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Purinton, Marjean D. 'The Pedagological Plays of Hannah More, Jane Austen, and Joanna Baillie: Ways of Teaching Dramas by Women Playwrights around 1800.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 February 2005. 13 pars. <>

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1. As scholars and teachers of Romantic literature, we well understand that the period’s educational revolution staged consciousness-raising about the gender bias operative in its prevailing theories and practices of instruction. Educational change during the period came slowly, however, as the 1836 short story “The History of a Child,” Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s young female persona observes ways in which she was short-changed by an educational system that devalued women: “I was a clever, very clever child, but my mind was far beyond my years, and it lacked the knowledge which alone can teach us how to use it powers.”(1) L.E.L.’s persona demonstrates that pedagogical praxis had not applied to female education the radically innovative changes championed by its discourses. It is the male respondent in Maria Edgeworth’s 1795 Letters for Literary Ladies, who claims that female education should cultivate the general powers of the mind so as to give women early “the habit of industry and attention, the love of knowledge, and the power of reasoning: these will enable [them] to attend to excellent in any pursuit to which [they] may direct [their] talents.”2 The often quoted passage of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) points out male privilege in pedagogy against which women vainly struggled: “The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the writers who endeavour by satire or instruction to improve them.”3 Clever women of the period, it seems, like L.E.L.’s persona, would need to seek less conventional ways to instruct women and to offer alternative ways of thinking and being to that which was inculcated by late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century patriarchy.
2. In our own pedagogical preparations of Romantic-period materials, we have come to recognize thoughtfully, regard critically, and teach regularly the pedagogical, and in some instances didactic, nature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses, particularly those addressing the emergent middle class, the working classes, and women. We have also come to see the vital role played by British women playwrights ever mindful of the limitations and obstacles of female education. Recent work on Romantic drama by women has moreover considered its pedagogical contribution to the period’s revolution in educational theories and practices, as well as dramaturgical and literary histories, nation and empire building, gender and familial dynamics. In an article entitled “Revising Romanticism by Inscripting Women Playwrights” that I wrote for Romanticism on the Net in 1998, I made the claim that our understandings of Romanticism were significantly enriched by the recovery and accessibility of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century dramas by women.4 Since 1998, we have, in fact, witnessed paradigmatic changes in Romantic-period studies as a result of including dramas by women in our scholarship and in our classes.
3. Newly published editions of Romantic drama, including that written by women, as well as the hypertexts on the website British Women Playwrights around 1800 have made it possible for us to integrate Romantic drama into our syllabi.5 Finally, we have come to recognize in this process that our own pedagogical strategies for presenting Romantic women playwrights and their works have been informed by the pedagogical nature of the very dramas they penned for reading and for production during their day.6 The pedagogical nature of women’s drama has impelled me, over the last few years, to become more acutely aware of the pedagogical strategies I employ in teaching Romantic literature generally and Romantic drama particularly. My students’ analyses of the pedagogy in Romantic women’s dramas have encouraged them, many of whom are aspiring teachers, to become mindful of the multiple venues and practices in which public education occurs, not only during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but today as well. In other words, many Romantic dramas by women engage students at the level of meta-pedagogical awareness and discussion.
4. Our efforts at teaching Romantic drama by women will, I predict, increase with the addition of this “teaching” section to the website British Women Playwrights around 1800, a site already providing hypertexts and critical materials. Here we can share the praxis of teaching British women playwrights of the period, the practical experiments, successes, and insights of individual efforts made manifest for collective use, a staging, as it were, of pedagogical performances. Here the pedagogical aspirations for which many Romantic women playwrights sought have found contemporary restoration and revitalization. In this, my own introductory offering to the teaching section of British Women Playwrights around 1800, I wish to examine the multifaceted pedagogical functions in Hannah More’s juvenile drama “The Search After Happiness: A Pastoral Drama for Young Ladies” (1762) and Sacred Dramas (1782); Jane Austen’s early dramatic efforts, although fragmentary, “The Visit,” “The Mystery,” and “The First Act of a Comedy” (1787-1790); and Joanna Baillie’s evangelical drama The Bride (1836). All of these plays are explicitly pedagogical, intended for young audiences, and latently radical, even as they purport to fulfill conventional and Christian purposes.

