Erskine. 1744. The travels and adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu : cousin to the present Duke ... who made the tour of Europe, dressed in men's cloaths ... Done into English from the lady's own manuscript, by the translator of the Memoirs and adventures of the Marques of Bretagne. Dublin, Oli. Nelson.
This is a light-hearted stream-of-consciousness summary of my read-through of this 18th century novel. Parts of it are extracted from Twitter conversations.
[Our heroine Alithea -- in male disguise to go adventuring, as you may recall -- has run up a temporary Debt of Honor while gambling and is maneuvered into taking a temporary loan to pay it off from a beautiful and lovely young widow, Arabella. Arabella has withdrawn to her country house before Alithea is aware of the strategem. Arabella -- in the persona of the Chevalier de Radpont -- writes to her offering to come visit in order to settle the debt, Arabella tells the Chevalier to wait on her return as she has a rule never to allow male visitors at her country home. She notes:]
You must know, Sir, that though I am rich, young, and, if I may believe my glass, not ugly; and though I have several offers that might satisfy my ambition, or any other desires which a woman at my age may be supposed to have; yet by a distaste, I suppose from constitution, to what commonly is looked upon as the principal happiness of a married state, joined to the fatal experience I have alerady made of it, I am fuly determined never to enter into a second engagement; this is a secret which you alone know, and which I thought proper to let you into, that you might not misconstruct my intentions. A certain inexplicable sympathy makes me mighty desirous of your friendship, but if you should, out of gallantry, or seriously commence lover, you may depend on losing, that moment, my friendship and company.
[Alithea is relieved as she's been treading a fine line between flirting with women as a man and being expected to carry through. But through a sense of honesty and to relieve Arabella's mind, she determines to reveal her own secret. She persuades Arabella to allow her to visit, promising only friendship, and the desire to share with her "the Secret of my Life", to which Arabella assents. On being alone with Arabella, and having taken care of repaying the debt, she says…]
"I tremble at the thoughts of doing what, perhaps, may ruin me in your esteem, which I should think the greatest misfortune that can come upon me; yet I cannot bear the thoughts of having an reserve with a lady who has acted so nobly by me. Know then, Madam, continued I, that you see in me one of your own sex, whom curiosity to see the world has tempted to put on this disguise, that I might travel with more freedom and safety."
"Good God," cried Madam de Montferan [i.e., Arabella]. "You a woman, can I believe it?"
"That I am, Madam" answered I, "You may be assured; but before I give you such proofs as will remove all your doubts, give me leave to run over some passages of my life … [and she gives a brief summary of her history] When I had finished my narration, I unbuttoned my waistcoat, and discovered my breasts, which the lovely Arabella no sooner perceived, than she clasped me in her arms with transports rather of a lover than of a friend.
"My dearest Madmoiselle," cried she, "for now I am satisfied about your sex; how happy do you make me by this discover, which I hope will unite us in bands of friendship more solid and more noble than that of love; and if your sentiments correspond with mine, nothing but death shall separate us; if I cannot persuade you," continued she smiling, "to give over your traveling project, I will take breeches too, and we will set out together upon our adventures…."
[Arabella then tells the very unhappy story of her late marriage -- to which she had an aversion even before her husband turned out to be a libertine who locked her away as a prisoner to keep her out of the way while he spent her money on floozies. Alithea needs to return to town to take care of some business issues, but a letter from Arabella follows soon after, saying …]
What a terrible thing is decorum, and how it grieved me to let you go from me without clasping you in my arms, and assuring you of the most tender friendship….
[To which Alithea writes back …]
I suffered so terribly, my dearest Madam, by the constraint which the presence of [another guest] laid us under … but I hope tomorrow night, how agreeable is the pleasing thought, that I shall meet with no obstacles to the sincere and tender embraces, which the charming Arabella may expect, from one who preers the glorious title of 'friend' from her to all the advantages in the power of fortune to bestow on [me].
[And when Arabella travels to join her…]
… and when the servants were retired, before whom we always observed great ceremony, I flew into her arms. "What difference between this moment's liberty," cried I, "my dear Madam, and the constraint of that to which I was tied down when I left you last; and how happy do I think myself in being at freedom to give you all the testimonies of the sincerest esteem and friendship of which a heart infinitely attached to you is capable."
