Get it? It’s a play on the movie title Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Clever, right?
Fine. You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Anyway, once again it’s conference time, that early spring to late summer stretch of hotel meeting rooms with their impossibly narrow chairs and airport meals with their questionably prepared ingredients.
I’m serious, but I kid. Conferences are good times. I’ve recently returned from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the 2013 18th and 19th Century British Women Writers Conference (find my post on the previous year’s BWWC here). I also spent a day in Santa Fe, which, with no disrespect intended towards Albuquerque, was the crown jewel of the trip.
In lieu of an extended account of the conference, I’ll point to two moments that appealed particularly to me: Linda Troost‘s account of a late eighteenth-century actress’s scandalous love life that blurred the line between character and player in theatrical and popular culture, and Harriet Kramer Linkin‘s monumental find of a treasure trove of Mary Tighe‘s hitherto unknown poetry arranged in volumes, which leads us to reconsider radically our reception of a mostly apolitical Tighe. For my doctoral candidacy exams at Ohio State my secondary area is British theatre, 1770-1900, and Tighe’s Spenserian epic poem Psyche is on the reading list for my primary area, 19th century British literature.
My presentation (during the last session of a three-day conference, no less) was on Ann Yearsley’s Earl Goodwin. It was specifically written for the conference, and because any subsequent version of it will be notably different, I thought no harm in posting the script below:
“Designed Irony”: Representing History in Ann Yearsley’s Earl Goodwin
“Hark! This is the dread moment! Silence all,” exclaims the Archbishop of Canterbury. A bell tolls ominously as Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, enters the stage through an archway. A guide leads the veiled Queen as she walks, solemnly, across a bed of red-hot blades. “Why dost thou pause,” she asks, seemingly unaware of the burning ploughshares on which her bare feet just have stepped. “I do not ask thy pity; then quickly lead me to the fatal irons,” she commands her guide. Told that she already has passed the torture somehow entirely unscathed and exempt from physical pain, Emma promptly faints into her son’s arms.
“Auspicious, awful moment,” Edward proclaims. “Live, virtuous queen! And be thy name enrolled amid the richest annals of the age.” His exaltations, however, most likely strike the audience as hollow. Prompted by the scheming, baldly misogynist Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, and represented as naively susceptible to the persuasion of Church officials, Edward himself had authorized his mother’s “fiery ordeal,” a method to test the accused based on the conviction that God will intervene and protect the feet of the innocent as they walk across hot metal.
Usually, determining innocence or guilt would depend on the rate at which the feet healed over the period of a few days, but Queen Emma proves supremely innocent, the divine intervention a kind of Christian dues ex machina that, rather than resolving a tangled plot and concluding the action, sets that very action in motion, leading to heated debates over gender, slander, and scandal in public and political spheres.
I’ve rehearsed what the audience of Bristol’s Theatre Royal witnessed on November 2nd, 1789 during act 2, scene 2 on the opening night performance of Ann Yearsley’s Earl Goodwin, which the theatrical journal of The European Magazine and London Review identifies as a tragedy and the play’s subsequent publication in 1791 identifies via subtitle as “An Historical Drama.” Indeed, tragedy and history lie at the heart of the play’s concerns, and beyond questions of dramatic genre, Yearsley aggressively explores the tragedy of history, or, perhaps, history as tragedy, or, at least, a particular kind of history, a particular way of reading it, of representing it, of transmitting it, as tragic, as leading inevitably to the demise of an otherwise virtuous individual.
Looking back to the end of the first half of the eleventh century in England, Earl Goodwin takes as its plot the uprising of Godwin, Earl of Wessex against Edward the Confessor, recasting a powder keg of politics and public policy as a tale, in Goodwin’s words, of “private woe.” Despite vague allusions to “the complaint of England,” to “this much injured land” in the context of the equally vague and insidious influence of clergy and Normans, Queen Emma’s shame as wrongfully accused, though accused nonetheless, leads Goodwin and his sons to amass their forces and challenge Edward’s rule.
Especially in the play’s published form, history enjoys no quarantine of objectivity, an examination and indictment that Yearsley seems eager to foreground with her inclusion of both a preface and an exordium that seek to destabilize an understanding of history detached from the ideological investments of its chroniclers.
“We are assured the characters of individuals have been blackened, nor those alone, but even the conduct of Kings, by the infernal spirit of Party,” she asserts in the 1791 preface. Indeed, a sampling of contemporaneous accounts of Godwin’s role in English history attests to the range of characters presented as the historical figure of Earl Godwin. One history of England published circa 1790, whose title page trumpets its impartiality, completeness, authenticity, genuineness, and evidentiary integrity, for example, depicts a calculating and politically savvy Godwin with a kairotic sixth sense when it came to gaining and indebting allies and consolidating power.
