Early nineteenth century women writing men:
men, masculinity and the struggle for male authority in the fiction
of Minerva Press writer Amelia Beauclerc
In recent years, both historians and literary
critics have increasingly turned their attention to the vast
corpus of novels written by English women writers in the early
nineteenth century. Garside,
Raven and Schöwerling’s seminal bibliography of the English
novel in the long eighteenth century has helped to re-map the
literary landscape of the Romantic era ,
while internet database projects like Sheffield
Hallam University’s Women Writers on the Web (CW³) or
Chawton House Library’s Novels-Online aim
to promote non-canonical novels of the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth century. Heightened interest in the print culture
of this period has triggered off research into the publication,
distribution, and reading practices of the time which has revealed
that women dominated the literary market both as producers and
consumers of the novel .
These findings have led to a reassessment
of Jürgen Habermas’ influential, yet contentious model of a
male-dominated public sphere in which public opinion is formed
through the participation of the private man in rational discourse
Mellor’s contribution to this reassessment in her formative
work Mothers of the Nation has been especially helpful
in the way it draws attention to women’s participation in the
public sphere. Mellor claims that the limitation of participants
in the public sphere to propertied men is “historically incorrect”
she argues that women in the Romantic Era not only participated
actively in the same discursive sphere as men, but also took
on the role of “shapers of public opinion” (Mellor: 9). Moreover,
Mellor proposes to replace the ideology of separate sexual spheres,
that has hitherto dominated feminist discourse, with a more
flexible, permeable model that allows for the complex, intertwined
relationship between public and private life in the early nineteenth
Mellor corroborates her claim by examining the literature of
non-canonical authors of the Romantic Era like Hannah More and
Amelia Opie. She cogently demonstrates that these women
writers identified the private household as the source of moral
public virtue, thereby not only effectively erasing “any meaningful
distinction between the private and the broadly defined public
sphere” (Mellor: 31), but also putting women in charge of the
moral reform of the nation. Despite this important attempt
to reassess the woman’s writer’s role in the public sphere,
Mellor’s work, like other research on non-canonical women writers
in the Romantic Era, has remained marked by a tendency to limit
the attention to moral-didactic writings of Evangelicals and
Radicals, thereby ignoring the vast corpus of "fashionable
novels" of the early nineteenth century.
Predominantly written by middle-class women
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for a fast
growing market, most of these fashionable novels were published
by the infamous Minerva Press, run by the “printing poulterer”
William Lane and, from 1809 onwards, his successor A. K. Newman
fashionable novels, often hastily written out of sheer economic
necessity rather than literary ambition, were known for their
clichéd and predictable plots and were hence disregarded both
by contemporary and modern literary critics as negligible "reading-fodder"
for an avaricious and "omnivorous" reading public.
However, this dismissive
attitude towards the fashionable novel and its numerous readers
fails to take into account this genre’s potential to be an efficient
carrier of both reactionary and subversive discourses. This
potential is recognized by Jacqueline Pearson in her work on
nineteenth century women’s reading, as she points out that “almost
all genres, however apparently harmless, could be read rebelliously
and resistingly rather than compliantly” ,
and it can be argued that the allegedly superficial
genre of the fashionable novel played a particularly important
part in the shaping of public opinion in the Romantic Era. The
very fact that writers of Minerva-style fiction had to avoid
overtly radical or evangelical statements to ensure broad commercial
success, meant that these novels could reach a largely female
reading public that was based in the “tepid, the backsliding
and the utterly indifferent nineteenth-century household” 
– a reading public that had probably made
the conscious decision to avoid radical or moral-didactic writings
in favour of what was considered to be purely recreational reading.
Therefore, the cultural importance of the fashionable
novel as a platform for women’s participation in the dominant
discourses of the time should not be underestimated.
One of these dominant discourses was the
discourse on masculinity and male authority which revealed –
and by revelation also produced – profound anxieties about the
increasingly unstable gender boundaries and the corruption of
the dominant masculinity concept of English society, the gentleman.
Of course, anxiety about masculinity and masculinity concepts
was not a phenomenon unique to the early nineteenth century.
Masculinity is, and always was, a highly unstable and hence
contested category ,
but never before became this instability so apparent and was
so (self-)consciously discussed in the public sphere through
the debate on the gentleman as the norm of ideal masculinity
From the late seventeenth century onwards,
masculinity became increasingly defined as distinct from, and
in opposition to, femininity and effeminacy .
Women, as well as the effeminate man, were now perceived
as "the other" against which “man had to be constructed
in difference” and to which men should keep a guarded distance
[Cohen and Hitchcock: 8). This, however, presented a problem
to the prevalent aristocratic gentleman ideal as it relied heavily
on a French influenced concept of politeness in which woman’s
society and conversation was essential to the construction of
the perfect polite gentleman .
The middle-classes used this insecurity
of the aristocracy about its own masculinity ideal to question
the leisured élite’s manliness and their alleged natural claim
to leadership. As both external and internal conflicts
like the French Revolution, the constant wars with a meritocratic
France, Luddite riots and social unrest put pressure on the
aristocratic leadership, it became vulnerable to the attacks
of increasingly self-confident middle-class professionals who
no longer perceived the class of aristocratic gentleman as natural
and manly leaders, but as Frenchified, weak, and above all,
effeminate parasites of society who were incapable to provide
the moral and political guidance that was so vital to society
in the times of war and conflict .
