Any time I'm obsessed with a particular text, I'm likely to spend a fair amount of effort to hunt down as much of the scholarly literature on it as I can. (I don't think I can ever exhaust my interest in commentary on Yde and Olive!) For one thing, lesbian historical studies have something of a history of jumping to lesbian-friendly interpretations of texts or persons, and it can be essential to examine contrary opinions. Clearly I need to track down Susan Lamb's analysis to see what I think of her arguments on Mademoiselle de Richelieu. (It will, of course, have no effect on my irrational fondness for this highly peculiar text.) Every time I read another study of this work, I get excited about the fiction project that it inspired in my imagination. Not the straightforward novelization that I first conceived, but something of a time-slip story, overlaying the original fiction with a pair of modern characters that include a woman studying the text. So many writing projects, so little time!
Gonda, Caroline. 2006. “Lesbian Narrative in the Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu” in British Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies 29, no. 2: 191-200.
Gonda examines the rather peculiar mid-18th century text The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu within the context of cross-dressing narratives and as a lesbian-like narrative (she doesn’t use that specific term), as well as comparing it with its highly abridged knock-off The Entertaining Travels and Surprizing Advenrures of Mademoiselle de Leurich.
Mlle. de Richelieu is an eclectic and peculiar text, including numerous digressions on hereditary monarchy, religion, philosophy, various types of literature, and travel narratives, as well as the core picaresque adventure retained in Mlle. de Leurich that Gonda concisely sums up thus: “The narrator/heroine Alithea de Richelieu dresses as a man, calls herself the Chevalier de Radpont, and goes around Europe flirting with women, mostly avoiding duels with men, hearing love-stories and scandals from the people she meets. ... [N]o one sees through her disguise, but she reveals her true sex to the charming widow Arabella, who is delighted by the revelation and becomes her inseparable companion: Alithea and Arabella, both dressed as men (and accompanied by their maids, Lucy and Diana, cross-dressed as their valets de chambre), wreak havoc in women’s hearts in Italy, Spain, and Portugal before returning to France (by way of England and the Low Countries), resuming their female dress and identities and settling down together, six months a year in Paris and six months in the country.”
Gonda summarizes some of the past literature on this text. Carolyn Woodward concludes that the heterogenous text is what allows and conceals the transgressive nature of the content. Susan Lamb views it as an anti-feminist satire, especially with its repeated emphasis on how two women cannot consummate their relationship, and suggests that it may instead be a gender-flipped account of a male homoerotic couple. Susan Lanser identifies it as “sapphic picaresque” and considers the homoerotic content bound up in the adventure setting.
The anonymous authorship contributes to the ability to postulate such different readings. The text presents itself as a translation (which might hypothetically explain some of the internal dissonances) but there is no corroborating evidence that it actually was originally in French as claimed. Lanser views the incongruities as part and parcel of the inherent queerness of the text.
Within the general context of “transvestite narratives” Mlle de Richelieu breaks convention. Joseph Harris’s study of 17th c French cross-dressing stories notes that they only temporarily challenge gender roles, returning to the status quo at the end, often by means of marriage. The conclusion of such narratives typically coincides with the revelation of the cross-dresser’s “true sex”. In contrast, it is Alithea’s revelation of her true sex to Arabella that initiates their travels together.
Another contrast with the texts that Harris studied is Alithea and Arabella’s continual flirtation with homoerotic desire, in contrast to the more usual situation where homoeroticism (though expected in the text) arises from an unwitting female admirer agressively pursuing the more restrained and avoidant cross-dresser. (The exception being texts where the cross-dresser is using her disguise to distract a female rival through feigned seduction.)
Alithea and Arabella, in contrast, regularly seek out women to court and flirt with, though they always draw back at the end. Gonda notes that the use of “whim” or “whimsical” in this context can be seen as an 18th century code word for lesbian desire. As when Arabella says of Alithea, “that unaccountable Whim of yours, of dabbling in Amours and Gallantry” as well as many other similar references in the text. “Unaccountable” is another keyword in contexts of female homoeroticism.
Arabella and Alithea also break the pattern of the “female husband” narrative, which is based on a sort of butch-femme model. Rather than embodying a gender contrast, they are both simultaneously butch (when traveling together in male disguise) or simultaneously femme (when they eventually settle down to live together as women).
It is not Alithea’s masculinity that secures Arabella’s desire, but her revelation of her female identity, uncovering her breasts, at which Arabella embraces her “with transports rather of a lover than of a friend.” Their erotic response to each other is intensified by the contrast between their public (male) appearance and their knowledge of their private (female) identity. Alithea, having initiated the cross-dressing adventure and encouraged Arabella in the game of flirtation with women, becomes obsessed and jealous of Arabella’s success at the game and women’s resposne to her.
Although one might see (as Susan Lamb suggests) a shadow of a male homosocial bond--two men as comrades using their flirtations with women as a way of intensifying their friendship--the text itself addresses this, showing male comradeship as false and dangerous.
The two women joke regularly about their attractiveness to women and egg each other on, ghost-writing letters for each other to the women they toy with and describing the imagined desire those women have for their comrade. When speaking directly of each other’s charms, it is typically in a projected male voice, imagining how a man would react (or how each of them would react as a man). They do not reject the possibility of desire for a woman, but rather make it possible to experss their desire for each other by voicing it as an imagined man.
The language in which they imagine the desire of men for women (it makes the men happy) stands in contrast to how they imagine women’s desire for men (it is a threat, a curse, foolish). Thus, they conclude that the idea of love is for a woman to be in love with a cross-dressed woman for she can enjoy the joys of love without being betrayed and disappointed by the “dull brutal conclusion” of heterosexual sex.
This theme is elaborated in one of the many digressions, this one involving yet another cross-dressing woman that Alithea is attracted to, not knowing the woman’s true sex, but only appreciating her “effeminate delicacy.” This woman, Miss Courbon, is in disguise to escape a forced marriage. She and Alithea encounter each other, each beliving the other a man, resulting in an unsettled reaction in Alithea who considers it out of character for her to be attracted to a man. It isn’t until Alithea is made aware of Miss Courbon’s true sex that Alithea enters enthusiastically into a flirtation. (Susan Lamb notes that the location in Paris where the two first encounter each other was a notorious cruising ground for male homosexuals, which contributes to her theory about authorship. The nature of the location is not touched on the text itself.) This episode occurs early in the text (pre-Arabella) and is the first of Alithea’s flirtations to be described, establishing the pattern that her affairs with women occur in the context of dual cross-dressing.
Thoughout the text, women who allow themselves to be seduced by men habitually suffer as a result. Miss Courbon eventually is one such, with the negative consequences described in more detail than others. Miss Courbon follows a more typical cross-dressing narrative: disguise for the purpose of avoiding forced marriage, inadvertent attraction between women, shift attraction to a man and resume a female presentation, get married. In the conventional cross-dressing narrative, this is the desired conclusion. Here, the rejection of that narrative is seen as making her fate tragic.
While Mlle. de Richelieu breaks with the French transvestite-story conventions, it also fails to follow British conventions for this genre. The pattern in 18th century British fiction is for the cross-dressing woman either to be re-confined in heterosexual domesticity, or punished harshly for her transgression of gender norms.
In the conclusion, Mlle. de Richelieu creates a “double vision” where Alithea and Arabella can be seen either as a “happily ever after” lesbian romantic conclusion, or as a displacement and denial of lesbian desire, always projecting it onto other women.