Commentary on De Monfort
and Count Basil
by Keum-wha Lee
Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) was a remarkable Romantic woman author.
Particularly, she was an
ambitious playwright publishing twenty-eight plays and some of them
were staged in her life time. She
presents herself as a daring young dramatist in the prologue of De
O, shame! - why borrow from a foreign store?
As if the Rich should pilfer From the poor.-
We who have forc'd th' astonished world to yield,
Led by immortal Shakespeare to the field;-
Whose Sires have felt all tender Otway's woe,
Have glow'd with Dryden, and have wept with Rowe.-
And we, their sons, now dull and senseless grown,
When all the realm of Comedy's our own?
Congreve and Vanbrugh boast eternal Fame,
And living authors, we forbear to name.-
Should you approve, on this auspicious Day
The British Drama reassumes her sway.
Ye Men, be candid to a Virgin Muse,-
To move you more,- Perhaps a Woman Sues:
Let her Dramatic Saplin 'scape your Rage,
And spare this tender Scyon of the Stage-
Support the infant Tree, ye pitying fair
Protect its blossoms from the blighting air,-
So may its leaves more gently with your sighs,
The Branches flourish water'd by your Eyes.-
She seems to be a woman "warrier" to protect the British stage from
the influence of European
continental drama such as German sentimental plays, Italian Opera and
French satirical comedies
popular in the late eighteenth-century English theatre. The playwright
strongly asserts her authorship
as a dramatist who will honor Shakespeare, Dryden and Otway by writing
for the English stage.
Baillie's Introductory Discourse to her Plays on the Passions
(1798) provides important information
about an aesthetic theory grounded on her dramatic philosophy. Her
theory argues audience's
"sympathetic curiosity" about a traditionally tragic hero whose irresistible
passion brings him a disaster.
In contrast to Baillie's effeminate male character destroyed by a passion,
her heroine is spiritually strong.
This paper attempts to explore Baillie's contours of gender identity
in her two plays Count Basil (1798)
and De Monfort (1800), however, I will give more weight on her
masculine heroines, suggesting the
playwright's ideological issue on gender in the Romantic culture.
II. Baillie's Male Personae in Count Basil and De Monfort
…this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth to me
nothing but a fool and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece
of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…and yet
to me what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet, II.ii. 301-8)
As Baillie's Introductory Discourse discusses the traditional
theme of a tragedy in terms of a didactical meaning,
two of her famous tragic plays, Count Basil and De Monfort
appear loosely conventional depicting the destructive
power of a human great passion. As the titles indicate, Basil in Count
Basil and De Monfort in De Monfort are
heroes reflecting the struggle of a remarkable individual against the
implacable and impersonal forces of a social
convention in terms of morality, even though they become helpless under
its power. In this section, I would like to
figure out the two heroes as traditionally tragic characters.
In Count Basil, Basil the military leader of Austro-Hungarian
Emperor struggles with the polarized values of love
and male honor, loosely following Shakespeare's Roman play Antony
and Cleopatra. As Shakespeare's Antony
delays to leave Egypt because of his love affair with an Egyptian queen
Cleopatra, Basil is detained in Mantua
by Victoria's beauty. It is the Duke's interest to detain Basil in
Mantua to prevent him from joining his troops, as the spy of Francis I
who opposes Basil and his forces. To fulfill this purpose, the Duke manipulates
his innocent daughter Victoria, "Her mind, as suits the sex, too weak and
narrow/ To relish deep-laid schemes of policy" (II.III. 5-6), encouraging
Victoria and her ladies to use their "power" for seduction, as Cleopatra's
erotic sexuality defended Egypt from the Roman invasion.
This male psychological matter of emotional foible is secretly discussed
by Iagonian evils, the Duke and his Minister Gauriecie who plot to destroy
Basil, as Iago contrives an assumed adultery between Desdemona and Cassio
to take revenge on Othello who promoted his rival Cassio. Ironically, it
is a prey for an evil character to provoke a hero's great passion in a
Duke. Yet mighty things might be-deep subtle wits
In truth are master-spirits in the world.
The brave man's courage, and the student's lore,
Are but as tools his secret ends to work,
Who has the skill to use them.
This brave Count Basil, dost thou know him well?
Much have we gain'd but for a single day
At such a time to hold his troops detain'd,
When by that secret message of our spy,
The rival pow'rs are on the brink of action:
But might we more effect? Know'st thou Basil?
Might he be tamper'd with?
