Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Art of Self-Knowledge in Austen

Having recently re-read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), I was struck towards the end by the parallels between that novel, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel A Simple Story. Outwardly, it may seem that the novels have very little in common. Austen’s novel tells the story of Fanny Price, a gentle, timid soul, sent to live with her well-to-do relations, yet never treated as quite equal to them. She falls in love with her cousin Edmund, and the novel’s central conflict arises when Edmund falls in love with Miss Mary Crawford, whose brother, Henry Crawford, after flirting egregiously with Edmund’s two sisters, Maria and Julia, finally decides to court Fanny.
By contrast, A Simple Story tells the somewhat tragic tale of Miss Milner, a headstrong young woman who ends up marrying her guardian, cheating on him while he is out of the country, and being banished to a dank cottage with their little daughter Matilda. The final volume of the novel reunites Matilda with her father, but not before we as readers see the full extent of Lord Elmwood’s tyranny and selfishness and the terrible, terrifying sense of dependence all his friends and family feel around him. The final words of A Simple Story are a somewhat cryptic message about female education:
“And Mr. Milner, Matilda’s grandfather, had better have given his fortune to a distant branch of his family—as Matilda’s father once meant to do—so he had bestowed upon his daughter A PROPER EDUCATION.”
Little is explicitly mentioned in Inchbald’s novel about female education, except that Miss Milner was sent to “a Protestant boarding-school” and had received “merely such sentiments of religion, as young ladies of fashion mostly imbibe. Her little heart employed in all the endless pursuits of personal accomplishments, had left her mind without one ornament.” Instead, it is her daughter who avoided the “pernicious effects of an improper education” through her education in “the school of prudence—though of adversity—in which [she] was bred.”

Many eighteenth-century novels consider the question
of what kind of education is best for young ladies.
Austen’s narrator in Mansfield Park echoes many of the same views at the end of that novel. Sir Thomas, for example, reflects on the lack of a proper education for his daughters Maria and Julia, the first of whom runs away with Henry Crawford after marrying a rich buffoon Mr. Rushworth, and the second of whom elopes to Gretna Green with a man the family barely knows. In considering his daughters, Sir Thomas experiences “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters [that] was never to be entirely done away.”
Still, despite the “grievous mismanagement” of Maria and Julia’s educations, “he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effects…they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice…of the necessity of self-denial and humility he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.”
More and more women learned to read
and write over the course of the 17th and 18th
centuries, allowing them to weigh in
on  philosophical questions regarding
the self and society.
The language of the two texts is remarkably similar: both Inchbald and Austen are reflecting, through their narrators and characters, on the notion that education must not only include the general project of gaining knowledge of the outside world, but that it must also encompass self-knowledge and self-management. One might have a dissipated character or certain harmful tendencies, but both novels (and many other eighteenth-century novels, including but not limited to the novels of Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, & Frances Sheridan) seem to suggest that bad habits must be corrected at an early age, that denial is a better teacher for children than indulgence, and that once the damage is done, it is extremely hard to undo.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny seems to be the only character who sees the Crawfords for who they really are. She is not blinded by desire like her cousins. Instead, she judges Mary and Henry by her first impressions, and Mary is immediately tainted by her pronouncements against the clergy (Edmund’s chosen vocation) and Henry by his dangerous flirtations with Julia and Maria (the latter of whom is already engaged to another man). At the end of the novel, the narrator suggests that if Henry and Mary had managed to ally themselves with Fanny and Edmund, respectively, they might have shed some of their bad habits. But by indulging their follies and vices and allowing themselves to be more influenced by their London friends and their whims and vanity, they cannot escape their own bad characters.
Many novels suggest that indulging in too much of a "party lifestyle," which included masquerade balls,
could throw one into "bad company", i.e. people whose lack of a moral compass could potentially
"ruin" a young lady's reputation--or soul--forever. Were they alarmist--or essentially right?

What strikes me the most when I read Austen’s novels, and indeed many works by her contemporaries, are the ideas about human character that are quite different from how we think of character today. I’m generalizing somewhat here, but it seems to me that for many people today, we consider that one’s character is not “fixed” throughout life. Instead, we see character and personality as something that develops over time, and most of us would shudder to think that we are the same person, at our core, with the same attitude towards life, the same goals, the same needs, as five, ten, or fifteen years ago. Yet, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels, I get the sense that people very strongly believed that character was fixed quite early on and very difficult to change.

