerves and emotions can be more strongly realised, in Martin Meisel’s sense of the term as “giving concrete perceptual form to a literary text” (32). Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook and Christine Gledhill observe how “in melodrama physical and emotional sensation replace moral cognition as the objective of the pictorial tableau” (3), and a number of the reviews of Miss Gwilt recognise this uncomfortable effect: Cook remarks on “the excess of physical horror” and the play’s “power to rivet attention and to absorb in the intensest way” (315), while another, The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, felt that “it has a decided tendency to disquiet the nervous alike by its disagreeable features and the painful strain it places upon the attention” (4).

However, while Collins’s “theatrical” and “dramatic” style of prose writing is a critical commonplace, and despite the views of those like Hutton, the relationship between page and stage is a more complex one. Collins would not always aim to replicate or accentuate these sensation effects in his adaptations, and tried to do other things with his adaptations. Janice Norwood has examined Collins’s adaptation of The Woman in White and traced his deliberate avoidance of the tropes of sensation drama such as those scenes of “physical excitement calculated to electrify the audience’s nerves” (224). She explores Collins’s choice of material for the production, including an ending that avoids providing the “cathartic release” of the “thoroughly deserved death of the villain” (226), and feels that Collins “creates intellectual titillation rather than stimulating physical excitement and suspense” (229).

In a letter to Carlotta Leclerc during Miss Gwilt’s Liverpool run, Collins admitted that it was “all but a new work” (Baker et al, 110), and in this article, I will build on Norwood’s (and some of Pearson’s) work in similarly viewing Miss Gwilt “in its theatrical context, taking into account the circumstances of its performance” (Norwood 223).  I will present a number of alternative readings that attempt to reappraise Miss Gwilt on its own terms, and take what Dudley Andrew terms “a sociological turn” (35). Rather than debating “the essence of the media” (of the adaptation or of what is adapted) or implying “the inviolability of individual artworks” (37), I will examine the complex interchange of a number of other factors outside of the text itself – the material conditions of its production, its relation to other works, the background of the contributors to the adaptation and the cultural politics at work around its production.

The next section will consider the significance of Collins’s casting of Ada Cavendish as Lydia Gwilt, and then in the third section I will consider the inherent interpretative possibilities that the melodramatic form brings with it, particularly its interest in competing narratives of body and text, and demonstrate how these match the cultural politics of the work.

Ada Cavendish as Lydia Gwilt

Lydia Gwilt was played by the actress Ada Cavendish, who was born in 1839 and had made her stage debut in 1863. After an initial period of acting in musical burlesques, she came to prominence through playing Shakespearean heroines. Collins first cast her as Mercy Merrick in his adaptation of The New Magdalen at the Olympic Theatre in May 1873, at which point they became close friends. He wrote letters of recommendation for her when she later toured America, promising his friend William Winter that “She has […] more of the sacred fire in her than any other living actresses of ‘Drama’” and “has done such things which electrified our English audiences” (Baker and Clarke, 414).

Ada Cavendish

Ada Cavendish (later Marshall), Elliott and Fry (© National Portrait Gallery)

Linda Hutcheon has considered the material and aesthetic impact of the flesh-and-blood realisation of characters on stage, and believes that the shift from print to performance is a “move from imagination to actual ocular perception” (40). In traditional adaptation studies, this transfer primarily entails a loss; all of our imagined versions of characters are replaced and fixed into a single, solid figure, a myriad of interpretative possibilities are cast aside and only one reading is left standing, which could have been selected for any number of extra-textual reasons, such as the availability, price or inclination of performers, or the prevailing cultural climate. Audiences will then judge performers as “mis-cast” or “well-cast” accordingly, an interesting variation on the latter being the suggestion that a particular actor was “born to play” a particular role, which creates a sense of a prevailing destiny and excludes other performers.

However, such fixity can also bring benefits. Performers have a palimpsestic quality, by which all of their previous performances are inscribed on their current one. Although Hutcheon feels that such palimpsests “make for permanent change” (29) in our perceptions of literary characters, they also introduce a new series of interpretative possibilities. In this way, the theatre becomes what Juliet John characterises as a “site of communal imaginative experience”, whereby audiences bring in other “imaginary texts” into the theatre for each new performance they experience (4).

