Compassion or Contempt? Eliza Haywood and Frenemy Dynamics between Women

Thomas Gainsborough. “Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, The Artist’s Daughters,” c. 1756.  Victoria and Albert Museum, The Forster Bequest (1876)

“Frenemy” is a word that has been so commonly used in media and everyday conversations that it made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2008. A combination of the words “friend” and “enemy,” the OED defines “frenemy” as “a person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry; a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy.” The first appearance of this term happened as early as 1953 when American journalist Walter Winchell used it in his article “How about calling the Russians our Frienemies?” but representations of this double-edged relationship exist from a much earlier date. Even in the eighteenth century, for instance, authors like Eliza Haywood portrayed this sensitive and ambiguous relationship in her works, especially that between women. Today, frenemy is more often used to refer to personal relationships between women so much so that it has become a stereotype, for as Alison Winch contends, “The figure of the toxic friend or ‘frenemy’ is pervasive in girlfriend culture” (57). This stereotype, however, comes from a long history of such representations. While the OED definition, with “a person” as its subject, implies a focus on the emotional attachment between individuals, Haywood’s novels, especially her final novel, show how the word “frenemy” can be applied to a broad and complex range of female relationships.

Although Winch, in her book Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood, focuses on present-day media representations of women’s friendships, her analysis offers a lens through which eighteenth-century narrative representations of the intersection between the personal and public aspects of female friendship can be examined. As Winch points out, conduct books today that “advise women on how to behave themselves in a neoliberal society where the self is perceived as an entrepreneurial project” (34) also “belong to a specific literary tradition rooted in the eighteenth century, whose objective is to govern gendered behavior as classed” (34). According to Winch, “Women [today] are looking to the lifestyle industries, but also to each other—to girlfriends—for normative performances of femininity” and in the case that “they do not conform to the normalizing impulses of the authors [of conduct books], then the reader is punished through shame” (34). More importantly, Winch introduces the term “gynaeopticon,” the condition in which “the many girlfriends watch the many girlfriends” (5); because “the male gaze is veiled as benign, and instead it is women who are represented as looking at other women’s bodies” (5), the regulating girlfriend gaze is often presented in an intimate manner and is thus “extended to viewers and users [of girlfriend media] in order to engage them in systems of surveillance” (5). Indeed, by shedding light on the significance of the dynamics between women today, Winch’s analysis suggests that there is much common ground in the past and present regarding the construction of gendered identity.

At this point, it is important to note that friendship in the eighteenth century had a different connotation than it does today. Although the term “friends” included the affectionate relationship between individuals as is now most commonly understood, it also referred to a much wider range of relationships in the eighteenth century. As Naomi Tadmor explains , “In the eighteenth century, the term ‘friend’ had a plurality of meanings that spanned kinship ties, sentimental relationships, economic ties, occupational connections, intellectual and spiritual attachments, sociable networks, and political alliances” (167). As such, rather than signifying a single specific type of relationship, “a spectrum of relationships [were] designated in the eighteenth century as ‘friendship’” (Tadmor 167). Understanding friendship in this sense, Winch’s argument about the less visible, but nevertheless strategic and political aspects of female friendship today was much more visible and widely accepted as such in the past. In other words, in contrast to the seemingly more intimate and personal relationships between friends in the present, eighteenth-century associations of the term itself implied a more complex interaction between the individual and the community; “Friendship relationships,” asserts Tadmor, “were major social relationships in eighteenth-century England” (171). In this sense, the political significance that was implied in the spectrum of friendship in the eighteenth-century context has continued on until today, albeit in a less apparent form.

Among this wide spectrum of friendships in the eighteenth century, friendships between women and their system of surveillance deserves particular attention because, as Amanda E. Herbert states, historians have often brushed away investigating the “construction and maintenance of early modern women’s social networks, and have largely ignored early modern women’s relationships with other women” despite the fact that “many women lived in largely ‘homosocial’ worlds” (1). Alone, women would read conduct books that were intended to “create a woman . . . who never stopped checking her behavior and thoughts against the standards of ideal womanhood. Once internalized, the rules of a conduct manual would create a completely self-regulating woman, who would always behave as if she were being observed even when she was alone” (Tague 22-23). These prescriptive guidelines, however, also emphasized social interaction as a requirement to be met: “The ability to relate to others, and especially to other women, was considered to be an essential component of this modern feminine identity” (Herbert 13). Herbert, moreover, writes that women were “taught to monitor themselves but were told simultaneously to monitor the actions, words, and attitudes of their female friends, to think carefully, constantly, and critically about the actions and behaviors of other women” (48); they were “reassured that to scrutinize the behaviors of their female friends was natural and desirable as well as rational and virtuous. Their personal papers attest that elite women did, in fact, practice this type of social surveillance” (48). The conflicting messages here which ask women to both relate through compassion and censure through surveillance seems to be the catalyst that initiates, or even encourages, the frenemy relationship between women and their network as a whole. As historians have discovered, in the eighteenth century, “many female-female interactions were marked by acrimony,” and women “fought with one another, slandered and censured the behavior of their female associates, and evaluated and criticized the bodies and moral characters of the women who surrounded them” (Herbert 4).

The clashing messages of compassion and censure in such conduct literature takes form in the frenemy relationships represented in fictional texts produced in the eighteenth century as well. Haywood’s novels, for example, often engage in examining this tense and precarious female friendship. Although Haywood is most commonly known as the prolific writer of amatory fiction that revolves around the passionate (and, more often than not, scandalous) romance between men and women, her interest in the wide spectrum of female relationships is consistently evident throughout her works. As Catherine Ingrassia states in her article “‘Queering’ Eliza Haywood,” “[Haywood’s] texts in multiple genres throughout the course of her career structurally and descriptively present same-sex relationships of varying degrees of intimacy” (9). This interest may have also been incited by the literary climate of the time, but Haywood’s well-known frenemy relationship with Martha Fowke Sansom early in her career may also have inspired her to contemplate and depict female frenemies in her novels.

In 1719, when Haywood was unsuccessful as an actress and was beginning her literary career, she became part of the “Hillarian Circle,” a literary coterie of both male and female writers that gathered around Aaron Hill. Poets Richard Savage and Martha Fowke were also part of this group and much has been speculated about the relationships and tensions among these four writers. One of the scandalous stories centers around the erotic triangle involving Haywood, Savage, and Fowke in which Haywood is framed as Savage’s shunned mistress and unwed mother of his child. However, Kathryn King points out that since not much about Haywood’s personal life is known, critics have often made conjectures inspired by a “desire to retrofit the pioneering novelist, playwright, actress, and journalist with a scandalous life” (“Savage Love” 723), and that Savage is misplaced as central to the two women’s rivalry: “The object of rivalry is not the ill-favored pimp but his charismatic friend Aaron Hill” (“Savage Love” 728). Hill seems to have been quite the popular figure for, as Christine Gerrard notes, “Many women found Hill irresistible” (67). In addition, “During the period 1720-8, Hill emerged as perhaps the most important, certainly the most ubiquitous, man of letters in London literary life” (Gerrard 62). According to King, Hill was also “a socially well-connected and culturally formidable figure, not to mention handsome, kindly, generous, charismatic, and genuinely devoted to the cultivation of new artistic talent” (“New Contexts for Early Novels” 264). Haywood and Fowke’s frenemy relationship, however, did not generate merely from competition for sexual desirability, but from literary aspirations as well: “Rather than romantic attachment or erotic longing, [Haywood’s verses on Hill] bespeak literary ambition, for in them Haywood attaches her efforts as a poet to the man who (as she tells it) spurred her on to feats of literary emulation” (“Savage Love” 732). Even so, King concedes that “the fact remains that Haywood does indeed stalk Sansom in print with a vindictive malice that certainly looks like sexual jealousy” (“Savage Love” 733). In the end, Haywood’s malicious portrait of Fowke as the sexually insatiable Gloatitia in Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia (1724) resulted in repulsing the Hillarians and for Hill to refer to Haywood as “the Unfair Author of the NEW UTOPIA” (qtd. in Gerrard 95). Haywood’s frenemy relationship with Fowke does indeed seem like a complex one in which the two women’s sexual desires and literary aspirations were intertwined.

Perhaps partially inspired by her frenemy relationship with Fowke, Haywood seems to have reflected on the complexities of friendships between women from early on in her career. Her earlier works certainly show toxic relationships between women, but neither is she blind to the more amicable and beneficial relationship that can arise between women. Read side-by-side, two of Haywood’s early novels written in the same year, The Masqueraders: Or Fatal Curiosity (1724) and The Surprise; or Constancy Rewarded (1724), particularly show how female friendship can be either toxic or beneficial. As Tiffany Potter points out in her introduction to the two novels, reading them together “offers the opportunity for a much clearer sense of the nuance and variation of Haywood’s first period so long dismissed as formulaic and repetitive” (4). Focusing on the relationship between two female friends, these two novels certainly present Haywood as an author with broader interests and insights.

