A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 2 - Summer 2011

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Spiritualism and the Representation of Female Authority in Shaw's Getting Married by Susan Shelangoskie

Shaw's Getting Married has long been identified as a problem play because of its classification as "disquisitory," and its heavy emphasis on dialogue has caused more than one critic to argue that the play does, indeed, have a plot that should be noticed in critical discourse (W. Sharp 104-5; Solomon 92).  Most scholars who have analyzed the structure of the play identify the contract scene as the climax of the main dramatic action and point to the relevance of this scene to several of the plot lines (W. Sharp 106; Solomon 94).  However, the staging of the 2008 production of Getting Married at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada, focused attention instead on the character of Mrs. George by placing the single intermission just at the point where she descended down the long staircase and entered the Bishop of Chelsea's Norman kitchen (the single setting of the play).  This deliberate choice of structure emphasizing one of the few characters not interested in the outcome of the doomed marriage-alternative contract suggests that a different reading of thematic stress is possible, one that is concerned not just with marriage but also with the larger issue of women's political and social authority.  The center of this discourse—just as she is located at the center of the play—is Mrs. George, and I argue that her function as a spiritualist medium is the nexus of her several roles that offer varying models of female authority.  The absent but authoritative and passive but potent qualities of the spirit and the medium in the séance symbolize the political potential of female authority that was incompletely translated as an individual cultural reality, and the adaptation of this distinctively Victorian cultural model reflects the state of marriage and divorce reform that, at the time of the first production of Getting Married, was still mired in mid-Victorian legislation.

         Although Mrs. George has been read as a character whose "unconventional behavior is defended in such a way as to make it more acceptable than conventional behavior" (W. Sharp 108), the question of which set of conventions she should be measured against has not been asked.  If Mrs. George's role as a medium is considered vital to the definition of her character, interpreting that character requires an understanding of the cultural conventions of Victorian spiritualism.  The spiritualist movement began in America in 1848 when two young girls in the Fox household in upstate New York began "communicating" with an unseen presence through rapping—tapping out messages using code.  As its popularity grew, spiritualism was exported to England and Europe in several waves throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century, beginning with American mediums performing in England in 1852 and France in 1853, and continuing with innovations like table-tapping, invisible hands, and full-body materializations being first demonstrated by American practitioners and then emulated by their English and European counterparts (Owen 19, Monroe 66).  The emergence of spiritualism was almost invariably met with skepticism, but the electrical logic of telegraphy was used to undergird the plausibility of spiritualist communications (Sconce 22-23, Thurschwell 86-87), and this scientific basis provided enough credibility to support a movement that would spread to both sides of the Atlantic and boast tens of thousands of believers at its height in the final decades of the nineteenth century (Oppenheim 50). 

         Borrowing from the terminology of electrical science, spiritualists talked about "positive" and "negative" energy in participants. Both types of energy were needed to conduct a successful séance, but the medium needed "negative" energy to channel spirits.  Because "negative energy" was correlated to passivity, practitioners acknowledged that mediumship was particularly suited to women's "natural" (passive) tendencies, and so, as Alex Owen has noted in his authoritative study The Darkened Room, "spiritualism validated the female authoritative voice and permitted women an active professional and spiritual role largely denied them elsewhere" (6, 15).  Perhaps because of the unusually dominant role of women in the spiritualist movement, both English and American spiritualists embraced social progressivism, evincing a "commitment to individualism and a deep-seated anti-authoritarianism" that aligned members with other Liberal political organizations such as the Fabian Society, Independent Labour Party, and the women's rights movement (27). 

         However, there was an important difference between American spiritualist practice and the transatlantic versions of the movement.  In America, many of the spiritualist circles were connected with bohemian ideas of "free-love," and many opponents of spiritualism in England used the specter of deviant sexual relations to marginalize the movement and cast it as inimical to gender and marriage conventions: "there were widespread concerns that interactions with spirits would destroy the sanctity of marriage by leading to material violations of vows and of the traditional relations between men and women" (Tromp 29).  In England, spiritualists not only repudiated the negative domestic connotations, but also reinforced Victorian conventions of "wifely domesticity and sexual respectability" as "prominent aspects of the spiritualist ideal" (Owen 39).  Shaw's Mrs. George is deliberately aligned with Victorian spiritualism and mediumship through the trance scene, and I argue that she holds in tension both negative and positive domestic conventions of spiritualist practice.  Further, she can be seen as a character who fulfills the role of disembodied authority (spirit) as well as channeling host (medium), and these two roles offer different models of female authority that highlight the potential, but also the limitations, of indirect authority structures available to women. 