Cavendish’s popularity on the stage meant that even before audiences even saw her embodiment of Lydia, they had a number of other cultural references to draw upon. Cavendish’s performance in The New Magdalen, another of Collins’s dramatic adaptations of his own work (and one which was written simultaneously with the novel, opening a day before Bentley published the two-volume edition), naturally invites intertextual reading. For example, one can draw productive parallels between Mercy Merrick – the “fallen woman” and misguided heroine who assumes the identity of the supposedly dead Grace Roseberry in order to improve her social and material standing – and Lydia, who assumes a variety of identities in order to do the same thing.

Ada Cavendish as Mercy Merrick

Ada Cavendish (later Marshall) as Mercy Merrick in ‘The New Magdalen’, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (© National Portrait Gallery)

In tracing the possible inter-relations between Collins’s novels, Andrew Lang observed that “Miss Gwilt, dans la peau d’une autre, suggests the central idea of The New Magdalen” (269), but while the novels followed this genealogical order, the plays didn’t, as The New Magdalen preceded Miss Gwilt by around 18 months. Therefore in stage terms it is possibly the character of Mercy that informs the character of Lydia.

Mercy is an illegitimate child and “starving outcast”, drugged and raped while in a state of fever, and forced to resort to prostitution; as she pleads, she is someone “whom Want has betrayed to Sin” (14). She is a complex figure who wrestles with her own interests but also against a social ostracism which is not entirely her own fault: “I sometimes wonder if society had no duties towards me when I was a child selling matches in the street – when I was a hard-working girl fainting at my needle for want of food” (15). Collins seems to agree with her assessment, later describing a pauper child as “the pet creation of the laws of political economy” and “the savage and terrible product of […] a civilization rotten to its core” (371-372). Mercy also recognises the imbalances against women in the marriage market; her own mother was forced to separate from an abusive man, at which point she lost “the whole of the little fortune that she possessed in her own right” (328).

As well as this sense of victimisation, the figure of Mercy also suggests the possibility of repentance and reform; the priest Julian Gray (whom Jenny Bourne-Taylor regards as “the moral centre of the story” (218)) demands “Is such a woman as this all wicked, all vile? I deny it! She may have a noble nature; she may show it nobly yet” (195-196).

The Daily News was clearly engaged by all of the nuances of Cavendish’s characterisation, noting that her “portrayal of the scheming, sorrowful, and repentant Mercy Merrick gives evidence of much study of a difficult part” (21 May 1873, 2). The Morning Post similarly felt that she had emerged from a difficult role with considerable credit: “Considering the arduous nature of the part, Mercy Merrick might be pronounced [Cavendish’s] crowning achievement […] Miss Cavendish may be congratulated upon having rendered her exacting part with a success as complete as the ordeal was severe” (21 May 1873, 6).

Finally, The Era provides a comprehensive encomium, which highlights Cavendish’s ability to focus the audience’s attention on the positives within potentially problematic characters:

in the touching relation of her sad story in the prologue, and in the struggles between pride and conscience in the later scenes, she exhibited admirable power, while her defiance of the woman who taunts her to desperation [Grace Roseberry] could not well have been better, the dignity of her demeanour and the despairing fierceness of her speech being alike appropriate, and fully meriting the applause which a delighted audience bestowed. (25 May 1873, 11)

Being aligned with the more sympathetic figure of Mercy in such an overt way inevitably modifies our reading of Lydia Gwilt, the woman whom The Athenaeum called “one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction” (732).

Ada Cavendish’s Shakespearean heroines also offer some interesting perspectives for a reconsideration (or even pre-consideration) of Lydia. One of the most significant of these is Rosalind in As You Like It. Massimo Verzella has described this play as an interesting intertext for Armadale, calling Rosalind one of Lydia’s “dramatic ancestors”, and part of a group of “assertive women who mirror, and at times even effect, Miss Gwilt’s ideological mindset and psychological makeup” (318). He feels this ancestry is particularly important at a time when a small group of Victorian actresses were striving to present Shakespeare’s heroines as role models of assertive, witty and confident women, in response to a competing (predominantly) male scholarly discourse which designated Shakespeare’s heroines as modest and emotive.