Gaur. That were most dang'rous-
He is a man, whose sense of right and wrong
To such high romantic pitch is wound,
And all so hot and fiery in his nature,
The slightest hint, as tho' you did suppose
Baseness and treach'ry in him so he'll deem it,
Would be to rouse a flame that might destroy. (II.iii. 18-29)
According to this discussion, human beings are more emotional rather
than rational. So, sexuality is dangerous
for having a man lose reason and raising the nature of "dark side."
As Baillie's Introductory Discourse presents
her interest in human psychology, a modern critic Anne K. Mellor comments
upon Baillie's psychology:
Asserting that human character is organic and developmental, growing
not from Locke's
Mellor links Baillie's principle to Wordsworth's discussion that
the "seed" of human nature grows to transform
"white paper" or blank slate but from an inherent "propensity" or seed
she both anticipates
William Wordsworth's influential assertion that "fair seed-time had
my soul" and also argues
that this growing seed takes its final shape from its interactions
with its environment. Each
of her tragedies studies the growth of a single passion that, unchecked
by the rational advice
of others, destroys the hero…
into the higher stage of reason through meditation, distancing Locke's
principle that human psyche is inborn
in the "simplicity" of "white or blank." Baillie's theory appears Freudian
by arguing that unconsciousness is an
inborn nature. However, the Freudian scientific principle of psychology
argues that the "oceanic" and dark
sides of nature always exist as latent content under the surface of
consciousness, fighting with the ego that
compromises a conflict between id and superego. Ironically, Baillie's
argument on the restrain of a passion
becomes the cause of a Freudian mental trauma such as depression and
hysteria as the status quo: "…it is
not my intention to encourage the indulgence of this passion, amiable
as it is, but to restrain it."
As Gaurcian reveals that
"He is a man, whose sense of right and wrong/ To such high romantic pitch
wound," Basil is pleased with Victoria's beauty and reveals his "noble
weakness": "Let this sweet hand indeed
its threat perform,/ And make it heav'n to be forever dumb!" (II.ii.
26-7) Therefore, he stays in Mantua
unexpectedly longer despite his cousin and fellow Count Rosinberg's
advice on continuing on a march.
In the meantime, Basil's troop defeats the army of the King of French
in the absence of their commander
Basil and this event drives him to suicide for devaluing his military
reputation. What leads him to death is
the social convention that losing fame dishonors a man:
Shame knows no kindred; I'm fall'n disgrac'd;
Rosinberg denounces how dangerous a human passion is, reminding the importance
of a man's
My fame is gone,
I cannot look upon thee.
Rosinberg. Ah! What an end is this! Thus lost! Thus fall'n!
To be thus taken
in his middle course,
Where he so nobly strove;
till cursed passion
Came like a sun-stroke on his mid-day toil,
And cut the strong man down. O Basil! Basil! (V.iii. 8-104)
social identity. This male psychological dilemma between individual
and public affair is seen
through this play and Baillie negates a passion unchecked by a reason.
Her other tragedy
De Monfort also invite readers to the issue that deals with
an effeminate male character destroyed
by the "seed" of a passion.
Baillie presents the purpose
of De Monfort:
The last play [De Monfort], the subject of which is hatred,
While Count Basil deals with the destructive force of an erotic
passion, De Monfort concerns hatred
clearly discover the nature and intention of my design. The rise and
of this passion I have been obliged to give in retrospect, instead
representing it all along in its actual operation, as I could have
and jealousy that grow to a destructive power. As a hero, De Monfort
is a man of enormous pride and
cynical suspicion such as Manfred and Cenci. De Monfort flees to avoid
the presence of Rezenvelt, a
childhood rival. Even if the play does not explore at a depth, he is
emotionally engaged with his sister
Jane De Monfort. Therefore, when De Monfort convinced Rezenvelt's romance
with his beloved sister,
his hatred is amplified mixing with jealousy:
De Monfort's obsession on the relationship between Jane and Rezenvelt suffers
him like the mental
De Monfort. For in my breast a raging passion burns,
"To which thy soul no sympathy will own."
A passion which hath made my nightly couch
A place of torment; "and the light of day,
"With the gay intercourse of social man,
"Feel like th'oppressive airless pestilence. (II.ii)
torture of "airless pestilence," overwhelming the reason of "light
of day." He is a Byronic hero and
Gothic psychological thriller who is inwardly more troubled.
