“Shelley Himself in Petticoats”: Joanna Baillie’s Orra and Non-violent Masculinity as Remorse in The Cenci

Abstract

This article addresses the relationships between Percy Bysshe Shelley's non-violent politics and the gothic drama of Joanna Baillie. Both authors see violence as an inherent part of masculinity. For Baillie, this takes the form of what Anne Mellor calls the domestic sublime. The sublime places transcendent value on masculine violence, bracing for the male subject when the threat of violence is distanced. Writing in the tradition of feminine romanticism that Mellor outlines, Baillie sees this violence as directed at women and terrifying rather than awe-inspiring for its victims. Influenced by her work, Shelley seeks to critique violence against women. Unable to imagine a masculinity that is non-violent, he turns instead to a passive femininity that he viewed as innocent of the excesses of masculine violence, and in such heroines as Cythna, this passivity holds out the hope of effective political and social reform. In writing The Cenci, however, he finds the feminine ineffectual in dealing with the actualities of the experiences of a victim of violence. The situational nature of stage drama emphasizes the intimacy and reality of violence and its terror for women as its victims. As Beatrice's passive endurance fails to overcome her oppressive father, she actively resists. Shelley is not able to create an effective resistance to violence that is not itself violent, so he instead has Beatrice turn to a masculinizing violence that he then condemns. Through his identification with Beatrice, he reconciles himself to the violence of his own masculinity not by practicing non-violence, but by condemning a violence he accepts as part of his masculinity.

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Copyright © Stephen Hancock, 2003

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