Ada Cavendish

Ada Cavendish (later Marshall), London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (© National Portrait Gallery)

The part of Rosalind is particularly suitable for such a re-interpretation and re-appropriation by female actresses. Agnes Latham notes that “Once in the forest [of Arden], it is [Rosalind] who takes control – even of her father, to whom she makes herself known in her own good time – and Shakespeare puts the denouement into her capable hands” (lxxii). Verzella indicates that Rosalind’s “firm and confident manner” provides a model for Lydia’s “ability in role switching and her sway over men”, as well as her desire to have an interested share in her relationships (321). Like Lydia, Rosalind role-plays with her identity and warns her male suitor Orlando to not underestimate the intellect and voice of his wife within their marriage: “Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and ’twill out at the keyhole; stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney”, “You shall never take [a wife] without her answer, unless you take her without her tongue” (IV.i. 153-156, 162-164).

According to the reviews of her Rosalind, Cavendish seems to intervene directly into the struggles between bodily performance and scholarly text, and between onstage activity and passivity. Bell’s Life in London noted that her performance was “differing in many respects from what we have seen before” (9 February 1878, 10), The Observer noted that “Miss Cavendish has […] broken new ground”, while the “London Correspondent” of The Liverpool Leader informed its readers that “The Rosalind of Miss Ada Cavendish took the house [of The Gaiety Theatre] by surprise, and carried it by storm” (qtd. in The Era, 20 August 1871, 14). The Morning Post was even more fulsome in its description of Cavendish’s “rendering of Rosalind”, which “displayed the intellectual conception and the executive capacity which make, in their union, the finished actress” (qtd. in The Era, 11 June 1871, 4).

Other reviews offered a balanced view, which tried to weigh the more traditional aspects at work in her performance with a concession to this alternative characterisation: Lloyd’s Weekly Messenger noted the “delicate fancy” and “charming grace” of her Rosalind, but also acknowledged her “sparkling wit” (qtd. in The Era, 20 August 1871, 14), and similarly The Morning Post recognised how “she brought out most effectively the absolute essentials of the character – buoyancy and abandon”, but also “delightfully tempered [it] with that simple refinement which is never absent from this lady’s performance.” (26 March 1872, 5)

Rosalind’s reference to the female voice is also significant. Kerry Powell suggests that an actress’s presence on stage seemed to offer women a potential site of power over men, in both their relationship to the male members of the audience and the male actors they performed alongside. The presence of the female voice was crucial within this, since, as Powell explains, the theatre provided a site for the “reversal of Victorian norms […], where women could vocalise powerfully while men fell mute” (10).

The agency, mobility and vocality that Cavendish displayed on stage is a crucial intervention within the gender politics of the Victorian stage. Against this discourse which acknowledged the presence of female agency onstage (Powell notes in reviews of the period “an admiration that was disturbed and complicated” (15)) was a competing view of how women should be presented, rather than how they should present themselves.

Gail Marshall describes how a “Galatea-aesthetic” had built up around the figure of the woman on stage; the female form as statuary became regarded as the ideal state (3).  This discourse was developed and circulated through commentaries and reviews and was then realised on the stage through a combination of male authors and female instruments who felt that compliance was the best career path. As Marshall explains, “for the Victorians, sculpture is a way of achieving, rather than simply commemorating, the association of timeless ideals with women,” and therefore became something desired in all representations of the female form, beyond the merely material to the real flesh-and-blood (3).

Ellen Terry embodied the model of this ideal female passivity on stage, a fact lamented by her son Gordon Craig, who felt she missed an opportunity to enjoy the power offered by female performance: “Faced with the public, rather than carry the public along, or fight it, she would side with the cow-like animal and begin to imitate its face and to drop tears all over the place” (157). Her postures were those of submission, and were “a living embodiment” of paintings (51). Similar attention was paid to Helen Faucit’s portrayal of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, a part inextricably tied up with the idea of woman as statue. Blackwood’s praised Faucit for filling the “eyes [of her audience] with visions of beauty and grace and dignity, living yet ideal” (741). Women became artefacts rather than artists in this way, and this is even regarded by Faucit as the acme of her profession: according to her biographer and husband Theodore Martin, “she believed that the measure of her success was to make men forget the actress in the woman she represented” (141).