Not only a psychological matter but his
mien also pervade a Gothic horror: "…his evening walk/ To th' east
or west, the forest or the field,"
drawing attention from people around him: "…even in his calmest hour,/
Still bears that gloomy
sternness in his eye." (I.i) As De Monfort's landlord Jerome and his
servant Manuel concern about
his "hollowed eyes" due to a very short sleep, he is stoic suffering
himself in the torture of self-restrain.
Indeed, De Monfort is a conventional tragic hero such as a medieval
mystery drama dealing with an
individually sinful passion, driven to the punishment of death by God's
judgement in terms of morality.
When De Monfort dies of remorse after stabbing Rezenvelt, a monk Bernard
interprets De Monfort's
death as God's decision:
Bernard. Yes, death is dealing with him.
The Introductory Discourse argues that "it is the passion
and not the man which is held up to our execration"
From violent agitation of the mind,
Some stream of life within his breast
For many times, within a little space,
The ruddy-tide has rush'd into his mouth.
God, grant his pains be short!
1st Nun. Amen, amen! (V.iii.)
and Baillie's plays are associated with moral judgement in a traditional
way. However, the dramatist stresses
"sympathetic curiosity" provoking readers' compassion to her tragic
hero who is not an Iagonian villain but a
spiritually weak man, entraped by a feminine emotion resulting from
the lack of masculine reason.
III. Baillie's Masculine Heroines
In addition to the tragic heroes Basil in Count Basil and De
Monfort in De Monfort, each of these plays has
another central figure, Victoria in Count Basil and Jane De
Monfort in De Monfort. Unlikely Baillie's traditionally
tragic heroes, Victoria and Jane are against stereotype and Baillie's
portrayal of both female characters invites
readers to the play's re-visionary stance towards a Romantic gender
identity, as modern critics on Baillie's
works focus on her gender politics. Feminist writers of 1790s advocated
the reformation of the traditional
femininity in their works and provoked female readers' awareness on
female status, arguing that women
should be equals to their male counterparts. Clara Reeve, Mary Wollstonecraft
and Anna Barbauld were
precursors of the era's feminist movement. In this section, I would
like to explore Baillie's reconstruction
of ideal femininity, examining her female presonae invented in a closet
De Monfort was staged
at Drury Lane in 1800, in which Sarah Siddons played Jane De Monfort,
however, most of her plays were written for female readers rather than
theatre. Even though Baillie humbly
apologizes for her poor theatrical technique by using the closet form
of "mental theatre" in her Introductory
Discourse, her careful consideration about female readers is
concealed in the discussion:
It may, perhaps, be supposed from my publishing these plays, that I
them for the closet rather than the stage. If upon perusing them with
reader is disposed to think they are better calculated for the first
than the last, let
him impute it to want of skill in the author, not to have any previous
The Senecan mode of closet drama was a traditional female literary
genre, depicting a character's psychological
dilemma in the long speech of a persuasive tone. For instance, early
modern women authors such as Mary Sidney
and Elizabeth Cary whose works were preferred by educated female readers
used this style in a linguistic celebrity,
portraying a stoic female character challenging male tyranny for her
Sharing this issue, modern
critics read the literary mode of a Romantic closet drama as the era's
Mellor claims that the economic growth of eighteenth-century bourgeois
contributed to the establishment of women's readership. Reading was thought
to be a "genteel occupation" and middle-class women could have the leisure
time for reading. So, the new business of lending books started and
made as much money as from the sales of books.
Most users were women who subscribed for annual fees because to obtain
an access to knowledge available to men.
This female predominant readership produced a feminist issue asserting
the rights of women to be educated.
Baillie created unconventional heroines crossing culture and tradition
to respond to her female readers.
While her male characters
are ruled by unregulated passion, her heroines are the voices of rational
moderation. So, the playwright denies the traditional femininity of
emotional and impulsive. In the beginning of
Count Basil, the Countess Albini is the emblem of reason, advising
Victoria's "freaks of thoughtless youth"
as a substitute for her absented mother, calling her a "gentle child."
In Act II scene iv, from reading a book,
Albini jumps in a banter between Victoria and Isabella to quip the
young ladies' flawness:
Vic. To make the cunning artless, tame
Subdue the haughty, shake th'undaunted soul,
Yea, put a bridle in the lion's mouth,
And lead him forth as a domestic cur,
These are the triumphs of all pow'rful beauty!
Did nought but flatt'ring words and tuneful praise,
Sighs, tender glances, and obsequious service,
Attend her presence, it were nothing worth.