In The Masqueraders: Or Fatal Curiosity, Haywood seems to depict the stereotypical frenemy relationship by illustrating the dangers of women sharing their intimate secrets–these secrets becoming the tools that generate envy, betrayal, and finally downfall. Dalinda is a stunningly beautiful widow and Philecta is less beautiful, but is more intelligent. Dalinda has a relatively long-term relationship with Dorimenus, but she makes the wrong decision of relating every detail of their relationship to Philecta:

Philecta, a young lady, on whose Wit, Generosity, and Good-nature [Dalinda] had an entire dependence, was the Person she made Choice of, to be interested with the dear burthen of this Secret; and while she related to her the particulars of her Happiness, felt in the delicious Representation a Pleasure, perhaps, not much inferior to that which the Reality afforded.—Having brought herself to make this Confidance, she no sooner parted from his Embraces, than she flew to her fair Friend, gave her the whole History of what had pass’d between them—repeated every tender Word he spoke . . . (73)

The language here is suggestive of intimacy and sensuality; Ingrassia asserts that this is an example of “[s}tructurally erotic friendships, formed by the oral transmission of narrative details of sexual encounters [that] populate Haywood’s work” (13). Dalinda is shown here to derive as much pleasure from narrating her story as when she actually experienced it. Potter argues, however, that Dalinda’s storytelling is proof of her vanity: “Dalinda requires that Philecta fantasize not about having Dorimenus, but about being Dalinda, and thus refuses her requests to observe an encounter with or to meet Dorimenus” (35). If what Potter contends is true, Dalinda’s intentions go terribly wrong, for Philecta “listen’d to her at first only with Compassion” (73), but soon she “began to envy the Happiness of her Friend” (73-74). As the novel’s full title suggests, Philecta then becomes so overwhelmed by her curiosity that she schemes to meet Dorimenus by herself, which only makes her fall in love with him and betray Dalinda. Soon becoming infatuated with Philecta, Dorimenus rejects Dalinda and thus enraged, Dalinda spreads word about Dorimenus and Philecta’s relationship to the whole town and irrevocably ruins Philecta’s reputation. By the end of the first book, Philecta has lost “her Virtue, her Reputation, and her Peace of Mind” (99); she is pregnant with Dorimenus’ child, but in the next book, he has ended his relationship with Philecta and soon marries another woman. It is telling that this is a novel about the properties of friendship for Dorimenus is merely “the objectified site of women’s sexual competition” (Potter 33). The sharing of secrets that was at first proof of Dalinda and Philecta’s friendship immediately becomes a vulnerability for Dalinda’s romantic relationship and for Philecta’s reputation. While Dalinda’s mistake was of revealing too much to her friend, she also recognizes contemptuous gossip as the most powerful weapon for revenge. In other words, Dalinda has misjudged the appropriate amount of secrets to share with Philecta, while knowing exactly how to destroy her by social censure.

In stark contrast to Dalinda and Philecta’s friend-turned-enemy relationship, Haywood also shows how compassionate friendship between women can achieve happy endings in The Surprise; or Constancy Rewarded. Written around the same time as The Masqueraders, it is indeed surprising how both novels depict women revealing secrets, but with very different results. Alinda has two suitors, Ellmour and Bellamant, but while favoring them amongst the others, she “felt not any of those violent Emotions which are the Characteristics of desire” (134). Upon seeing Bellamant, her friend Euphemia reveals her tragic history with Bellamant that ended with him leaving her before the wedding. Here, Alinda is portrayed as a very different character from either Dalinda or Philecta: “my dear Euphemia, I have for this time, put it out of my power to gratify that Inclination too many of our Sex have for blabbing everything that has the Appearance of a Secret” (136). Especially when comparing this novel to The Masqueraders, Haywood seems to be criticizing, through Alinda’s words, the tendency of women to lack compassion and to indulge in censorious gossip, which ultimately causes distressed women to suffer even more.

Haywood’s early interest in representing the complex dynamics between women seems to have persisted and developed throughout her career, for the opening of one of her later novels, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751), directly addresses this issue of compassion, or lack thereof, in relationships between women:

It was always my opinion that fewer women were undone by love, than vanity; and that those mistakes the sex are sometimes guilty of, proceed, for the most part, rather from inadvertence, than a vicious inclination. The ladies, however, I am sorry to observe, are apt to make too little allowances to each other on this score, and seem better pleased with an occasion to condemn, than to excuse; and it is not above one, in a great number than I will presume to mention, who, while she passes the severest censure on the conduct of her friend, will be at the trouble of taking a retrospect of her own. (27)

Beginning the novel with such commentary encourages the readers to take on a more compassionate stance in the judgement of its heroine. At the same time, this passage asserts how the “ladies” have assimilated into the culture of policing and harshly judging one another; they are “pleased with an occasion to condemn, than excuse” and “pas[s] the severest censure on the conduct of her friend.” This seems to imply that a sense of empowerment, however false, rises from condemning one of their sex. It also suggests that when a woman is assimilated into a culture in which her reputation, the public form of virtue, is often measured and rated against each other, women’s friendship attains the characteristic of frenemies.

In her final novel The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753), Haywood extends her examination of female friendships, specifically placing the heroine in the position to condemn or excuse the conduct of other women. While Haywood’s earlier novels seem to focus more on the individual friendships between women, this novel pays more attention to women within a female community. This last Haywood novel seems to be curiously understudied in her oeuvre and is generally known as a moral and didactic novel which can be read as proof of the author’s reform from the author of amatory to moral, didactic fiction. John Richetti even states that Haywood is renouncing “her own version of romance and sexual sensationalism” (xxiii), but that does not seem to be the case; the many anecdotes of the characters’ experiences are direct echoes of Haywood’s earlier works. As King asserts, “the Haywood of the forties and fifties [should be regarded] as matured, not reformed” and should be appreciated as “an evolving deliberate literary artist every bit as interested as Richardson or Fielding, say, in expanding the ethical possibilities of the novel—and a great deal more interested than either in mapping the contours of female growth” (“Strange Surprising Adventures” 216). Haywood’s last novel certainly seems to focus on “the contours of female growth,” specifically in relation to the female network the heroine experiences first-hand.

As can be guessed from the title, The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy is the story of Jemmy and Jenny, distant cousins who were brought up by their parents with the hopes of getting the two married. When both of them become orphans, though well-provided for and come of age, Jenny suggests that they should postpone their marriage until they navigate the world further and discover what constitutes happiness in marriage. The effect of this proposal is that Jemmy and Jenny are separated from each other for the most part of the novel; while Jemmy enjoys the pleasure of a rake, Jenny mostly stays with her female companions (sisters Lady Speck and Miss Wingman) in Bath before entering her union with Jemmy.

Haywood’s choice of sending Jenny to Bath with her two friends seems to be a meditated choice that directs attention to the significance of female friendship. Bath was in itself a space where active female socializing happened in the eighteenth century. According to Herbert, spa cities such as Bath were extremely popular in the eighteenth century and these spas, “in addition to being gathering places for people of both sexes, were sites of same-sex sociability, as both women and men undertook distinct activities during their sojourns” (117) that “served as crucial sites for gendered identity creation” (118). “For many women,” writes Herbert, “spending time in female company rather than with men was a critical component of the experience of visiting the spa, both in the water and out of it” (124). In this sense, although much of the narrative presents Jenny and her two female companions in the company of other men, the location itself is suggestive of a heavy focus on homosocial interactions. Jenny also recognizes that “[h]er intimacy with Lady Speck and Miss Wingman was very much increased since she had been at Bath with them, by the participation they had in her secrets, and she in theirs” (347).

Furthermore, as Herbert asserts, “Spa cities were places where the female population was larger than the male population, and female residents of spa cities were socioeconomically diverse and widely visible” (127). This setting, therefore, also enables Jenny and her company to encounter and hear the three self-told narratives by three distressed young women. These three women are Mrs. M, the Fair Stranger, and Sophia. Despite their different stories, these women, as Karen Cajka points out, “share the misfortune of being completely unprotected” (48). Mrs. M, who is married to a wealthy man, decides to make her husband jealous by committing adultery with the libertine Celandine. When her relationship with Celandine is discovered, she becomes dependent on him and then stalks him to Bath. Upon seeing Celandine forcing himself on Jenny in the garden, Mrs. M mistakes Jenny as Celandine’s lover and tries to attack her.  This act sets the scene for her to tell her story to Jenny and company. Not long after, the company meets the Fair Stranger who has run away in order to avoid marrying a much older man. In her story, her father threatens her that if she does not marry the older man, he will cut all ties with her: “Then never think I am your father;—think rather of being an utter alien,—an outcast from my name and family” (185). Sophia, Jenny’s school friend, whose unfortunate narrative enters near the end of the novel, tells her story only to Jenny. Attracted to the handsome army officer Willmore, Sophia lends him money so that he can buy a commission and marry her. Before they get married, however, Willmore takes Sophia to a brothel disguised as his aunt’s home and tries to rape her. After escaping from the brothel, Sophia tries to get her money back by meeting several lawyers, but her attempts are unsuccessful and only soil her reputation. Cajka convincingly argues that “[n]one of the three [women] has a mother to guide her, and Sophia and Mrs. M are completely orphaned. Further, older friends and relatives who might offer the women material or moral protection fail to provide it, thus leaving the women to make their own uninformed and often dangerously precipitate decisions” (48).