However, the middle-class reformers – “generally
more interested in appropriating than abolishing the privileges
traditionally accorded to aristocracy” 
–were fully aware of the symbolic capital the concept of the
gentleman entailed. Despite its corruption by the aristocracy,
it still could function as a binding cultural norm that helped
to define and regulate unstable masculinity and conferred “the
privilege of unquestioned social prestige and authority” 
onto those who could fulfil – or
at least pretended to fulfil – the norm. Thus, both the
aristocracy and the middle classes endeavoured to reform the
gentleman concept, clear it from the charge of effeminacy and
claim it for themselves in their mutual bid for political and
social leadership. This struggle over the gentleman concept
and social authority resulted in the formation of numerous rivalling
and often contradictory definitions of ideal masculinity and
gentlemanliness which were discussed, criticised and promoted
in the public sphere.
A great part of this critical and promotional
activity took place in the literary public sphere 
and was by no way restricted to male writers
and readers: in particular through the writing and reading of
novels, women joined actively in the discussion and added to
it their own criticism of male authority in general, thus participating
in process of constant deconstruction and construction of masculinity
This active participation in a process of
men-(un)making can be illustrated by the example of Amelia Beauclerc,
a nowadays forgotten early nineteenth century author whose ambiguous
treatment of men in her novels merits a closer look.
So far, no biographical information is readily
available about Amelia Beauclerc, so that her social background,
her education and her motivation for writing must stay, at least
at the moment, a matter of mere speculation. What is known
is that in the years between 1811 and 1820, she published eight
novels, six of them with the Minerva Press. Although the
Feminist Companion to Literature in English calls her
best work “impressive” ,
none of her novels can really be regarded as a forgotten masterpiece.
Nonetheless, hidden under the façade of what a contemporary
reviewer rightfully called “ordinary” novels “full of improbable
incidents and romantic sentiments” ,
lurks an ambiguous and subversive reading of masculinity and
male authority that could fairly be called "dangerous,"
as it encouraged the reader to question male authority and play
an active role in the public debate on masculinity.
At first glance, however, Beauclerc seems
to assume rather a conventional stance towards the issue of
masculinity, by seemingly supporting the aristocracy’s claim
to hold the monopoly on true gentlemanliness. In all her
novels, male middle-class characters are exposed to the ridicule
of both readers and the aristocratic male heroes of the novel.
Those middle-class men who attempt to style themselves
as gentlemen, Beauclerc exposes unmercifully to the venom of
her narrator, who, for instance, describes Mr. Bullock, a villainous
upstart in Beauclerc’s fifth novel Montreithe; or, The Peer
of Scotland as a “crusty, purse-proud, old mushroom, that
had risen from the compost heap” .
When Mr. Biron, another social
climber and “knight of the shuttle” (M I, 12), unwisely
boasts to George Montreithe about his fortune, George, the very
embodiment of the aristocratic English gentleman, lectures Mr.
Biron on the impossibility of attaining the rank of gentleman
through wealth alone, and thus crushes Biron’s hope for unquestionable
male authority (M IV, 279).
Beauclerc seems to promote an equally conservative
attitude towards the gender hierarchy and men and women’s prescribed
role in it. Women’s destiny in life is to be a good wife
and mother: “’To marry and be a mother, is the perfection of
woman.’ It is an established maxim, and made use of by
both French and English authors’," argues the narrator
in Montreithe (M IV, 5). In Beauclerc’s
best novel Husband Hunters!!! Louisa, an independent
amateur writer of average novels, gives up her writing for a
more conventional life of married bliss .
In contrast, Beauclerc’s men are
allowed to prove themselves as captains in the navy or as masters
of large estates. Despite this seemingly uncontroversial
and conventional attitude towards the existing class and gender
structures and men’s position within it, a closer look at Beauclerc’s
men in her work reveals a much more complex treatment of masculinity.
Her criticism of middle-class upstarts, the celebration of aristocratic
superiority and her propagation of female domesticity and subordination
appears to serve as a kind of literary Trojan horse that helps
to drive her subversive critique of masculinity into the very
heart of her middle- and upper-class readership.
Throughout Beauclerc’s work, male characters
become the target of Beauclerc’s often tongue-in-cheek criticism.
Women’s laughter, directed at men, is the salient feature
of Beauclerc’s novels and is never checked or criticized. Instead,
female laughter is used to expose the failure of masculinity
and male authority. This is a sure sign that behind the
seemingly conservative ideology of Beauclerc’s novels is hidden
a subversive message that carries Beauclerc’s very own interpretation
of feminism, as “laughing at men," so Audrey Bilger in
Laughing Feminism, “involves a rejection of the hierarchy
that subordinates women and calls for a rebellion against women’s
so-called superiors” .
