The Actress’ Influence on Victorian Writing

The Victorian era teemed with literary masterpieces, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. But while the discipline of literary studies has explored those narratives in myriad ways, it’s overlooked how deeply the theater influenced them.

In a new literary and cultural history, Professor Renata Kobetts Miller (The City College of New York) repositions theater within Victorian literary studies, arguing that it was “an active participant in the literary culture of its time.” In The Victorian Actress in the Novel and on the Stage, she examines how the figure of the actress linked the spheres of the theater and the novel.

Through close readings of works by George Eliot, George Moore, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, and others, Miller explores themes of authenticity, realism, and even the display of emotion as a result of each writer’s engagement with the theater. More importantly, the actresses who performed in such spaces helped writers “define their own formal, cultural and political positions,” which in turn shaped public perceptions of the theater.

The Victorian Actress “traces a genealogy of Victorian cultural attitudes towards female performers that culminated in the centrality of the theater and actresses in the early twentieth-century women’s suffrage movement.” For example, writing about Eliot’s novels Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch, Miller turns to the characters Gwendolyn and Rosamond Vincy, respectively, arguing that they display a level of theatricality typically associated with a social performer.

Miller hopes the book enlightens readers on how “the Victorian novel and the Victorian theater acted on each other and influenced each other’s histories,” and provides a greater “sense of the complexity with which culture and society act on each other.”

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The Victorian Actress in the Novel and on the Stage
Edinburgh University Press, 2018

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Renata Kobetts Miller (Professor, English) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

The City College of New York