Lecture by Prof. Tracy C. Davis (22nd March)

A Victorian Woman Ventures Securely into Men’s Realms:
Journalism, Politics, and Radical Advocacy
Tracy C. Davis

22 March, 6pm
John Casken Lecture Theatre,
Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama


Of the 241 Victorian theatre critics known to have written for the popular press, only one is known to be a woman; she, Pearl Craigie (1867-1906), daughter of an American millionaire and a well-connected socialite, concentrated her efforts on writing fiction and plays.  In stark contrast, new research makes a claim for a significantly earlier exponent of dramatic criticism.  Amelia Chesson (1833-1902) was the lower-middle-class daughter of an anti-slavery lecturer, George Thompson, well-connected in the sense of knowing the leading Radical activists of her day but never coming to prominence in her own right despite a lifetime of reviewing live art, starting with the Liberal daily The Morning Star and concluding with a long stint as book reviewer for the Athenaeum. Focusing on the onset of Chesson’s career, this research asks how a middle-class woman could undertake such work in the 1850s.  Evidence from Chesson’s diary (and that of her husband) demonstrates the kinds of spectatorial activities and social networks that first brought her this work, then sustained her ability to perform it on a semi-regular basis.  What is particularly interesting about this case is not just that she represents a “female first” but rather how she garnered the expertise to make the work possible, when her fertility made it impossible, how she managed it in conjunction with domestic responsibilities, the assignments considered appropriate for or by her, and the practicalities of evening work and early-hours deadlines that she met.

Tracy C. Davis is Barber Professor of Performing Arts at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL, USA) and Visiting Professor at the John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester. Her work on 19th-century British theatre history, gender and theatre, theatre historiography, and performance theory has resulted in numerous books, including Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture (1991); George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre (1994); The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914 (2000); Theatricality (2003); Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense (2007); The Broadview Anthology of Nineteenth-Century British Performance (2011); The Cultural History of Theatre (6 volumes, 2017), and Uncle Tom’s Cabins: the Transnational History of America’s Most Mutable Book (2018).

Her current research is based in the John Rylands Library’s Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection. These letters, diaries, and scrapbooks demonstrate how two generations of British abolitionists aligned their efforts as rhetoricians to create international then transnational then networks of human rights advocates.


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