While it may be true that certain qualities of our personalities may indeed be fixed from a young age (for example, whether one is more introverted or more extroverted), today’s ideology of “self-improvement” suggest that we can keep improving our selves interminably. Maybe this is a very American kind of attitude as well. And though I would never encourage anyone to stop trying to better themselves, we might learn just as much about ourselves—and our closest friends and family—if we stop to consider those parts of us that are “fixed”—for better or for worse. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Clueless Heroines: Jane Austen’s Emma in the Classroom

This past spring semester I taught Austen’s Emma in an upper-level survey course on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature. I realize I’m pushing the boundaries of the time period somewhat by teaching Austen’s 1816 novel, which is currently celebrating its bicentennial. Still, Austen is a transitional figure, and it felt like a nice juxtaposition against the other works of fiction that we read, which included Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt and Daniel Defoe’s Roxana. All three of these works contain heroines which my students had a hard time liking.
In the case of Behn’s Miranda and Defoe’s Roxana, it is easy to see how these fictional characters might elicit disgust or dislike from their readers. Miranda is a caricature of feminine evil, falsely accusing a priest of raping her when he spurns her advances, and then plotting to kill her sister, seducing first a servant and then her own husband to commit the murder (first by poison and next by gunfire). Roxana is hardly better: initially she must give up her virtue to save herself and her children from starvation, but she admits later in the novel that even when she could finally retire from being a kept woman, her own vanity and greed compel her to seek even greater fame and riches. By the end of the novel, when her own daughter finds out her identity, Roxana not only refuses to acknowledge her, but instead wishes her dead.
Austen’s Emma, by contrast, seems quite saintly. She’s “handsome, clever, and rich,” as the famous first line declares, and her worst quality is “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” And yet, my students decidedly did not like her—especially in the first half of the novel. In writing assignments, some of them denounced Emma as manipulative and controlling, deeming her interest in Harriet Smith “obsessive.”
The frontispiece to Emma.

