Paul Pry and Elizabeth Fry: inspection and spectatorship in the social theatre of the 1820s

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter argues that the 1820s constitute a decade in which increased self-consciousness about public looking and being looked at is key to the performative pleasure of literary texts, visual images and staged entertainments. Self-consciousness about social inspection and spectatorship, however, also produces increased anxiety about inappropriate and excessive looking. One key text in my argument is John Poole’s runaway theatrical hit of 1825, Paul Pry, in which the audience experiences a frisson of transgressive pleasure in Pry’s inordinate curiosity: Pry is a figure both for the offensive ‘peeping’ to which the audience objects and for its own delight in viewing. The proliferation of songs, newspapers and figurines depicting Pry suggests his emblematic cross-cultural power. The second key text is Elizabeth Fry’s Observations on the Siting, Superintendance and Government of Female Prisoners (1827). For Fry, female inspection prevents abuse by male warders and helps to distinguish prisoners committed for offences of varying severity. However, viewing is also part of the orderly ‘machine’ Fry recommends, where prisoners are numbered and ticketed and the treadmill enables the exposure that communal discipline represents. In both texts, surveillance is a form of vigilance and protection, but also a form of punishment in a society investigating the propriety of its pervasive gaze.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRemediating the 1820s
EditorsMatthew Sangster, Jon Mee
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781474493291
ISBN (Print)9781474493277, 9781474493291
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022

Publication series

NameEdinburgh critical studies in romanticism


  • Surveillance
  • Curiosity
  • Inspection
  • Paul Pry
  • Elizabeth Fry
  • Prisons
  • Reform


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