Belinda (Maria Edgeworth)
In the later 18th century, there is a conflict in the English imagination between the foreign, dangerous, “female friends,” personified by the image of sapphic Marie-Antoinette, and the positive image of such celebrated English female couples such as Ponsonby and Butler, Seward and Sneyd. Hester Thrale personified this conflict, expressing deeply negative views of sexualized female relationships, but praising and even engaging in intimate (but not overtly sexual) relationships between women, such as Frances Barney.
Legs, as a feature of cross-dressing, are legible primarily in the context of actresses playing male roles. The clothing of the day meant that women’s legs were normally concealed. That meant that, on stage, women’s exposed legs both represented masculinity and were potentially a powerful erotic stimulus. The dramatic fiction that cross-dressing actresses were “men” in their roles gave license for women to find them desirable, as well as for others to deny the same-sex aspect of that desire.
The breast is an elusive gender signifier. An opening example from Hannah Snell’s biography tells how a combination of posture, breast size, and viewing angle prevented the presence of breasts from giving away her sex when she was stripped to the waist for a whipping in the army.
Working class cross-dressing narratives establish the breast not only as a sign of femaleness but as a site of erotic connection with the women who desire her. The chapter primarily examines cross-dressing in military and sea-going contexts, but also touches on Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda.
It’s always interesting to see the intersection of very different takes on the same set of historic data. Interpretations of the “romantic friendship” phenomenon and how it related to social reality are a great example. In contrast to interpretations that take middle-class models of romantic friendship as naively “innocent” of sexual overtones, Moore suggests that the concept of romantic friendship always existed in parallel with--and was a direct response to--awareness of the possibility of sexual relations between women.
Evidently the fame of the Ladies of Llangollen was such that it could induce even a male poet of Wordsworth’s fame to confine himself to the themes of romantic friendship. But the other male authors in this group wallow in the images of the mostrous lesbian seductress and the joys of sensationalistic lesbian decadence. The female authors are quite mixed: a satirical sterotype of a “mannish” lesbian, a diary with remarkably candid discussions of erotic relations between women, and a poem on the usual romantic themes.
There was a theatrical counterpart to the real life cross-dressing women discussed in the previous chapter. It had become the fashion for women to play certain types of male roles on stage, under the cover term “breeches parts”. This was part of the contradictory acceptance/rejection of women in male disguise. Acceptability was not related to how well the disguise was pulled off: “masculine” clothing among fashionable women (such as riding habits) might be mocked while women discovered after passing completely as soldiers might be lauded.