"I receive your caresses, my dear Alithea (for henceforth I insist upon all ceremony's being banished between you and me, and that I shall be your Arabella as you are my Alithea) with as much pleasure as you give them, and am very sure your attachment to me cannot exceed mine to you; let this suffice once for all…."
[After which they ruminate on the problem that people seeing them together will be scandalized thinking they're having an affair. And that's as far as I've read so far.]
Our heroines leave Barcelona and travel to Valencia where the find the ladies more socially forthcoming, but jealously protected by their boyfriends. There are intermittent bits of travelogue, but Spain seems not to have made much of a favorable impression on the travelers who were “much fatigued with bad entertainment and abominable beds.” Thence to Toledo an on to Madrid. Once again a letter of introduction to the local French ambassador gains them entrance to society and a brief audience with the king. But Arabella is feeling fatigued and distempered and urges Alithea that they should leave Spain expeditiously for more congenial climes. Arabella goes to bed early, leaving Alithea to stay up reading a book on the Character of the Spanish Nation, which we have quoted at us for the space of nine not-particularly-edifying pages.
On the next day, they go for a stroll in the Prado and then to church where Arabella is once again approached by the emissary of an infatuated by anonymous lady. (Really, one begins to have a great deal of sympathy for Alithea’s impatience.) The emissary hands over a portrait and a letter that is so over-the-top that Arabella does her best to return an off-putting answer. While they are engaged in the intrigues necessary to place this response in the emissary’s hands, they encounter two disputatious ladies who lay claim on them – as Frenchmen and therefore wise in the ways of love – to settle a matter between them arising from their lovers having shifted their affections each for the other. The dispute arises not from this change of emotion, but because one of the ladies was receiving a more generous allowance from her lover and thinks she should be indemnified by the other against a change of income. This mercenary transaction rather stretches the limits of what our heroines consider acceptable in romantic affairs, and the sudden appearance of the two boyfriends encourages them to hasten their departure.
But when they start on their way to Lisbon, whence they hope to take ship either for England or Holland, they are accosted on the road by a party of what they first take for bandits. But rather than being robbed or murdered, they are escorted forcibly to a castle where they are entertained with a luxury and mystery reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast: good food and wine, unspeaking servants, songs from hidden musicians, and no appearance from their presumed captor. After several days of this treatment, they are finally brought to the presence of the lady of the castle – none other than the lady of the portrait, whom Arabella had attempted to discourage via letters. In fear for their lives should they decline this forceful courtship, Arabella gets straight to the point and discloses their true gender. “Good God,” cried she, “You a woman?” and directly fainted. The lady is returned to her senses, both physically and mentally and begs their forgiveness before releasing them to continue their journey.
A mere two pages of travelogue deliver us to Lisbon, where they are entertained by the French consul – oops, four more pages of tourist attractions in Lisbon – and have another interesting philosophical discussion with their host and his friends regarding relations between men and women plus yet one more intrigue-via-letters which turns sour very quickly at which they decamp post-haste and sail for England.
We get several opinions on the Character of the English, and a second encounter with a couple that we first met back at the beginning of the book (but I’d have to go back and re-read to remember the context) with whom they share (edited) stories of their adventures in the meantime. But Arabella has received a letter that her man of business back home has unexpectedly died and she must return. And that is where our story leaves us at this break.
In the last session, we ended with an encounter (in London) with a couple that Alithea had met previously in Paris. The man begins telling a long history of what he’s been up to since then, at which his wife retires saying it would embarrass him for her to remain. Well, yes, and it should. Without going into the whole story, he fell in love with her and behaved very badly and unfaithfully towards her while she remained steadfast and faithful until his passion entirely burned itself out (for any woman) and what remained was friendship with her. At which point she finally consented to marry him. I’d need to consult a timeline, but it does seem that the events of his story take up three or four times as much time as is allotted to them. But, as I say, I’d need to check back to the first encounter. At any rate, the moral of the story seems to be that women are not well served by men’s passion, but that pure friendship seems to be a good basis for a life-long relationship. (This seems to be the underlying moral of our protagonists’ lives as well.)
