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In which I imagine Fanny Hill, Lady Mary Whortley Montagu, and Catherine Vizzani Hanging at a Bar

Monday, July 9, 2018 - 07:00

One of the serendipitiously enjoyable things about deep dives into history is discovering personal connections between unexpected people. When I did my podcast on actress Charlotte Cushman, I was stunned by how she fit into an enormous network of literary, political, and artistic women of the mid 19th century, operating across Europe and America. My imagined "girl gang" here is purely one of the imagination. Fanny Hill was a fictional character--the protagonist of John Cleland's novel about a "woman of pleasure" (i.e., prostitute) whose sexual initiation by another woman brings her under the scope of this project. Catherine Vizzani was a real person--a cross-dressing woman-loving adventuress--immortalized after death in a biographical and medical treatise by the Italian anatomist her performed her autopsy. Cleland produced a heavily abridged translation of that treatise for an English audience. Lady Mary Whortley Montagu was a traveller, a writer on Ottoman Turkey, a feminist, and a proponant of women's rights and freedoms, including sexual freedom (as practiced in her own life). Donato's article explores the intersection of those figures and puts forth a theory that one purpose of Cleland's translation of Vizzani's story was as a thinly disguised satire on Montagu. But I'm imagining a different intersection, somewhere in the historico-literary afterlife, where the three women get together to dish, compare stories, and laugh at the men who tried so hard to thwart them.

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Full citation: 

Donato, Clorinda. 2006. “Public and Private Negotiations of Gender in Eighteenth-Century England and Italy: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Case of Catterina Vizzani” in British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29. pp.169-189

Two figures provide a lens for the complexity of British systems of gender and sexuality in the mid 18th century: John Cleland (most famous for his novel Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and Mary Wortley Montagu (poet and correspondent, most commonly mentioned in the LHMP for her descriptions of life in Ottoman Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador there). The intersection of these two illustrates a dynamic whereby prominent literary women were attacked via an archetype that merged sexual looseness and literary productivity--an archetype that held up the classical poet Sappho as its core model.

Montagu’s reputation as an independent traveler, a writer on “questionable” subjects, and a person of suspect sexuality drew the abuse of male writers such as Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, and Horace Mann and made her a subject of gossip among the British community in Italy where she lived for some time. Montagu, in turn, responded assertively to these attacks and continued to champion the sexual rights of women, especially single and widowed women, against the hypocrisy of both social and legal strictures.

John Cleland was another of the figures who made Montagu a target of satire and bile, using her as part of a general strategy of profiting from the public fascination with female desire and agency. His attacks generally were camouflaged via anonymity, innuendo, or by indirect representation as in the subject of this article.

The story of Catterina Vizzani was written up by the Italian anatomist Giovanni Bianchi, recounting the story of a woman who lived for a number of years as a man, engaging in romantic and sexual relationships with women, and was revealed to be a woman in the context of her violent death. [Note: there seems sufficient evidence from her request to be buried in female clothing to identify her as a cross-dressing woman rather than a trans man, but both framings should be kept in mind.]

Cleland translated (and heavily edited) the Italian text for an English audience, adding his own commentary and spin to pique ribald interest, as when he expanded on Bianchi’s descriptive title “Brief History of the life of Catterina Vizzani, Roman, who for eight years wore the clothing of a male servant and who, after many vicissitudes, was killed and discovered to be a maiden during the autopsy performed on her cadaver” to add the details “was killed for an amour with a young lady”, that she “narrowly escaped being treated as a saint by the populace”, and appending “with some curious and anatomical remarks on the nature and existence of the hymen.” He also adds editorial remarks to emphasize the exploration of Vizzani’s anatomy, lifestyle, and sexual practices so that his readership would know what they were getting. It is via this emphasis on transgressive sexuality, the Italian context, and the parallels of Vizzani’s and Montagu’s movements driven by discovery and critique of her sexuality that Cleland’s apparently straightforward translation can be viewed as a personal and political attack on Montagu.