         Though the trance scene late in the play is the clearest enactment of spiritualism, Mrs. George is connected to otherworldly powers from her introduction, as her brother-in-law Collins explains: "shes a clairvoyant [. . .] All you have to do is to mesmerize her a bit; and off she goes into a trance, and says the most wonderful things! not things about herself, but as if it was the whole human race giving you a bit of its mind" (Shaw, Getting Married 215).  This reference to spiritualist practice and the authority of otherworldly spirits creates a context for two models of disembodied female authority that Mrs. George emblemizes before her appearance as a character on the stage.  The first is Mrs. George's role as the anonymous writer of love letters to the bishop; the other is the invocation of the idea of Mrs. George as an experienced authority.

         The first manifestation of her spirit-like influence is her disguise as "Incognita Appassionata," the pseudonym of the woman who writes passionate letters to the Bishop, which he describes as "the best love-letters I get" (237).  Further referencing the spiritualist model, the Bishop describes how his wife Alice "has to read my love-letters to me aloud at breakfast, when thyre worth it" (237).  Though in a less mystical and more mundane form, "Incognita Appassionata" is channeled by Alice, and through this process, Mrs. George's imagination is given voice.  The fantasy of the letter writer is for the Bishop to "meet her in heaven … when she has risen above all the everyday vulgarities of earthly love" (237-8).  In this fantasy, Mrs. George not only imagines herself as a spirit, but imagines a model of equality in a space free of physical form, an idea that aligns both with Shaw's often reiterated call for equality between the sexes and a popular spiritualist doctrine that the spirits themselves were androgynous (L. Sharp 92).  Mrs. George's imagination of a state where she can encounter "some great man who will never know her, never touch her, as she is on earth" is laudable, but also vulnerable to a more conventional re-packaging as the Victorian "angel"—the Bishop himself comments that "Everybody ought to have one of these idealizations, like Dante's Beatrice" (Shaw, Getting Married 238).   Such a characterization erodes the potential equality of the disembodied state Mrs. George imagines.

         However, this innocent vision of spiritual love is opposed by the invocation of Mrs. George as a model of experienced authority.  Early in the play, Collins describes his eccentric sister-in-law not only as clairvoyant but also as a woman of extraordinary experience: "Mrs. George she came to know a lot about men of all sorts and ages; and it certainly made her interesting, and gave her a lot of sense.  I have often taken her advice on things when my own poor old woman wouldn't have been a bit of use to me" (215).  He cites Mrs. George's "variety of experience" at falling in love, and inviting her lovers into her married home, as the foundation for her knowledge and authority.  This bohemian experience is so respected that when the marriage debate among the other characters threatens the wedding between Edith and Cecil, Mrs. George's authority is appealed to as a last resort, after, as Boxer puts it "The Army has failed. The Church has failed" (260).  Boxer's next appeal is to Collins as a representative of the "Municipality," but again, Collins wishes to substitute the experienced woman for himself: "I don't trust my judgment on the subject.  Theres a certain lady that I always consult on delicate points like this.  She has very exceptional experience, and a wonderful temperament and instinct in affairs of the heart" (263).  Because of her experience, Mrs. George is represented, even before her appearance on stage, as an authority who can be summoned to provide guidance and solutions to the other characters' problems.