Such discourses also crept into reviews of literature as well, including Armadale, as some male critics seemed anxious to constrain Lydia to as silent and static a role as possible. For example, in its condemnation of the play and its heroine in particular, the Saturday Review adopts the language of the non-performing arts: “Miss Gwilt is a waxwork figure displayed from time to time in every conceivable sort of garish light”, and “a portrait drawn with masterly art, but one from which every rightly constituted mind turns with loathing” (726). Note the praise here for Collins as the painter, but rebuke for his “creation”. This would seem to support the needs of the sensation novel, which, according to Lyn Pykett, “displayed women and made a spectacle of femininity” (9).

As well as Cavendish’s other theatrical roles, another significant “sociological” factor is her age at the time she played Lydia. She was born sometime in 1839 (the actual date is unknown), so she was at least 36 in December 1875. Yet in the play itself Major Milroy confirms to his daughter that Lydia is “a young woman” and critics generally follow this textual cue and a letter from Dickens to conclude that Collins took up Dickens’s suggestion to use a “young woman” as his heroine (5-6). Dickens had written to Collins and told him that in the original narrative, “Almost every situation in it is dangerous”, and that “you could only carry those situations by the help of interest in some innocent person whom they placed in peril, and that person a young woman” (Hutton, 147). This is reminiscent of Dickens’s own intention for The Old Curiosity Shop whereby he would “surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and […] gather about her innocent and pure intentions, associates […] strange and uncongenial” (8).

Dickens draws particular attention to “the scene in which Miss Gwilt in that Widow’s dress renounces Midwinter” (147) as one of particular danger, and clearly indicates his desire for a passive, young female role more in line with the gender expectations of the Victorian stage rather than the very active, mature female role in Armadale. The Spectator more directly criticised the presentation of Lydia’s age in the novel, calling her “a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets, who has lived to the ripe age of thirty-five, and through the horrors of forgery, murder, theft, bigamy, gaol, and attempted suicide, without any trace being left on her beauty” (638-639). More recently Lisa Niles notes the novel’s particular attention to Lydia’s age, and observes that “according to Victorian social mores” (67) one of her worst crimes is to appear younger than she is, “performing a simulacrum of youth” (66) which “resists the authentication process that the marriage market depends upon, one that reinforces idealisation of maternity” (87).

Niles’s essay focuses on the use of cosmetics, but other scholars have regularly aligned Lydia with another figure who trades on artificial appearance, the actress. For example, Sandro Jung describes her “career of impersonation and role-fashioning which defines her as an actress as much as a criminal” (93), and Laurence Talairach-Vielmas claims that her character “fuses the figure of the Victorian lady with that of the scheming actress” (147).

Ada Cavendish’s embodiment of Lydia, then, could be said to be of an actress playing an actress, and the favourable impression that she received from critics suggests that she outdoes Miss Gwilt in her ability to impersonate another person and deflect unfavourable attention. In her description of Collins’s relationships with actresses, Peters notes that “the aura of unrespectability still hung around the profession: a hint of scandal was almost expected” (11). Yet in her portrayal of a dangerous social performer, when the opportunity for censure seems particularly ripe, Cavendish avoids the same overwhelming condemnation that Collins’s novelistic version of Lydia suffered.

Given my earlier comments about the movement of sensation material away from the home, this softer treatment of Lydia might be explained away by the fact that she is safely contained on the stage, but the reviews also seem to conflate Cavendish (a figure outside of the dimensions of the text and indeed the playhouse) with her character, praising her for the very talents for which her character is condemned. In an echo of her earlier notices for Rosalind and Mercy Merrick, which celebrated Cavendish’s skills in such a way as to elevate the role she was playing, an advance notice for the play in Bell’s Life in London calls Cavendish “this clever lady” (19 February 1876, 4) and The Era feels that her embodiment of Lydia “demands great intellectual as well as histrionic powers” (12 December 1875, 4). The Daily News goes yet further than this: “the concealment of [her awkward past], combined with a passionate love for a husband, affords full scope for the cultivated powers of Miss Ada Cavendish” (17 April 1876, 2). If anyone is clever enough to hide a shady history, it is Ada Cavendish, they seem to say.