When it comes to the most well-known heroes and heroines of fiction, readers are often split into the “love them” or “hate them” camps. Ask any avid reader what they think of characters like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Jane Austen’s Eliza Bennet, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, and you are likely to get  strongly-worded answer. And of course, this doesn’t just hold to female character, either. Most readers have similarly strong opinions about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Dickens’s David Copperfield, or even JK Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Of course, it’s quite possible, and rather normal, to dislike a character and still enjoy a novel about that character. (Though I would argue that it’s difficult to like a novel in which one  dislikes all the characters—but not impossible.) One’s attitude towards a character and that character’s good or bad qualities also wanes with time. I chuckled a little when several of my students expressed their rabid dislike of Emma because I could remember reader Emma in college and disliking her myself. She was too full of herself, too silly, too meddling, despite having all the advantages a lady of Austen’s time could want.
On rereading Emma, I found I minded Emma’s follies less. Instead, I was more struck by how little happens in the novel. Much of it occurs inside character’s heads—it is taken up with feelings, letters, decisions, and a lot of waiting. What does not fall into the camp of thought and reflection is taken up with dialogue—often great lengths of it, spoken by characters with less than stellar qualities, like the ever-babbling Miss Bates, the rather vulgar Mrs. Elton, and, at times, the ever-lecturing Mr. Knightley.
Part of the exhibit "Emma at 200" at Chawton House in England.
Mr. Knightley is not a bad character, all-in-all. Reading Emma at twenty-one, I disliked Mr. Knightley quite a bit. He seemed even more full of himself than Emma, always lecturing her and telling her she was wrong. It was insufferable.  And then to have Emma actually marry him at the end of the novel! It was altogether disagreeable, to put it in Austenian terms. This situation was probably what irked me the most as a young adult: the novel’s central assumption is that Emma is a silly girl who knows nothing of how the world works and must be taught a lesson through not one, not two, but three major humiliations: being wrong about Mr. Elton; being wrong about Frank Churchill & Jane Fairfax; and getting reprimanded by Mr. Knightley for her improper behavior towards Miss Bates.
Despite this year being the
200th anniversary,
Emma had quite the moment in
1995-6, with  Clueless, & 2
other adaptations, one
with  Gwyneth. Paltrow (above)
and one  with Kate Beckinsale.
While other Austenian heroines must learn to set aside their prejudices (like Eliza Bennet) or their fantasies (like Marianne Dashwood), neither of them are quite so chastened as Emma Woodhouse. Reading Emma at the same age as its heroine, I was annoyed and displeased by the assumption that Emma was quite so wrong about so many things. Reading the novel again and also teaching it this year made me reflect instead on the many layers of it, the way that Austen builds the relationships with the characters and gives us insight into their thoughts and psyches. Many claim that Samuel Richardson is one of the earliest English authors to truly bring the human psyche onto the page, but I feel quite comfortable giving those laurels to Jane Austen. Even a heroine as seemingly clueless as Emma can be of interest to readers when we are allowed to sit inside her thoughts for five hundred pages. (Pamela, as I have argued elsewhere, never seems more than a caricature of female cluelessness.)
And speaking of cluelessness, of course I had my class watch Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1995) as a follow-up to the novel. This was my first time watching the film directly after reading the book, and I had to admire yet again the filmmakers for their skill and creativity at adapting Austen’s novel in such a fun, and yet strangely faithful way. In many ways, Cher Horowitz is very different, of course, than Emma. She is more fashion-oriented and interested in “retail therapy,” and her “clueless” disposition as a Beverly Hills teenager means she is “ditzy” in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily connect to Austen’s Emma.
Cher and her besties, Dionne (left, played by Staci Dash), and
Tai (right, played by Brittany Murphy) in the role of Harriet Smith.
I can see, however, why the filmmakers developed Cher’s character in this way: Cher’s “ditz with a credit card” status immediately establishes her as recognizable archetype for viewers who haven’t read the book. In this way, Heckerling’s film places us, the viewers, into the role not only of the reader of the novel, who judges the heroine, but also of the other inhabitants of Highbury, who, knowing little of Emma/Cher, judge her by her looks, her money, and her status. Cher is more or less about as likeable as Emma: as film viewers we appreciate her silliness, but are also privy to her whininess and petulance, as well as to her generosity and moments of genuine confusion.
How important is it to like characters in novels? When we teach novels that focus so centrally on characters and character development, it’s hard to divorce discussion of literary forms, themes, and plot from book club-type discussions of why or why not a certain novel or character appeals to us. After all, the point of “The Rape of the Lock” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not whether we like Pope’s Belinda and the Baron or Eliot’s Prufrock; such a discussion wouldn’t make any sense. Yet, when we discuss character like Emma, it’s difficult not to discuss whether we like or dislike the character. In the classroom, my best bet is to then turn the discussion around, and ask my students why Austen would create a character who is difficult to like, someone so imperfect, vain, or blinded.
Then, of course, there is the question of how to teach texts that we, as instructors, don’t much like, but that is a story for another post.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Playing High in the Eighteenth Century

