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LHMP #402 O’Connell 2014 The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects

Full citation: 

O’Connell, Lisa. 2014. “The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 12 - The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects

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Libertine, rake, and dandy (LRD) are a sequence of persona types that emerged sequentially from the 16th to the 20th century, with overlaps, and blurring between them. They existed alongside other named character types, such as 18th-century, fops, macaronis, coxcombs, and coquettes. All are defined in relation to the “respectable” character types, such as the pious person, the bluestocking, etc. to name only a very few. The sexually-marked types of LRD don’t correspond directly to the modern concept of queerness, though some connections can be traced.

[Note: it’s also worth pointing out that LRD are all strongly male coded.]

For example, libertinism is associated with some practices that overlap with homosexuality, but is also firmly rooted in heterosexism. LRD existed both as stylized “media” images, but also as patterns of behavior that can be associated with specific men. And those specific men very often also participated in same-sex activity.

The L or D character types were, in many ways, culture-specific. The English libertine differed in some ways from the French libertine, etc. The author now acknowledges that while it would be wrong to say that the more that there were no female LRD, “Women who fit these types were derided, as whores,” rather than being, perhaps, uncomfortably celebrated as icons. Each of these roles could be split further into more specialized types. In general, these roles were strongly associated with the social elite, and lower class figures who followed similar behaviors tended to be treated with mockery. The upper class LRD represented an out of control indulgence in freethinking, sexuality, fashion, and luxury, representing the face of “modernism”.

Libertinage has its roots in the rise of pornographic literature, such as the works of Aretino, or the “dialogue of whores” genre, focusing on the use of transgressive sexual behavior, both for entertainment, and as satirical social commentary. As the social commentary function faded away, this literature settled into a purpose of sexual arousal, often using domestic settings, and the motif of sexual education, frequently of a naïve young woman, by an older experienced mentor. To the extent that these retained a satirical purpose, it was to mock the salons that upper class women held to celebrate learning, elegance, and wit. The emergence of this type of erotic literature in England included a good number of female authors.

In the later 17th century, a new form of libertinage evolved that focused more on a philosophy of the pursuit of pleasure and a rejection of religious morality. [The article here digresses into details of church history.] The Restoration court was a comfortable home for libertines, but the role came hand-in-hand with a sneering misogyny.

At this same period, the figure of the rake emerges. While the rake is similarly devoted to unfettered (and somewhat predatory) sexuality, rather than working from an inspiration of satirical or philosophical challenge to conventional morality, the rake’s persona is more about an aesthetic — a performance of nonchalant charm, wit, and irony. The rake is not rooted in heritage or profession, though he may hold to a masculine code of honor. He is usually a denizen of the city, moving among all classes of people, but evading engagement with social structures. The literary rake shuns marriage as lacking in romance.

With the passing of the Stuart dynasty in the early 18th century, the rake became less associated with courtly life, but held on as a literary trope through the end of the century, more often as an antagonist than an antihero. We see a rare example of a female rake in the character of Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, who – like her male counterparts – seduces women. Some real-life rakes found their philosophies aligned with radical politics, but the more freewheeling attitudes toward male-male sex were having a harder time attracting even covert admiration.

The aesthetic and stylistic attributes of the rake migrated, in the Regency, to the figure of the dandy. Strangely enough, it’s also possible to trace origins for the dandy in the fop – who previously had been viewed as the antithesis of the rake.

The dandy – unlike these other personas – can also be traced to the inspiration of one particular man: Beau Brummell. Brummell establish the image of an arbiter (and curator) of sartorial style, with an intolerance of the ordinary and vulgar. The dandy was not a commentary on politics or philosophy, nor was he a challenge to order or authority. He is simply style personified.


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