Godwin appears similarly prone to a self-serving acumen in a 1791 abridged history of England, having no scruple, for example, in playing to Edward’s “avaricious temper” (or, as I read it, bribing the king) in order to secure his absolution from accusations of having murdered Edward’s brother Alfred. The source records the killing as especially prolonged and brutal. Alfred, we are told, “was stopped by a body of Earl Goodwin’s followers, who immediately massacred all his attendants, took him prisoner, put out his eyes, and then conveyed him to the monastery of Ely, where he died in a few days.”
Some accounts bypass political subtlety altogether and present Godwin as a traitor and rabble-rouser. The well circulated, apocryphal final episode of Godwin’s life in which he swears that he was not responsible for Alfred’s death and chokes before the king solidifies the Earl’s guilt.
Another history corroborates the details of Alfred’s murder and estimates 600 slain attendants. Its title page indicates its purpose as the instruction of youth, and Yearsley appears to be well aware of history’s ideological, rhetorical, and didactic implications. Of Godwin’s allegedly black character “no proof exists,” she argues, “except the legendary tales of Monks, whose artful power Goodwin justly scorned.” In the preface Yearsley thus frames Earl Goodwin as an effort to shake history free from its chroniclers’ biases, which she implicitly associates with the Catholic scheming that soon would become one of the most recognizable generic conventions of Gothic literature.
The historical Godwin whom I’ve adumbrated stands in contrast to Yearsley’s explicit intent for her character to stand for a rationalist, selfless, “active virtue,” which plays out in her story as Goodwin’s reluctance to plunge a nation into civil war in order to satisfy a personal vendetta, to avenge a personal wrong—in this case, Edward’s ostensibly and ostentatiously pious marital neglect of his wife Edith, Goodwin’s daughter. It would be a mistake, however, to read Yearsley’s resistance to a particular strain of established history as a purely imaginary intervention. Paul de Rapin’s History of England appears to be a likely source for Earl Goodwin, and the unflattering depiction of Catholic clergy and influence aligns with Rapin’s association with William III’s Protestant rule after the 1688 Revolution.
In a footnote to what he calls the “pretended” episode of Emma’s fiery ordeal, Rapin relates that “Robert, archibishop of Canterbury, a Norman, (whom Edward had brought over with him) accused the queen of consenting to the death of her son Alfred, of endeavoring to poison her son Edward, and of maintaining an infamous [relation] with Bishop Alwin. For which she was condemned by a counsel held on purpose to purge herself by the trial of fire ordeal, as she had offered to do, and as it is related above. But this whole matter admits of great debate: for [sources] who lived nearest the time, say not a word of this miraculous purgation.” Reviewing disputes in chronology that call into question who could or couldn’t have been involved in the fiery ordeal, Rapin concludes that “the whole story seems to be a mere fiction.”
Thus, we come to a difficult question regarding Yearsley’s indictments of partial and party-line accounts of historical events. Her inclusion of the apocryphal episode—and her choice to make that apocryphal episode so central to Earl Goodwin’s plot—seems to undercut her critique of individual bias and agendas. Moreover, Yearsley alters the apocryphal episode even further to fit her play, striking the Queen’s alleged involvement in Alfred’s murder and Edward’s poisoning in favor of focusing on the accusations of sexual impropriety, and transforming the Queen’s offer to undergo the fiery ordeal into a noble acceptance of her fate at the hands of the patriarchal-ecclesiastical complex.
At the same time, Yearsley in no way attempts to downplay her play with history in a play about history. In the exordium, Yearsley admits that she “cannot find any other woman recorded for this miraculous proof of virtue [that is, the fiery ordeal]; and [I] allow the event to be as unlikely, vague, and indefinite, as if I had passed the burning ploughshares myself. But as our good men [and those two words bear emphatic italics, hurling a Molotov cocktail of sarcasm and irony], as our good men were as easily convinced in that age as they are in this, I thought myself privileged in representing the incident to the immortal glory of Emma. In brief, there are many strokes of designed irony in the piece. Goodwin is seriously what I wish every man to be: but the whole is meant to influence the judgment, shield it from credulity, and teach the mind to act more from reason than superstitious romance.”
Once again we encounter history as instructional, as didactic, as ideological, as very much present, a presence in discourse—ultimately, history as a means of persuasion. To wit, Yearsley’s indictments and avowals cultivate a deeply rhetorical understanding of history, of history as representation, all of which hinges on the rather enigmatic concept of “designed irony” that she claims in the exordium. I’d mostly be joking—mostly, that is, somewhere around 99% joking—were I to describe the Yearsley we encounter in Earl Goodwin as an early Romantic hipster, but her play with and perhaps even play about irony leads us down as many rhetorical rabbit holes as do the skinny-jeaned ciphers swarming second-hand stores all across the first world.