Whenever I teach eighteenth-century literature, I find I have to explain certain aspects to my students about daily life in this time period. The cost and upkeep of a coach and horses, for example, is hard to conceive of in a time when most people in the US own a car—or know someone who does. Similarly, the discrepancies between how much a maid or vicar might earn a year versus the yearly income of a Mr. Bingley or a Mr. Darcy is also difficult to comprehend. How could some people live on a mere fifty pounds a year, or even just five pounds a year, in the case of a servant, when others had 5,000 or 10,000 pounds a year? Even more confounding can be the notion of “debts of honor” between friends and the widespread custom of playing cards for money among the social elite.
Fashionable men and women play "Pope Joan."
            Our class recently read Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, and while Roxana lives in the Pall-Mall, she becomes the hostess of masquerade balls and fĂȘtes that last all night. In the wee hours of the morning, the gentlemen “play’d high, and stay’d late.” A couple pages later, we learn that the gentlemen who join in the card games play high enough that their tips to Roxana’s maid, Amy, who attends them, amount to 62 pounds—anywhere from 2-5 years’ worth of wages for a maid. At the end of the novel, when Roxana’s daughter Susan tracks her down, she recounts various details that link Roxana to her exploits in the Pall-Mall. Of these is the memory of her gaming tables, which Roxana now admits gave the masquerade balls at her apartment a rather unsavory flavor: “her own Account brought her down to this, That, in short, her Lady kept a little less than a Gaming-Ordinary; or, as it wou’d be call’d in the Times since that, An Assembly for Gallantry and Play.” To the middle-aged Roxana, her former role as the mistress of a gambling establishment is nearly as detestable as her affairs with various men.
            Yet, gambling and playing high at cards was certainly not just the provenance of men. Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” recounts an intense game of ombre in which the heroine Belinda wins the game:
                                    The King unseen
Lurk’d in her Hand, and mourn’d his captive Queen.
He springs to Vengeance with an eager pace,
And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace.
The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky,
The Walls, the Woods, and long Canals reply.
Although the poem does not explicitly mention money being lost and won, card playing was almost always for money in this time period. Women did not usually gamble in public clubs (the “ordinaries” that Roxana mentions), but even in card games between friends, money was always at stake (think of all the games of whist in Jane Austen novels—always for money). In the later eighteenth century, many society women hosted games of “faro” on their faro tables, and some of them were even accused—and found guilty—of stealing from the bank! The case of Mrs. Albinia Hobart, later Countess of Buckinghamshire, who was found guilty of doing just that, and her friend Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, may have been the inspiration for Mrs. Harriet Freke and her friend Mrs. Luttridge in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. At the end of the novel, the two women are exposed for having cheated the men who come play at faro on their tables.
In reality, Mrs. Hobart was just fined 50 pounds--though the judge threatened her
with flogging. 
Georgiana Cavendish
            In Belinda, gambling itself is seen as the addictive vice that we understand it to be now. Throughout eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, we see the representation and condemnation of gambling and playing high. While it is often the men, like Mr. Vincent in Belinda or Fred Vincy in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, who get in trouble for gambling their money away, women could rack up debt as well. Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was, at one point, in debt for in excess of 100,000 pounds (remember, Mr. Darcy, who is ridiculously wealthy in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, has a yearly income of 10,000!). As it turned out, the Duchess had been tricked by a notorious cheat, who had lent her money only to multiplied her debts in the span of just three months. The Duke, Georgiana’s husband, almost divorced her over the gambling and her debts…
            Gambling was certainly thought to be a vice and a waste of time—and immoral—by many in the eighteenth century. And yet, it was commonplace. While paying to play in a gambling establishment seems de rigour, what I often find difficult to understand is that friends “played high” against one another even in “friendly” games of cards. Those debts were considered “debts of honor,” i.e. debts that must be paid ahead of bills to the grocer, the tailor, or any other merchant who might actually be relying on that money to feed his own family. In Robert Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Charles Surface gambles his money away to his friends; when he sells off the family portraits and library unsuspectingly to his own Uncle Oliver for a hundred pounds, he uses it to gamble with even as merchants await to be paid: Rowley the servant to Oliver: “I have left a hosier and two tailors in the hall, who, I’m sure won’t be paid, and this hundred would satisfy ’em!”

            The only way, perhaps, to understand the eighteenth-century penchant for playing for high stakes and paying one’s debts of honor is to think of the people who do so as we do now of celebrities. Who else would be so needlessly extravagant, so heedless of duty, so uninterested in integrity? It is no wonder that in the novels of Frances Burney, for example, the heroines, like Camilla, must be warned and forewarned several times by friends and family not to “fall in with the wrong crowd.” The “cool crowd” of the eighteenth century liked to spend money excessively and heedlessly, in a manner that most people, even those who achieved financial stability, could not keep up with for very long.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Lady's Prerogative

Happy Leap Day!

Leap day has been on February 29th since the adoption of the Gregorian
Uh oh, the ladies are up to something...
 calendar in 1582. The concept of a “leap day” was incorporated into the much earlier Julian calendar, however, in which February normally had 23 days and on leap years it had 24.


Apparently, among the superstitions and traditions associated with leap day is that on this day, it was acceptable historically for a woman to propose marriage to a man. As early as 1600, in an anonymously-published play, The Maid’s Metamorphosis, we see the tradition of gender reversal on leap day referred to in the following lines: “Maister be comforted, this is leape year/ Women wear breeches, petticoats are deare.”

Did she really get down on her
knees and beg St. Patrick for a day
"for the ladies"???
Many sites on the web claim that the “tradition” is linked to Irish folklore and stories of St. Brigid begging St. Patrick for a special day for the women to propose, or Queen Margaret enacting a law in 1288 to allow women to propose to men. Both stories have been debunked due to issues of time (for example, St. Brigid would have been 9 when St. Patrick died), but they are both firmly rooted in Irish Catholic tradition. (As is the contemporary film that portrays this tradition, Leap Year.) Other sources cite leap day as being the feast of St. Oswald, a Saxon saint. Part of his feast day tradition was, in Elizabeth times, to allow the ladies to propose to long-time suitors.