        The paradigm of feminine authority signified by the channeling of Mrs. George is both rooted in tradition and modified by the model of mediumship. For centuries, middle and upper-class women were reassured by representations in conduct books and novels that they did, indeed, have power—the power of influencing their husbands.  But this influence was intended to be private, individual, and even secret.   Shaw dramatized the model of female influence early in his career through the titular character of Candida, an unconventional woman who, like Mrs. George, has more than one romantic prospect.  Her husband Rev. Morell demands she choose between himself and a young poet whom Morell sees as a rival; though Candida also introduces a third term--self--through what Davis calls her "interstitial nothing" at the key moment of choice, she ultimately remains with her husband to maintain her power of influence: "I build a castle of comfort and indulgence and love for him, and stand sentinel always to keep little vulgar cares out.  I make him master here, though he does not know it" (Shaw, Candida 149-50). Shaw's representation of a woman who was powerful through influence troubled many feminists at the time of the play's production, because "it provided a sympathetic case for doing nothing" to forward the cause of women's rights (Holryod 18), and ultimately, Candida could be read as "a woman of strength and intelligence who has no impact outside the household" (Powell 78).  In this regard, Candida demonstrates well the cultural logic of the dominant paradigm of women's authority.

         While influence was the primary means of access to power, women were largely unseen by the political and legal apparatus of society: once married they were subject to the law of coverture and subsumed in their husbands' legal identities.  In the political arena, women hovered like specters, unable directly to affect their own fortunes.  However, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, women started making noticeable legislative gains by transferring the model of influence to the public sphere.  One notable example is the passage of the "Married Woman's Property Act" in 1882.  Though this bill was drafted by the Law Amendment Society and put forth in parliament by Sir Erskine Perry, it was largely influenced by a committee of women (led by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon) who suggested terms of the bill, collected petition signatures, and assembled personal anecdotes of "appalling injustice done to married, separated, and deserted wives" (Stone 376).  This reference to the experience of women and the channeling of women's voices by the men who could directly affect legislation resonates with the depiction of Mrs. George as the disembodied but potently experienced female authority in Shaw's play.  However, as with the representation of " Incognita Appassionata," there are vulnerabilities inherent in this model of access to power.

         Although Collins respects the spirit of Mrs. George's authority, other characters doubt her authenticity.  When Mrs. George is first mentioned, Lesbia comments: "I wonder whether he really invented Mrs. George, or stole her out of some book" (216); and when Collins suggests summoning Mrs. George herself, the incredulity of existence is reinforced as a "startled" Mrs. Bridgenorth exclaims, "Do you mean to say, Collins, that Mrs. George is a real person?" (264).  The Bishop goes even further, demanding proof: "I still dont believe in her, Collins.  You must produce her if you are to convince me" (264). The plausible deniability of Mrs. George's existence renders the idea of such a woman harmless enough that Collins can channel her opinions as authoritative pronouncements on love and marriage.  However, the very skepticism that excuses Mrs. George's behavior (by supposing it is imaginary) also subverts her authority by displacing it onto the medium—in this case, Collins—which is a reversal of a paradox that was at the core of spiritualism.  Typically, a female medium channeling a superior source could gain authority and voice, but the elements of gender at work in Shaw's play instead displace the authority of Mrs. George (in spite of Collins' best efforts) onto the medium himself.  This reversal may reflect the Edwardian skepticism of spiritualism--Shaw himself generously suggested spiritualism might be a means "of rescue from the sordid realities of nineteenth century materialism" in 1887 (Shaw, "Spiritualism" 2:2), but became much more critical of the practice several decades later.   But more importantly, Mrs. George's loss of influence also reinforces the disadvantages of women's reliance on this mode of power in the public sphere. 

         While she is off stage, Mrs. George is nonetheless present as a spirit of innocence or experience, and in these roles she demonstrates enough potency that the other characters believe that, once summoned, she can solve the questions about marriage that confound the rest of the cast.  She is set up, as some critics have observed, as a deus ex machina who, seemingly, will sweep away the difficulties and promote a positive resolution (Gahan 215, Solomon 94). Once she appears, though, much of Mrs. George's power dissipates, and her character is increasingly diminished until the trance episode near the end of the play.  This change of fortunes for Mrs. George embodies what Barbara Watson has described as the "conflict between the individual woman's humanity and the rigidity of the sex role assigned to her" (145).  As long as Mrs. George remains an abstraction, she retains some power. Once she, quite literally, descends into the midst of the other characters, she can no longer be imagined as more powerful than she is, and she cannot imagine herself as purely as she would like to be.

