Professor Catherine Burroughs on "The Cambridge Companion to Women's Writing in the Romantic Period"

February 3, 2015
Professor Burroughs discusses her contribution of a chapter on drama in the upcoming publication and her scholarly interest in the field.
Catherine Burroughs

Wells Professor of English Catherine Burroughs recently contributed the chapter on drama to “The Cambridge Companion to Women's Writing in the Romantic Period,” due for release this spring from Cambridge University Press. Given Professor Burroughs’ long-standing expertise on the history of British literature and specific attention to women’s contributions and to dramatic writing and production, we asked her to describe her contribution to this publication and to the scholarship surrounding her field of knowledge.

What is the Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in the Romantic Period, and how did you get involved with writing for it?

I got involved writing the entry for "Drama" to the Cambridge volume through an invitation from the editor. The Cambridge Companion editor(s) approach 10-15 experts in the field of study that they're investigating, and since I've made my scholarly reputation doing research on women in British Romantic theatre (specifically Joanna Baillie, considered the "female Shakespeare of her era [1762-1851]), they wanted me to cover the topic of "women and drama" from 1780 to 1830.

Was there a set of guidelines given, or were you more or less free to choose what information to highlight and in what way?

I was free to choose the information I wanted to highlight, as the person designated to define the topic for graduates and undergraduates. As I say in the article, I wanted to give the next generation of scholars an overview of the contributions of British women writers to drama as far back as the late sixteenth century—something I wish I'd had when starting out in this field and as a context for appreciating more fully the specific contributions of women writers to playwriting, acting, theatre management, and theatre "theory" in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

You’ve taught many Wells courses on British literature, often focusing on specific periods of early drama and on the work of women playwrights. Was much of what’s included in your chapter based on your long-standing expertise, or did your interest in the topic motivate you to do some additional reading?

My approach through the years has been to identify and then pursue a subject of scholarly interest in archives around the country; introduce that research to my classroom; write an article or book on my "take" on that subject; and then re-introduce to the classroom the published material.  Students have always seemed eager to "think aloud" about a critical question I'm investigating. I recall fondly the sites and courses that were the product and/or the producers of my published and classroom work--from the Newberry Library in Chicago to London to Sea Island, Georgia, where a January course sponsored by Wells enabled me and eleven other women to do research on the British actress/playwright Fanny Kemble, who resided on her husband's rice plantation in 1837 and exposed the horrors of slavery there. This book was published in 1863 and is considered instrumental in keeping Great Britain from supporting the South in the Civil War.

Other courses I've taught at Wells that were research-focused are: "A History of Closet Drama, Parts I and II" (ENG 367 and ENG 368); "British Libertine and Pornographic Literature: An Historical View" (ENG 385); and "Restoration and Eighteenth-Century British Women Playwrights" (ENG 367), which helped me co-edit a volume about this subject and teach from it later (“Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century.” Ed. with Bonnie Nelson).

I would also like to add that my ongoing commitment to research in Romanticism and theatre history has resulted in a number of students being accepted to attend and present their own research at the annual meeting of the National Council of Undergraduate Research (NCUR). Last year, I was fortunate to oversee the research and final essays of three students—Rebekkah McKalsen ’14; Jillian Fields ’14; and Judith Lavelle ’14—who travelled to the University of Kentucky to present their work. (Kudos to Chris Bailey, who has spearheaded Wells' involvement for over 18 years!!) 

Are there any facts or specific writers included in the chapter that you are especially interested in or fascinated with?

Some British women writers involved in theatre history between 1780 and 1830 include:

  • Joanna Baillie, Scottish writer, composed many poems and 26 plays in blank verse (which is why she was compared with Shakespeare); and her prose about theatre and drama attached as introductions to her three volumes of a Play Series now called *Plays of the Passions* (1798; 1802; 1812) makes her one of the most important British theorists of theatre.
  • Elizabeth Inchbald, actress and playwright, known for her beauty, her stuttering on stage, and her sparkling comedies that garnered her a fortune. She was also a best-selling novelist.
  • Frances Burney published a best seller at a very young age but wanted to be a playwright. She wrote eight sophisticated and stage-worthy comedies but none were ever performed because of her father's horror of the family's reputation becoming besmirched by having a daughter attending play rehearsals and hanging around back stages.
  • Frances Anne ("Fanny") Kemble, daughter of actor, John Philip Kemble, and niece of the greatest actor of the Romantic era, Sarah Siddons. Considered Siddons's successor when Kemble debuted in her early 20s as Juliet but, when touring with her father in America, she fell in love with wealthy Philadelphian, Pierce Butler, married, and discovered she was "mistress" of his a slave-holding plantation on the Georgia coast (when his aunt suddenly died and made him her heir). American scholars have always praised Fanny Kemble's journal about the year she was in residence at St. Simon's Island (1837-38) for its first-hand observations about the brutalities of slavery, especially in relation to African-American women. She also published several plays.

Congratulations to Professor Burroughs on this exceptional addition not just to her own oeuvre, but to the study of literature and drama history! This chapter of “The Cambridge Companion to Women's Writing in the Romantic Period” takes its place among Professor Burroughs’ numerous publications, including the books “Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century,” “Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society,1790-1840,” and “Closet Stages:  Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers”; dozens of articles published in Oxford Handbook to the Georgian Playhouse, Theatre Journal, European Romantic Review, Modern Language Studies, Feminist Teacher and more; and many reviews, presentations and addresses.

Click here to learn more about the upcoming publication.

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