One of Beauclerc’s principal targets is
the aristocratic male in his role as incompetent father – “a
particularly subversive male comic character," so Bilger,
as “an author who ridiculed parental authority offered a direct
challenge to society at large” (Bilger: 134; 135). Comical
and failed father figures abound in Beauclerc’s fiction: Admiral
Sir Harbottle in The Castle of Tariffa, “a most delightful
character, a genuine sailor, so liberal, so hospitable, and
so droll” ,
the "atheist-turns-fervent-preacher" Harcott in
Disorder and Order ,
or the cross-dressing Count Carlomont in The Deserter 
are introduced to undermine the male claim to leadership
in the hierarchy of gender, to make the female reader “laugh
at the myth of male superiority” (Bilger: 119), or present male
authority as frail and problematic. Arguably the two most
striking (and entertaining) specimens of troubled masculinity
are the Earl of Valamour in The Deserter and Lord Montreithe
in the aforementioned Montreithe.
In her rather eccentrically plotted novel
The Deserter, Beauclerc introduces the comical figure
of Earl Valamour as a “teazing [sic], cross, impatient infant,
and a disagreeable, silly boy. Nature had given him a
mean aspect, and a diminutive person – and his capacity seemed
of equal growth” (D, I, 1). Raised by his
widowed and overly indulgent mother, he grows up without any
strong male role model and falls into a fit whenever his wishes
are opposed. His guardian, Sir Jasper, tries to instil
some sense in him, but “As the expiration of his minority was
drawing near, Sir Jasper ceased to torment him, judging that
all the doctors in Salamanca could not furnish a pericranium,
where no inlet was to be found” (D I, 11). Thus
already ill-favoured by nature and unable to live up to the
ideal of the gentleman, the Earl’s fear of strangers, his lack
of grace and good-breeding earns him only the derisive smile
of the public instead of respect, deference and admiration.
Having failed in the attempt to assert his male authority
in the public sphere of the fashionable society, he retires
into the private sphere of his own family to escape the emasculating
laugh of the public. But even here he does not succeed
in establishing himself as a figure of authority and respect.
In an attempt to deprive him of his title, an heir-in-waiting
has a statute of lunacy issued against him, from which he is
only saved by the birth of his “beautiful, strong” son (D
I, 16), who is considered to be sufficient proof of his sanity
and his masculinity. His reaction to the birth of his
heir, however, leads the reader to believe that the statute
might not really be completely unjustified: “… the earl [sic]
was half frantic. He squeaked, he jumped, he cried, he
laughed and then fell into a fit. ‘Take my lord away,’ said
the countess, ‘he makes my head ache’” (D I, 22).
This "taking away" of the male
patriarchal figure, its failure and removal even from the domestic
sphere, is re-enacted later in the novel in more dramatic terms
and ends in the death of the father: the Earl, convinced that
his relatives plan the abduction of his heir, flees with his
family to Lisbon where he and his wife fall under the spell
of the duplicitous Mrs. Crofts, who gradually displaces the
Earl as family patriarch. When he eventually discovers
her duplicity, his attempt to re-assert his male authority fails
miserably as the description of the encounter between him and
Crofts shows: “Crofts had no fear of the little man – she possessed
herself of his cane, and sat down at the other end of the room
without dread of his threats” (D I, 41). After
she has thus "castrated" him by removing the phallic
symbol of male authority, his cane, she has him locked up in
a (phallically shaped) turret and declares him to be mad. Only
his little son stays loyal to him and manages to release his
father, who, emaciated by his confinement, dies on “young Edgar’s
bosom” (D I, 6, 44) minutes after his release. With
the tragicomical death of the figurehead of patriarchal authority
and control now passed into the hands of a woman, Beauclerc
unmercifully deconstructs the figure of the family patriarch
and lets male authority fail miserably.
Beauclerc’s clearest attack on patriarchy
can be found in her fifth novel Montreithe. It
is therefore not surprising that a work praised by the Feminist
Companion to Literature in English for its treatment of
gender issues (Feminist Companion, 74) was dismissed
by a contemporary (probably male) reviewer in strong words
The novel is centred on the notorious spendthrift
Lord Montreithe, a selfish, inconsiderate and irresponsible
“fashionist” (M I, 4), who abandons his paternal duties
for the fashionable pleasures of hunting, horse-racing and cock-fighting.
Even after the death of his patient wife, he does not
cut back on his social activities to care for his two children
George and Ariana. Although he loves them, he repeatedly
ignores their pleas for financial security, education and moral
instruction. Consequently, he soon loses both their respect
and his control over them. In the place of filial respect,
he only earns his children’s laughter. They even claim
the right to censor their father’s speech, as his daughter Ariana
demonstrates: “Ariana, almost expiring with laughter, put her
hand over his mouth, and stopped her father’s dumb crambo, adding,
‘that he was too ridiculous, and urged risibility beyond bearing’”
(M II, 198). This laughter is by no means confined
to the private sphere, but follows him into the public sphere
of society. Beauclerc shows that his refusal to fulfil
his paternal duties in the domestic sphere has serious consequences
for his status in the public sphere: far from being able to
assert his male authority, he becomes not only the target of
public laughter and derision, but is also assigned by society
the role of the good-hearted, entertaining, yet weak fool –
an easy prey to scheming servants and husband hunters.
In Montreithe, however, Amelia Beauclerc
does not simply question male authority, but also attempts to
show both the cause and the remedy for the failure of existing
masculinity concepts. By contrasting the failed father
figure Montreithe with Sir Julian Fitzosborne, one of Beauclerc’s
few flawless representatives of ideal masculinity and “man as
he should be” (M IV, 259), she traces
Montreithe’s failure as a father back to the lack of exposure
to positive, morally sound, but above all, female influence,
which, not unlike Hannah More and the Evangelicals, she deems
necessary for the development of a virtuous, moral personality.
