Victorian Literature Actresses
Gail Marshall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0001


Studies of the Victorian actress have persisted since the times of the actresses themselves, when they were regarded with a mixture of reverence and prurient curiosity. These studies have, however, changed greatly in tone and treatment since the 19th century. Due regard is now much more likely to be paid to their position as theater professionals, and recognition made of their contribution to the theaters in which they were such an essential part of productions and popular appeal. Throughout the history of Victorian actresses, we have a set of competing and often contradictory witnesses to consider: the actresses themselves, whose autobiographies were often highly tactical documents designed to obfuscate as well as strategically to reveal; contemporary reviews, often written by those with affiliations to particular managements; and pictorial records that were not without their own political and strategic responsibilities. Subsequent criticism and theater history has to find its way through this maze of information and then of course assess the ever-malleable figure of the actress through its own determining prisms.

General Overviews

The actress was a crucial part of Victorian literature. She operated as a Cinderella-type, rags-to-riches heroine in popular fiction, a character with whom it was easy to identify as she need not be separated from the reader of fiction by training, education, or birth; and as a figure with whom less popular fiction might treat to explore specific aesthetic, and sometimes also moral, issues. Occasionally the actress-heroine took center stage, when she might also allow the novelist to address broader issues of representation, narrative, and readership. Novelists were also enabled to question issues of appropriate femininity, as Chattman 1994 demonstrates and, as Litvak 1992 shows, often used the actress to show up fault lines in contemporary society. Questions of professionalism are considered by Vanskike 1996, and Voskuil 2001 probes further the fundamentals of identity in the Victorian period.

  • Chattman, Lauren. “Actresses at Home and on Stage: Spectacular Domesticity and the Victorian Theatrical Novel.” Novel 28.1 (1994): 72–88.

    Concentrating primarily on Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sisters and Wilkie Collins’s No Name, Chattman uses recent theories of performativity to consider the continuities in experience between theatrical and domestic women.

  • Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    Chapters on Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre, Villette, Dickens, Daniel Deronda, Henry James, and The Tragic Muse consider the prevalence of the actress as an often disturbing figure in 19th-century fiction.

  • Vanskike, Elliott. “Consistent Inconsistencies: The Transvestite Actress Madame Vestris and Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50.4 (1996): 464–488.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1996.50.4.99p0189k

    Gives brief account of Vestris’s pioneering career as the first female lessee and manager of a theater and argues that she is “a sort of hermeneutical doppelganger for Brontë’s heroine” (p. 467).

  • Voskuil, Lynn M. “Lady Audley and the Meanings of Victorian Femininity.” Feminist Studies 27.3 (2001): 611–639.

    DOI: 10.2307/3178808

    Using the theater criticism of G. H. Lewes and the autobiographical writing of Ellen Terry, argues for the mutually determinative nature of theatricality and authenticity in Victorian England. Uses Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret as an exemplary text in this respect.

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