Haywood’s particular interest in exploring the frenemy dynamics between women is strongly present in these three narratives. All of their stories include the figure of a frenemy who, in diverse ways, contributes to Mrs. M, the Fair Stranger, and Sophia’s respective unfortunate events. In the case of Mrs. M, “a female friend of more years and experience” (119) encourages her to put on coquettish airs before Celandine in order to incite jealousy in her husband. However, despite this bad advice, what seems to have pained Mrs M more is the presence of “an elderly woman, a relation of [her] husband’s” (122) who “with a stern voice and countenance told [her], that she was sent by him to take care of his family; and that [Mrs. M] must immediately go out of the house” (122). What hurts Mrs. M is not only the message from her husband, but the woman’s coldness in conveying it to her: “This message, and the manner in which it was deliver’d, stung [her] to the very soul” (122). In the case of the Fair Stranger, when she is forced to marry the older man she does not love, she laments her own misjudgment in seeking consolation from her sister, “who by the rule of nature should have pitied [her] distress, rather added to it by all the ways she could invent” (187). The Fair Stranger, furthermore, recognizes her sister as an accomplice to her father in her misfortune: “Indeed [my sister] never loved me, and I have reason to believe I owe great part of my father’s severity to her insinuations” (187). In the case of Sophia, Willmore lures her to the brothel by saying that he “had an aunt, an excellent good old lady” (326); when Willmore “said a great deal more in praise of these relations” (327), Sophia “was so much charmed with the character of [this] aunt [and her two young daughters] . . . that [she] almost longed to be with them” (327). Upon entering the brothel, Sophia is greeted by a “grave old gentlewoman whose appearance answered very well to the description Willmore had given of her” (327), but Sophia’s continued narrative shows that this was also an act on the old woman’s part, as she was complicit in Willmore’s scheme to take Sophia’s money. Although the old woman displays many acts of hospitality, when Sophia is almost raped by Willmore, “[the old woman] took Willmore by the arm, and drew him to a corner of the room, where they talked together for the space of several minutes” (333). Moreover, when Sophia mentions her intentions to make Willmore return the money he borrowed, the old woman suspiciously cries, “I am quite a stranger . . . [t]o all affairs between you; but I will go up directly and let him know what you say” (334) and immediately leaves her. As such, Mrs. M, the Fair Stranger, and Sophia’s narratives all feature women who they assumed would be friends, but actually proved to be enemies.

What is striking here is how these female “friends” become enemies by assimilating or contributing themselves to the judgments and plans controlled by men. Considering the long history of patriarchal control over gendered identity, the idea of male power controlling women may not be surprising; it is, however, significant that this hegemonic system can be seen even to affect the relationships between women as well. According to Winch, “Men in girlfriend culture are a foil to women’s own lack of power” and “the sphere of girlfriendship [is] where discontent over injustice and male power is redirected towards their bodies and the bodies of other women” (61). Winch further notes that “[t]he girlfriend gaze is a handmaiden to the male gaze. It is powerful because the handmaiden mocks and plays with the rules of patriarchy within the intimate space of a female cohort, while simultaneously being complicit in the enforcement of its power“(27-28). While Winch’s analysis focuses on women today evaluating the physical bodies of other women as an act of empowerment, the same surveillance seems to be happening in the eighteenth century regarding women’s virtue and reputation. It is, therefore, important to examine how acts of compassion and contempt between women intersect with patriarchy.

Even as Jenny and the company listen to Mrs. M and the Fair Stranger’s histories, a man is shown as trying to dictate and correct how the women should respond to these unfortunate narratives. When discovering Mrs. M swooning after her failed attack on Jenny, Mr. Lovegrove, Lady Speck’s suitor and one of Jenny’s company, cries, “Whatever she is, her figure, as well as the present condition she is in, seems to demand rather compassion than contempt” (116). Interestingly enough, the two sisters immediately engage in acts of “compassion” just like they are told: “On this Lady Speck and her sister ran to assist the charitable endeavor [Mr. Lovegrove] was making for [Mrs. M’s] recovery” (116). Jenny, however, “still kept at a good distance” (116), which may be natural considering that she was the intended victim of Mrs. M’s attack, but it could also be indicative of her nature and rationality to judge on her own rather than follow the judgment of others. Upon the appearance of the Fair Stranger, Mr. Lovegrove, “who had undertaken to be the speaker” (181) is again the one who begins the interrogation of the Fair Stranger’s identity; the word “judge” often appears in this section of the text, emphasizing the need to sentence the Fair Stranger as either guilty or innocent. When Lady Speck gives six guineas to the Fair Stranger, to which Jenny was “extremely scandalized at the meanness of the present” (197), Mr. Lovegrove, “who doubtless had his own reflections” (197), remedies the situation by purchasing a small snuffbox for ten guineas from the Fair Stranger and then returning it to her as a gift. Since, as Herbert writes, “Women of lower status could and did serve as a check on the behavior of elite women, especially when they felt that obligations of charity and pity had gone unfulfilled” (49), Mr. Lovegrove can be seen here to be correcting Lady Speck’s behavior. Jenny, however, who “did not think proper to discover her opinion of [the meanness of the present] at that time” (197), follows the Fair Stranger on her way out and secretly presents her with an extra five guineas. This action shows Jenny as a compassionate and autonomous agent in assisting other woman; she is also discreet so as not to insult Lady Speck in public.

Lady Speck, although her monetary contribution was viewed as uncharitable by Mr. Lovegrove and Jenny, nonetheless provides an additional service to the Fair Stranger. When hearing that the Fair Stranger needs a man and horse to travel, Lady Speck assures her that “[she] need not . . . be at the pains or expense of hiring a man and horse,” which was “joyfully accepted” (198). Interestingly, the narrator states that Mr. Lovegrove is at a loss to an answer when hearing the Fair Stranger’s lack of transportation. While particularly in Mrs. M’s case it is implied that the patriarchal perspective governs the way in which compassion or contempt is administered by and to women, in the case of the Fair Stranger, although the male figure seems to take control at first, the women can be seen actively to participate in assisting other women in distress.

Jenny is often outside of this patriarchal control when it comes to her reflections on the stories of other women. In the case of Mrs. M, Jenny does not immediately respond until she has evaluated the story herself. In the case of the Fair Stranger as well, she holds onto her own reflections and acts accordingly. Her private conversation with Sophia shows how Haywood has left this final narrative to be reflected on by Jenny alone. Jenny’s reflections throughout the novel offer an intriguing insight into how her perspective oscillates between compassion and contempt towards women. While Jenny’s reflection on the perils of the women she meets encourages readers to engage in both censure and sympathy, her final thoughts are sympathetic, for as Cajak argues, “Jenny’s compassionate interactions with unprotected women . . . remind readers that although they may be unable materially to protect one another from unscrupulous men and the strictures of patriarchal society, they also need not be complicit in their punishments” (56). Jenny’s reason for delaying her marriage to Jemmy is, as she tells him, because “[she] think[s] [they] ought to know a little more of the world and of [themselves] before [the] enter into serious matrimony” (27) and because they need “to learn, from the mistakes of others, how to regulate [their] own conduct and passions, so as not to be laugh’d at [themselves] for what [they] laugh at in” others (31). In contrast to the Jenny in the beginning who is ready to “laugh at” the mistakes of others, it is highly unlikely that Jenny would be doing so when the novel comes to an end. Possibly, Celandine’s forcing himself on her also made her realize that not all misfortunes can be easily blamed on women in society. It must be noted that it is in this very moment of Celandine’s assault that Mrs M, the first of the three distressed women, comes into the scene, and Jenny and her company judge whether to feel sympathetic or critical about her story. Through her encounters with other women and their secrets, she has realized that it is not only an individual woman’s mistakes but also her circumstances that may bring tragic consequences.

One other change in Jenny is how she has learned to hide certain stories from men. In the beginning, she lightheartedly sets out to share the stories of other men and women she hears with Jemmy. However, this practice diminishes soon, and she doesn’t tell Jemmy about Celandine’s sexual assault in detail. As the narrator writes, “Never had this young lady given a greater demonstration of her prudence, than in thus shadowing over, as much as truth would permit, the insolence of Celandine” (287). Although the narrator only says that this was due to Jenny’s concern for Jemmy in case he runs into Celandine, it also suggests that the story, once turned public, would impact her and Jemmy’s respective reputations. At the end of the novel, Jenny finally marries Jemmy since she “had now done enquiring into the follies and mistakes of her sex, as she had seen enough of both to know how to avoid them” (395). Right before this statement, however, Haywood draws attention back to female friendships by providing an anecdote of Miss Chit and Lady Fisk’s frenemy relationship: “Miss Chit had quarrel’d with her great friend Lady Fisk . . . the animosity of these fair rivals was arriv’d to such a height, that they made no scruple of betraying to the world all the failings each had been guilty of, and of which they had been mutually the confidants” (395). In this sense, the novel consistently shows and draws attention to the dynamics and influences of female friendships individually and as members of a broader community of women.