This attention to Cavendish’s own abilities also raises the issue of her contribution to the “authoring” of Miss Gwilt. Hutcheon questions the possibility of a single “adapter” and recognises a more “collective process” at work: she feels that “the performers are the ones who embody and give material existence to the adaptation”, and so while Collins’s name alone may be on the printed version of the play text as we have it, Cavendish’s contribution to the actual performed reality should also be recognised (81).

Moreover, the particular nature of their working relationship suggests that Cavendish also made a direct textual contribution. According to Arthur Wing Pinero, who played Mr Darch, Collins “used to sit, his manuscript before him, at a small table near the footlights, and there he made such additions and alterations as Miss Ada Cavendish deemed necessary. He did this with the utmost readiness and amiability, influenced perhaps by her habit of calling him ‘Wilkie’ … which I recollect, surprised and shocked me not a little” (qtd. in de la Mare, 68).

If the play presents an uneven struggle for control between Dr Downward, the scheming author of plots, and Lydia, his more passive vessel who dramatizes them, then a similar and apparently more even struggle seemed to be occurring offstage. A number of contemporary reviewers seem locked in a rhetorical struggle about precisely who controlled the performance-text of Miss Gwilt, as several concede that Cavendish was more than just Collins’s mouthpiece.

Thus a December 1875 reviewin The Era suggests that in Lydia Gwilt “Miss Cavendish had a part specially adapted to her talents” (12 December 1875, 4), and this is put even more strongly in their April review, whereby “Miss Gwilt was destined to remain in obscurity until she appeared elaborated and rearranged, under the care of Miss Ada Cavendish” (23 April 1876, 12). Other reviewers similarly noted Collins’s debt to Cavendish: The Liverpool Express felt that “Mr Collins was particularly fortunate in having the aid of so consummate an actress as Miss Ada Cavendish for the portrayal of his principal character” (qtd. in The Era, 19 December 1875, 7), and The Morning Post asserted that “It would be difficult indeed to over-estimate the services which Miss Cavendish has rendered to Mr Wilkie Collins” (6 July 1876, 6). This struggle over control of the character of Lydia in fact echoes a wider struggle in the play, both thematically and as a performed piece of work – the struggle between body and text, to which I shall now turn.

The Struggle Between Body and Text

The struggle between Collins’s text and Cavendish’s body seems particularly apt for exploration within a melodrama. The centrality of the body to the melodramatic form is well-known: Bratton, Cook and Gledhill cite the body as locus “in which the socio-political stakes its struggles” (1) within melodrama, and Peter Brooks states the importance of melodrama’s “semiotics of the body”, which he describes as a product of the French Revolution’s “new valorisation of and attention to meanings inscribed on the individual body” (11). Miss Gwilt presents a narrative full of texts within this highly corporeal form, which further foregrounds the struggle between these competing discourses of text and body. This section will trace these competing discourses within Collins’s play, and in particular how they artfully coincide in the closing scenes.

The text-body conflict begins with Lydia’s very first appearance. In Act I, the stage direction reads “Dr Downward appears at the back of the stage, on the left, with Miss Gwilt on his arm” (21). This makes a striking comparison with her first appearance to Allan and Ozias on the Norfolk Broads in Armadale. Set against the evocative backdrop of the sinking sun, the “waters of the Mere […] tinged red by the dying light” and “the open country […] darkening drearily”, Collins introduces her as follows: “on the near margin of the pool, where all had been solitude before, there now stood, fronting the sunset, the figure of a woman” (320-321).

Francesco Marroni has observed that Lydia’s “loneliness against a darkening backdrop transforms her bodily image into a symbolic figure” (68), in fact the same figure who appears in Ozias’s cryptic dream, where “On the near margin of the pool stood the Shadow of a Woman” (“Armadale”, 171). Marroni also proposes that “the peculiar iconicity of this encounter depends entirely on the way the heroine decides to show herself before the victims of her schemes” (67). But while the dramatic “equivalent” of this scene – whereby Lydia is presented to everyone by another controlling presence – seems less dramatic, it is equally representative of the position of Lydia within this particular narrative. When Major Milroy sees her, he “is presented by the Doctor to Miss Gwilt” (21), and this sets the tone of the Downward-Gwilt dynamic; already it is apparent that the doctor attempting to manage her body, as he introduces her into the narrative and manipulates her interactions with other bodies.

