duchess of malfi, early modern, film, gender, men, performance studies, sexuality, shakespeare, theatre history, webster, women
Rewatching Trevor Nunn’s remarkable film of Twelfth Night, I noticed a detail I’d never seen before. Well, two details, to be precise: a wobbly bicycle and a bad wig. After years of loving Nigel Hawthorne’s turn as Malvolio, I started to see how much his performance of the role was in dialogue with Georgie Pillson from the TV version of E.F. Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” novels. It started with a friend remarking on the way he rode the stolen bicycle when trying to catch up with Cesario – “Do you think that’s a Georgie Pillson call-back, or just how Nigel Hawthorne rides a bike in real life?” Having seen the connection, we couldn’t ignore the way the 1920s dandy from the south coast seemed to be dogging Malvolio’s footsteps, down to the oddly similar wigs which Hawthorne wore to play both characters. It’s not simply an amusing parallel between a TV society comedy from the 80s and a major Shakespeare movie. In fact, I think the interplay between these two roles can foreground the handling of power, gender and sexuality within this interpretation of Twelfth Night, which can in turn link it to other Early Modern texts. In some sense, Georgie and Malvolio are both second-in-command to powerful widows, whom they imagine have sexual designs upon them…
It’s probably worth making a quick recap of Georgie’s character before I start trying to run him to ground amidst the lawns of Olivia’s country house. He appeared in the “Mapp and Lucia” novels, a series of books about genteel small-town society on the English south coast, written by E.F. Benson during the 20s, 30s and 40s. The novels were filmed for TV in the mid 1980s, with Hawthorne in the role of Georgie. He is the closest friend of the widowed Mrs Emmeline Lucas (played by Geraldine McEwan), the arch-snob and queen bee of local social life, who is known as “Lucia”, partly because of her affectation that she and Georgie speak Italian to each other when alone. Their joint activities involve holding dinner parties, playing bridge and foiling the attempts of Miss Mapp to mount social coups against Lucia’s reign. Georgie becomes tired of Lucia’s relentless pretension from time to time, and Benson describes him entertaining “Bolshevik” thoughts about having more power than simply being her side-kick. Their relationship, though emotionally close, is never physical. Even when they marry in the later books it is made discreetly clear that separate bedrooms “and all that that implies” is their modus vivendi. Georgie’s anxiety that Lucia wants something more from their relationship at some points in the series, is played for laughs as there are various indications Benson intended him to be read as gay. Certainly the prospect of being more than an official consort to his queen fills him with dread and unease.
Whilst the bicycle-based japery first brought this comparison into focus, it was the wig that reminded me of Georgie and Lucia’s sexual tension in the TV series. Their first visit to Tilling involves a misbooking at the local hotel where the landlady assumes they are husband and wife, and then waxes knowing when they explain they aren’t, proclaiming her broadmindedness and that “Least said, soonest mended.” When they insist on separate rooms, a long sequence follows in which both characters creep to the connecting door and lock it nervously, then prepare for bed embarrassedly aware that they can overhear each other’s night-time routines. During this sequence Georgie takes off his magnificent chestnut toupee and arranges it fussily beside the bed, the first time the audience have seen him in less than dandily perfect costume. During their travels on the following day, Lucia raises the subject of the landlady’s mistake, and Georgie desperately tries to change the subject (“Ooh look, a cow!”), only to be mightily relieved when he realizes she is making it clear she’s only interested in his companionship. What is basically a fairly flimsy joke – that they both think the other one fancies them and are trying to get out of the situation – is used by McEwan and Hawthorne to produce a masterly passage of comic tension. He, as her devoted chamberlain, is trying to retain her favour whilst avoiding romantic entanglements, from which her husband had always kept him safe. She is trying to make it clear that her relatively recent widowhood doesn’t clear the way for them to consummate their Platonic involvement, whilst not being so crude as to address the topic of sex or making herself vulnerable to rebuff by suggesting she thinks he wants her.
Hawthorne’s re-use of a couple of elements from his performance as Georgie when playing Malvolio (wig, bicycle wobble, cravats, slightly camp wave) highlights the similarities in their situations. They are both under the “command”, in differing senses, of powerful women whom they imagine are making sexual overtures to them. Hawthorne’s ludicrous eagerness as Malvolio contrasts with his twitchy anxiety as Georgie in a similar scenario, though of course both are equally mistaken. It also, I think, throws light onto the way Hawthorne (and his directors) constructed the two characters’ sexualities as hidden and even obscure, but partially revealed by their attentions of their mistresses. The continual references to Georgie’s fussy style of dress, fondness for needlepoint and collection of antique “bibelots” – as well as the homphobic disapproval he attracts from the more macho Major Flint – don’t quite add up to an attraction to men, at least not within the novels. In the context of Benson’s other writings, such as the homoerotic school novel David Blaize, and his public persona, it seems fair to consider the possibility that Georgie is being coded as gay. But it is never stated particularly clearly, and often implied via a negative – such as his regarding a nude shepherdess in a piece of embroidery as a solution to a problem in the colour-scheme rather than a figure of interest in her own physical right. Given that, I’ve always read the tension in his negotiations with Lucia as being charged with additional freight: it’s not only that he doesn’t want to tell her he doesn’t fancy her, but also that he can’t tell her why.