Although the idea that Haywood’s later fiction changed its tone due to the moral demands of the market still seems to be pervasive, Haywood (like Jenny, who is portrayed as an astute reader and researcher) can be seen to have developed into a more insightful author in her representations of the complex female networks characterized by their frenemy dynamics in eighteenth-century society. Her final novel, The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy, is an expression of her understanding of this network, especially since Haywood seems to have considered situating women within homosocial communities before her marriage as a matter of import. What this suggests is that in order to enter into a “happy” marriage, a woman needs to understand the frenemy dynamics between women first. Frenemy relationships within social networks become almost synonymous with the potential of being perceived with compassion or censure following the act of social surveillance. Haywood certainly advocates compassion. The frenemy dynamics between women can be seen to be borne from patriarchal order and to contribute to upholding it, resulting in women being quick to punish one another. What women need to understand, then, is how this dynamic works and to become more compassionate, rather than censorious. Today, too, this process of quick censure can be seen to happen through, for example, “slut-shaming,” which stems from “the traditional misogynist fear of the female libido” (Winch 5). Haywood’s message that the female community needs to lean toward compassion rather than contempt is as relevant to women today as it was in the eighteenth century.

Works Cited

Cajka, Karen. “The Unprotected Woman in Eliza Haywood’s The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy.” Masters of the Marketplace: British Women Novelists of the 1750s. Ed. Susan Carlile. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh UP, 2011. 47-58.

Gerrard, Christine. Aaron Hill: The Muses’ Projector, 1685-1750. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Haywood, Eliza. The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy. Ed. John Richetti. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2005.

—. The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless. Ed. Christine Blouch. Peterborough, ON:  Broadview P, 1998.

—. The Masqueraders, or Fatal Curiosity & The Surprize, or Constancy Rewarded. Ed. Tiffany Potter. Toronto: U of Toronto UP, 2015.

Herbert, Amanda E. Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014.

Ingrassia, Catherine. “‘Queering’ Eliza Haywood.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 14.4 (2014): 9-24.

King, Kathryn R. “The Afterlife and Strange Surprising Adventures of Haywood’s Amatories (with Thoughts on Betsy Thoughtless).” Masters of the Marketplace: British Women Novelists of the 1750s. Ed. Susan Carlile. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh UP 2011. 203-218.

—. “Eliza Haywood, Savage Love, and Biographical Uncertainty.” The Review of English Studies 59.242 (2008): 722-740.

—. “New Contexts for Early Novels by Women: The Case of Eliza Haywood, Aaron Hill, and the Hillarians, 1719-1725.” A Companion to the Eighteenth-Century English Novel and Culture. Ed. Paula R. Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia. London: Blackwell, 2005. 261-275.

OED Online. Oxford: Oxford UP. Web. April 27. 2018.

Potter, Tiffany. “Introduction.” The Masqueraders, or Fatal Curiosity & The Surprize, or Constancy Rewarded, by Eliza Haywood. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2015. 3-59.

Richetti, John. “Introduction.” The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy, by Eliza Haywood. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2005. vii-xxxv.

Tadmore, Naomi. Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Tague, Ingrid H. Women of Quality: Accepting and Contesting Ideals of Femininity in England, 1690-1760. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2002.

Winch, Alison. Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

The Making of Jane Austen: Going Behind the Scenes of the First Hollywood Pride and Prejudice (1940)

As a Jane Austen scholar, I get to go to some pretty incredible libraries—The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, The Morgan Library in New York City, The British Library in London, the Chawton House Library at Jane Austen’s “Great House” in Chawton among them. But an amazing library with Austen riches in Beverly Hills? Yes, believe it or not, there is one. I spent several happy days there researching for my book, The Making of Jane Austen (2017). The glamour quotient of that trip might seem lower to you, however, when you learn that I arrived via city bus.

It was a pretty great bus ride, all in all. The bus inches along Sunset Boulevard (yes, that Sunset Boulevard) to a stop at Vine (and yes, that Vine!), passing Chateau Marmont and some seriously upscale shopping. I felt pretty much the opposite of the beautiful people, carrying an enormous computer bag, wearing a dowdy sweater, and facing the prospect of spending several sunny California days entirely indoors. For a library rat, it’s absolutely worth it.

The Margaret Herrick Library, also known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, or the Oscars Library, holds countess papers and files that document Jane Austen’s afterlife in Hollywood. I made an appointment to see their unpublished materials on the making of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice (1940), that much loved or hated (and sometimes both loved and hated!) film starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. I knew from the online catalog that the library held production files, publicity photographs, and many scripts, but I had little idea what was in them. Only a handful of scholars had ever described this material. Even those few treated these materials rather briefly. I figured that even if it turned out to be a lot of junk, I could describe that. I needed to see it all for myself, in order to cover the stage-performance-turned-into-early-film part of Austen’s afterlife.

Arriving at the Herrick Library turns out to be a rather grand event. The place may look like a church, but it’s locked down like a bank. I had my identity checked by the security guard, stowed most of my possessions in a locker, noticed the familiar names engraved on the walls, walked up the staircase, checked in with the librarian, and found a desk. Then I got my first look at the files. I started with the glossy, black-and-white publicity stills for Pride and Prejudice taken by MGM. There were hundreds of gorgeous shots. Unfortunately, researchers aren’t allowed to take their own photographs of anything at the Herrick, even for personal research purposes. The library also has a strict policy on the small number of paid photocopies a researcher is allowed per year. This is a big scholar-bummer, but knowing those constraints made me focus differently. These images are still seared into my memory, because it seemed my only option.

The shots of the set were stunning. To see them up close made me reimagine the amount of expense and care that went into designing details large and small, from the walls to the furniture to the props. The photographs of the cast wearing those oh-so-wrong Victorian costumes were also riveting, even if they are cringe-worthy examples of historical research gone wrong. It was clear from the production files that the costumers thought that lumping together fashions from 1810s, 1820s, 1830s or even the 1840s couldn’t make all that much difference. (One wonders how any Hollywood costume designer thinking through the amount of fashion change that was seen from through 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s could possibly think so.)

What I remember best from the production photographs, however, are the casual shots taken on set during filming. There was an arresting photograph of Judy Garland “stopping by” oh-so-casually—and coincidentally with a photographer on hand!—to visit Garson in her Pride and Prejudice dressing room. Another photo shows Garson reading an enormous nineteenth-century volume—a book prop—between takes, as she sits on a director’s chair near the set’s unintentionally hilarious “Rare Books” storefront. I suppose one could argue all books were rare in the eighteenth century, when buying even one volume was something out of the reach of most regular people, but “rare books” was not yet a commercial term.

A photograph of the outdoor table from the film’s famous archery scene between Elizabeth and Darcy shows that someone had delicately taped over a naked putto’s nether regions. A casual photo of Garson in costume as Elizabeth, getting an archery lesson from a man in a white undershirt, was terribly funny in its sartorial and historical contrast. A shot of Olivier and Garson in costume, receiving dance instruction from a modern-dress husband-wife team, was similarly amusing but at the same time surprisingly moving. A dedication to the study of movement—for teachers and students—was well captured in this photo.

Another shot of two men, Olivier, dressed as Darcy, and the film’s director, Robert “Pop” Leonard, in his Colonel Sanders-like outfit, playing badminton together in between outdoor takes was priceless. A shot of the English members of the cast, in a down moment, enjoying a tea break, seemed both staged and true-to-life. It made visible the trans-Atlantic elements of the production very clearly, too.

But the best photo of all is one of the Bennet sisters posed at the edge of the set. The five actors are standing together, in a costumed line, in front of doors with signs above them. The doors presumably lead to a women’s dressing room. The largest sign reads, “Thru These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in Meryton,” with smaller letters below that warn, “Positively No Admission,” and “The Little Girls Club.” There is also an obscured notice that seems to advertise an on-set knitting club.

The photos definitely whetted my appetite to learn more about the making of this film, but it was the typescript files that turned out to be an absolute feast. I moved from the production stills to the print files. I knew the rough outlines of the agonizingly slow play-to-film journey of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice, which had its start in Helen Jerome’s 1935 Broadway hit play and was rewritten by a series of screenwriters for Hollywood. It’s a story that has been told many times before, and I won’t repeat that five-year odyssey here, except to say that it involved not only predictable casting changes but a premature and unexpected death. (If you want to learn about why the story of Harpo Marx’s role in it all is greatly exaggerated, you’ll have to check out my book.)

