You Have Not What You Ought Gender and Corporeal Intelligibility in Henry Fieldings The Female Husband

Date: September 21, 2010
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Eighteenth-century court records and periodicals provide glimpses of the bodies of women who cross-dressed and married other women, the so-called female husbands whose bodies challenged emergent categories of sex, gender, and sexuality. Mary East, a woman who identified herself as James How for most of her adult life, lived with another woman as husband and wife; Charlotte Charke presented herself as Mr. Brown for many years; and other cross-dressing women like the female soldier Hannah Snell and the pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read all took on traditionally masculine roles by wearing men’s clothes.

The ambiguities that emerged as cross-dressing and other sex/gender practices were prosecuted as crimes help demonstrate the precariousness of what ultimately became a falsely naturalized binary sex/gender system. During the long eighteenth century, court records show how much effort went into consolidating non-standard sexualities, even before the idea of fixed sex and gender identities had been fully developed and institutionally perpetuated. The Newgate Calendar records the ways in which criminal prosecution led to the delegitimization of a spectrum of sex/gender roles; moreover, it serves as a site for the inscription of class- and gender-based ideologies of sexuality. Kristina Straub has suggested that this is especially clear in how the Newgate Calendars represent female and/or feminine sexuality. She notes that “female sexuality” returns “as the root of the problem” in the descriptions of criminals like Mary Blandy, who was hanged for murdering her father, and Mary/Charles Hamilton, who was whipped for cross-dressing and subsequently marrying fourteen women (“Feminine Sexuality,” 228).

Not surprisingly such bodies tantalized Henry Fielding. He explores the body’s tricky status as an inscriptive site in so many of his works and was drawn to Blandy and Hamilton (the main focus of this study). Fielding showcases the ways in which exteriority produces an individual’s interiority of identity: the gestures, postures, clothing, accessories, and discourses layered onto a body exist prior to anything that might be described as a psychic core or an autonomous, essential identity. His satiric poem The Masquerade (1728) offers a telling example of this unexpected relationship. As Terry Castle has observed in Masquerade and Civilization, Fielding situates the “sartorial travesty” permitted within the context of the masquerade as necessarily pointing towards sexual transgressions that led to the production of a new “Amazonian race” of women (Castle, 47). Sexual chaos results from socially sanctioned transgressions of what we now regard as gender norms. In works as different as The Author’s Farce (1730) and An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), Fielding offers up female bodies as signs of the externalized nature of identity. More often than not, male characters in his texts maintain at least some semblance of psychic coherence, whereas female characters literally become constituted by the costumes that they wear.

Fielding’s 1746 potboiler The Female Husband, an anonymously published narrative he wrote to cash in on the scandal surrounding the true story of Hamilton, foregrounds his fascination with and fear of the ambiguities surrounding gendered embodiment and the epistemological confusion resulting from cross-dressing. Like much of Fielding’s explicitly fictional novelistic writing, this text provides him space in which he grapples with the narrative construction of sexual difference, particularly in so far as such difference is simultaneously assumed and prescribed by legal structures. With The Female Husband, he attempts to situate Hamilton’s body in ways that make it socially, sexually, and morally intelligible, even as he considers her body’s unfixity-its changeability and unintelligibility-as the basis for his narrative. Fielding’s fictionalization of Hamilton’s story serves as an attempt to render as legitimate “bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible” (Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions,” 101), while implying something even more radical (at least in the context of eighteenth-century experiments with genre): that unintelligible bodies can be contained and disciplined by narrative.

The Female Husband offers crucial insights into the relationship between mixed media and mixed-gender or mixed-sex bodies. Bodies like Mary/Charles Hamilton’s function in ways that seem to have proved incredibly seductive to Fielding (who renames Hamilton’s masculine identity George Hamilton). His text explicitly posits a connection between textual and sexual seductions, both of which Fielding tries to refuse even as he replicates and embodies them. Fielding’s self-conscious fictionalization of the trial records and his narrative structure allow him to adapt Hamilton’s story in order to highlight, first, the containment and disciplining of desire and, then, the body’s public, published visibility as a mixed-gender spectacle.

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Year of Publication: 2010

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