In part, this tradition is thought to relate to the fact that leap day had “no standing” in English law or, in other words, that day had “no legal status” and was “leaped over” and ignored by legal bodies—hence “leap year.” If the day had no legal status, then one could presumably overstep the usual social boundaries without the usual repercussions; therefore, women could propose to men rather than having to wait on the gentleman. (If anyone can clarify what it means, legally, that a day can have no legal status, I would be grateful. I found the reference to this in Shakespeare's Festival Worlds, by Frangois Laroque, pg. 107.)

Some traditions state that a man who refuses a woman’s proposal on this day will face bad luck or that he must pay her back in gloves (presumably to hide her ringless hand). Other traditions state that a woman who wishes to propose on this day must wear breeches as she does so. Later, this was changed to a red petticoat that had to be visible when she approached her wary victim.

I have yet to find any real, hard evidence for these supposed traditions, by which I mean texts from the past that mention them, except the reference to The Maid’s Metamorphosis. If anyone has any leads, please let me know—especially if they relate to Leap Day traditions from the long eighteenth century!
 
A husband-hunter spots her quarry in a 1908 postcard.
As a researcher interested in female cross-dressing, this sounds like a particularly juicy story to add to my compendium of examples. As a feminist, though, I have to wonder about the “tradition” of men proposing to women throughout history, which inevitably lead to designating one day every four years in which women could propose to men. (Too much more often than that, and things could get out of hand…)

It is well-known and documented that in the Middle Ages and Elizabethan era, sex before marriage was common and accepted. (For more on the history of sexuality in Europe and premarital sexual practices, check out books by Tim Hitchcock & Karen Harvey.) It seems hard to believe that in all cases, women waited for men to broach the subject. Undoubtedly, there were cases in which couples came together to the decision to marry, and in many cases, the man did not do the proposing at all--proposals were completely handled by the parents. On both sides.
 
She's no catch...but she's caught her man.
Marital traditions that we document the most clearly are often the traditions of the upper-classes and aristocracy, and many traditions that we think of as being around forever are actually quite new. Diamond engagement rings did not become mainstream until a DeBeers ad campaign in the early twentieth century, and white wedding dresses did not become popular until Queen Victoria’s wedding. Nowadays we would never consider wearing our wedding dress after the wedding day, but in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920), we read that May wears her wedding dress out to various social events during the first year of her marriage.
 
Poor guy....tricked into marriage on Leap Day...

So, until I see some hard evidence about leap year marriage proposals in the form of pre-twentieth-century documents, I’m just a tad skeptical. It’s been an interesting tradition to read about, but for now, I think it might be more urban legend than actual tradition. When we take into account the many cartoons depicting ugly, creepy old women preying on unsuspecting young men, it’s hard not to think of this “tradition” as yet another way to discourage women historically from taking power into their own hands.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Valentine’s Day Special: Restoration & Augustan Impotence Poetry