What I got to read in those Herrick Library script files were drafts that few have had a chance to digest before. There were dozens of Pride and Prejudice screenplays—“failed” scripts–with Austen-inspired scenes and dialogue never brought to life. Some of these scripts were truly dreadful. It was all I could do to stifle my laughter as I read these preposterous scenarios, from the full-on mud-splashings proposed for Elizabeth and Darcy (two different versions had each of them successively doused in mud) to the heart-of-gold neighborhood gypsy named Tony. Obviously, though, laughing out loud would not have been okay, as sounds of any kind are frowned upon in libraries in general. The Herrick especially inspires silence and awe, with its spotless, white Bob Hope Lobby and its elegant, olive-green Katharine Hepburn Reading Room. I tried to limit myself to broad smirks. Believe me, it was a challenge.

You can read more of the gory details of these ridiculous failed scripts in my book’s chapter seven, but I can’t resist sharing one more tidbit. In one early version of the screenplay, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Colonel Fitzwilliam go off on a crazy bachelor weekend to London. In one of their misadventures, they end up wagering on a dog versus monkey fight. Colonel Fitzwilliam bets on the monkey, but Darcy’s money is on the dog. And it turns out that that bit, at least, was vaguely historically accurate! There was a fighting monkey, Jacco Macacco, that fought in the Westminster Pit in London and was made famous by Pierce Egan in his Life in London (1821). It’s the book that gave rise to the characters Tom and Jerry, so it’s especially amusing to think of Darcy, Bingley, and the Colonel as precursor bro-friends transposed into those roles. Whether you’re a fan of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice or not, the final version of the film will rise in your estimation once you realize just how much worse things might have been.

I also came away from reading these scripts doing more than laughing. Reading them makes one realize how these screenwriters were really in a tough place. They were trying to find—they were no doubt being charged to create—ways to make Austen seem fresh to millions of late 1930s moviegoers who may never have heard of her or who knew of her only glancingly. Screenwriters were throwing whatever they could think of at Pride and Prejudice, including the conventions of Westerns and screwball comedies. In the end, I thought, we should probably be more generous in assessing their attempts, even if you feel, as I do, quite relieved that most of these ideas never saw the screen.

I came away from the library thinking, “Long live Jane Austen in popular culture, whether in Beverly Hills or London or Chawton—whether in enough mud for a full-body wrestling match or with just a few glorious inches of it worn around the ankles—and whether you are cheering for the dog or the monkey.”

P. S. The Herrick Library was very generous with me during my visit, providing access to a lot of material and invaluable research assistance. I’m especially grateful to librarian Jenny Romero, who helped me find just the right things to read. I’m also thankful to the staff there, who never raised their eyebrows too high, even if an audible laugh or two may have escaped from me unawares.

You can read more about The Making of Jane Austen, watch a book trailer, see additional images, and order your own copy at makingjaneasten.com.

Celebrity Couture: A New Trend? Fashionista Mary Robinson Led the Way – Over 230 Years Ago

Figure 1.  John Hoppner, Mary Robinson as Perdita (1782), Chawton House Library.

Sean John, DASH, Material Girl, William Rast, OVO, House of Harlow, Yeezy, Paper Crown, the Jessica Simpson Collection, Rocawear, The Row, Twenty8Twelve.  Celebrity fashion labels are flooding the sartorial marketplace, and the phenomenon shows no sign of stopping.  Rihanna recently announced a collaboration with Chopard for a joint collection of jewelry, combining “urban chic and classic glamour.”[1]  And this coming October, Sarah Jessica Parker will launch her new SJP footwear collection on the Internet behemoth Amazon, featuring the exclusive designs “Dash,” “Flirt,” and “Wink.”[2]  InStyle.co.uk broadcasted the affair with the texty title “OMG!  Soon You’ll Be Able to Shop SJP’s Shoes On Amazon.”

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the pop-up celebrity designer.  Upon receiving the Couture Council’s Award for Artistry in 2012, the late Oscar de la Renta spoke out against the trend:  “Today, if you play tennis, you can be a really good designer,” he said, “Or, if you’re an actress, you can be a designer.  I’ve been at it for 45 years and I’m still learning my craft.”[3]  In addition to suggesting that upstarts are infiltrating the fashion world, de la Renta’s statement imagines a time—his time—when the art of fashion recognized quality design that bespoke training, skill, and experience, rather than sheer fame.

Elegiac musings may have their appeal, but do they reflect reality?  There’s no question that celebrity style has long had an impact on the fashion world—think Beau Brummell, Lillie Langtry, Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn.  The question is how new is the celebrity-cum-couturier?  The life of the British actress Mary Robinson (1757?-1800) (Figure 1) would suggest that celebrity clothing and accessory lines are, in fact, nothing new.

Mary Robinson’s meteoric rise to fame began in 1776 with her dazzling performance on the London stage as Juliet, and in 1779 with her spirited rendering of Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  The latter representation captivated the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), and an infamous romance between the newly styled “Perdita” and “Florizel” ensued.

Like many starlets today, her love life became a source of scandal and intrigue.  When the Prince’s affection waned, Robinson left the stage and travelled to France.  She befriended Marie Antoinette and was courted by the wealthiest man in Europe, the Duke de Chartres.  In 1782, after her return from the Continent, Robinson indulged in romances with the dashing young dragoon Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a leading commander of British troops in the war against the American colonies, and Charles James Fox, the charismatic leader of the Whig party.

Robinson’s stage career, though brief (she retired from the boards at the close of the 1779-1780 season), was a tour de force. Her performances—both as an actress and a mistress—earned her widespread acclaim and notoriety.  In the manner of magazines such as Hello! or People, the newspapers reported continually on her whereabouts.  And while paparazzi did not yet exist, painters did.  Top artists of the day, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, all painted portraits of her.

But while Robinson’s acting and amours sparked her popularity, it was her fashion sense and style that kept the flame ablaze.  By decorating herself in stunning confections known as the “Perdita Hood,” the “Robinson hat for Ranelagh,” the “Perdita handkerchief,” and the “Robinson gown,” she transformed herself into one of the foremost fashion icons of her day and sent the stylish set into a frenzy.[4]

Her most voguish look was the 1782 “Perdita chemise,” a hoop-free muslin tube cinched at the waist and styled after Marie Antoinette’s version of the gown:  the Chémise à la Reine (Figure 2).  This design—later promoted in England in a different form by the Duchess of Devonshire (remember Keira Knightley in The Duchess?)—paved the way for the neoclassical gowns of the 1790s and early 1800s.  According to one London newspaper, Robinson’s trend-setting styles “set the whole world ‘a madding.’”[5]  Women eager to appear à la mode began adorning themselves in her sartorial creations.

Figure 2.  Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783), Hessische Hausstiftung [The Hessian House Foundation], Kronberg.

Robinson’s fashions attest to her desire to ensure unending media buzz.  But they also demonstrate the fact that she literally made a name for herself in the world of fashion.  Her signature designs were both recognizable and reproducible.  They were, after all, labeled “the Perdita” or “the Robinson”—a form of proto-celebrity branding.

Unlike modern celebrities, Robinson did not profit financially from her designs.  Yet her savvy marketing of them ensured her decisive impact on contemporary couture.  Robinson made her mark in other artistic circles as well, becoming one of the top authors of her day—a playwright, a novelist, and a poet.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge deemed her a woman of “undoubted Genius.”[6]  Ultimately, Robinson ensured her legacy in the world of fashion and in the world of letters.  Victoria Beckham—eat your heart out.

[1] Erica Gonzales, “Rihanna is Designing a New Jewelry Collection,” Bazaar (7 April 2017) http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/designers/news/a21876/rihanna-collaborates-with-chopard/

[2] Chloe Mac Donnell, “OMG!  Soon You’ll Be Able to Shop SJP’s Shoes On Amazon,” InStyle.co.uk (18 July 2017) http://www.instyle.co.uk/news/youll-soon-be-able-shop-sjps-shoe-collection-amazon-fashion#9ClsHusWo6Kqg9iC.99

[3] Ella Alexander, “Oscar de la Renta Honored,” Vogue (6 Sept. 2012) http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/oscar-de-la-renta-receives-couture-council-artistry-award

[4] The Lady’s Magazine began reporting on Robinson in 1780 and continued throughout the decade.  For coverage of Robinson’s fashions during the 1782-1783 season, see the Lady’s Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex 14 (1783):  187, 268, 331, 650-651.

[5] Morning Herald (17 December 1781), p. 2.  Additionally, on 15 October 1782, the Morning Herald reported, “An amateur of the Cyprian Corps recommends to our fair countrywomen a total abolition of the large hoop and long petticoat, and to adopt the PERDITA, a system of elegant simplicity and neatness, which has ever so conspicuously marked the dress of that celebrated leader of the wantons of the age!”.  Just one month later, the same newspaper was predicting the pervasiveness of Robinson’s fashion trend:  “The Chemise de la Reine, in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the Opera, is expected to become a favourite undress among the fashionable women” (Morning Herald, 20 November 1782).  Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire was also instrumental in popularizing the chemise in England.  In 1784, she reported having gone “to a concert in one of the muslin chemises with fine lace that the Queen of France gave me”; qtd. Georgiana:  Extracts from the Correspondence of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, ed. Earl of Bessborough (London, 1955), 91.  In 1786, Angelica Kauffman painted Lady Elizabeth Foster, a close friend of the Duchess, in a version of the chemise with a double falling collar.  By 1787 the Lady’s Magazine reported that “all the Sex now . . . appear in their white muslin frocks with broad sashes”; see the Lady’s Magazine (London, 1787), 331.

