It was hard to escape two underlying themes in this article, neither of them speaking directly to the scholarship: the author appears to have something of a personal grudge against Elizabeth Spearing’s edition of Frith’s biography, and he seems determined to conclude that there was nothing particularly queer or transgressive about Frith’s life—she just thought dressing in men’s clothing was a useful career move.
This book is a study and edition of two 17th century “real life memoirs” of women who attracted mythologizing stories due to their unusual lives and criminal contexts. The label “counterfeit” women would seem to apply more obviously in the case of Mary Carleton, who passed herself off as a foreign noblewoman and used that image to acquire financial support and attract advantageous suitors. As there are no overt queer elements to her story, I won’t be discussing that part of the book in detail.
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 general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.
One of the features of medieval Islamic societies, at least among the urban elite, was a strict segregation of the sexes. This might imply a clear distinction in gender roles however the approach to sexuality in these cultures--in particular regarding male homoeroticism--resulted in some approaches to gender roles that contrast sharply to those of Christian cultures. These approaches included significant allowance for specific classes of persons to transgress the accepted forms of gender expression within certain limits.
In late 17th century England, the practice of boys playing female roles on stage became outmoded and even perhaps unacceptable to audiences. This was, of course, only made possible by women entering the acting profession to play those characters. But the growing unacceptability of male cross-gender performance did not translate to a similar rejecting of female cross-gender performance on the stage. In fact, women playing male roles became fashionable, though the nature of the practice changed during the course of the century.
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article.
[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]
Western interpretations of variant sexuality in Middle Eastern societies have often been filtered through stereotypes and Orientalism. There can be a fixation on certain key gender-related social differences, such as the harem and the veil. From an early date, Western commentaries have attributed to Islamic societies the acceptance or promotion of self-indulgence, licentiousness, and sexual deviance--views that often say more about Western attitudes than Islamic ones.
Gonda examines the rather peculiar mid-18th century text The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu within the context of cross-dressing narratives and as a lesbian-like narrative (she doesn’t use that specific term), as well as comparing it with its highly abridged knock-off The Entertaining Travels and Surprizing Advenrures of Mademoiselle de Leurich.