Throughout the rest of the play, such bodily negotiations shape meaning and identity, particularly when cast against various forms of textual material. For example, Downward’s henchman Manuel observes that “I know that my shabby coat is against me. I know that the world judges by outward appearance”, and has to gain the trust of Allan and Ozias by (falsely) convincing them that his body is an index of his true self rather than the written testimonial of his captain’s commission and lieutenant’s examination certificate (58-59). Ozias’s true identity is revealed to him by a letter within a letter in Act I, and the doctor deploys an arsenal of documentation (including an anonymous letter to Major Milroy containing Lydia’s “character” (66) and a copy of the marriage certificate between Lydia and “Allan Armadale”) to author his own narrative and the narratives of those around him.

Downward also recognises the controlling potential of the medical discourse that he purports to represent. He notes with villainous glee, “Once in my Sanitorium, Mr. Armadale, get out of it if you can!” (79), and Midwinter shows his own awareness of the doctor’s reliance on this discursive power when he throws Downward’s language back at him “with bitter irony”, “You are a medical man. Perhaps you can tell me if my troubles have affected my mind? […] Am I labouring under an insane delusion, Dr Downward?” (83).

Downward’s most sustained use of medical discourse as a means of control is through his manipulation of Lydia. His medical rhetoric becomes another method through which male-generated texts attempt to control the female body, and one which has particular resonance in the site of the playhouse. Downward regularly tries to assert himself over Lydia through expressing his “professional” opinion of her erratic or failing health. For example, as Lydia and Midwinter become closer romantically (and compromise the Doctor’s dominance), he intervenes by asking: “Can I be – medically of any use?” and administers some smelling salts – “A little nervous, my dear? The heat of this fine summer weather!” The fact that she comments herself that she is “nervous”, “out of spirits” and “not well” suggests that the Doctor’s medical discourse has already been absorbed and normalised within her mind (28).

Similarly, when he later notes that “The widow’s income is to be had for the asking”, and feels that her behaviour is running away from his control (“I don’t like her language! I don’t like her looks!”), he quickly reasserts his power over her through a cursory examination, and then the offer to “write [her] a prescription” for “serious nervous mischief” (67).

In this stage struggle between Downward and Lydia, Collins echoes a wider cultural struggle between supposed respectability – in the form of the medical profession – and supposed female impropriety – in the form of the actress, a figure with whom Lydia is aligned. Kerry Powell traces the attempts to bring actresses under the same medical controls as prostitutes (for example, through the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s), and notes that “Regarding actresses and prostitutes as in some sense diseased, or potentially sick, was a means of controlling the public bodies and feigned emotions of these women who had exceeded the boundaries containing respectable wives and daughters” (36). This method of regulation is precisely what is rehearsed in Miss Gwilt.

Moreover, as we move from the “telling” mode of literary fiction to the “showing” mode of performed theatre, the presence of Lydia’s own writing is reduced to almost nothing, and is often translated into more evanescent soliloquies or asides. In fact, she often becomes the passive agent for the writing of others; in Naples she acts as secretary for Midwinter (who works on the doctor’s newspaper), merely reading out the sections he has chosen, and putting his “writing materials in order” (46) in a housewifely fashion. The doctor actually writes for her at one point, as he manipulates her into declaring herself as Armadale’s widow, refuting the physical act of union between herself and Ozias Midwinter by standing on the evidence of a marriage certificate.

In the play, the doctor’s Machiavellian paper trail replaces Lydia’s body of writing – the literary artifacts of her diary and her correspondence with a number of characters – which occupies a large portion of the Armadale text, and is understandably regarded by many critics as crucial to her identity. Sandro Jung notes that “The writing process of the diary represents the process of her inscribing herself as the ultimate femme fatale” (93) and Jenny Bourne Taylor observes that “the diary is the only place where she achieves a sympathetic subjectivity” (170). Interestingly, Ellen Terry seems to have briefly attempted to gain agency over her performances in a similarly textual manner; her copy of the Lyceum script of Hamlet has her own annotations marked on it, most significantly against part of the male lead (Powell, 52).