[Note: At this point in reading the article, I was a bit skeptical about the connection, but let’s follow the logic as it is laid out.]

To understand Cleland’s “spin” of the Vizzani text, we must first examine Bianchi’s text and his purposes. Bianchi’s text was first published in 1744 and was intended to secure his reputation as an author of solidly objective scientific and social analysis. Bianchi had performed the autopsy on Vizzani and had taken pains to research her history and correspond with people she had interacted with who had direct information about her. To some extent, Bianchi made the narrative as much an autobiographical study of his own career as a study of Vizzani’s life. His research included correspondence with fellow anatomist Antonio Leprotti who tracked down information about Vizzani’s family and travels.

Leprotti’s correspondence also makes reference to two key points: Bianchi’s motivations in documenting and presenting Vizzani’s case history, and mentions of Horace Walpole as a friend and patron who was interested in the case. Walpole had a personal animosity against Montagu for her friendship with his father’s mistress and second wife, and his probable role in the transmission of Bianchi’s text to England makes this relevant.

Bianchi’s own motivations for writing the treatise had a large element of self-promotion. He was engaged in a struggle with colleagues to move the study of anatomy from a paper exercise to a direct experimental study and was losing that struggle, in part due to personality issues. Vizzani’s case presented the opportunity to show the importance and relevance of the direct study of anatomy and how it could be used to explore both social and medical questions. In particular, Bianchi was interested in debunking the belief that associated women with sexual interest in other women with deviant anatomy. [Note: see the topic tags “enlarged clitoris” and “hermaphroditism”.] He also presented arguments for tolerance with regard to sexual preference and argued for a theory of gender identity that was divorced from physiology.

Both of these angles were lost on Cleland, and his work, rather than following Bianchi’s enlightened position, remained entrenched in a focus on prurient interest in women who loved women, and an expected association with “monstrous” anatomy. And he turned Vizzani’s story into a roman-à-clef intended to be recognizable as a satire on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. At least, this is what Donato argues, saying that contemporary readers were expected to easily see a connection between the two figures due to the intersection of the Italian location, traveling, and gender transgression.

Cleland had already made a name for himself with the erotic novel Fanny Hill and was looking for opportunities to exploit that reputation while maintaining the superficial appearance of moralizing. Translation of existing texts was an efficient means to that end, and Vizzani’s story was only one of a number of texts that allowed him to editorialize on “gender, failed masculinity, and deformed female sexual taste and practice.” Where Bianchi’s text had argued for acceptance and open-mindedness, Cleland framed his translation as condemnation of lesbian or transgender figures such as Vizzani. [Note: Donato specifically includes the potential transgender framing here.]

Bianchi used his discussion of the treatment Vizzani received for her ultimately fatal gunshot wound as an indictment of the two distinct groups who interacted with her. The nuns at the hospital to which she was brought, on discovering her anatomical sex, celebrated her attributed “virginity” even in the face of her possession of an artificial phallus and awareness of her sexual adventures with women. The medical faculty of the University of Siena who were called in also focused on the sensational aspects of Vizzani’s case, and in particular their fascination with her anatomical “virginity” (i.e., intact hymen) that they failed to provide any useful medical treatment for her injuries, thus helping to precipitate her possibly needless death. Bianchi portrays them as lascivious thrill-seekers, only belatedly concerned with medical matters after the patient was dead. His call for physicians to treat patients without regard to the patient’s identity and behavior aligned with his other attempts to reform the profession, including his support of fellow anatomist Laura Bassi, the first woman to graduate from the University of Bologna.

Although Bianchi’s text includes references to Vizzani’s sexual activities (including her sexual aid and her positive reputation among her female partners), his focus is not on titillating descriptions but on showing her attempt to develop a role in society that would enable her to live her desired life and experience a stable and happy romantic relationship. These attempts included a surprising level of support from her family, friends, and employers, although that support was confined to helping her express her desires within a heteronormative framework. Bianchi’s discussion of anatomy in this context is to debunk the notion that abnormal female desire was associated with abnormal bodies and genitalia.