I'd put a white coif o'er my braided locks,
And be a plain, good simple, fire-side dame.
Alb. (raising her head from her book) And is, indeed, a plain
Who fills the duties of an useful state,
A being of less dignity, than she
Who vainly on her transient beauty builds
A poor little ideal tyranny?
Isab. Ideal too!
Yes, most unreal pow'r,
For she who only finds her self-esteem
In other admiration, begs an alms,
Depends on others for her daily food,
And is the very servant of her slaves,
Tho' oftentimes, in a fantastick hours,
O'er men she may a childish pow'r exert,
Which not ennobles, but degrades her state. (II.iv. 23-46)
This speech significantly makes a contrast between a traditional femininity
in which a woman's beauty
is the symbol of ideal femininity by pleasing a man and its reconstructed
identity. Albini claims an
independent "self-esteem" rather than artificiality and ormanentation.
She also stresses the female domestic
duties of "useful status" rather than "childish pow'r exert."
As Baillie portrayed Albini
as the model of a female reader precursive and keen, Albini realizes what
going wrong in the Duke's court creating a secret "art" to ruin Basil.
Honestly and bravely, Albini urges
Rozenberg to persuade Basil to leave before the disaster arrives. Mellor
argues that Albini's rule of reason
and "fettered" control of an emotion is associated with a "closted"
space for women in the Romantic culture,
in contrast to male public sphere. For instance, "closeted" spaces
of the bedroom where she advises Victoria
and the ballroom where she rightly warns Rosinberg is compared with
an open sphere where Basil meets his
rebellious soldiers. In a feminist perspective, Baillie's creation
of a female closet is notable by recognizing its
potential power resisting a male arena in the play.
Victoria realizes that she
truly loves Basil, and an opportunity to convince their romance occurs
forest that recalls a memoir on her delightful childhood with her brother.
As Victoria identifies Basil as her
brother: "…would I two brave brothers,/ And thou were one of them,"
(IV.V.98-99) their promenade
reflects the era's cultural aspect of brother-sister relationship such
as that of William and Dorthy Wordsworth
who had a fascinating conversation about the Nature and were inspired
through the keen observation of the Nature:
Vict. (to Bas.) This spot so pleasing, and
so fragrant is,
Even if Victoria was deceived by her father, she grieves Basil's death
and vows to spend her
'Twere sacrilege with horses hoofs to wear
Its velvet turf, where little elfins dance,
And frairies sport beneath the summer's moon:
I love to trade upon it.
Bas. O! I would quit the chariot of a god
For such a delightful footing!
I love this spot.
Bas. It is a spot where one would live and die.
Vict. See, thro' the twisted boughs of those high elms,
The sun beams on the bright'ning foliage play,
And tinge the scaled bark with ruddy brown.
Is it not beautiful?
'Tis passing beautiful
To see the sun-beams on the foliage play,
( In a soft voice.)
And tinge the scaled bark with ruddy brown. (IV.v.4-18)
life in "a dark shaded cloister" repenting her fault: "I have murder'd
thee!" (V.iii.139) Standing back
from the "adoration" of physical beauty, she decides to go back to
Albini's sphere of the "closeted"
and "noble mind," in which masculine reason controls.
of this female lieu is considerable in De Monfort, in relation to
femininity. It is also a safe place for female readers to preserve
emotional liberation from the rule and
convention of a society, responding to a provocative female character.
Jane's closet is a secret place
allowing her to uncover her mind:
De Monfort. (Angrily.) Be gone, be gone. - I cannot see him
now. (Exit Manuel)
De Monfort's depression deepens with his refusal to reveal his "secret
troubles" to his sister. Trying to
Jane. Come to my closet; free from all intrusion,
I'll school thee there; and thou again shalt be
My willing pupil, and my gen'rous friend;
The noble Monfort I have lov'd so long,
And must not, will not lose.
De Mon. Do as thou will; I will not grieve thee more. (Exeunt)
appease him and to get his confidence, Jane recalls their lonely childhood:
"So sadly orphan'd, side by
side we stood,/ Like young trees, whose boughs, in early strength,/
Screen the weak saplings of the rising
grove,/ And brave the storm together" (II.ii.) Jane promises that she
will never hate him. She is willing to
make personal sacrifices in order to appease his ego and transform
his mind. While the men in this play
expect Jane to be a traditional woman emotional, physically attractive
and passive, she refuses that role by
ruling herself with self-control and advising De Monfort with a reason.