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robert Southey (25 Jan. 1800), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs.  6 vols.  (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1956).  1:  562-564.

Open-Access Anne Finch Digital Archive

Readers of early British poetry and early women writers will soon be able to discover all of Anne Finch’s poems and plays in the first scholarly edition of her work:  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, general editor, Jennifer Keith:  Volume 1:  Early Manuscript Books, edited by Jennifer Keith and Claudia Thomas Kairoff, associate editor Jean I. Marsden; and Volume 2:  Later Collections, Print and Manuscript, edited by Jennifer Keith and Claudia Thomas Kairoff. The print edition establishes for the first time an accurate record of all known work by Finch that has survived:  more than 230 poems (the number varies depending on how one enumerates different versions of some poems), two plays, and letters.

Already available is the open-access Anne Finch Digital Archive, which complements the print edition.  Materials on the open-access Anne Finch Digital Archive enable users to explore the archival elements of Finch’s texts.  The featured poems on this site have been selected from a great number in Finch’s œuvre to illustrate her work in different poetic kinds, including song, fable, biblical paraphrase, translation, verse epistle, and devotional poetry.  For every featured poem, the site includes commentary with embedded links to illustrations, information about composition and printing dates and sources, audio files of the poem read aloud, and source copies showing authorized manuscript and print texts with transcriptions.  We will continue to add resources to the site, including recordings of musical performances of the songs featured.  The multimedia elements of this site reflect the various ways that Finch’s work engaged her contemporary readers and listeners, who knew her work in manuscript, print, or performance, or in all of these forms.

Writing in an era known for the overtly public and political poetry of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), articulated a different literary and political authority.  From her position as a female aristocrat, once at the center of the court and then for many years a political internal exile, Finch explored the individual’s spiritual condition as inextricable from social and political phenomena.  Her interest in affairs of state frequently informed her exposure of patriarchy’s constraints on women and men.  Finch’s work participates in the strategies of her contemporaries such as Dryden and Pope—the public speaker who sought to influence state politics, the renovator of classical mythology and pastoral who exposed contemporary mores, the fabulist who satirized state and society, the friend who used the couplet for conversation and exchange, and the wit who made discernment a moral good.  But Finch both furthers and deviates from these practices.  Readers will discover her innovative use of form and genre to explore a wide range of themes and her complex use of tone to enlist the reader’s discernment and develop a poetics of intimacy.

The edition has received generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Women’s Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Wake Forest University.

The Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD)

NRD Logo 1

Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD)

The period from 1790 to 1820 was a significant moment in British women’s literary history.  During this period more women published novels than men, even as the novel was solidifying as a respected literary genre.  By the end of this period the novel was reputable enough a medium for Sir Walter Scott, celebrated poet, to pen the wildly successful Waverly series (1814).  His success, however, came on the backs of the many women novelists who paved the way before him in the previous thirty years.

But what was the contemporary critical response to such a momentous period in the history of the British novel?  The Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD) seeks to uncover just that.

The NRD is the first and only database to focus on one genre’s historical reception.  Cataloging reviews of novels from the period’s two foremost review periodicals, the Monthly Review and the Critical Review, the NRD brings together book reviews and book market data, providing a repository of criticism reacting in print to this period in the novel’s, and women’s, literary history.

The NRD includes 1,836 book reviews, representing 1,215 novels and 445 identified authors.  It features transcriptions of review criticism as well as data on women writers, novels, and review periodical makeup.  The NRD contains a unique combination of contemporary primary sources that speak to the novel’s solidification as a literary genre during this period, including review articles, advertisements, and novel prefaces, many from archival sources not available digitally.

The NRD also offers a data-set by which distant reading of this period in literary history can be explored, uncovering for the first time the Reviews’ role in shaping our modern novel canon.  Distant reading studies of the novel, such as this study from the NRD of publisher William Lane, offer a new means of asking questions about the history of the novel and how contemporaries experienced its evolution.  Its scope enables the NRD to encourage a broad survey of the literary marketplace in which the novel grew in the late eighteenth century, one that brings forward the many anonymously published and still obscure women novelists from this period that are often neglected in our study of the novel.  The NRD presents opportunities for text mining review criticism, tracing economic market changes in novel production and sales, or publishers’ trends, tracking the novel’s evolving gendered authorship, understanding how reviewers discussed and understood a novel’s authorial gender, and excavating growing genre parameters by which the novel was evaluated and effectively produced.

The NRD is currently in Phase I of three phases of development.  Phase I features transcriptions of review criticism—criticism that due to poor OCR in digital archives and scattered periodicals collections, are currently unavailable to most scholars.  The NRD seeks to make this text corpus available to scholars in an open-access relational database platform.  This platform, Phase II, which introduces a review bibliography, novel publication data, and authorial gender demographics, is under construction with hopes of a 2017 release.  Phase III will provide users with review page images and the ability to read issues of the Reviews in their entirety, tagged review subjects and the power to create their own tagging profile, and a formula builder to manipulate NRD data for their own research.

Margaret Cochrane Corbin and the Papers of the War Department

Claude Joseph Sauthier, "A plan of the attack of Fort Washington, now Fort Knyphausen, and of the American lines on New-York Island by the King's troops, on the 16th of November 1776."  col. map, 48 x 27 cm.  Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Claude Joseph Sauthier, “A plan of the attack of Fort Washington, now Fort Knyphausen, and of the American lines on New-York Island by the King’s troops, on the 16th of November 1776.” col. map, 48 x 27 cm. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Within the records of the early United States War Department, amidst the pay receipts and accounts of treaty negotiations with Native American tribes, there are glimpses into the life of relatively ordinary Americans, many illiterate, who served their country during the war for Independence.  Although the official copies of these records were destroyed in a fire in November, 1800, a project to approximate the papers of the early War Department in digital form reconstructs that resource by bringing together digital copies of letter books, sender and receiver copies from archives in the United States, France, and Great Britain.

Included in the papers of the War Department is a letter book kept by William Price, Commissary of Military Stores at West Point from 1784 to 1787.  In the early years of the 1780s, West Point was home to the Corps of Invalids, a regiment of permanently disabled Revolutionary War veterans that had been established in 1777.  Although the Corps was disbanded in 1783, at least one of its members remained in the Hudson Valley and appears in Price’s letter books:  Margaret Cochrane Corbin, also known as “Captain Molly.”

Corbin was born in south-central Pennsylvania in 1751, and she was raised by relatives after her parents were killed in a conflict with local Native Americans when she was only five years old.  She married John Corbin around 1771.  When John enlisted in the army during the American Revolution, Margaret accompanied him, joining the many women who provided necessary support services for the American army.  When John, an artilleryman, was killed during the British attack on Fort Washington in November 1776, Margaret took his place at the cannon for the remainder of the battle.  She received permanent wounds to her left arm and the left side of her chest and face.

In 1779, Congress awarded Margaret a monthly pension equal to half of a soldier’s pay to last “during her natural life, or the continuance of the said disability” (Journals of the Continental Congress, Tuesday, July 6, 1779), and she was the first woman to be awarded a military pension by Congress.  Margaret was also enrolled in the Corps of Invalids that same year, during which time the Corps was stationed in Pennsylvania.  She traveled with her regiment to West Point in 1781 but remained in the Hudson Valley after the unit was disbanded–likely lacking anywhere to go or at least sufficient means to travel, especially given her continued disability.  Because Congress guaranteed Corbin a lifelong pension, her welfare became the responsibility of Price, West Point’s Commissary.

According to Price, “Captain Molly” was “such an offensive Person that People are unwilling to take her in Charge” (William Price to Henry Knox, Jan 31, 1786).  She cursed, was rude, and was a generally unpleasant person with whom to live.  Nonetheless, Price took his responsibility to Captain Molly seriously.  His reports to the War Department describe the difficulty of finding someone willing to provide Corbin with room and board, but he was willing to remove her from a situation where she was “not so well treated as she ought to be” (William Price to Henry Knox, October 7, 1786).  It is unclear whether it was Corbin’s identity as a veteran or as a woman, or the combination, which guided Price’s sense of how she ought to have been treated.  He may have been simply trying to ensure that her treatment was equal to what she had received before the Corps of Invalids was disbanded.

