Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Stage Frights

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I'm rereading Emma Donoghue's excellent book Passions Between Women (Harper, 1993), and finding lots of good things in it.  For one thing, I located this delicious tidbit I keep thinking of but wasn't able to quote accurately before:
One librarian, Mrs Lord, was accused by certain Dublin men of lending obscene novels to their daughters; she responded by assuring them that she underlined all the dirty bits so the girls would know what to skip [15].
We should all have such librarians.

But what I like about Passions Between Women is Donoghue's ability to remember that people differ from each other, have different reasons for what they do, and probably have more than one reason for what they do.  In the chapter on Female Husbands, for example, she acknowledges that women who adopted male dress and identities, and pursued romances with other women may have had numerous reasons for doing it that way.  (It wasn't necessary to pass for male to find a girlfriend.)  She also shows that the "deceived" wives of the female husbands may not have been deceived after all, or may not have minded the deception.  When their husbands were caught, the wives often came to their defense.  The memory of Donoghue's discussion had a lot to do with why Stewart Van Cleve's account of a passing woman in 19th-century America annoyed me so much: like several scholars Donoghue criticizes, Van Cleve made unwarranted assumptions about women's motives for taking on male identities.

After the female husbands, Donoghue moves on to "breeches parts":
Female crossdressing was central to British culture in this period [1668-1801], but it was a site of contradiction and double standards.  While female husbands such as Mary Hamilton were being whipped and jailed for male impersonation, women were playing "breeches parts" in roughly a quarter of all plays.  Individual attitudes too were inconsistent and unpredictable; as Terry Castle has pointed out, Henry Fielding could denounce female transvestites in his translation of Juvenal's Sixth Satire, yet as a theatre manager hire the crossdressing actress Charlotte Charke to play male roles.  Hostility to female crossdressing does not seem to have borne any relation to the completeness of the disguise: some female soldiers who successfully passed as men were lauded for it, while other women were attacked for riding unfeminine riding habits.  The figure of the crossdresser was read in many different ways, depending on the circumstances, what her motives were thought to be, and how much she seemed to threaten the powers of men over women [87].
Donoghue says that historians, including queer ones, tend assume that the spectacle of women playing men on stage was intended to titillate male audiences, but this wasn't always the case:
Richard Steele's The Tender Husband [1705], which includes a scene of a female transvestite wooing another woman, was so popular with women that it played on Ladies' Nights (dates on which women could request the performance of a particular play) on average every two years during the first half of the eighteenth century.
The most uncomfortable moment in one such play is when Sylvia, the crossdressed heroine of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (1706) flirts and eventually spends a night with her nurse's daughter, Rose, who emerges next day in bewilderment, complaining "I don't know whether I had a Bedfellow or not."  Neither do we.  The obvious joke is that, though Rose doesn't know it, she has not had a "Bedfellow" in the sense of a male heterosexual partner.  But the audience cannot be sure what is being implied; what has happened to Rose in the night to make her so unsure about the nature of sex, about what being "Bedfellows" means?  [89]
This isn't a particularly subtle reading, but it seems to me that many scholars, whether historians or literary critics, have trouble recognizing or analyzing such ambiguities.  Donoghue stands out for her sensitivity to these realities and ambiguities.