More’s and Baillie’s plays have generally been seen as examples of writing directed toward conservative endorsements of patriarchal, Christian authority. More’s and Austen’s early experiments with drama have also been characterized as exercises in which both writers endeavored to discover their appropriately “feminine” voices for their later works. But I want to suggest alternative readings of these plays, arguing that they reveal important engagements with issues and controversies of the day, science and nationalism, class destabilizations, and gendered behaviors, for example, which betray a radical ideology. Furthermore, I assert that in exploring the pedagogical potential of drama, each woman came to realize something about herself, about her own “mind,” as L.E.L’s persona expresses it, recognitions that are also shared with young, primarily female, audiences who are impelled to experience a self-discovery process that replicates fictionalized characters of the play as well as the women playwrights themselves. These plays draw their young audiences into the meaning-making process with their double voiced nature, what Mitzi Myers has identified as “cross-writing,” a characteristic of all children’s literature that deploys a dialogic mix of older and younger voices, or a colloquy between a writer’s past and present selves.”7 In other words, whether staged or read to young audiences, these dramas address the child reader/performer and the adult reader/spectator as well as the child reader/performer and child spectator—meanings at multiple levels of reception and understanding. These dramas also suggest that women playwrights, even a young Hannah More and Jane Austen, were astutely concerned with issues of the day and the pedagogical potential inherent in drama, enactments of life’s lessons and critical thinking processes. At a metadramatic level, furthermore, writing drama serves its own pedagogical purpose in its generic demands for the embodiment and the enactment of sensitive subject matters that must be rendered legitimate and authorized by women writers. Women playwrights interrupt and therefore challenge the demarcation of private and public spaces, female and male roles, decorum, and perceptions. Finally, I want to suggest some ways in which our own teaching might incorporate pedagogical plays of the period written by women as an avenue for understanding educational issues and gender dynamics, including female authority and agency.


Despite the antitheatrical position of Evangelical Christianity, young Hannah More perceived in drama the potential for teaching other women like herself attitudes about the promise of expanded sense of maternal duty that included philanthropic, educational, and social work beyond the home. She wrote “The Search After Happiness” as a pedagogical pastoral play to be performed at girls’ boarding schools, and although Sacred Dramas was intended for private readings, it too was performed by children at the Park Street girls’ school managed by Hannah and her sister. Both Sacred Dramas and “The Search After Happiness” deploy gender as a category through which to express the period’s preoccupations with the supernatural and science. Cleora’s search for happiness leads her to the study of science, which, as she explains, seeks to limit her sex to matters of appearance and beauty. She boldly ventures into those sciences promoted specifically as masculine: astronomy, math, philosophy, chemistry, and physics and turns away from the conventionally gendered “feminine” sciences—poetical and taxonomical botany, for example. She expresses her determination to learn about the effects of natural phenomenon, the domain of male science:

The schoolmen’s systems now my mind employ’d,
Their crystal Spheres, their Atoms, and their Void;
Newton and Halley all my soul inspir’d,
And numbers less than calculations fir’d;
Decartes and Euclid, shar’d my varying breast,
And plans and problems all my soul possess’d.8

Cleora’s scientific inquiries, however, lead her to “think like a man,” to use science as a vehicle for egotistical self-aggrandizement rather than the means through which humankind might be helped and reformed. Importantly, The danger that More’s drama depicts is not science, but the application of science toward masculinist goals and in male-centered ways.