Corbin was a woman from a farming family whose presence in the archives rests upon one extraordinary action.  While the Papers of the War Department collection contains many famous names—Judith Sargent MurrayHenry KnoxJames McHenry—it also holds the stories of many ordinary people who otherwise left little or no documentary records.  Although we do not have Corbin’s own hand to tell her story, Price’s letters and reports allow us to discover something of her life after the revolution, a period often overlooked by those recounting her history.  The Papers of the War Department digital collection allows anyone with an internet connection to access and explore the stories of Corbin, her fellow veterans, and others whose experiences were long presumed lost.

The Papers of the War Department is an online, open-source documentary edition of papers of the War Department in the last decades of the eighteenth century.  All are welcome to volunteer as transcribers and contribute to the scholarly project.

Interiority and Jane Porter’s Pocket Diary

Covers of Jane Porter's pocket diary.  Photograph by Sarah Werner.  Folger M.a.17

Cover of Jane Porter’s pocket diary. Photograph by Sarah Werner. Folger M.a.17

Julie Park, Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, describes her fascinating recent research into the “written documents of daily life from real eighteenth-century lives” at the Folger Shakespeare Library:

It’s been a critical commonplace after Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel to view the novel as the first literary form to represent psychological individuality in the context of everyday life. My research, however, examines how the spaces and objects of daily life in eighteenth-century England worked as vehicles of interior experiences in their own right. Working from this angle might change our conceptions of the novel, not only its historical relationship to how selfhood is defined, but also its relationship to the material culture of the greater society around it.

By using my Folger long-term fellowship to look at written documents of daily life from real eighteenth-century lives, I thought I might complicate claims about the early novel’s method of representing interior or psychological experience through diurnal structures.1 One line of my exploration was how a form of portable interiority surfaced in the small books that were designed for carrying in one’s pocket. The novel itself, in its eighteenth-century print manifestation, was pocket-sized, conveying not only its affordability and portability, but also its ability to be held in the hand and worn against the body. Just as the novel conveyed its own interior worlds to readers, the experience of reading the physical book created an interior world between the novel and its reader, even when carried into exterior settings, from pleasure gardens to carriages for travel.2

Among the holdings of eighteenth-century pocket-sized books I found at the Folger is The Ladies Memorandum Book, for the Year 1796 (M.a.17), a green leather book with gold tooling around its edges. At 12×7.5 cm, it can easily be held in the palm of one’s hand. Its fore-edge is covered by a flap that extends from the front cover and is attached to the back by a gold clasp. Flipped to its back, with its diagonal seamed flap, the book resembles a modern day envelope. Yet its sides are left open, and there is a thickness to its body created by the stack of pages sewn into its spine. Further examination of the book will reveal it indeed functions as much of an envelope and a pocket as a book.

Read the rest of Julie Park’s account of this object at the Folger’s blog.

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Fashionable Vice in 1790s England: Mary Robinson’s “Nobody”

The Graces of 1794. Issac Cruikshank. British Museum.

The Graces of 1794. Issac Cruikshank.  British Museum.

Picture this.  It is November 1794.  The French Revolution has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and Britain and France have been at war for well over a year and a half.  The English have recently witnessed the Treason Trials and the suspension of Habeas Corpus at home and the September Massacres, the Reign of Terror, the Glorious First of June, and the execution of Robespierre across the Channel.  Soldiers are dying, the British government is locking up radicals, and the nation is in a state of social and political unrest.

It is at this time, at the very height of this tension, that Mary Robinson—the former actress, fashion icon, celebrity sensation, and mistress of the Prince of Wales—debuted her two-act comedy Nobody at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  The 29 November 1794 performance did not go well.  “On the drawing up of the curtain,” Robinson recounts in her Memoirs, “women of distinguished rank hissed through their fans.”  And while they were temporarily hushed, they soon resumed their vocalizations “with redoubled violence” (Memoirs 141).  Dorothy Jordan, one of the play’s comic leads, became so “agitated” by the audience’s “ill-humour” that she omitted lines from the Epilogue and botched it altogether (The Sun).  The Times reported that “the little effect intended, was utterly destroyed.”  In the course of only three performances, Drury Lane increasingly “presented a scene of confusion,” with the final staging culminating in a near riot (Memoirs 142).

For modern readers, Nobody may appear merely to offer a lighthearted gibe at voguish faux pas.  Fashionable life—comprised of narcissistic daily rituals, risible clothing choices, theatergoing, outings in carriages, and high-stakes gambling—proves, over the course of the drama, both farcical and foolhardy.  But what Nobody’s riotous reception makes clear is that Robinson’s spotlighting of fashionable excess was no laughing matter, particularly for some of the play’s aristocratic spectators.  Indeed, once the drama is placed within the timeframe of the French Revolution, it becomes clear that Robinson’s critique of fashion is, in fact, a political critique—one that links aristocratic behavior with the welfare of the nation, questions established social hierarchies, and advocates a more meritocratic form of leadership.  Even more surprising than its message is that Robinson managed to get the drama staged at all.  Produced during the time of the Licensing Act, Nobody reveals how playwrights found ways to circumvent censorship through allusive techniques—a fact that challenges the notion that licensed theater during this time was wholly apolitical.

Over the past twenty years, Robinson’s life and work have received fresh attention from scholars and biographers who have become fascinated, as her contemporaries once were, with her dazzling personality, social prowess, thespian skill, and literary artistry.  Despite this resurgence in interest, however, relatively little is known about what was one of her most striking productions: Nobody.  It is for this reason that I have recently recovered the play, the controversy surrounding it, and its socio-historical context by publishing an edition of it, along with explanatory notes, contemporary newspaper accounts, visual satire, and other relevant commentary on the academic website Romantic Circles.

A Gaming Table at Devonshire House. Thomas Rowlandson (1791). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941.

A Gaming Table at Devonshire House. Thomas Rowlandson (1791). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941.

Readers of the edition will notice that a central area of fashionable excess the comedy showcases is female gambling.  In fact, Nobody focuses attention on the Faro Ladies—a notorious group of high-society women who regularly held gaming parties.  Pre-show puffs for the play highlight this element of the comedy.  Two-and-a-half weeks before its premiere, The Morning Post, for instance, observes,

The scarcity of Ladies in the lower Side Boxes, may be attributed to the rage from Plays amongst our Dames of haut ton. Faro, and rouge et noir, have wholly banished a gout for rational amusements. This is indeed a serious, disgraceful evil; that “has encreased, is encreasing, and ought to be diminished.” (10 Nov. 1794)

And after mentioning, in a separate issue, that upcoming soirées are to be hosted by Mrs. Concannon, Lady Buckinghamshire, and Lady Archer, The Morning Post remarks,

The proud excesses of the Gay World this Winter will occasion no inconsiderable number of Bankrupts the next. Since the War, the Tradesmen’s Books are over-laded with Debts, and if one of them should press a Nobleman for his money, he is immediately denounced, ‘a Jaçobine!’ (12 Nov. 1794)

By linking aristocratic profligacy with the country’s wartime ills, these lines boldly assert that high-society socialites drain the nation’s coffers, and what’s worse, claim justification in doing so.

Just days before the curtain rose on Nobody, The Morning Post optimistically proposed that dramatic comedy could prove “beneficial to Society” when “the preposterous manners of high life and Fashionable Folly” are “checked by the pen of fair and unoffending satire” (13 Nov. 1794).  While Robinson certainly intended this outcome for her play, it was, perhaps, too lofty a goal.  In the weeks following its condemnation, The Morning Post contained the following entry: “If certain persons, in high life, are allowed to damn every piece that aims to correct their follies, the Stage will cease to be the mirror of the times, and vice will triumph over public opinion” (9 Dec. 1794).  While Nobody may not have achieved theatrical success, recovery of the drama reveals how it can yet serve as a “mirror of the times”—one in which domestic welfare contended with aristocratic vice.

Works Cited

For Further Reading

On Mary Robinson’s Nobody:

On Mary Robinson and Her Literature:

  • Brewer, William D., ed. The Works of Mary Robinson. 8 vols. Pickering & Chatto, 2009-2010.
  • Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, and Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Davenport, Hester. The Prince’s Mistress: Perdita, a Life of Mary Robinson. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004.
  • Gamer, Michael, and Terry F. Robinson. “Mary Robinson and the Dramatic Art of the Comeback.” Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (Summer 2009): 219-256.
  • Gristwood, Sarah. Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. London: Bantam, 2005.
  • Ledoux, Ellen Malenas. “Florizel and Perdita Affair, 1779-80.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 2 June 2013.
  • Pascoe, Judith. Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1999.
  • Robinson, Daniel. The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

On the Faro Ladies:

  • Russell, Gillian. “‘Faro’s Daughters’: Female Gamesters, Politics, and the Discourse of Finance in 1790s Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (Summer 2000): 481-504.