Many of us, when we are young and impressionable, are taught that poetry is language made beautiful, or, conversely, beauty rendered into words. In the English-speaking world, one of the earliest rhymes we learn is that saccharine Valentine chant:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sugar is sweet
And so are you!
For this reason, among many others, I enjoy breaking the poetic stereotype forcefully and with vigor (pardon the pun) by introducing my students to Restoration and Augustan Age impotence poetry. Impotence poetry of this time period, written in the heroic couplet form that dominated the poetry of the time, fuses together what we often think of as “poetic” language with the very “poetic” topics of love and passion and the rather “unpoetic” topic of impotence.
Pastoral scenes were popular in artworks
of the time period as well.
Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment” draws on the language and imagery of the pastoral (a common move in impotence poetry, alluding to its Ovidian origins), presenting us with the shepherd Lisander and his lover Cloris who meet in “a Thicket, made for love.” After overcoming Cloris’s fears of losing her virginity and therefore her honor and virtue, the lovers “extend themselves upon the moss” in preparation for the final “sacrifice” on the altar of love. However, we soon learn that poor Lisander, after seeing Cloris’s lovely bosom “rising” and “bare” is now “o’er ravished” and “unable to perform the sacrifice.” In the end, Cloris run off, her virtue still intact while Lisander remains behind, blaming the innocent Cloris and her charms, “whose soft bewitching influence/ had damned him to the Hell of Impotence.”
By contrast, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who wrote many sexually-explicit poems about his penchant for “swiving,” has only himself to blame in “The Imperfect Enjoyment.” Written in the first person, a little more crass and vulgar than Behn’s refined, poetic language, “The Imperfect Enjoyment” details the bedroom amours of the narrator and his Corinna (another pastoral name). Still, despite being a little more explicit about the sexual act, the language of Rochester’s poem delights with its romance-novel euphemisms: “My fluttering soul, sprung with the painted kiss,/ hangs hovering o’er her balmy brinks of bliss.”
Yet, when the unfortunate lover comes too soon, he finds himself unable to perform a second time. Soon the narrator is “the most forlorn, lost man alive….I sigh, Alas! and kiss but cannot swive.” Rather than blame his lovely partner, Rochester blames himself, or, rather, his “prick”: “Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame/ False to my passion, fatal to my fame.” In the end, Rochester damns his own penis to “chancres” and “stranguary” while “a thousand abler pricks agree/ to do the wronged Corinna right for thee.” In Rochester’s poem, it is love, not lust, that renders him impotent: his penis being “so true to lewdness, so untrue to love.”
As a pair, these two poems illustrate two different approaches to the impotence poem: Rochester’s serves as a comic indictment of the libertine lifestyle while Behn’s, as beautifully-written as it is, illustrates the unjust fate of women who, like Cloris, can be both prey to sexual assault as well as damnable prudes who “bewitch” men into losing their virility and manhood. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s poetic response to Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” illustrates another approach to the impotence poem: the impotence poem as poetic revenge. In Swift’s poem, he portrays in disgusting detail the inside of Celia’s dressing room. With meticulous attention to the abject and the disgusting, Swift’s Strephon “took a strict survey/ of all the litter as it lay.” Included in the survey are “various combs for various uses/ filled up with…/…A paste of composition rare/ Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead, and hair” as well as “puppy water”, a basin full of “the scrapings of her teeth and gums”, towels “begummed, bemmattered, and beslimed/ with dirt and sweat and earwax grimed”—not to mention her chamber pot! Montagu read Swift’s poem and apparently thought it a perfect illustration of a small-minded and vain little man (of course, she hated Swift for his politics too).

A lady at her toilette.
As a response to the poem, Montagu published her poem, “The Reasons that Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room.” In her version, Strephon is obviously Swift, and Celia is no better and no worse than a prostitute whom Swift tries to gain admittance to with “gallantry and wit” but who, in the end, must pay his four pounds for Betty’s charms. (In Montagu’s version, the poetic Celia is an everyday Betty.) Once inside Betty’s room, “the reverend lover with surprise/ peeps in her bubbies and her eyes/ and kisses both and tries—and tries.” Montagu’s Swift/Strephon is nothing but a “Fumbler”, as Betty calls him, whose “sixty odd” years have taken a toll on his sexual abilities. She refuses to return his money, even after he exclaims that the fault is not in him, but rather in the state of her chamber: “Your damned close stool so near my nose/ Your dirty smock and stinking toes” would make even a Hercules lose his mojo, he claims. Montagu further jests at Swift’s expense, writing that the “disappointed dean” of the poem proclaims he will write a poem that describes Betty’s mess in such detail, “the very Irish shall not come.” Betty’s delightful reply, which finishes out the poem, is “I’m glad you’ll write/ You’ll furnish paper when I shite.”

Restoration and eighteenth-century writers were fascinated with exploring sexual politics in their poetry, and the growing number of female writers at this time meant that women could bring their own views on sex and desire into the conversation. While poetry that concerns itself with love, relationships, longing, and lost love often dominates what we think of as poetry, the sub-genre of impotence poetry can be, in some ways, more revealing about social attitudes towards the body, failure, and the human condition even as it changes our idea of what poetry can be and what it should be. Lastly, for those of us working on the history of sexuality, impotence poetry puts the body and notions of embodiment front and center in ways that are fascinating and humorous.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Aphra Behn on Justice

