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[Professor Hadley has kindly provided this summary of Melodramatic Tactics, which Stanford University Press published in 1995. Other authors wishing to include such notices of their books should send them to george at landow.com; replace "at" by "@."]
lthough historians of the theater have documented the rise and dominance of melodrama on the nineteenth-century stage, and some recent literary criticism has studied the translation of its theatrical style into the novel, there has been as yet no systematic effort by a literary critic to place this genre of the nineteenth century in its social context. Melodramatic Tactics demonstrates that stage melodrama, rather than epitomizing an embarrassing century in English drama's otherwise illustrious chronology, was one version of a "melodramatic mode" in nineteenth-century literature and society. Its familial narratives, descriptions of bodily torture and criminal conduct, and expressions of highly-charged emotion constituted a polemical response to the invasive effects of market culture, especially the attendant classificatory procedures of English bureaucracies. By tracing the changing impact of the melodramatic mode from early stage melodramas, like Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery, to George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, I also trace the emergence and impact of the modern principle of classification, and by extension, its most privileged manifestation, the idea of economic class. In doing so, I argue that the principle of classification and the category of economic class were heuristic devices with determinate histories.
The social content and influence of this melodramatic mode have been largely ignored because melodrama was overshadowed by the more prominent doctrines of Romanticism and, later in the century, High Realism. In the first chapter, I describe the conditions out of which both the melodramatic mode and Romantic poetry emerged in the cultural contention and social realignment that characterized the end of the eighteenth century. Both discourses launched critiques of that period's unique style of governance in which theatricalized displays of state power disguised the economic and bureaucratic restructuring of hierarchical England into what we now call a class society. Much Romantic poetry facilitated the ongoing fragmentation of the public sphere and its model of social exchange. By contrast, the melodramatic mode resisted the classification of English society and Romantic poetry's interiorization of the subject by insisting on the continued vitality of traditionally public, social formations, especially status hierarchies, which constituted identity in terms of familial and communal relationships.
Chapter 2 defines the procedures of this melodramatic mode by examining the relationship between some typical early melodramas — Thomas Holcroft's The Tale of Mystery, and Deaf and Dumb, William Dimond's Adrian and Orrila and Theodore Hook's Tekeli — and the rioters who initiated the "Old Price Wars" in Covent Garden Theatre in 1809. The "Old Price Wars," ostensibly a protest against increased ticket prices and architectural renovations within the theater, were, I argue, an early, and thus partially formulated, expression of community insurgency against the reorganization of the theater and, by extension, society in terms of antagonistic "class" relationships. These rioters sensed that the privatizing effects of the market, as manifested in the new private boxes, were threatening status hierarchies and their patronage economies. Necessarily responsive to its newly diverse consumers, theatrical melodrama attested to the continued viability of status hierarchies by dramatizing its symbols. It therefore represented the contemporary confrontation between these two methods of social organization as a family conflict.
Having delineated the features of the melodramatic mode by relating it to its stage version, I turn in my third chapter to a novel, Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. In this novel, Dickens, like members of various contemporary protest groups throughout England, adopted the melodramatic mode in order to resist the alienating and classifying effects of The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, whose operations become the explicit context for Oliver Twist's initial chapters. Through an analysis of the new law's wide-ranging effects on social exchange and the constitution of personhood, I also identify the structural issues that the melodramatic mode in Oliver Twist addresses throughout the entire novel.
Throughout the eighteenth century, deferential, "familial" feelings among the ranks had been nurtured through highly public displays of punishment and benevolence, one of which was the scene of relief staged by the old poor laws prior to 1834. In these parish rituals, the impoverished appealed to their local gentry for the assistance they considered a birthright. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 intervened in these public exchanges, imposing a system of relief based on a mainly economic version of modern classification. This not only altered the rules of exchange between the ranks, but also changed the constitution of personhood for those involved in the transactions. By means of the melodramatic mode, Dickens's Oliver Twist, like theatrical melodrama, stages this conflict between the old law and the new in terms of the older law's assumptions.
In my fourth chapter, I examine Caroline Norton's polemical and fictional writing of the 1840s and 1850s. In these works, Norton deployed the melodramatic mode to detect and resist the modern principle of classification even as it became intricately encoded by gender. Furthermore, Norton's writing proves that not all mid-century romances about family life should be deemed a bourgeois repression of economic and sexual injustices in the service of capitalism. When, in 1836, George Norton sought damages from Caroline's friend, Lord Melbourne, through a criminal conversation suit, he not only publicly accused Caroline of committing adultery, but introduced into the immediate family circle —that last outpost of deferential community — the market's usurious exchanges and antagonistic relationships. By attempting to divorce Caroline, George Norton relinquished a patron's responsibilities toward his dependent and demonstrated to Caroline how English law considered wives and children to be commodities of the husband. In her melodramatic writing, Caroline Norton translated her husband's language of the market back into the language of familial sentiment and her reputation as actress back into a visible embodiment of mother and wife. In a final section to this chapter, I explore the ways by which Victoria and the Liberal and Tory parties in the 1870s and 1880s enacted a version of the melodramatic mode —"monarchical melodrama" —which uses the theatrical domesticity that had once proved so controversial for Caroline, to manage disturbing signs of social mobility in the general population. Such triumphal deployments of melodrama marks its more general diffusion into society and the diminishment of its radical critique of market culture.
In my fifth and final chapter, by juxtaposing Josephine Butler's melodramatic speeches opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts with George Meredith's career and his 1885 novel, Diana of the Crossways, I argue that the melodramatic mode played contradictory parts in late nineteenth-century struggles over political and aesthetic value. I demonstrate in the instance of Butler's movement that the melodramatic mode could still provide a coherent polemical response to the classificatory and invasive procedures of state bureaucracy. Yet, Butler's public protest, which celebrated the sovereign roles of wife, mother and daughter presiding over a deferential moral culture, was engaged in a discursive and material battle with alternative behavioral models, especially the revised version of proprietary subjectivity espoused by the liberal cultural elite, men like George Meredith or his friend John Morley, who privileged intellectual self-possession and the exchange of ideas. Despite a decades-long antagonism toward the reification of the private subject, the melodramatic mode by the 1880s could became, in the hands of a male novelist, the unlikely accomplice of such reification, becoming a mere figure for the private psyche's anxiety about public exposure.
The melodramatic tactics typical of all these instances of social melodrama sought radical change based on reactionary values. Such nostalgia-tinged idealism never quite succeeded in abolishing the modern principles of social classification and control in the nineteenth century, though the existence of the melodramatic mode indicates that "class society," "class consciousness," "private subjectivity," and "literature" have histories with a beginning and probably an end. The explanatory power of these categories, therefore, needs to be measured by the histories that have underwritten their appeal.
Last modified 11 October 2002