In the case of Malvolio, Nunn and Hawthorne chose to portray him as living a double emotional life. He appears to quieten the revelling Belch, Feste and Aguecheek only after the camera has revealed him in a silk gown and elaborate Georgie-ish cravat, sipping a liqueur and tremblingly reading an illustrated paper entitled L’Amour. The movie is careful to suggest that Malvolio’s sexuality is not the repressed Puritan cruelty of Angelo from Measure For Measure, but a secret world of fantasy he is used to inhabiting. The forged love-note which tricks him into going cross-gartered for Olivia reveals this hidden side of the steward, who erroneously believes he has found an answer to his lustful daydreams of sex and power. Part of the trick’s workings also depend on the fact that Olivia, because of her position and her self-imposed “widowhood” for her brother, cannot declare her love for Malvolio openly. This prevents him from broaching the subject or referring to the note and prolongs the misunderstanding, as he must reply to is passionate declarations with a set of coded behaviour via his gestures and clothing. If Georgie and Malvolio misread their mistresses’ desires to anxiously comic effect, we might also say that Lucia and Olivia misread the different sexualities being covertly/ not-so-covertly expressed by the clothing and gestures of their subordinates.
This focus around the potentially dangerous revealing of sexual desires, and the misreading of socially coded behaviour, reminded me strongly of the recurrence of scenes in which widows woo younger men in Early Modern literature. The Malvolio/ Olivia plot in Twelfth Night can be seen as a comic variation on the pattern most famously and tragically presented in The Duchess of Malfi – indeed the Royal Shakespeare Company paired the two plays in their opening season in London during 1960/1. The long love scene in the opening movements of Webster’s play displays some of the same anxieties around the presumption of men being attracted to their social superiors, the indelicacy of women in power being forced to reveal their desires, and the unusual position of well-off widows as women not under the control of either a spouse or male relative. Antonio achieves what Malvolio disastrously dreams of – an approach from his wealthy mistress who reveals a passionate desire ignited by the qualities of his character and his superiority to men of her own class. But he is not the only man to be so favoured. The tediously industrious and worthy Jack of Newbury (in Thomas Deloney’s sixteenth-century proto-novel) begins as an apprentice who catches the eye of his master’s widow and is elevated to a social position where his talents can find their true use. The heroine of Thomas Drue’s The Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Brandon Bertie, finds a steward similarly to her marital taste after her husband dies, in a 1620s thriller about the persecutions of Protestants under Queen Mary. Mrs. Lackitt in Thomas Southern’s Oroonoko (1690s) is widowed without a steward, but seems to be trying to remedy the situation by finding a youngster who pleases her gaze and then making him a tenant on her husband’s plantations, and putting the romantic moves on him at the same time. Of course it’s a girl dressed up as a man, but this is the Early Modern stage, so what did she expect?
These narratives vary in their genre, their stated purpose and the sympathy with which they treat their characters. But they all seem to harp on a social anxiety about women whose sexual choices are unconstrained by the immediate needs of depending on a husband or brother, but who are still subject to the scrutiny and sanction of society at large. The difficulty in expressing desires which contravene accepted class and gender roles seems at the heart of the love scenes I’ve mentioned, as well as their parodic versions in Twelfth Night and Oroonoko. Hawthorne’s performances seem (to me, at least) to set up echoes of the Early Modern cultural anxieties about these issues, though they come via a 1980s TV version of a 1920s comic novel.
 Lucia status as “queen”, a metaphor running all the way through Benson’s account of the social shenanigans of this small world, is foregrounded in the TV series by the first episode’s plot centring around her manoeuvres to take the role of Queen Elizabeth in the local pageant, and her later appearance as Britannia in a set of tableaux vivantes at a garden party.
 I am in no position to make a reading of these screen performances which makes sense of them via Nigel Hawthorne’s private – and less private – life. He was outed in the mid-nineties, after Mapp and Lucia and before the release of Twelfth Night, and by all accounts found the experience a painful one whilst not being ashamed of his sexuality. I would welcome the perspective of scholars more versed in queer theory – even if that perspective is that there’s nothing to be understood from the parallels between these roles.
 Their true use seems to involve making massive amounts of money, then marrying a lower class girl when his wife dies so he can patronise the life out of her family, but that’s another story.
 Her skills extended beyond the wise selection of lovers and the acquisition of excellent surnames, as she managed to get into Foxe’s Book of Martyrs despite not technically being killed. Hers is the only story I’ve come across in the Protestant martyrology which ends happily, and without any of the traditional dying for the faith which I so narrow-mindedly associate with the genre.
Predictably, enjoyed this very much! And now I have questions. Principally, it seems to me that Olivia’s sexuality, and any social anxieties this might inspire, is revealed much more by her attraction to Viola than it is by her relationship with Malvolio, since she is manifestly indifferent to him. I suppose there is a sort of speculative “what if she fancied that loser, how ridiculous would THAT be” kind of thing going on. But that would then seem to me a closer parallel with Titiana’s embarrassing attraction to Bottom the weaver/donkey rather than the Dutchess.
I also find it interesting that there seems to be a wealth of Early Modern literature in which ladies dress up as men and other ladies fall in love with them. I am curious about what kind of social messages were trying to be explored through that device. I was just reading the other day about the popularity of ‘remarriage comedies’ in 1920s and 30s Hollywood cinema, when the Hayes Code meant that it wasn’t possible to have plots around infidelity. The remarriage device was a way to explore relationship tensions, quite a few of these focusing on the problem of women’s sexual desire, or sexual availability, without violating social conventions. Divorced women in these comedies show a remarkable similarity as culturally problematic figures to the widows you describe: they are nearly always rich and socially independent, divorced, and the plot usually focuses on them remarrying very quickly, or getting ‘rescued’ from a disastrous second marriage by the original husband swooping back in to save the day at the last minute. Usually by means of much scheming and hijinks.
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