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'She Had Her Role to Play': The Performance of Servanthood in East Lynne and Other Sensation Novels

Elizabeth Steere (University of Georgia)


In its original novel form and subsequent theatrical versions, Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) tells the story of Lady Isabel, who infiltrates her former home disguised as a servant. This essay explores Isabel in the context of other acting heroines of sensation novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins. These actresses give performances as servants as an unexpected means to gain access to the domestic space and to achieve personal independence. While the servant who acts and dresses above her station has been recognized as a stock character of sensation fiction, the lady-qua-servant merits equal attention. The servant and the actress share an ambiguity of class and the stigma of sexuality that make them a natural fit for sensation fiction's tropes of illicit behaviour, secret identities, and forbidden romance. The actress-servant is able to use her attention to costume, her emotional control, and her performance of helplessness to deflect suspicion from her true motives. While the other actresses largely use their servant roles for mercenary purposes, Isabel poses as a governess to reclaim her titles of 'mother' and 'wife', literalising the subservience she previously performed as a 'lady.'

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