She is not what we have heard from
men around her. Instead, Jane presents herself in a simple dress and
is not interested in attracting men, as
Page describes her mien: "I cannot well describe the fashion of it/
She is not deck'ed in ant gallant trim." (II.i)
Baillie's contour of anti-stereotyped
femininity was more deepened by associating with the Gothic setting
that mostly inaccessible female love takes a dramatic form in a "divine"
image. Jeffrey Cox argues Baillie's
political adoption of a Gothic genre:
Baillie uses Gothic techniques to reflect upon the Gothic itself and
A Gothic writing was a female genre. In a pastoral surrounding, a Gothic
mode follows a classical
underlying ideology, particularly its construction of the feminine.
embody a sustained meditation upon the roles and plots that constrict
a meditation not matched in her period by other dramatists or for that
by the better known Gothic novelists. Her self-reflective turn upon
tradition represented one way of revitalizing the Gothic drama as the
cultural, and ideological world changed from that of the 1790s and
the Gothic triumph.
Renaissance story line, setting up a tragic passion with a great force
and depicting the great scene of
taboo such as incest occurred in an isolated ancient castle. De
Monfort produces the standard Gothic
mood of dark woods, a ruined convent, lightning, screaming owls, tolling
bells, brother-sister love and a bloody
murder. So, a Gothic character is socially outcasted and exists in
the past. Thus, the Gothic does not represent
the striking beauty of a picturesque scenery but a dreadful horror,
engaging with a female sublime.
Elizabeth Fay discusses this aesthetic theory, disclaiming
the "hierarchy" of masculine sublime and feminine
The chora, too, is a portal or threshold space, one that gives rise
poetic language. And while "dark portals of life" offer a way out of
an e-merging, they also represent the interiorizing process of the
the demonization of the soul. Threshold operates dynamically, and the
terror is that
one can go either way. Threshold, too, as the liminal provides access
transcendent sublime, a barrier to traverse, a boundary to transgress.
Fay claims that a naissance is an access from the stage of "dark"
sensory to civilization and a possibility to
transform unconsciousness into consciousness. In addition, it presumes
transcendence from the female sublime
of chora to Burkian masculine sublime or divine beauty such as Petrarch's
Laura. Indeed, the event is to drive
feminine sublime to masculine transcendence.
Jane who transcends to the masculine sublime, differing herself from
a stereotyped Gothic
female character victimized by traditional morality such as heroines
in John Ford's Renaissance Gothic plays,
T'is Pity, she is a whore and The Broken Heart. When
De Monfort slains Rezenvelt and threatens himself,
Jane rushes to the convent to save her brother from desperation. Yet,
he denies her access to himself:
De Monfort. I now am nothing.
I am a man, of holy claims bereft;
Out of from the pale of social kindred cast;
Nameless and horrible. (V.iii)
Jane offers her embrace and her love, consoling and comforting
De Monfort. De Monfort tries to
dissociate himself from the family tree. Impressed with her loyalty,
he determined to manly meet his destiny.
Her language and deed pervade dignity:
2nd Nun. How does the lady?
A monk Bernard and Abbot deifies Jane bearing the Virgin's holy image
at the event of Cruxfiction,
Bern. She sits and bears
his head upon her laps;
And like a heaven- inspir'd angel. Speaks
The word of comfort to his troubled soul:
Then does she wipe the cold drops from his brow,
With such a look of tender wretchedness,
It wrings the heart to see her.
Abbot. She bears misfortune with intrepid
I never saw in woman bow'd with grief
Such moving dignity, (V.iii)
holding Christ's body falling down. It is Jane who responds to De Monfort's
emotional tremors with
supernatural power, crossing gender inferior and transcending to divinity,
the sublime of God and masculinity.
I have explored Joanna Baillie's construction of gender in Count
Basil and De Monfort through her characters.
Her heroes follow a traditional tragic line that an emotion overwhelms
a reason and finally bring them the disaster
of self-destroy under the authority of divinity, natural laws and social
rule. Thus, I would argue that Baillie male
personae are effeminate in these plays.
However, her heroines are strong, unconventional and masculine, and follow
the feminist polemics
in the Romantic period, questioning the ideology that men are superior
to women. The female characters are
politically engaged with revisioning conventional femininity and restructuring
its identity. Thus, her female
personae never give way to an emotional weakness. Instead, they re-build
self- identity becoming spiritually
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