In contrast to Sir Julian, whose strong and moral mother
still exerts her influence over him, Lord Montreithe was brought
up by his over-indulgent, weak father and, so the narrator explains,
“the consequence was that the heir of Montreithe was a turbulent,
bold boy, who carried everything before him in the current of
self-will” (M I, 2). Without maternal role-model,
he lacks sound moral values. As he is perfectly aware
of this deficiency, he avoids those women he identifies as morally
superior (M I, 53) and thus fails to recognize both the
importance of the domestic sphere for the stability of society,
and women’s role as moral authority in it (M I, 52).
Instead, he subscribes to the masculinist notion of female
influence as potentially effeminizing and emasculating. Scared
of losing his masculinity and turning into, as he formulates
it, “a lady’s man – a perfumed, fribbling fellow, only
useful as the ridicule that was at her elbow” (M
II, 256), he flees the domestic sphere of his home and neglects
his duty as father .
From Beauclerc’s point
of view, it is this refusal to participate in the domestic sphere
and Montreithe’s failure to fulfil his role as guardian, instructor
and protector – the “fantiddling after women, especially
if they are sick," as he calls it (M II, 219, Beauclerc’s
italics) – that is responsible for his failure as (gentle)man.
As she demonstrates through the character of Sir Julian
who, unlike Montreithe, actively seeks virtuous female company
and never fails to show consideration as his mother’s guardian,
the only way to earn the status of ideal gentleman is to undergo
a positive "feminization" (in contrast to the emasculating
"effeminization"), adopt a maternal ethic of care,
and revalue the domestic sphere as important and influential
within the structure of society.
To prove her point
further, Beauclerc replaces the generation of failed fathers
in her novels with a generation of sons who can be described
as "domesticated gentlemen." These domesticated
gentlemen are characterized by their willingness to embrace
both maternal and paternal duties without fear of losing their
status as "man." A prime example of this new
breed of domesticated gentlemen is Sir Lucius Fitzgerald, the
lovable, yet flawed protagonist in Husband Hunters!!!.
He is “naturally fond of children” (HH II, 7) and
was, so his sister, ”the best nurse my poor babe had when it
was alive” (HH II, 7) – a recommendation that is not
lost on the female protagonist Louisa: “What a heavenly disposition
has this man!” thought Louisa; “his tenderness to children is
another proof of his good heart – so handsome too! I wish
he was not Irish!” (HH
II, 7). Alongside the right nationality and, interestingly,
physical attractiveness, it is the capacity for maternal feelings
and actions, not their wealth or rank, that determines the eligibility
of male characters and characterizes Beauclerc’s definition
of the ideal man.
Another important component
of the domesticated, successful male character is his readiness
to acknowledge women’s capacity for providing moral guidance.
for example, Monimia’s first love Belville, who had broken their
engagement by beginning an affair with an adulterous French
countess, soon repents his actions and submits to Monimia’s
moral authority. He begs: “Make me what you please” (C
III, 62), thus entrusting her with the making of his masculine
identity. Endowed with almost god-like creational powers and
holding moral authority firmly in her hands, woman in Beauclerc’s
fiction finds herself empowered and superior to man. Despite
this empowerment, however, Beauclerc never demands the radical
overthrow of man’s leadership in society. On the contrary:
despite woman’s superiority, the conventional structure of the
gender hierarchy remains untouched, as the remainder of Belville’s
entreaty proves: “I swear to obey you,” Belville continues,
“until by some happier turn you shall promise to obey me”
(C III, 5, 62-3; Beauclerc’s italics). The short
moment of gender anarchy is over, man’s place as authoritative
leader is re-established – and feminist tendencies in Beauclerc’s
work seem to be nipped in the bud. Yet Beauclerc’s refusal
to join in the radical feminist discourse does not automatically
mean a reactionary confirmation of restrictive gender roles
and the acceptance of the myth of natural male superiority.
Belville, for instance, can only assume his role as family patriarch
after Monimia has (re-) formed him into the man of her making:
the ultimate power to endow and therefore also to withdraw male
authority still lies in female hands. When Monimia’s sister
Laura declares, “I am no stickler for the ‘Rights of Woman’.
I allow myself to be the weaker vessel …” (C II, 111),
Beauclerc’s strategy to hide her own feminist ambitions behind
seemingly reactionary attitudes becomes apparent: firstly, Laura
relinquishes her right to be the "stronger" vessel
only, if her future husband leaves the traditionally male role
of financial provider of the family to her, thus establishing
a partnership between them that is already more equal than the
image of the "weak vessel" suggests. Secondly,
being the weaker vessel is for Laura by no means a natural and
unchangeable fact, but rather a freely chosen option.
She “allows” herself to be the weaker vessel, safe in the knowledge
that she could fulfil the role of leader in the gender hierarchy,
if only she chose to. Men, so Beauclerc’s heroines seem
to say, are by no means naturally superior to women. Rather,
they are rather allowed to keep their exalted station in the
gender hierarchy by grace of woman, who is revealed to be the
maker, reformer and controller of men. Beauclerc’s pseudo-reactionary
attitude towards gender issues serves as a façade behind which
a subversive feminist message is hidden: men are only seemingly
in control and women are the keeper of both the nation’s morality
and the family purse.