In Miss Gwilt, the replacement of Lydia’s writing could be said to complete the cycle that Collins began in Armadale, whereby, as Mariaconcetta Constantini observes, Lydia is ultimately “denied an authorial status” as Collins, the “‘proper’ (male) narrator” appropriates and controls her narrative. In Miss Gwilt, Downward becomes Collins’s proxy for marshalling and controlling Lydia’s writing (45).

Lydia only resorts to the written word towards the end of the play, when things are almost entirely out of her control, threatening the doctor with an incriminating note if he will not help her poison Allan, but when he accedes, she quickly burns it. In fact, the reminder of a previous text authored by Lydia, a letter written in the “golden time of [their] love”, prompts Midwinter to realise how much she has lost control of her identity through the texts of others. He muses, in the room in the sanatorium which she intends to fill with poison gas, “Who would believe that the woman who wrote these charming lines and the woman who has deceived and disgraced me are one?” (98). Moreover, it is her own recognition of this distance that forces Lydia to try and re-inscribe herself back into the narrative through her suicidal act. When she bursts into the room, she discovers the letter in Ozias’s hand, and this textual vestige of her previous identity forces her to try and reassert that identity through her bodily act of self-sacrifice for him.

Yet this is not Lydia’s first bodily act, and is in fact the culmination of a steadily developing bodily counter-discourse that runs through the play. Brooks calls the melodramatic body “a body seized by meaning” (18), and notes that in melodrama “bodies behave hysterically, if by hysteria we understand a condition of bodily writing, a condition in which the repressed affect is represented on the body”(20). And in Miss Gwilt, Lydia repeatedly uses her body to articulate the identity largely presented by the texts within Armadale but otherwise denied in the adaptation. One soliloquy in Act III is underscored by nine different gestural stage directions, as she “rises, and paces backwards and forwards impatiently”, “looks round the room wearily” and “rises in sudden terror” (51-52). Significantly, the point at which she asserts herself against Downward, and claims to have “mastered her master at last”, we are given a momentary tableau as Downward falls to his knees and she “looking down on him with a burst of triumph” exclaims “Ah! You know your place at last!” (86-87).

Lydia’s death scene, then, demonstrates quite how far Lydia’s novelistic journal and letter writing have been replaced with her melodramatic bodily writing. Barbara T. Gates explains how Collins felt that the act of suicide should spring from one of two motivations, atonement or hopelessness, and the prevailing view of the staged version of the suicide is that it is a scene of hopelessness. The Liberal Review notes how “the passion [Cavendish] throws into her despair at the conclusion of the play”, The Liverpool Albion recognises a fine balance of “revenge and remorse” in the final scene (both qtd. in The Era, 19 December 1875, 7) and The Era feels that “she gives herself up to despair” at the end of Act III (23 April 1876, 12).

However, Marroni instead views her suicide in the novel as a spectacle, borne of defiance rather than despair, as Lydia refuses to accept her role of victim: “Undoubtedly, Lydia Gwilt’s suicide must be intended not so much as the desperate and final gesture of a woman who sees no other alternative before her, but rather as an extreme melodramatic staging of her narcissism” (54). Similarly, Pearson calls Lydia’s suicide “a tragic statement of female emancipation” and much of its tragic impact is derived from its place within the text-body struggle and its direct presentation on stage (347).

Tamar Heller observes that “the experience of terror embodies the Gothic heroine by expressing her sensations” (23), and here in the final “sensation” scene, Lydia makes direct reference to her own senses, as she waits to deliver the next dose of poison into “Allan’s” room; “Nothing moves but the chill that creeps over me – nothing sounds but the fever throbbing in my head!” (100). Heller also notes how “such moments end in a moment of silence and vacuity where she loses power over her body, either by fainting or by becoming mute and inarticulate” (23), and while it could be suggested that Lydia’s final fate is the silence and darkness of death, she manages to directly express a great deal more before this moment, provided by the more bodily and less text-bound opportunities of the stage.