The soliloquy “Reflection of King Hezekiah in His Sickness,” an addendum to Sacred Dramas, conflates gender with science linked to nationalism, as King Hezekiah functions as a synecdoche for a sick and dying nation. The diseased body was a metaphoric commonplace in discourses about the French Revolution, but here More applies it to the national crisis with which Britain was engaged, a diseased body in need of female-derived reform as it antidote. Sickness was something More knew first-hand as she suffered from headaches, toothaches, severe fevers, and delirium throughout her life, and so her diseased body metaphor was derived from the period’s political discourse and from experiential knowledge of her own body. Medicine and quackery, the scientific and the supernatural, are conflated in another Sacred Drama “Belshazzar” also displaced and articulated through gender. Belshazzar’s weak, feminine leadership has been affected by the “magic poppies” of war whose “delicate opiates” charm him into “fatal slumbers.”9 When supernatural, mysterious writing appears on the palace wall from a shadowy hand, Belshazzar assumes he is hallucinating, dreaming, or intoxicated, but then he calls upon his learned magicians and sage astrologers to discern the mystic characters. When they cannot make legible what is illegible, Belshazzar shouts, “Curse on your shallow arts, your lying science!”10 and order their executions. Both science and the supernatural are indicted in Sacred Dramas as pretending to profess knowledge (culturally gendered masculine) that gives power over those who do not possess such knowledge (culturally gendered feminine). As science and medicine became increasingly professionalized and masculinized during the Romantic period, they too became public sites for the assertion of male privilege and power, sites that More’s dramas cast as provisionally strong, justified, and sanctioned by the myths that they generate about themselves.


Sacred Dramas also portray radical assertions of female agency as an essential pedagogical force for Great Britain in its national and colonial projects. Gender relationships serves as a trope for nationalism centered in female connectedness. In the familiar story of “Moses in the Bulrushes,” for example, More emphasizes the role that the Egyptian princess comes to play in saving the Jewish people and nation. This “sacred drama” instructs its young audience not to accept a passive and weak femininity, but to act with compassion and strength, a role that has the potential to change human interactions so that they are more harmonious and less destructive. In “David and Goliath,” gender-bending characterization of a feminized David facilitates a similar message, for it is in the gender-bending spaces where class and national issues are staged. Against the background of male engendered war, we discover David playing his harp and singing devotionals. When David confronts the giant man, Goliath smirks: “Give me a man, if your effeminate band / A man can boast,” for he will not “war with boys.”11 David does not allow Goliath’s insulting taunts, brute strength, or enormous size to deter his rational and perceptive intellect, for ultimately, David out-smarts and out-talks the giant. The drama performs gender-bending as a site where gendered qualities of leadership might be examined, even though it comes up short in its endorsement of domestic leadership, for Saul and David themselves fall victims to the imperialist and masculinist ideology that their leadership had temporarily suspended. More demonstrates to her audience how difficult it is for men to sustain an alternative to the powerful status quo, but she nevertheless challenges readers and spectators to entertain a different way of thinking and behaving.

