Commentary on De Monfort and Count Basil
by Keum-wha Lee

I. Introduction

 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 Monfort (1800):


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

Hamlet.          …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 traditional tragedy:

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:
   Mellor links Baillie's principle to Wordsworth's discussion that the "seed" of human nature grows to transform
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 is
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:

Rosinberg denounces how dangerous a human passion is, reminding the importance of a man's
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:

While Count Basil deals with the destructive force of an erotic passion, De Monfort concerns hatred
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
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:
   The Introductory Discourse argues that "it is the passion and not the man which is held up to our execration"
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 dramatic mode.

        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:

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 spiritual independence.

        Sharing this issue, modern critics read the literary mode of a Romantic closet drama as the era's social text.
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:


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 is
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 in a
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:

Even if Victoria was deceived by her father, she grieves Basil's death and vows to spend her
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.

         Baillie's revision of this female lieu is considerable in De Monfort, in relation to unconventional
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's depression deepens with his refusal to reveal his "secret troubles" to his sister. Trying to
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:

A Gothic writing was a female genre. In a pastoral surrounding, a Gothic mode follows a classical
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

 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.
           It is 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:
  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:
   A monk Bernard and Abbot deifies Jane bearing the Virgin's holy image at the event of Cruxfiction,
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.
IV. Conclusion

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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