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Early nineteenth century women writing men: men, masculinity and the struggle for male authority in the fiction of Minerva Press writer Amelia Beauclerc

  1. 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 [1], 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 [2].

  2. 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 [3].  Anne 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” [4].  Instead, 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 century [5] 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.

  3. 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 [6].  Minerva-style 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” [7], 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” [8] – 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. 

  4. 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 [9], 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 and authority.

  5. From the late seventeenth century onwards, masculinity became increasingly defined as distinct from, and in opposition to, femininity and effeminacy [10].  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 [11].

  6. 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 [12].

  7. However, the middle-class reformers – “generally more interested in appropriating than abolishing the privileges traditionally accorded to aristocracy” [13] –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” [14] 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.

  8. A great part of this critical and promotional activity took place in the literary public sphere [15] 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 concepts.

  9. 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.

  10. 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” [16], 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” [17], 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.

  11. 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” [18].  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).

  12. 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 [19].  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.

  13. 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” [20].  

  14. 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” [21], the "atheist-turns-fervent-preacher" Harcott in Disorder and Order [22], or the cross-dressing Count Carlomont in The Deserter [23] 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.

  15. 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).

  16. 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.

  17. 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 [24].

  18. 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.

  19. 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 [25].

  20. 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.

  21. 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.  

  22. Another important component of the domesticated, successful male character is his readiness to acknowledge women’s capacity for providing moral guidance.  In Castle of Tariffa, 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.

  23. 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.

  24. “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.

  25. 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” [26].  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 [27].

  26. The "madness" 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 [28]. 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.  

  27. 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).

  28. 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). 

  29. 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 themselves” [29], through the active involvement of the reader in this process of questioning and deconstructing of male authority.

  30. The Deserter 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.

  31. 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.  

  32. 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.

  33. 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” [30].  As 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 masculinity concepts.

  34. Amelia Beauclerc’s 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 enjoyed.

 

Isabell Achterberg (University of Trier)

   

Endnotes

 [1] Peter 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]

[2] 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]

[3] Jürgen Habermas. 1990. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Revised edition. 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]

[4] Anne K. Mellor. 2000. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780 – 1830. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2. [back]

[5] 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]

[6] Dorothea 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. The Minerva Press. Edmonton, Alberta: U of Alberta P.  [back]

[7] Jacqueline Pearson. 1999. Women’s Reading in Britain 1750 – 1835: A Dangerous Recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 43. [back]

[8] Amanda 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]

[9] 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]  

[10] 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]

[11] 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]

[12] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation. 1992. London: Yale UP, 150-3. [back]

[13] Paul Keen. 1999. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 79. [back]

[14] Norbert Platz. 1997. "The Symbolic Dynamics of the Gentleman Idea in the Victorian Novel." Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch, 38, 151. [back]

[15] A 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 danger.  [back]

[16] 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 of Scotland (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]

[17] Monthly Review. 1813. 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. (14/05/2003). [back]

[18] Amelia 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. [back]

[19] 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]

[20] Audrey Bilger. 1998. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State UP.  [back]

[21] Amelia 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 page. [back]

[22] Amelia Beauclerc. 1820. Disorder and Order. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva Press. [back]

[23] Amelia 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]

[24] “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. (09/07/03). [back]

[25] 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.  [back]

[26] 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]

[27] Colley 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]

[28] David Rosen. 1993. The Changing Fictions of Masculinity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, xiii. [back]

[29] Janet Todd, ed. 1981. Men by Women. New York, London: Holmes and Meier, 2. [back]

[30] Eve 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]

 

Works cited

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.

_______________. 1814. Montreithe; or, the Peer of Scotland. London: A. K. Newman/Minerva Press.

_______________. 1816. Husband Hunters!!!. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva Press.

_______________. 1817. The Deserter. London: A.K. Newman/Minerva Press

______________. 1820. 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. 

Barker, Hannah and Elaine Chalus, eds. 1997. Gender in Eighteenth Century England. Roles, Representations and Responsibilities. London and New York: Longman.

Blain, Virginia, 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.

Blakey, Dorothea. 1939. The Minerva Press, 1790-1820. Oxford: Bibliographical Society at the University Press.

Calhoun, Craig.  1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Carter, Philip.  2001. Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800. Harlow, London et al.: Pearson Education.

Clery, E. J., Caroline Franklin, and Peter Garside. 2002. Authorship, Commerce and the Public: Scenes of Writing, 1750-1850. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hants.: Macmillan, 

Cohen, Michèle. 1996. Fashioning Masculinity. National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century. London and New York: Routledge.

Cohen, Michèle. 1999. English Masculinities, 1660-1800. London and New York: Longman.

Colley, Linda. 1992. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837. New Haven: Yale UP.

Copeland, Edward. 1995. Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Cross, Nigel. 1985. The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. 1987. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P.

Eger, Elizabeth, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton, eds. 2001. Women, Writing and the Public Sphere 1700 – 1830. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan, ed. 2002. Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New York: Columbia UP.

Garside, Peter, 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.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Revised edition. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

Keen, Paul. 1999. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Kosofsky-Sedgewick, Eve. 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.

Mellor, Anne K. 2000. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780 – 1830. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP.

McLeod, Deborah Anne. 1997. The Minerva Press. Edmonton, Alberta: U of Alberta P.

Monthly Review. 1813. 72, November, 327.

New Monthly Magazine 1814. 2, December, 444.

Pearson, Jacqueline. 1999. Women’s Reading in Britain 1750 – 1835: A Dangerous Recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Platz, Norbert. 1997. "The Symbolic Dynamics of the Gentleman Idea in the Victorian Novel." Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch, 38, 147-165.

Rosen, David. 1993. The Changing Fictions of Masculinity. Urbana: U of Illinois P.

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 Western Europe. 1998. London: Arnold, 197- 225.

 

 

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