But women are not only
the true guardians of morality and finances. In her work,
Beauclerc attacks the very basis on which all gender hierarchy
rests: the “natural masculine talent for rationality and self-mastery,"
as Philip Carter puts it so succinctly (Carter: 74). In
Beauclerc’s fiction, no madwoman is hid in the attic, but madmen
freely and visibly roam the scenes, desperately trying to hold
on to reason and preserve their male authority.
“Do be more rational,
for you are not like yourself” (M II, 66), exhorts Ariana
the seducer Bouvrier in Montreithe – a warning that could
be directed at almost all of Beauclerc’s male characters, including
the heroes of her narrative like Sir Lucius in Husband Hunters!!!,
or George Montreithe in Montreithe. Almost
all male characters are ruled by their passions and emotions,
and – when denied the fulfilment of their desires by a virtuous,
but above all self-controlled and rational woman – their tenuous
hold on reason and their inability to contain their emotions
is laid bare.
Belville, for instance,
when rejected by the virtuous Monimia, displays this typical
reaction which is repeated with slight variations by all of
Beauclerc’s irrational men: “… disappointment and rage quite
overset his reason; for a short time he felt very much inclined
to hang himself …”(C I, 92). Shortly after that
he is again rejected: “Belville was absolutely frantic …, he
struck his forehead and stamped again with phrenzy [sic].” (C
I, 185). Even the almost perfect Sir Herbert in Alinda;
or, The Child of Mystery turns, when confronted with the
disappearance of Alinda, into a “whelming cataract … leaving
the secretary under the idea that he was verging towards mental
derangement, or was a very eccentric man” .
Uncontrolled and impulsive behaviour like the one described
above, is constantly contrasted with the calm and rational behaviour
of the female protagonist who masters similar crises with the
occasional fainting fit, but otherwise with composure and decorum.
Male protagonists and their behaviour during times of
emotional turmoil are frequently described as “almost mad” (C
I, 180), or as “like a madman” (A II, 263; M II,
136). Frequently, they are driven “almost to madness”
(e.g. C II, 179), or taken “for a madman” (e.g. M
IV, 163; D I, 66). By restricting the use of the
term "mad" to exclusively male behaviour under stress,
Beauclerc establishes a subtle, but disturbing link between
masculinity and madness. To the contemporary reader this
link must have been especially poignant as it called to mind
the "madness" of King George III with its connotations
of instability on both private as well as public level. Thus
one can argue that Beauclerc transcends the "private sphere"
of the private reader and politicizes her critique of masculinity
almost subconsciously, thereby encouraging the reader to apply
the awakening feeling of distrust of male leadership to the
level of governmental and national leadership .
of Lord Edgar Melvurne, the aforementioned protagonist in The
Deserter, however, originates not only in his incapacity
to subdue his impulses and control his imagination. Beauclerc’s
dramatic description of Edgar’s constant battle with delusions
throughout the novel can be interpreted as the effect of what
in modern masculinity studies is called "role stress"
– the distress experienced by men who are caught between competing
masculinity concepts in their attempt to find their own masculine
identity and a place in the gender hierarchy .
Almost two centuries before modern masculinity studies formulated
this idea of role stress, early nineteenth-century authors like
Beauclerc already showed that it was not just a phenomenon of
the twentieth century, but demonstrated instead a surprising
awareness of masculinity as a contested, culturally constructed
and rigidly enforced role that men are required to conform to,
regardless of their personal situation. Beauclerc finds
masculinity to be "in crisis" and describes the effects
this crisis has on the protagonist of her novel, Edgar.
Although at the beginning
of The Deserter Edgar is introduced to the reader as
the potential ideal man and the saviour of patriarchal authority,
the symbolic castration of his father at the hands of Crofts
and the subsequent failure of the patriarchal system have left
him deeply traumatized. Stripped of his rank, name and
his origin by Crofts, who makes him believe that his identity
as Lord Melvurne was nothing but a figment of his overactive
imagination, he struggles throughout the novel to carve out
an identity for himself and find his place in society. Plagued
by Don Quixote-like delusions that drive him to absurd and misdirected
attempts at typical Minerva-style "damsel in distress"
heroism, he finds himself in the end robbed off everything that
in his eyes confers male authority: self-control, independence,
and, above all, rationality. Unable to fall back on conventional
external signifiers of male authority like wealth and rank,
he is thrown into an existential identity crisis: “I dare not
trust myself; I have no fortitude – no resolution; I am a thing
inferior to manhood," he raves in a stream-of-consciousness
like monologue at the height of his mental crisis. No
longer a "man," he feels himself to be a mere “blot
in creation” (D IV, 39; 36-7).
