'This Wide Theatre, The World': Mary Robinson's Theatrical Feminism
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
I wish to seek publication of my thesis.
In this thesis I assert that Robinson’s theatrical heritage positioned her uniquely to confront the revolutionary explosions of 1790s radical thought. In her writings, Robinson’s onstage experience of gender performativity is transformed into a bold feminist critique of gender roles for women (and men) everywhere. In Chapter 1, I study writings by eighteenth-century theatrical women to argue that Robinson’s feminism must be understood within a theatrical context to appreciate the unique radicalism of her feminist vision. In Chapter 2, I explore how Robinson’s powerful identification with Marie Antoinette lies at the roots of her feminist project. In Chapter 3, I explain how Robinson then turns to the voice of Sappho to develop a radical vision of transcendent genius. In Chapter 4, I demonstrate how Robinson turns her critique of gender on men through the performative space of the masquerade in Walsingham (1797). Finally, in Chapter 5, I explain how this radical feminist critique is moulded to utopian ends in The Natural Daughter (1799), as Robinson rewrites the ending of Wollstonecraft’s Wrongs of Woman in a vision of the revolutionary family. I read three strands into Robinson’s feminism: 1) the rejection of incommensurable sexual difference; 2) the union of rational virtue and benevolent sensibility in the development of transcendent genius; and 3) a radical critique of the anxious crisis in 1790s masculinity. The result of this was a utopian vision of the future quite different from Wollstonecraft’s better-known brand of ascetic feminism. Instead, Robinson’s feminist theory works to rescue the original values of the French Revolution from beneath the ravages of Jacobin corruption. Beyond the limiting categories of incommensurable sexual difference, Robinson envisions a family in which woman would no longer have to renounce her sexual body in order to engage with society, and man could finally accept her as his equal.
Thesis exploring the place and writings of Mary Robinson in the radical political and feminist debates of the 1790s.
PhD in English