9. Joanna Baillie’s Christian drama The Bride was commissioned by Sir Alexander Johnston, President of His Majesty’s Council in Ceylon for the expressed purpose of civilizing and Christianizing the people of Ceylon. In the drama’s Preface, Baillie likens the people of Ceylon to children who are being led from ignorance to enlightenment by Western discourses such as her play: “To see the mind of a child awakening by degrees from the dreamy indistinctness of infancy to a clearer observation of what he beholds around, and a capacity to compare and to reason on the differences and resemblances he perceives, is a most pleasing and interesting sight; so in a far greater degree does the rousing a race or nation from its infancy of ignorance and delusion, interest and excite every mind of any feeling or reflection.”12
10. The play condemns Ceylon’s practice of polygamy through Artina’s resistance to her husband’s second wife, for which she is imprisoned, and an alternative marital philosophy espoused by the Spanish physician Juan de Creda. De Creda’s Christian message promotes mutual love and forgiveness in heterosexual and monogamous relationships. Artina is torn between two cultures (Eastern, its associations with heathenism, and Western, its associations with European Christianity) that seek to define her role in marriage and home. The Bride dramatizes Christian ethos, but it also represents the paradigmatic civilizing mission that characterized British imperialism of the nineteenth century and therefore seems to participate pedagogically in the process of British imperialism. More radically, however, The Bride acts out oppositional thinking to expose the ways in which British imperialism is rooted in an epistemology in which the culture with the power, the “truth,” and the resources becomes that which teaches and normalizes all others. Baillie’s Preface to The Bride reminds us that the play seeks to promote critical thinking so the child-like audience may acquire the capacity to compare and contrast ideas, to reason causal relations, and, as L.E.L terms it, to use knowledge’s powers. Like the young woman who is accidentally unveiled at the beginning of the play, a critical reading of the subtext of The Bride that takes into account its “cross-writing” and double-voiced qualities, unveils the Christian myth as an appealing face whose function is not all that it appears. For at least some readers or spectators, The Bride points to the potential injuries inflicted on people entrapped between cultures, both demanding conformity to one at the expense of the other.
11. Recent critical studies by Penny Gay and Paula Byrne entitled Jane Austen and the Theatre detail the many ways in which Austen was engaged with theatre culture throughout her life, reading diverse dramas, attending play productions in London and Bath, participating in the family’s private theatricals, and writing experimental drama.13 These studies help us to see how much theatre is embedded in Austen’s novels, and Austen’s fragmentary dramas reveal her sensitivity to the period’s class and colonial issues. She envisioned “The Visit” to be a comedy in two acts but completed only two scenes, both of which take place at Lord Fitzgerald’s house, where guests discover that there is never enough of anything. The beds are too short, and there are insufficient chairs to accommodate everyone. For dinner, the Fitzgeralds serve food and drink more suited to rustics than the landed gentry. This satire on materialism also incorporates bourgeois interest in possessing all things oriental. Lord Fitzgerald explains how his grandmother destroyed the hothouse “in order to build a receptable for the Turkies with it’s materials.”14 “The Mystery,” another unfinished comedy, is set in the home of the Humbugs, the family name being an eighteenth-century slang term for someone who practices deception or fraud, suggesting that the mystery at the center of the play may have something to do with business transactions, family inheritance, colonial trade, or property exchanges—including marital arrangements, perhaps. The “mystery” of the Humbug household involves some secret about a settlement, and while various characters speculate about who might tell it, for the audience, it remains unrevealed. The setting for “The First Act of a Comedy,” occurs at an inn seven miles from London, where we find Chloe en route to the capital to marry Strephon and unaware that Strephon occupies another room at the inn, having been brought there from Staines, a village seventeen miles southwest of London, in order to pay Postilion eighteen pence which he owes. Rather than give Postilion a bad guinea, all the currency that he has, Strephon offers an undirected letter, one hand-delivered and without an address, that he had received from Chloe. As in “The Mystery,” the fragmentary “First Act of a Comedy” hints at transactions emphasizing exchangeable currencies, for it would seem that Strephon will settle his account by passing a woman rather than a coin to Postilion. All three of Austen’s fragmentary dramas satirically hint at the period’s obsession with “getting and spending, “ undeveloped pedagogical warnings for an emergent middle class driven by a mercantile economy.
12. How might we integrate pedagogical plays by Hannah More, Jane Austen, and Joanna Baillie in our own Georgian and Romantic period courses? How might we teach women’s teaching texts—especially to students who are themselves undergoing teacher training? Because these dramas are short, it is possible to reproduce them or to utilize a small segment from the longer plays as complements to other “conduct” discourses written during the period. These dramas facilitate the introduction of students to units that feature educational discourses and children’s literature, something of particular interest to my students pursuing elementary and middle school language-arts education certifications. The dramas’ double-voiced qualities also help students to discover reading strategies useful in interpreting other Romantic texts and genres—multiple voices and frameworks of reference, displaced and latent content, cross-writing and parody, unreliable storytellers and sources of stories. Students enjoy reading these dramas out loud or even enacting them as they might have been performed at girls’ boarding schools, with girls cross-dressed for the male parts. Before we teach a full-length drama from the period, we might utilize something from these dramas as an introduction to the style and function of Romantic drama; they effectively “set the stage” for full-length plays by women. As we have seen, these dramas also introduce cultural interests of the period, science and the supernatural, class and colonial issues, nationalism and imperialism, gender dynamics and familial relationships, courtship and marriage. These dramas represent ways in which education itself was undergoing reforms and changes and demonstrate how education was used as a tool and vehicle for the inculcation of new ideas and rebellious ideologies. Finally, these dramas illustrate ideological and practical obstacles women playwrights of the period struggled to overcome, writing dramas that radically challenge the gender roles that their dramas seemingly and paradoxically reified.
13. While we have often used Romantic women’s nonfiction and fiction as the context in which to read dramas by Romantic women playwrights, as I did at the beginning of this essay, I suggest that we might find it equally enriching to read Romantic drama by women as a context in which to examine other genres written by women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What a difference might students’ reading Austen’s fragmentary plays make to their understandings of the social satire in her novels? Austen’s fragmentary dramas reveal much about the theatricality of her fiction, all her novels and not the obvious concerns with the private theatricals in Mansfield Park. More’s Strictures on Female Education and Cheap Repository Tracts might take on complexities rendered through readings informed by her pastoral drama “The Search for Happiness” and her series of Sacred Dramas. Baillie’s The Bride enriches and even confounds our understandings of the female evangelical tradition from the nineteenth century. Students can glean lessons about British commercialism and colonization by reading More’s Sacred Dramas and Baillie’s The Bride in the context of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play The Egyptian Boy (1790), another pedagogical drama by a woman in which national and familial conflicts are played out in terms of gender norms and the “othering” process.15