These closing moments, in which Lydia has contemptuously dismissed a “trembling” Dr Downward, and has power over the life and death of the only other (male) character present, could indeed represent a triumph. The bodily dramatics underscore this, as rather than being the instrument of male power, Lydia finally becomes the agent – according to the stage directions, Midwinter “falls forward insensible into his wife’s arms”, and she manipulates his body just as Downward had manipulated hers: “she places him in the easy chair […] and supports his head on her bosom”. Later, she “stoops over him and kisses his forehead”, and “rests [his] head on the back of the chair” (100-101).

Here, the trial scene typical of melodrama, whereby women were often the passive and indirect victims of a cruel notion of justice, is replaced with a bodily trial in which the heroine of the story is the active agent. According to Brooks, the climactic melodrama trial scene publicly recognises, celebrates and rewards “the character of innocence and virtue” while it simultaneously “bodily expel[s the villain] from the social realm” (19), but this straightforward scenario is complicated in Miss Gwilt.

In Armadale, the act of suicide itself is presented as a text within a text: Lydia writes a final confessional letter, which includes her assertion that “The one atonement I can make for all of the wrong I have done you is the atonement of my death”, and then disappears behind a door – we “hear” a sound, which we are told is “like the sound of a fall”, and that is all we have of her death (806-807). But in Miss Gwilt Lydia’s death is presented directly to the audience, through her voiced confession, including the crucial line above, and a death scene that happens not offstage but in view of the audience. Pearson describes how Collins used an innovative split stage, and while he sees Lydia’s movement to a side room as a retreat “to the margins of the stage, to a room off” (344), the audience would have a full view of what is described in the stage directions as follows:  “She enters the room and turns the key in the lock. The next moment the poisoned air overpowers her. She staggers and drops on the floor. The candle, reduced to its last point of flame, goes out” (102).

Such is the impact of this final scene that observers judged Lydia’s scenes in the poisoned chamber far more sympathetically than Midwinter’s. While the Pall Mall Gazette felt that Midwinter’s “poisoning scene” has “rather a mirth-provoking than a horrifying effect” and “cannot be made impressive”, it spared Lydia’s equivalent scene such opprobrium, and several other reviews note the effectiveness of her final moments (10 May 1876, 11). Audiences in Sheffield were held “almost spell-bound” (The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 1 November 1876, 4) in the last act, while the Liberal Review acknowledges her “nobility, grandeur, and intensity” (qtd. in The Era, 19 December 1875, 7).

Conclusion

Thus while a direct comparison with Armadale would indeed suggest that Lydia has been disembodied (if we take her body to be her substantial corpus of writing), this remediation to the stage provides an opportunity for a different and possibly more powerful type of embodiment, and one more suited to the bodily semiotics suggested by the sensation form. The associated “imaginary text” and the acting ability of his lead actress Ada Cavendish, and the necessarily corporeal form of melodrama meant that Lydia persisted as a physical presence, even if her textual presence seems to be diminished.

The front page of The Era listed the current theatrical schedule in a way that also privileges bodily performance over text:  here, the actresses are the headline, writ larger than the piece they were performing:

MISS ADA CAVENDISH,

at the GLOBE THEATRE

Every Evening

as MISS GWILT

They often also carried an extra-textual interest to readers: “Miss Rose Cullen Disengaged”, “Miss Roberta Erskine at Liberty until September” (25 June 1876, 1).

Writing to Kate Field on 22 April 1876, a week into the London run of Miss Gwilt, Collins lamented that “I sleep badly since my illness, and cannot get up in the morning. The doctor allows me to get out for a walk (with a patch over my eye), but he has not yet allowed me to see my own play” (Baker and Clarke, 403). Collins’s absence from his own play is perhaps symbolic as well as a simple matter of medical advice, as the author of the written text cedes ground to Ada Cavendish, who, as one Era advertisement promised in its advance notices, “will create the role of Miss Gwilt” (5 December 1875, 12).

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“Oh Doctor, Doctor, don’t expect too much of me! I’m only a woman, after all!”: The (Dis) Embodiment of Lydia Gwilt in Collins’s Miss Gwilt by Jonathan Buckmaster
The Wilkie Collins Journal 12 (2013)

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