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Imke Heuer

"Something in Mme de Genlis stile"
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's Zillia, Playwriting and Female Aristocratic Authorship

While Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), had long been famous as a salonnière and supporter of the Whig party, critical interest in her literary works is fairly recent. Whereas she is presently in the process of being rediscovered as a novelist and poet, my paper will discuss her dramatic oeuvre and her complex involvement with the theatrical world.

Particular focus will be on her early drama Zillia (1782). Described to her mother, the Countess Spencer, as a play 'in Mme de Genlis stile' [sic], Zillia emulates Genlis's Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes (1779-1780) in style and subject matter. I show how, in search for a position as an author reconcilable with her social standing, Devonshire used Genlis as a role model. Putting Zillia into the wider context of British Genlis reception, I briefly discuss the reasons why the French writer's pedagogical plays were particularly attractive to British women writers, and frequently translated or adapted. Additionally, I consider Devonshire's ambivalent comments on Genlis, which reflect her anxieties about her own authorship.

The following section explores Zillia in connection to the political dimension of pedagogical drama for the education of the female aristocratic elite. Particular attention will be devoted to the ways in which Devonshire uses of the language and discourse of sensibility to sketch an ideal of female aristocratic citizenship. I also briefly consider the relation between Zillia and her later theatrical projects and political agenda.

Additionally, I show how the play stands itself in the margins between the privacy of the 'closet' and the public sphere. Represented by the Duchess as an amateur exercise excluding public performance, it nevertheless had a potential for publication, and for her participation in public debates on pedagogy and the role of aristocratic women.

As will become evident, Devonshire deliberately employed her ‘literary mimicry’ to simultaneously remain within the boundaries of dilettantism and aristocratic propriety and pursue a literary career. My paper will open up perspectives on the strategic ways in which women writers used literary adaptation and emulation, the political dimension of pedagogical drama, and the interactions between gender, genre, class and authorship.

SvD, April 2008

  • Conferences > NEWW international conferences > Chawton 2008 > Heuer

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