Aphra Behn
This semester I’m teaching an upper-level English course on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature. We started with two works by Aphra Behn: the play The Widow Ranter (1689) and the short fiction The Fair Jilt (1688). The first tells the story of a disparate band of Englishmen and women in the Jamestown colony in Virginia at the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, a historical event that Behn modifies for the purposes of drama. The second is a work of “amatory fiction” that recounts the scandalous amours of an evil, plotting young woman named Miranda, who, when she can’t get what she wants, resorts to extremes (lies, deception, murder—the usual). In both works, however, as in many of her others (the play The Rover, for example, or her novella Oroonoko), the notion of justice and its inverse, injustice, play a prominent role.
           In The Widow Ranter, justice has been suspended for the colonists, as in the wake of a power vacuum, the colonial council makes all the decisions. The council is made up of a motley crew of immigrants to the new world, many of whom have extremely dubious credentials. As Friendly tells his newly-arrived pal Hazard, “for want of a governor we are ruled by a council, some of which have been perhaps transported criminals, who having acquired great estates are now become Your Honour, and Right Worshipful, and possess all places of authority” (Act I, Scene I). The members of the council are indeed scoundrels, as represented by Behn in the play. With names like Timorous, Whimsey, Whiff, and Boozer, it is evident that the council members are not to be trusted. In fact, they are all great cowards, and their cowardice becomes part of the comic relief, even as it suggests one of the play’s most overt critiques of power and governance.
Real life Nathaniel Bacon.
            In Act III, Scene I, we enter the courtroom, and Hazard is accused of drawing without provocation against two members of the council. The entire courtroom scene is a farce of justice, as the play portrays the justices indulging in punch in the courtroom and presiding at the hearing while drunk. Further, when all is revealed, we learn that Hazard was defending himself against Dullman and Boozer who struck him first. The questions of what is allowable “under the law” surfaces in this scene, where it is comic, but inflected with serious consequences. The problem of what is legal and what is just is painted in broader strokes in the case of Bacon and his rebellion. The inhabitants of the colony bemoan that what Bacon, the brave and valiant Bacon, did by inciting his own war against the Indians without leave from the council, was perhaps just, but it was not legal.
            In The Fair Jilt, the miscarriages of justice are, if possible, even more complex. Miranda manipulates the justice system in order to get the object of her affection convicted of rape. Father Francisco refuses her overtures of love, and she, obsessive young maiden that she is, contrives to make it look as though he has raped her. He is convicted and put indefinitely into prison. While he molders in jail, Miranda meets Prince Tarquin, seduces him, marries him, and begins spending extravagantly. She spends her own dowry as well as that of her unmarried, much younger sister Alcidiana. When Alcidiana prepares to marry and demands her dowry, Miranda seduces a young page, Van Brune, and convinces him to kill Alcidiana for her. The attempt ends with Van Brune’s confession, his conviction and death, and Miranda’s disgrace. Miranda doesn’t learn, however, and resorts to even greater extremes: she convinces her husband, Tarquin, to commit the murder of her poisoned-but-not-killed sister. He shoots and misses; he is caught; he and Miranda are both imprisoned. Miranda is banished, and Tarquin is sentenced to death by beheading; the beheading is botched, however, and he is saved by the crowds, recovers, and reunites with his banished wife. At the end, we learn that the two of them live a long and happy life and that Miranda is repentant.
            My students were rather unsatisfied, to say the least, with Miranda’s happy ending. They wanted her to receive a proper punishment for the way she had lied, manipulated, deceived, and caused the imprisonment and/or death of innocent people. Is the ending of The Fair Jilt an injustice to all those Miranda harmed with her obsessive selfishness? Does it illustrate the dangers of not educating women and allowing them to become obsessed with their own youth and beauty and their powers of seduction? Or is this a searing indictment of male blindness? In Behn’s works, nothing is simple or easy, even if we are momentarily tempted to consider The Fair Jilt nothing more than a silly telenovela.

            Behn lived in a tumultuous time, and her own life story, what we know of it, seems to suggest that she witnessed many injustices. Her works are full of melodrama and comedy, yet their complex relationship to issues of justice, the law, money, power, and relationships force us to re-examine the darker side of these stories. The law, she reminds us, is made by men, and men are fallible, petty, blind, jealous, selfish, and power-hungry. They project these same negative qualities onto women—yet they embody these qualities themselves and with much more far-reaching and dangerous results.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Secret Diaries of a Regency Lesbian

Anne Lister,
Regency Lesbian
I finally managed to watch The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, a BBC production from 2010 that tells the story of Anne Lister, an upper-class Englishwoman who defied the conventions of her time to live and love as she wanted to.