I’ve mostly surveyed Earl Goodwin from a high altitude, and at this point I’ll descend to offer a few comments on this key passage in the exordium. First, we observe in the italicized “good men” the obvious jab at patriarchal dupes and duplicity, or, to use more pointed language, the liars who come to believe the very lies that they tell. Yearsley implies that the willingness to subscribe to an obviously apocryphal account of historical events simply because it reinforces one’s hegemonic position betrays an intellectual weakness that undercuts the very position that it would seek to shore up, a sort of rhetorical undertow eroding authority like sand on a beach.
Yearsley mocks an earnest, even naïve belief in a particular version of history, implicitly leading her readers to a critical attitude towards any version, including her own, an attitude involving the assessment of what’s at stake in a particular account for those behind its telling. In one sense, then, Yearsley’s designed irony designates a rhetorical awareness and distancing, even a civic responsibility of critical and careful reception, which we see in Goodwin’s selfless, rationalist approach to his actions against and negotiations with Edward.
Second, we observe Yearsley’s self-professed “privilege” in representing Emma for her “immortal glory.” “Privilege” carries obvious implications for the play’s concern with patriarchal and ecclesiastical hegemony, and here we see Yearsley assert a rhetorical privilege in the face of legal and cultural practices, a rhetorical privilege reflected in the righteous upbraiding that Emma delivers to Edward after she endures the fiery ordeal unscathed. “Unjust thy statutes, Edward,” she begins, and when her son objects that passing the fiery ordeal ensures the reparation of her honor, she responds: “lead me where the gloom of night may wrap me in her thickest shade! Shame sits upon the wind, makes the sun red, and bursts the voice of echo. Honor, fame, are now no more, but as they rest on chance, that makes or mars them.”
In her peroration, she declares, “Slander, more dire than poets ever feigned the gloomy Cerberus, may open her jaws upon my fame; no lulling potion’s mine, nor will I sooth the triple-headed fiend, but proudly dare opinion. Here I stand defamed with Alwine. Fiery trials hold no proof, though my weak Edward rests upon them.” In other words, you can’t herd the cat back into the bag. Or, accusation damns with its own sentence in the court of public opinion. Or, to expand the idea to Yearsley’s undeniable interrogation of history, an account of events irrevocably affects not only those involved but those—like Yearsley—yet to come.
We plausibly may associate the slander against Emma in Earl Goodwin with Yearsley’s own public feud with her former bluestocking patron Hannah More, who had called Yearsley “savage” after the latter aspired to control her own finances rather than leave them in the hands of her benefactors. Yearsley’s own dating of the play’s action to the year 1042 may substantiate this connection, as Rapin records the year not as that of Godwin’s uprising but of Edward seizing control of Emma’s income and assets. Regardless, in addition to designating rhetorical awareness, Yearsley’s designed irony indicates a rhetorical privilege to challenge received narratives on the basis of their concomitant effects on—the human cost for—the individuals concerned. As an example, I point to Yearsley’s later elegy for Marie Antoinette, which expresses sympathy for the executed monarch and therefore implicitly indicts as an uncritical mistake the conflation of her death with the progress of a nation.
Thirdly, briefly, and lastly in the interests of time, which at this point is making me run, we observe that Yearsley’s irony is designed, that is, self-consciously rhetorical, and what she seriously wishes every man to be she implicitly admits not to be the case regarding the problematic and perhaps impossible ideal of historical accuracy. To return to the play’s published subtitle as “an historical drama,” I propose that Yearsley intentionally blurs history with history—that is, and to be less coy, history as the chronicle of the past, with history as the dramatic genre that lionizes, villainizes, sanctifies, and scandalizes. She sits upon the ground and tells sad stories of the death of earls, but her truly radical gesture lies in the theatrical representation of history, the theatricalization of history, history as rehearsal, as performance, as speeches, scenes, and acts.
In the shadow of the fall of the Bastille not four months prior to opening night, and in the context of the epilogue’s censored lines elevating the populist rhetoric of the earliest phases of the French Revolution, history becomes tragedy, scandal, rhetoric, and art. In her landmark study of laboring class poets Donna Landry affirms Yearsley’s ensured literary reputation as a poet, but, if I accomplish nothing else in this talk, I intend to promote the value of Yearsley’s extra-poetical endeavors, especially considering that a booking at the 1600-seating-capacity Theatre Royal in Bristol was nothing to sneeze at (though records of attendance for Earl Goodwin at this point lie beyond my reach). In our London-centric theatrical history, even a history enlightened by the like of the late Jane Moody’s Illegitimate Theatre, we think little of the so-called provincial venues, and Earl Goodwin deserves attention in the context of early Romantic histories and revolt narratives—for example, the more canonical and controversial Bob Southey’s Wat Tyler—revolt narratives that implicate contemporaneous events and recall historically tenacious ideologies. As Yearlsey indicates in her paratextual framing of her play’s publication, “mankind depend on mercy,” and, in my reading of her singular play, mankind depend on designed irony.
 I’m grateful to my colleague Rachel Waymel for pointing me in this direction.