Marjean Purinton
Texas Tech University



1. Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “The History of a Child,” Traits and Trials of Early Life, 1836, in British Literature 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak (Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1996), p. 1398. (back)
2. Maria Edgeworth, Letters for Literary Ladies, 1795 (London: J.M. Dent, 1993), p. 20.
3. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, in The Vindications, ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1997), p. 112.
4. Marjean D. Purinton, “Revising Romanticism by Inscripting Women Playwrights,” Romanticism on the Net 12 (November 1998) [19 July 2004]
5. In particular, The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2003); The Siege of Valencia: A Parallel Text Edition, Felicia Hemans, ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Elizabeth Fay (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2002); Plays on the Passions: Joanna Baillie, ed. Peter Duthie (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001); Five Romantic Plays 1768-1821, ed Paul Baines and Edward Burns (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000); Female Playwrights of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Adrienne Scullion (London: J.M. Dent, 1996) are affordable paperback editions that make Romantic women playwrights accessible for our students.
6. See, for example, Marjean D. Purinton, “Pedagogy and Passions: Teaching Joanna Baillie’s Dramas” in Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays, ed. Thomas C. Crochunis (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 221-240. This fall, I am teaching a Senior Seminar (the capstone course for English majors) entitled “Literary Communities,” and we will use Baillie’s Plays on the Passions as a “test case” for their suitability in various literary contexts—teaching texts at all levels, performance scripts for community-based or university theatrical presentations, selections for general book clubs, manuscripts worthy of graduate-level scholarship, Women’s Studies historical artifacts, pedagogical models for educators. In other words, I hope that my students will discover that Romantic drama by women had, in its time, as it does potentially today, wide-range uses and appeal for various audiences and cultural contexts.
7. Mitzi Myers [with U.C. Knoepflmacher], “From the Editors: ‘Cross-Writing’ and the Reconceptualizing of Children’s Literary Studies,” Children’s Literature 25 (1997): vii.
8. Hannah More, “The Search After Happiness: A Pastoral Drama for Young Ladies,” 1762, in The Complete Works of Hannah More (New York: Haper, 1838), p. 114.
9. Hannah More, “Reflection of King Hezekiah in His Sickness,” 1782, in The Complete Works of Hannah More, p. 94.
10. Ibid., p. 98.
11. Hannah More, “David and Goliath,” Sacred Dramas, 1782, in The Complete Works of Hannah More, p. 90.
12. Joanna Baillie, “Preface,” The Bride, 1836, in The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851), p. 665.
13. See Paula Byrne, Jane Austen and the Theatre (London: Hambledon and London, 2002) and Penny Gay, Jane Austen and the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).
14. Jane Austen, “The Visit: A Comedy in Two Acts,” 1787-1790, in Minor Works, ed. R.W. Chapman, 1954, revised B.C. Southam (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975), Act 2, Scene 2, p. 51.
15. See my forthcoming essay “Teaching Orientalism through British Romantic Drama: Representations of Arabia” in Interrogating Orientalism(s): Theories and Practices, ed. Diane Long Hoeveler and Jeffrey Cass (Columbus: Ohio State UP).