350 Years of Dangerous Women

Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth.  By Paul van Somer, ca. 1576-1621, Flemish, active in Britain (from 1616); After: Peter Lely, 1618-1680, Dutch, active in Britain (from 1643).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth. By Paul van Somer, ca. 1576-1621, Flemish, active in Britain (from 1616); After: Peter Lely, 1618-1680, Dutch, active in Britain (from 1643). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

By the end of the first decade of Charles II‘s reign, the King had acquired a reputation for his many mistresses; his patronage of the theater; and his interest in natural philosophy and the new sciences [1]. These pursuits and those of his most prominent court mistresses, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland; Nell Gwyn; Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth; and Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin shaped two movements in England, libertinism and sensibility. Writers’ frequent depictions of these women gave new prominence to a remarkable figure in literature, the female libertine, that remains with us.

Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures, and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670-1730 (Ashgate 2011) rewrites the history of libertinism and sensibility and considers the female libertine in relation to cultural, philosophical, and literary contexts that contributed to her transformations from the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries in England.  I argue that there are five representative types across a diverse group of texts, including “Lady Lucretius” in John Dryden’s Marriage A-la-Mode (1671); “Lady Sensibility” in Aphra Behn’s The Luckey Chance, or an Alderman’s Bargain (1686) and novella, The History of the Nun (1689); “The Humane Libertine” in Catharine Trotter’s epistolary narrative, Olinda’s Adventures (1693), and only comedy, Love at a Loss, or the Most Votes Carries It (1700); “The Natural Libertine” in Delariviere Manley’s The History of Rivella (1714); and “The Amazonian Libertine” in Daniel Defoe’s novel, Roxana (1724) [2]. These authors created female libertines that made lasting contributions to later depictions of the figure, partially inspired by Epicurean ideas found in Lucretius‘s On the Nature of the Universe, which experienced a revival in late Stuart England. Behn and other libertine writers found its destabilizing proposal that all matter, including humans, is composed of free-floating, constantly moving atoms attractive. Thomas Creech’s multiple English translations of Lucretius’s text created a relationship between atomism and the emotions that reflected seventeenth-century natural philosophers’ interest in the connections between the soul and body. Early writers of sensibility were likewise concerned with the physiological effects of heartache made evident through their characters’ weeping, fainting, illness, or even death. Sensibility converged with libertinism in its attention to the senses in the late seventeenth century.

LinkerCharles II’s French mistresses, Portsmouth and Mazarin, who held salons in London during the 1670s, helped to transmit French ideas and culture to England, including characteristics of sensibilité that influenced Behn’s creation of “Lady Sensibility.” The court mistresses became the most influential women in England during the 1660s, 70s, and early 80s. Literary figures modeled after them persisted long after their “reigns” at court were over.

There is a current spate of historical biographies and romances about Charles II’s mistresses in the literary marketplace [3]. Next year will mark seventy years since the publication of the first bestselling modern historical romance set during the first decade of the Restoration, Kathleen Winsor‘s Forever Amber (1944). Published during the Second World War, the novel was banned in Boston and several other cities when it first appeared, mainly for its questionable morality and highly suggestive scenes involving the heroine, Amber St. Clare, a female libertine modeled after several of the real-life and fictional women I examine in Dangerous Women. Current books about female libertines owe a debt to Forever Amber, as bestselling novelists Philippa Gregory and Barbara Taylor Bradford, among others, have admitted. Readers still consistently place Forever Amber at the top of their “Historical Romance” lists, and the novel was re-released in 2000.

In 2002, Elaine Showalter reviewed the 2000 edition of Forever Amber for The Guardian, confessing to having been, as a young girl, “awed by Amber’s courage, daring and strength. Rereading the novel now is no disappointment, and I am also impressed by Winsor’s subversive feminism and the scope and ambition of her historical imagination.” Most of the characters in the novel, including Amber, reflect Hobbesian tendencies, vying with each other to achieve precedence at Charles II’s court in the 1660s. The novel demonstrates Winsor’s command of the historical and literary figures she re-imagines from the Restoration. Her characters’ vanity, plotting, and cruelty resonate with historical records of figures Amber encounters at the Carolean court, Newgate prison, and Alsatia in Whitefriars, the London “sanctuary” for criminals. Winsor drew the characters from the hundreds of accounts, poems, plots, and textbooks she claimed to have read before writing the novel.

Amber’s many marriages and romantic relationships certainly read like an early amatory plot. Born on a dark and stormy night, Amber is the long-lost child of two ill-fated aristocrats separated by the English Civil Wars. Her parents die, and she is raised by villagers of Marygreen, where she is a misfit. Like French seventeenth-century romances by Madame de Scudéry, who influenced Behn and other early English novelists, the story relies on remarkable coincidences. The novel signals that Amber is of noble, not peasant, stock, evident also in her captivating looks, a quality she shares with early romance heroines. One of Amber’s most generous lovers, Captain Rex Morgan, describes her in language we find in Restoration comedy about heroines: “I see you have wit as well as beauty, madame. That makes you perfect” (181). Winsor blends qualities of female libertines in her depiction of Amber, who rises through every class position in the novel to achieve greater autonomy and power through varied performances.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  © The British Library Board.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). © The British Library Board.

Part of Forever Amber‘s continuing appeal remains in its sweeping survey of 1660s London and the meticulous attention to historical detail. Winsor used Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as a source for Amber’s experience of plague in London in 1665, and her novel blends elements of other plots by Restoration and early eighteenth-century writers. Like Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Amber makes an early career out of trickster-ism and thievery, landing in Newgate prison after her trial. As an actress in the Restoration theater and then a court mistress of Charles II, Amber resembles Nell Gwyn. Defoe’s Roxana, also modeled on Gwyn and Mazarin, is perhaps Amber’s closest literary antecedent. As Amber rises higher in her liaisons with powerful aristocrats, her one consistent relationship is with her maid, Nan, who gives her advice and rises with her, much as Amy counsels Roxana through relationships and crises about the discovery of her “real” identity. Both Roxana and Amber have husbands who desert them early in the narratives, leaving them penniless. Disgraced when she dances for the court in a sheer costume, Amber becomes the “Amazonian Libertine” at court, and the scene parallels Roxana’s dance in her exotic costume. Both women experience a vague punishment at the end, and there is no narrative closure in either text.

Amber experiences disillusionment from her lover, Lord Bruce Carlton. Their relationship echoes plots by Manley, Behn, and Trotter, whose heroines are mistreated or left by cruel and faithless lovers. Carlton sees Amber as a lower-class village girl, even when she becomes a wealthy Duchess. Midway through Winsor’s novel, Amber, now the mother of Carlton’s son, tearfully pleads with him to marry her, but he refuses, arguing that “love has nothing to do with it” (426), a concise description of upper class marital relations frequently examined in Restoration and eighteenth-century comedy and fiction.

Amber’s downfall results partly because of her class aspirations, mirrored by Winsor’s depiction of the Duchess of Cleveland, still Barbara Palmer when she first arrived to Charles II’s court as his mistress. On June 24 1667, Samuel Pepys complained of Cleveland’s influence (she was then called Lady Castlemaine) in his Diary because it produced “the horrid effeminacy of the King,” who “hath taken ten times more care and pains in making friends between my Lady Castlemayne and Mrs. Stewart, when they have fallen out, than ever he did to save his kingdom.”  Though powerful, Cleveland never received a true marriage proposal from the King. She fell from power after he lost patience with her tantrums and ambition. So too with Amber and Carlton.

Single-minded in her social-climbing, Amber seems unaware that she lives in an exciting decade of scientific discovery. She never engages philosophical debates about atomism or Descartes’s mechanical theories of the body, ongoing discussions that we find the most interesting female libertine figures examining in literature. Despite a brief liaison with a student early in the novel, Amber does not question him about his studies or read his books. She lacks associations with any leading thinkers at the Carolean court and does not debate the merits of Epicurean pleasure, the existence of animal spirits, or the theological assertions of “right reason” with theologians or members of the Royal Society she would certainly have met at Whitehall. Perhaps, had Winsor continued writing the sequel she originally planned, she would have featured a more complex female libertine and a more mature Amber, a figure styled after the Duchess of Mazarin, who developed  an intellectual life as interesting as her adventures [4].  But that is another story for another time.

Works Cited

Churchill, Winston. Marlborough, His Life and Times. 4 vols. London: George G. Harrop & Company, 1949. Print.

Winsor, Kathleen. Forever Amber. New York: Macmillan, 1944. Print.

Notes

[1] Charles II cultivated this image. Tim Harris’s excellent article, “Charles II: The Reality Behind the Merry Monarchy,” concisely summarizes historical scholarship on Charles’s reign and the man behind the throne.

[2] Manley was considered a “dangerous woman,” even in the twentieth century. Winston Churchill, descendent of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, describes Manley, who satirized his ancestors, as “a woman of disreputable character paid by the Tories to take part in a detraction which in the intense political passion of the time, was organized against Marlborough” (2: 53-4).

[3] The list of popular novels or biographies continues to grow. Among others, they include Elizabeth C. Goldsmith’s The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (2012); Penelope Sullivan’s Rose Scarlet (2011); and Susan Holloway Scott‘s Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess Castlemaine and King Charles II (2007),  The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II (2008), and The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth and King Charles II (2009).