Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4
Chapter 2: Sapphic Breasts and Bosom Friends
Klein's book belongs more to the category of high-concept lit-crit studies than to more strictly historical studies. I'm not saying this to criticize it, but simply to situate it. The focus on various body parts is a clever conceit, but has a tendency to skew the significance of the topics she's chosen to discuss.
The focus on analyzing the narratives of cross-dressing, rather than studying the behavior and psychology of the actual historic people involved (which are far less accessible) excuses, to some extent, the way the text defaults to considering the subjects of the book always as women, and to a large extent as assumed-cis women who are employing strategic disguise. This, after all, is how the contemporary narratives about these people treat their lives. And so, as a study of the narratives (as opposed to a study of the people) it makes sense.
But it means that Sapphic Crossings is a book that is unlikely to appeal to those who are looking for historic resonances for a modern transmasculine experience. In all the discussion of the "meaning" of breasts, there is no mention of how they might participate in gender dysphoria, and it's difficult to tell whether that's because dysphoria is never hinted at in the historic narratives, or because it isn't part of what Klein is interested in studying. But never fear, the next book I plan to discuss works from an opposite default: treating all such historic cases as transgender narratives. Neither approach is ideal from a general history point of view. But together--with the understanding that the books each take their position for a particular analytic purpose--they can provide a richer background.
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The breast is an elusive gender signifier. An opening example from Hannah Snell’s biography tells how a combination of posture, breast size, and viewing angle prevented the presence of breasts from giving away her sex when she was stripped to the waist for a whipping in the army.
Working class cross-dressing narratives establish the breast not only as a sign of femaleness but as a site of erotic connection with the women who desire her. The chapter primarily examines cross-dressing in military and sea-going contexts, but also touches on Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda.
Regularly throughout the texts, the breast functions not so much to reinforce normative gender expectations, but to draw attention to female centered relationships. Alongside that function, breasts reflect racial and national stereotypes and reveal how themes of gender and desire are linked to whiteness.
During the 18th century, medical and political discourse around the breast shifted from an erotic, to a maternal symbol. And as with facial hair, we see a taxonomy of civilization reflected in breast characteristics.
In cross-dressing narratives such as that of the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, exposure of the breast is linked to being read as female, but often the revelation is deliberate and strategic, not accidental or involuntary. Deliberate exposure of the breast by a cross dressing woman to establish her sex may be done for a female audience, creating sapphic possibilities. In Belinda, Lady Delacourt’s exposure of her damaged breast creates the context for bringing the women of the novel together.
[Note: one text that Klein doesn’t mention but that plays up the themes of this chapter is The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the cross-dressing main character reveals her sex to the woman she has a crush on (who has sworn off relations with men) by opening her clothing to reveal her breasts.]
The presence of the breast functions similarly to the absence of facial hair in being a gender marker, but an ambiguous and elusive one. It must be hidden to maintain the disguise, but it’s surprisingly easy to conceal.
Breasts have a long and contradictory history of being used to represent various perceptions of female identity, both positive and negative. The ambiguity of the breast is furthered by the multiple meanings that words such as “breast” and “bosom” can have, drawing in metonymic references to emotions. The 18th century saw a rising focus on the symbolic nature of the breast, and of maternal breast-feeding as a feature of female identity. (As contrasted with hiring a wet-nurse.) Some scholars trace a shift from the “erotic breast” of the renaissance to the new political symbolism of the breast in the 18th century, though this is not a universal view. The chapter has a fascinating discussion of the range of breast-meaning theories, but it’s too detailed to really summarize here.
The idealized breast in 18th century western culture was small and rounded, representing a young, pre-lactating body. Colonialist writing evaluated non-western societies using a sort of “breast phrenology” to equate pendulous breasts with a lack of civilization. In western contexts, large breasts were associated with aggressiveness.
When breasts are mentioned in cross-dressing narratives, it is usually to note them as small (and thus easier to disguise) but also as aligned with racialized images of superiority and whiteness. In cross-dressing narratives, women focus first on concealing the breast, and then on strategic deployment of them--in both cases as a gender marker.
The chapter dives into a detailed analysis of these themes in several texts, specifically: the history of pirates Read and Bonny, the military narratives of Hannah Snell and Christian Davies, and the novel Belinda, which adds another layer to the symbolism of breast and cross dressing. In Belinda the “wounded breast” of the cross-dresser embodies the punishment for her gender transgression as well as providing the stimulus for female bonding over the intimate nature of sharing the knowledge of the wound.
I’m skipping over a lot of the details of this very close reading of the texts.