         Initially, Mrs. George exerts direct authority, and begins by spiriting away the women en masse (283).  However, when she returns to interview the men "one by one" (283), her inefficacy is revealed—most starkly in her confrontation with Hotchkiss, who is enamored with her almost to the point of obsession.  The confrontation between Hotchkiss and Mrs. George ends with her submission to his romantic advances when they are enforced by his physical strength: "Ha ha! You are in my power. That is one of the oversights of your code of honor for husbands: the man who can bully them can insult their wives with impunity.  Tell him if you dare.  If I choose to take ten kisses, how will you prevent me?" (294). Mrs. George attempts to respond in kind with violence but is unsuccessful.  In spite of Mrs. George's unconventional behavior, she is still vulnerable to a conventional liability—her physical weakness undercuts her power of self-assertion and decision. And, as Hotchkiss diabolically notes, he will take advantage of this long-standing power imbalance: "You are stronger than me in every way but this.  Do you think I will give up my one advantage?" (294).  The point at issue, whether or not Mrs. George will invite Hotchkiss into her home with her husband, remains unsettled when the two are interrupted by the Bishop, and shortly afterwards Mrs. George demonstrates her fabled clairvoyance.

         Notably, only male characters witness Mrs. George's possession, and each of them read the episode differently.  The rigid celibate Soames sees "the devil," the enlightened Bishop "a saint," and free-loving Hotchkiss "the pythoness of the tripod" (304).  Limited analysis of this important, but obscure, scene has been offered by critics.  Peter Gahan has provided a detailed analysis of the mythical allusion to Dionysus, casting Mrs. George as the prophetess of Demeter (226), while William Sharp wisely notes that "The Bishop, who is the most sensible man in the play and whose views must be considered intelligent and rational, insists that not only does he understand it [the trance message], he also values it as mystic truth" (108).  Barbara Watson usefully contextualizes the message in terms of the larger theme of marriage, suggesting that the questions raised in Mrs. George's trance are "very properly suspended in the air among the many requirements the women in the play would like to make of marriage if they are to consent to it at all" (148).  Tracy Davis argues that the everywoman spirit describes the "enslavement of all married women" and identifies marriage as a master/slave relationship that demands collective rebellion against men's tyranny (224).  But situated within the narrative trajectory of Mrs. George's dissipating power, this scene can also be read in the context of spiritualism.  In order to channel effectively, the medium became an empty vessel for the spirit; as one practitioner described it, mediumship depended upon a "renunciation of self," a paradoxical passivity that lead to power (Lewis qtd. in Taylor 124).  Owen describes this paradox of passivity for the female Victorian medium: "Passivity became, in the spiritualist vocabulary, synonymous with power.  And here lay the crux of the dilemma.  For the very quality which supposedly made women such excellent mediums was equally constructed as undermining their ability to function in the outside world" (10).  Certainly the bustling Mrs. George is represented as a capable actor in the "outside world," but when she is faced with the disempowering violence of Hotchkiss, she changes her tactic from active resistance to passive authority. 

         In the trance scene Mrs. George is the empty vessel, the medium, rather than the channeled spirit.  When Mrs. George speaks for the spirit of woman, or perhaps more properly, married woman, she challenges the demands for physical love by men and balances those demands against what women offer emotionally and spiritually: "I have given you the greatest of all things; and you ask me to give you little things.  I gave you your own soul: you ask me for my body as a plaything" (Shaw, Getting Married 303).  As a medium, Mrs. George can communicate a powerful message that both confounds and subdues her male listeners, and the role of medium grants her authority to argue against the inequalities inherent in sexual relations when men and women have different desires.  However, the scene also emphasizes the liabilities inherent in this model of authority. Mrs. George is even more physically vulnerable in her prone trance state, and Hotchkiss takes advantage of this situation to kiss her hand, paralleling his earlier more violently stolen kiss.  Additionally, Mrs. George has no memory of her inspired statements, and can only vaguely assert that "You may believe every word I said: I cant remember it just now; but it was something that was just bursting to be said; and so it laid hold of me and said itself" (305).  With such disembodied communications, there is no culpability for content on the part of the medium, a paradox that was usually a social safety net, but in this case is a severe blow to Mrs. George's representation as a character with authority.