The consequences of
his inability to live up to the ideal of the aristocratic gentleman
are aggravated by his refusal to fully embrace the self-reliant,
meritocratic middle-class concept of the self-made gentleman
that could offer him a way out of his identity crisis. Unlike
the positively portrayed Colonel Welford in The Castle of
Tariffa, who emphatically embraces the new masculinity concept
influenced by a pre-Carlylean work ethic, exclaiming “I was
born for something better than idleness!” (C 3, 80),
Edgar is torn between contradicting concepts of ideal masculinity
and, unable to choose, remains passively caught up in his mental
disorder that brings him to the brink of death. He is
only rescued from this desperate situation by a typical improbable
Minerva-style twist in the plot that reveals his true identity
and status as Earl Valamour. This conferment of rank by
the hands of the female author turns him from nothing into someone:
his rank endows him with instant authority that commands deference
and earns him “silent admiration” from those inferior (D
IV, 28). He now feels himself so secure in his male
authority, that he even assumes the role of mentor and educator
of his wife to be, Lavinia. Although throughout the novel,
Lavinia, unlike Edgar, hardly ever showed any signs of emotional
instability or uncontrollable fits of passion, Edgar diagnoses
in her ”the enthusiasm of a mind untempered by reason, religion,
or rational education […] her ideas, too exuberant, were weakened
by their own luxuriance – they required pruning and methodising
to give them firmness and solidity. Edgar saw those defects,
and delighted in the pleasing task of giving them the proper
bent …” (D IV, 187).
The reader cannot help
but be astonished at the sudden change in Edgar. Yet it
would be too easy to dismiss this sudden role reversal between
the "mad" Edgar and the "controlled" Lavinia
as a proof of Beauclerc’s failure as a novelist, or her anxiety
to re-establish the traditional gender hierarchy to ensure that
her work would not be dismissed as too controversial or radical.
In the context of her constant attacks on male authority
throughout her work, it is arguably legitimate to read this
ending subversively, as a deliberate, narrative strategy employed
to even further undermine the authority of her male character
through the creation of a feeling of unease and an attitude
of distrust towards the hero. Is the hero really reformed
and in control of his feelings? Has he a grip on reality
or is his role as his wife’s mentor just one last, desperate
and delusional attempt to re-instate the gender hierarchy? These
are the questions that involuntarily creep into the head of
the resisting reader. Through this strategy of unease
and distrust, the author asks the reader to subject the male
protagonist to close scrutiny and to question the legitimacy
of his bid for leadership in a rebellious act of reading. Beauclerc
attempts to “puncture the heroic myths men have created for
through the active involvement of the reader in this
process of questioning and deconstructing of male authority.
is not the only novel in which Beauclerc applies this strategy
of distrust and unease. In Montreithe, the hitherto
blameless "über-gentleman" George Montreithe is gradually
deconstructed by subtle, but effective narratorial manipulations
that undermine the credibility of the hero, making at the same
time the reader an accomplice in this act of deconstruction
of male authority. Slowly the narrator leads the reader
to suspect that George has an affair with a promiscuous countess
that leads him to temporary madness and a “delusive excursion”
(M IV, 164) not unlike Edgar’s in The Deserter.
As neither the unreliable narrator nor George himself
directly admit the affair and George’s bout of madness in the
wilderness of St. Helena is never explicitly linked to his moral
dilemma, the reader actively has to piece together the evidence
against George and is still left with a feeling of unease and
distrust at the end, which is strengthened further by the last
sentence of the novel. After George’s reconciliation with
his first love and their marriage the narrator states: “My hero
and heroine were rational beings, not slaves to passion” (M
IV, 303). This statement with regard to George is so obviously
at variance with George’s behaviour a few chapters earlier,
that, like the similar statement in The Deserter, it
can be interpreted as an ironic reminder of George’s emotional
instability that reinforces the reader’s distrust of the protagonist
even beyond the end of the novel.
In her work, Beauclerc
asserts her own authority as female author through a strong,
often clearly gendered intrusive narrator. She is the
ultimate force on which the masculinity of her protagonists
depend – she is a "men-maker." However, she also confers
power onto the reader, involving her in the process of continuous
construction and deconstruction of male authority and encouraging
her to compare existing masculinity concepts, and question the
myth of natural male superiority. Thus, the reader is
not only the narrator’s accomplice in the deconstruction of
masculinity, but is also invited by the intrusive narrator to
help with the construction of masculinity and authority. As
Beauclerc endows her heroines with the authority to "make
men" and reinstate them in their superior position, so
she gives the reader – whom she clearly identifies as female
– the power to reinstate the fallen male protagonist as
hero in the text and present, or accept him, as role model and
ideal man again.
An especially poignant
example of this "men-making" is again Belville, the
fallen hero in The Castle of Tariffa. After Belville’s
unfaithfulness, the narrator takes it onto herself to plead
for her hero with the female reader: “Belville, with all his
failings, my dear ladies, is not more faulty than his whole
sex, … . Indeed, I must plead for Belville, as he never ceased
to love Monimia, although he fell into the entanglements of
a modern Circe.” (C I, 157). The narrator
addresses the female reader directly, eager to point out Belville’s
caring side, his consideration for those neglected by society:
“Age or ugliness in a woman ever met with Belville’s indulgence.
He never neglected either; and often at court, or at the
opera, gave his arm to some ugly antique virgin, because he
had seen that other men neglected or derided her. After
all this won’t you forgive him, gentle lady?” (C I,
159). To promote her reformed and domesticated hero, the
narrator contrasts him with "real" men in society:
“If I were to suppose a man should vouchsafe to read a novel,
I need not plead at all: he would say, Belville was in the right!
