Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ladies in Breeches: Hannah Snell

My primary research interest in the eighteenth century right now is the representation of cross-dressed women in the literature . One of my favorite characters is that of Hannah Snell, a real life female cross-dresser, whose story was written and published under the title, The Female Soldier, in 1747 in England.

One of the most popular images of Snell.

Hannah sailed the seas with the British marines, disguised as a man, and, according to her story (she was illiterate, so her story is told by a, seemingly male, narrator), her female sex was never discovered. Initially, she joins the army in order to find her husband, who abandoned her when she was pregnant. After she gives birth and her child dies, she decides to find him. She hears of his being pressed into service (this was common in the 18th century as Britain waged many wars and conquests without the resource of a standing army; more about that when I discuss Peg Woffington and her turn as “The Female Volunteer” next week!) and decides to join up herself in search of him.

While on her travels, she sees the world, and eventually she fights at the Battle of Pondicherry, India, where she is wounded with a groin wound. She manages to escape being “discovered” by convincing a local woman (referred to in the text as a “Black,” though this designation applies to the Indians of India in the eighteenth-century) to give her some ointment for her wound.

As with many of the “passing women” of the eighteenth century, Hannah must prove herself with feats of strength—and flirtations with other women. She defends the honor of several women in port who may have otherwise fallen in with some of her fellow crewmen with evil intentions, and these women apparently find her version of masculinity quite appealing. 

A rather different image of Snell.
Upon her return, Hannah goes with her ship’s mates to the marine offices to prove that she indeed served aboard ship and to collect her pay—which she does, successfully. Afterwards, she appears in her uniform on stage at Sadler’s Wells, performing her military exercises for money.

While the text ends on a happy note, historians have found evidence that Snell eventually re-married (rather unhappily) and died alone and in poverty (not unusual for an interesting, independent woman of this period, unfortunately; the writer Aphra Behn also died in pain and in poverty despite penning many fantastic works of fiction, poetry and plays).

What I find fascinating about the actual text of Snell’s tale are the narrative contortions necessary to make Snell a virtuous woman but also a strong and valiant character. She’s good at disguising herself (lying to others), but it’s ok, because she’s doing it for a noble end. She’s deathly afraid of getting raped aboard ship, but she’s also one of the toughest and strongest crew members. Most interestingly for my research is the narrator’s insistence that we understand exactly how she passed despite being female-bodied. We never learn how she relieved herself aboard ship in front of fellow crew-members, or how she hid her monthly menses, but we get a blow by blow of how she dug out the bullet from her own groin at Pondicherry to avoid dealing with a surgeon. 
A less masculine version of Snell.
Similarly, when Snell is to be whipped shirtless in front of the company for disobeying orders, the narrator goes into detail about how she had small breasts, and how she wore a bandanna, and how she stood with her arms held up and facing the wall, so no one could tell she had breasts. Snell’s female-bodied-ness is central to the story, as it establishes the need to stay hidden, it illustrates how much she wishes to preserve her virtue, and it creates the central tension of the text. On the other hand, this need to keep her true sex hidden leads her to flirt with other women, women who, according to the text, seem to really, really like her. As a man. Or something. The ambiguity, the possibility of reading women like Snell from many different angles, is part of what makes the study of 18th-century female cross-dressers so fascinating.

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