         Shortly after the trance episode takes place, the other plots in the play begin to resolve themselves, leaving only the lingering question of wills between Mrs. George and Hotchkiss.  This plot, like the others, resolves in favor of preserving marriage, albeit in a less conventional form; Hotchkiss claims to be reformed, and he assures Mrs. George that she may safely take him home to meet her husband: "To disbelieve in marriage is easy: to love a married woman is easy; but to betray a comrade, to be disloyal to a host, to break the covenant of bread and salt, is impossible.  You may take me home with you Polly, you have nothing to fear" (319).  It seems that Mrs. George's trance helped to tame Hotchkiss, but his docility has nothing to do with a newfound respect for women; instead, he repudiates his threatened violation of the code of comradeship and hospitality between men.  Thus, Mrs. George seems to achieve her goals, but without gaining decisive authority.

         It is little wonder that Shaw's play depicts a Victorian medium character in Mrs. George who enacts the disparate (almost contradictory) conventions of the spiritualist woman as she demonstrates several distinct models of female authority.  When Getting Married was first produced in 1908, marriage and divorce in England were still governed by the Marriage Act of 1857—a piece of legislation staunchly rooted in the gender conventions of the Victorian period.    In her spirit manifestations as the voice of female experience and the innocence of spiritual equality, Mrs. George reflects the spectrum of Liberal politics and conservative gender conventions that characterized the English spiritualist movement.  When Mrs. George ceases to be an apparition and becomes a physical presence on stage, she absorbs the liabilities of her gender and loses much of her power.  By adopting a strategy of passivity rather than one of direct physical confrontation, she is able to persuade her male auditors that she speaks with authority, and ultimately comes to what appears to be a satisfactory conclusion with Hotchkiss. 

         However, the liabilities of the various modes of female authority Mrs. George represents remain starkly apparent, particularly when understood as paradigms of female social authority. When women were barred from active participation in the public sphere, it was up to men to channel their voice, and this structure both disempowered women and discredited the men who would help them.  Shaw himself became a victim of this type of attitude soon after the opening of Getting Married, when he was accused by the editor of the Academy of exuding too much of the feminine spirit: "We are sorry to have to say it, but it is our deliberate opinion that, for all his brilliant cleverness and ability, Mr. Shaw does not possess a masculine intellect" (Douglas 68).  The conclusion of the Academy's editor, based on this charge of insufficient masculinity, was that Shaw was "not the kind of man to whom this country is going for instruction in sociology or morality" (68).  This interpretation of the playwright demonstrates the conundrum of female authority that Mrs. George represents in the play: ultimately Getting Married accesses available models of female authority and highlights their defects, but, as with the marriage contract, the play cannot offer a satisfactory alternative.


1 A draft of this paper was presented at the 2009 International Shaw Society Conference
2 Quotations from the text are given as presented in the cited version of the play; Shaw's preference in publications was to omit apostrophes in cases where there was no ambiguity of meaning without them (e.g. shes, dont, wont, etc.).
3 For example, Shaw commented in a New York Times article that his "amazing knowledge of women" came from the simple assumption that "a woman was a person exactly like myself" ("As Bernard Shaw Sees Woman" n. pag.).
4 See also Shaw's essay "Womanly Woman" where an idealized view of the romantic relationship as "beautiful, disinterested, pure, sublime devotion" is described as self-deception "in the idealist fashion" (41-42).
5 See for example Sarah Strickney Ellis: "Nay, so potent may have become this secret influence, that he may have borne it about with him like a kind of second conscience, for mental reference, and spiritual counsel, in moments of trial" (46).
6 Shaw's three published pieces about spiritualism, identified by Laurence in his authoritative bibliography (543, 683),  reveal a typically contradictory and difficult to capture attitude by Shaw towards the subject.  His 1887 review of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research and Morell Theobald's Spirit Workers in the Home Circle is signed "By a Firm Believer" and lambasts the faulty logic of the SPR's ghostbusters while idealizing Theobald's representations of spirit communication as "the sweetest communion with spirits" (3:1).  Thirty years later, an interview in The Strand declares in the headline that "G. Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells Disbelieve in Spiritualism: Here are Their Reasons" (392), but Shaw himself published rebuttal comments to this interview a month later in the spiritualist magazine Light, declaring that "I have my opinion on the subject [of spiritualism]; but I do not intend to give it to the world in the form of an interview" (137).

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