‘Constancy! What stuff and nonsense! It might read very well
in the days of Petrarch; but in our days – in this enlightened
age, the bare suggestion would be quizzical’” (C I,
159-60). Through this juxtaposition, Beauclerc’s critique
of masculinity and male authority transcends the boundaries
of the novel: the reader is encouraged to compare the ideal,
domesticated Belville with actual men in society who are characterized
and distinguished from the female reader by their moral corruption
and inability to judge morally. It is therefore the female
reader who has the right of the last word and holds the power
to reinstate the fallen hero in his position of authority within
the text: “Resting on the kindness of your nature, fair reader!”
(C I, 160), the narrator exclaims, thus sharing the power
over her male protagonist with the reader.
In this empowerment
of female author, narrator, reader, and characters lies the
subversiveness of Beauclerc’s fiction. She manipulates
the novelistic conventions of the Minerva Press, using its harmless
reactionary surface to invade the domestic sphere and transcend
it by turning the readers into, to borrow from feminist critic
Kosofsky-Sedgewick, “active consumers and producers of masculinity”
the construction of male authority in the form of the gentleman
is a constitutive element of the patriarchal English society
and a guarantor of men’s continuing predominance in it, Beauclerc’s
narrative manipulations and intrusions enables her reader to
participate in the formation of public opinion, specifically
on the subject of gender and power in society. However, this
in not done in an open, radical way which would potentially
ostracise her and her fiction in society, but through the strategic
employment of subversive laughter and a strategy of distrust
which allows her to expose the flaws and failures in the prevailing
constructions of masculinity and raise awareness of the instability
and fluidity of the category "man" and its pertaining
novels, although immensely entertaining, might not be the overlooked
gems of literary excellence that could rival Austen, but they
are of great value for feminist and masculinity studies in the
way they prove that even in hitherto disregarded and derided
"fashionable" novels startling proof of female resistance
to male hegemony can be found. For this Amelia Beauclerc
deserves to be remembered, read, analysed and probably even
Isabell Achterberg (University
Garside, James Raven, and Peter Schöwerling, eds. 2000. The English
Novel 1770 – 1829: A Biographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published
in the British Isles.
Oxford: Oxford UP, especially the second volume. [back]
Notable examples are: Nigel
Cross. 1985. The Common Writer: Life
in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Jacqueline Pearson. 1999.
Women’s Reading in Britain 1750 – 1835: A Dangerous Recreation.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP; E. J. Clery, Caroline Franklin, and Peter
Garside. 2002. Authorship, Commerce and the Public: Scenes of
Writing, 1750-1850. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hants.: Macmillan,
Edward Copeland. 1995. Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction
in England, 1790-1820.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP. [back]
Jürgen Habermas. 1990. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit.
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Further discussions of the Habermasian
model of the public sphere, see: Craig Calhoun.
1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass. and
London: MIT Press. [back]
K. Mellor. 2000. Mothers of the Nation:
Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780 – 1830.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2. [back]
For a discussion of "the ideology of separate
spheres," see Leonore Davidoff, and
Catherine Hall. 1987. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English
Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P. See also Amanda
Vickery’s response and counterargument in "Golden Age to Separate
Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s
History," The Historical Journal 36 (1993): 383-414
or the same article published 1998 in: Robert
Shoemaker and Mary Vincent, eds. Gender and History in Western
Europe. 1998. London: Arnold, Women, so Vickery, were much more
actively involved in public life than hitherto acknowledged. Vickery’s
claim is supported by historians like Linda Colley. 1992. Britons:
Forging the Nation, 1707-1837. New Haven: Yale UP. See also:
Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton,
eds. 2001. Women, Writing and the Public Sphere 1700 –
1830. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, esp. 2 passim. [back]
Blakey. 1939. The
Minerva Press, 1790-1820.
Oxford: Bibliographical Society at the University Press, 6. For
a more positive and qualified view of the Minerva Press see the
excellent dissertation by Deborah McLeod on the Minerva Press. McLeod’s
research has revealed that the diversity and quality of Minerva
Press publication has been underestimated. Deborah McLeod. 1997.
Alberta: U of Alberta P. [back]
Jacqueline Pearson. 1999.
Women’s Reading in Britain 1750 – 1835: A Dangerous Recreation.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 43. [back]
Vickery. 1993. "Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of
the Categories and Chronology of Women’s History." The quotation
is taken from the aforementioned article, but the version used is
published in: Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent, eds. Gender
and History in Western Europe. 1998., London: Arnold, 207. [back]
See for a recent interesting discussion of a crisis
in masculinity Judith Kegan Gardiner ed. 2002. Masculinity Studies
and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New York: Columbia UP,
especially 10 -12. Gardiner not only suggests that masculinity
is always in crisis, but that masculinity itself is a crisis. [back]
New discoveries in anatomy led to the replacement
of the "one-body model" by a "two-body model"
which no longer saw men and women as part of the same continuum
along which masculinity and femininity was ordered, but as completely
distinct, opposite sexes. See for a concise discussion of the change
Michèle Cohen and Tim Hitchcock eds. English Masculinities 1660-1800.
1999. London and New York: Longman, 7-8. [back]
For an in-depth analysis
of the debate about effeminacy and its importance in the construction
of English masculinity and the gentleman in particular, see Michèle
Cohen. 1996. Fashioning Masculinity. National Identity and Language
in the Eighteenth Century. London and New York: Routledge.
