Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4
A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.
Chapter 3: The Breeches Part
I'm posting this a little early because I'll be heading off to Lone Star LesFic in Austin in the morning and may not have the time to do it properly. (Who am I kidding? I always get twitchy about airplane trips unless I'm at the airport 2 hours early, so I'd have plenty of time to get it posted while I'm waiting around.) Bella worked things to have The Mystic Marriage available a little early for the event, so I guess they went ahead and did all the usual advance shipments in addition to that one. In any case, I came home from work today to find a box with my author's copies waiting for me. But official release day is still the 20th!
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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.
Theatrical female cross-dressers were often described in ways that indicated that a large part of the appeal was the chance (for men) to appreciate women in form-fitting lower garments, or the frisson of an androgynous sexual appeal. While male fans of female beauty might be offered a visual spectacle, the possibilities offered to a female audience were even more daring. Breeches parts frequently included romantic male heroes, creating a scenario where women were openly courting (and winning) women on stage and audiences (of both men and women) were expected to enjoy seeing them do so. Some have argued that the increasing anxiety about female homoeroticism in the later 18th century was part of why breeches parts fell out of fashion.
Theatrical opportunities for female homoeroticism also included a fashion for assertive female characters who--as part of the script--seized on excuses to cross-dress for extended periods and to flirt with other female characters in this guise. Less formal theatricals, such as masques, were another context where cross-dressing might lead to same-sex flirtation and more, and several early 18th century pamphlets warned against the practice for exactly this reason.
The rest of this chapter looks at several specific contexts where cross-dressing created homoerotic opportunities. (The distinction here from the previous chapter is that marriage was not the object.)
Memoirs (whether true or fictionalized) of women cross-dressing for military careers often included scenes of same-sex flirtation, or sometimes unexpected attentions toward the passing woman from another. These attentions sometimes resulted in discovery, as in the 1692 record of an Englishwoman serving (in disguise) in the French army until discovered when “playing with another of her sex”. The celebrated Hannah Snell seems to have had no special romantic interest in women but became the object of female attention due to warning a woman of a fellow soldier’s plan to assault her. Her story thereafter includes a number of incidents where she is both intrigued and anxious about women’s romantic interest in her.
The fictionalized life of Christian Davies portrays her as happily heterosexual until her husband is press-ganged and she disguises herself to join the army to follow him. But in this guise, she participates in flirtations with women, perhaps initially as part of her disguise, and begins expressing a misogynistic double standard with regard to her partners. (In particular, too-eager women are dismissed as sluts.) In cases where the object of her affection behaves “modestly”, however, she is shown wooing them with sincere affection.
Another fictionalized biography that flirts with the idea of same-sex desire in the context of cross-dressing is the description of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in A General History of the Pyrates (1724), both of whom were passing as men when they met.
The autobiography of actress Charlotte Cibber Charke (1755) was undoubtedly fictionalized to some degree to cater to its expected readership (given that the publication was for commercial purposes), but it had the merit of not having a separate person mediating between the experience and the writing. Charke was famous for playing “breeches parts” on stage, but describes how she was attracted to masculine clothing and activities from an early age, with mixed reactions from her parents. She ditched an ill-suited husband and, with the additional burden of supporting a child, surrounded herself with a supportive circle of female friends while developing her stage career. Off stage, she frequently traveled and socialized as “Mr. Brown”, attracting the interest of women who variously were and were not aware of the disguise, though she seems to have always been scrupulous about laying out the facts before going further. She had one very long-term female partner and this relationship is discussed later in the book.
An entirely fictitious portrayal of a cross-dressing woman who pursues other women sexually occurs in Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda. The character, Harriot Freke, is set up as the stereotype of an aggressive, mannish lesbian who takes delight in discomfiting the objects of her affections. Eventually, as the novel progresses, she moves from a threatening figure to one of ridicule and scorn, and the plot punishes her at the end for her transgressive behavior.
Cross-dressing to the point of passing was not a requirement for signaling a character’s erotic interest in other women. Aphra Behn’s 1682 play The False Count has a character comment on the sexual danger to a female character hidden under “petticoats”. And other fictions focus on masculine-framed behavior as a signal of a woman’s sexual interest in other women, as in Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753). In other cases, masculine behavioral signals are used to hint at “unnatural” passions within a close female friendship, as in Charlotte Lennox’s novel Euphemia (1790) which mocks a couple consisting of the stereotypes of Amazon and Bluestocking. The same sort of language was used to hint around about the real-life couple Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (the “Ladies of Llangollen”), framing Butler as the “masculine” member of the pair.