Donato moves on to the parallels in Vizzani’s story that could be correlated with Montagu’s life. 1) Vizzani dressed and lived as a man, while Montagu had picked up the habit of wearing Turkish trousers for their comfort (and possibly to provoke reactions). 2) English literature of the time was fond of using the “medical case history” genre as a cover for the publication of erotic texts that otherwise would be taboo. 3) As early as the Renaissance, English people had developed and embellished a stereotype of Italians involving sexual license in general and homosexuality in particular. 4) Further, Venice was in many ways the western portal to the Orient and picked up some of the fascination with orientalist sexual fantasies. (Remember that Montagu had a strong connection with Ottoman Turkey.) Italy became a “sexually suspect space” where gender was reconstructed and which was a dangerous source of potential contamination of “foreign” sexual mores--an image that was both threatening and arousing.

Montagu’s personal life was certainly rich in events that created an air of gender and sexual transgression. Her “Turkish letters” included frank observations on Ottoman women’s lives that had not been accessible to male writers and visitors. Her entrance into Italian society was via a relationship with the bisexual Venetian philosopher Franceso Algarotti, for whom she left her estranged husband. But of more concern to her contemporaries was her independent travel and vociferous support for women’s independence and freedom. Her smallpox scars were converted by rumor into the symptoms of syphilis, implying punishment for these adventures. (As a side-note, she helped introduce an early version of smallpox inoculation that she encountered in Turkey into English practice.)

Donato provides a detailed chronology of how Bianchi’s text could have come to the attention of Cleland and issues around censorship and suppression of sexually explicit texts both in Italy and England.

If Vizzani’s story is a commentary by Cleland on Montagu, it is not the only one. Somewhat more transparently, the figure of “Lady Bell Travers” in his Memoirs of a Coxcomb is intended to represent her, with a strongly parallel backstory.

Cleland’s editorializing on Bianchi’s text shows a bewilderment with Bianchi’s neutral attitude toward Vizzani’s life and actions. He wonders about Bianchi that “it does not appear that he has assigned any cause whatever, or so much as advanced any probable conjecture on this extravagant turn of her lewdness” and then adds his own speculations on the “cause” of Vizzani’s sexual orientation: that she “had her imagination corrupted early in her youth, either by obscene tales...or by privately listening to the discourses of the women who are too generally corrupt in that country”. Also perhaps “she received an incitement from her constitution...to those vile practices which, being begun in folly, were continued through wickedness.” And finally that “nor is it unreasonable to believe that by degrees this might occasion a preternatural change in the animal spirits and a kind of venereal fury, very remote, and even repugnant to that of her sex.” Cleland could not abide Bianchi’s open acceptance that some women enjoyed sex with women and ran through the entire litany of popular explanations: corruption through exposure, an unnatural constitution, sin, madness. (The one popular explanation that he was unable to claim was abnormal anatomy, since Bianchi made a significant point of refuting this.)

Cleland’s additions also betray anxiety about the possibility that Vizzani’s example could lead other women to consider men unnecessary and superfluous, either by imitating men themselves or by satisfying themselves with female lovers who did so. He appends another anecdote about a “female husband,” framed as being motivated by deception and greed, and adds a reference to a similar case involving “a very vicious woman, in a country that it is not necessary to name” which Donato takes as referring directly to Montagu.

[Note: while I am not entirely convinced by the strong version of Donato’s theory that Cleland’s work was understood at the time as a direct reference to Montagu, this discussion of the deeper background of Bianchi’s work and intentions, as well as the analysis of Cleland’s motivations and his distortions of the text, are a valuable addition to the understanding of Vizzani’s story. I am now desperately interested in whether a more scholarly and literal translation of the original has ever been done. I did a podcast on Vizzani that includes extensive excerpts from Cleland’s edition.]

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