Philip Carter’s excellent study on the gentleman and the emergence
of polite society describes the discussion about politeness, refinement,
female influence in society and the popular fears of women’s potentially
effeminizing effect on men. Philip Carter. 2001.
Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800.
Harlow, London et al.: Pearson Education. [back]
Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation.
1992. London: Yale UP, 150-3. [back]
Keen. 1999. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 79. [back]
Platz. 1997. "The Symbolic Dynamics
of the Gentleman Idea in the Victorian Novel." Literaturwissenschaftliches
Jahrbuch, 38, 151. [back]
very interesting example for this debate on the gentleman in print
culture is George Ambrose Rhodes. 1818.“The Gentleman. A Satire.
Written During the Years 1812, 1813, 1814, and 1815." London:
Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy. In this poem Rhodes defends the
aristocratic gentleman concept, but at the same time demands a moral
reform of the aristocracy in the face of political crisis national
Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel
Grundy eds. 1990. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English.
Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present. London: B.T.
Batsford, 74. The two novels named as her best work are Alinda;
or, the Child of Mystery (1812) and Montreithe; or, The Peer
(1814). Her 1816 novel Husband Hunters!!! is unjustly
ranked with her less interesting work, although it is of special
interest with regard to Beauclerc’s attitude to novel writing, women
writers and her own position as Minerva "hack." [back]
72, (November), 327. This review is also available online.
The review was provided and prepared for electronic publication
by Donna Wharam for the "Adopt an author" project "Corinne"
which forms part of Sheffield Hallam University’s Women Writers
on the Web database. http://www.2shu.ac.uk/corvey/CW3/ContribPage.cfm?Contrib=35.
Beauclerc. 1814. Montreithe; or, The
Peer of Scotland. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva
Press, IV, 191. I will henceforth refer to this novel as M,
followed by the number of the volume (in Roman numbers) and page.
Amelia Beauclerc. 1816.
Husband Hunters!!!. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva Press. I
will henceforth refer to this novel as HH, followed by number
of volume (in Roman numbers) and page. [back]
Bilger. 1998. Laughing Feminism: Subversive
Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen.
Detroit: Wayne State UP. [back]
Beauclerc. 1812. The Castle of Tariffa;
or, The Self-Banished Man. London:
Crosby & Co, I, 101. I will henceforth refer to this novel
as C, followed by number of volume (in Roman numbers) and
Beauclerc. 1820. Disorder and
Order. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva
Beauclerc. 1817. The Deserter. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva
Press. I will henceforth refer to this novel as D,
followed by number of volume (in Roman numbers) and page. [back]
“The hero of this tale,
is altogether so contemptible that we suppose the portrait was intended
for a caricature but the execution is as wretched as the conception
and if anything can be worse than the story, it is the language
in which it is related.” New Monthly Magazine. 1814.
2 (December), 444. This review is also available from the Women
Writers on the Web database: http://www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/corvey/cw3/ContribPage.cfm?Contrib=34.
Montreithe echoes here the arguments brought forth
in the debate about masculinity and its "other," effeminacy,
that took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Amelia Beauclerc. 1812.
Alinda; or, the Child of Mystery. London: Crosby & Co.,
IV, 305. I will henceforth refer to this novel as A,
followed by number of volume (in Roman numbers) and page. [back]
points out that the entire political elite seemed to suffer from
a kind of nervous breakdown during the early nineteenth century:
“Stiff upper-class lips in this period
gave way very easily to sobs, histrionics and highly charged rhetoric;
and sometimes gave way entirely.” 19 MPs were known to have
committed suicide between 1790 and 1820 and more than 20 fell “into
what seemed like insanity” (Colley: 152). [back]
David Rosen. 1993. The Changing Fictions
of Masculinity. Urbana: U of Illinois
P, xiii. [back]
Todd, ed. 1981. Men by Women. New York, London: Holmes and
Meier, 2. [back]
Kosofsky-Sedgewick. 1995. "Gosh,
Boy George, you must be awfully secure in your masculinity."
Constructing Masculinity, ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis,
and Simon Watson. London: Routledge, 13. [back]
Beauclerc, Amelia. 1812. Alinda; or, the Child of Mystery.
London: Crosby & Co.
______________. 1812. The Castle of Tariffa;
or, The Self-Banished Man. London:
Crosby & Co.
Montreithe; or, the Peer of Scotland.
London: A. K. Newman/Minerva Press.
Husband Hunters!!!. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva Press.
_______________. 1817. The Deserter. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva
Disorder and Order.
London: A.K. Newman/Minerva Press. Bilger, Audrey. 1998.
Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances
Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen.
Detroit: Wayne State UP.
Blakey, Dorothea. 1939. The Minerva
Oxford: Bibliographical Society at the University Press.
Carter, Philip. 2001. Men and the Emergence
of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800.
Harlow, London et al.: Pearson Education.
Cross, Nigel. 1985. The Common Writer: Life in
Nineteenth-Century Grub Street.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit.
Revised edition. Frankfurt
a. M.: Suhrkamp.
Mellor, Anne K. 2000. Mothers of the Nation:
Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780 – 1830.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP.
Todd, Janet, ed. 1981. Men by Women. New York, London: Holmes
and Meier.Vickery, Amanda. "Golden Age to Separate Spheres?
A Review of the Categories and Chronology of Women's History."
Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent, eds. Gender and History in
1998. London: Arnold, 197- 225.