Lister, for those of you unfamiliar with her story, lived in Halifax, in Northern England, from 1791-1840. And although her life overlaps quite a bit with that of Jane Austen, her life story and her diary reveal quite a different world than the one Austen recreates in her novels. Lister kept a secret diary, much of which was written in code, and the coded bits are, naturally, the juicy bits. In her copious diary, Lister details her love affairs with various women, as well as her interest in women and her disinterest in men.

Her diaries number 4 million words and naturally touch on many other subjects, but for historians of sexuality, her diary is most important for the way that Lister writes about her same-sex desires and her sexual identity. The “no homosexuals before 1900 rule” that many post-Foucaultian scholars considered to be (used to consider?) a hard and fast assumption seems ridiculous when we consider Lister. She clearly thought of herself as “a woman whose primary romantic and sexual attraction is to other women.”

Maxine Peake, left, as Lister, &
Anna Madeley as Mariana Belcombe.
The BBC production, however, was a disappointment. While Maxine Peake, who played Lister, seemed up to the part, she was miscast. She looks absolutely nothing like the portraits of Lister, with her bouncing red curls instead of Lister’s dark brown locks, and the script and story focused on portraying Lister as romantic, desperate, and hysterical. The time line of her life was truncated and mangled in the film, and there was no discernible story arc.

The basic narrative focuses on Lister’s problematic affair with real-life lover Marianna Belcombe (later Lawton) and Lister’s later successful relationship with wealthy heiress Ann Walker. The film also represents some of the other aspects of Lister’s life: her scholarly interests, the changes she made to her home, Shibden Hall, and her interests in engineering and coal-mining. The film also represents some of the negative reactions Lister faced to her increasingly masculine appearance and clothing and the suspicion surrounding her and her female “friends.” Some people in the area who knew of her odd ways called her “Gentleman Jack”—and not in a nice way.

Lister’s life could indeed make a wonderful, exciting, and thought-provoking film, but this one just wasn’t it. Far more interesting was the mini-documentary included in the special features on our disc, called “The Real Anne Lister” with Sue Perkins. The documentary includes interviews with various scholars who study Lister and Regency England, including Helena Whitbread who is the main editor of Lister’s diaries.

“The Real Anne Lister” takes us into Shibden Hall as it looks today and to the boarding school where Anne was sent as a teen—and where she had her first love affair with another girl. In between interviews with scholars and historians, Sue Perkins walks us through Lister’s life and loves, giving us a far more complete picture of Lister as a woman interested in intellectual pursuits, one who actively pursued other women at a time when such relationships were stigmatized, and one who had many other interests as well, including mountaineering, something the fictionalized film does not include.
 
Shibden Hall in Halifax, England.
Perkins presents Lister as a problematic figure, one who, as contemporary lesbians, we can admire for her boldness and her decision not to live in the closet, but who is also deeply troubling and perhaps even unlikable. Perkins notes in the documentary that Lister seems heartless at times, forgetting her lover from her school years, Eliza Raine (who died young after being sent to an insane asylum), and seducing other women thoughtlessly, selfishly. Perkins also faults Lister for being class conscious in her pursuit of other women, focusing mostly on women of the upper middle class and upper class—women like Lister herself.

A later portrait of Lister reveals the "mannish"
quality that eventually caused her lover, Mariana,
to leave her.
But we don’t have to like Lister in order to find her fascinating or a worthwhile person to study, especially when it comes to the history of sexuality. After all, no one is sitting around asking if they like Sappho or Don Juan as a person. Perhaps we should be asking, instead, what role does “likeability” and “relatability” have to play when we study real life persons in the past? Undoubtedly most writers of biographies come up against a fact or incident in the life of their subject that turn them off, or maybe even creates a permanent sense of dislike for this person that they are writing about.

Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t like The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Aside from the pacing being a bit slow, I felt like I just didn’t like Anne Lister. And I wanted to. But her fictionalized character didn’t seem bold and brash, or even cold and cunning; she seemed desperate and a teensy bit annoying. I do hope that her story gets take up again, though, and remade into a better film (or mini-series, or even a musical!) because it’s a story worth knowing.


For every brash, bold, rich Anne Lister, there are dozens of other, quieter, lesser-known, or simply poorer women in history who loved other women and who defied conventions—perhaps in a less splashy way. Their lives are just as worth knowing and understanding as those of queens and duchesses, and their presence in the past suggests a more sexually diverse Regency world than most Austen adaptations present us with. 
On a positive note, the BBC production doesn't shy away from
representations of female same-sex desire and sex acts.