Having dispensed with this digression, our heroines and their hosts engage in a lively discussion of English theater, its virtues and vices, followed by a discussion of the physical attributes of English women and a brief history of recent changes in English fashion. (In a peculiar way, this fixation would tend to support the hypothesis that the author of the novel is actually English and using the motif of French visitors to satirize their own land.) They enjoy taking in a performance of Hamlet, and make a brief appearance in society, gathering only a single female admirer, who writes to Arabella in Very Bad French. Then they’re off to the coast to take ship for Holland.
We get several pages of Dutch travelogue but Alithea notes that the Dutch are so dull in matters of the heart that at least there’s no danger of romantic intrigues. In Brussels, the ladies respond more warmly and Arabella captures the heard of a rich Jewish merchant's daughter who then stalks them all the way to Paris, on which more later. Proceeding on through Flanders, they visit with the Count de Roussol, who recounts a decidedly unedifying tale of how he caused an English lady to do away with herself for the sake of unrequited love. Our heroines are unimpressed and have an in-depth conversation between themselves on the Nature of Love, sparked by his tale. (Indeed, the theme of the entire novel seems to revolve around identifying all the ways in which love and passion can go badly.)
More travel brings them to Paris, where Alithea makes her home. She has written ahead to her man of business, who knows about her gallivanting around in male guise and therefore is well-positioned to ease her transition back to life as a woman. He has hired a house and servants for her and the two women go there directly.
“When my friend and I were by ourselves, I took her in my arms. My dearest Arabella, said I, how pleased should I be to find myself at Paris, and at the end of a wandering life, with which I have some time since been wearied, tho’ I said nothing, could I have but the pleasure of your company. But the thoughts of your leaving me and going to the south of France is a terrible draw back, or rather sours all the pleasure I might otherwise propose to myself, in a calm and quiet life after so much rambling.
“My dearest Alithea, answered she, we perfectly sympathize in our thoughts about this terrible thing called separation, and as I advanced towards Paris, the idea of it made a terrible and melancholy impression upon my mind. But I have been thinking of an expedient which will keep us always together, if you approve of it.
“Speak, cried I with vivacity, I am sure you can propose nothing but what I will cheerfully comply with.”
Arabella proposes that they continue living together, spending winters at her place in Languedoc and summers in Paris. This will necessitate revealing their little adventure to Arabella’s neighbors, who have assumed that she eloped to Italy with Alithea’s male persona. But neither of the women feel any compunction about letting others in on the secret now. In fact, when the Jewish girl from Brussels shows up on their doorstep in search of Arabella’s male persona, they laughingly tell her the whole, to her great chagrin and embarrassment.
In discussing their future, the women pay lip service to the possibility that either of them might change their mind about marriage, but neither has any expectation of doing so. Having settled this question, Alithea says: “Let this kiss, said I, clasping her anew in my arms, be as a seal to our agreement.” And after spending a short time enjoying the sights of Paris (which were new to Arabella), and repelling all admirers (now male ones), they went off to spend the rest of the winter in Montpelier at Arabella’s home. The book concludes with this:
“We remained in Montpelier till towards the middle of March, at which time we returned to Paris, where we passed the summer season according to our agreement, which we have regularly observed for several years, and without the least thoughts of altering our scheme ‘till death parts us. The longer we are together, the more we love one another, and are happier in our friendship and freedom than we could possibly propose to be in any other condition of life. Arabella’s temper is sweet with a little mixture of reserve; mine is gay with a little of the ingredient called whim. My gaiety rouses her now and then out of a fit of thoughtfulness and her reserve bridles my vivacity, so that we play to one another’s hands. And if there be such a thing as happiness in life, we are the persons who enjoy it.”
Complete with a happily ever after ending. Published in 1744. Does that blow your mind or what?
Current gym reading is "Adv of Mlle de Richelieu". Alas, there's a reason this is not considered a literary classic. Every character the protagonist meets delivers a multi-page lecture on philosophy, history, theology, etc. or an entertaining and edifying story (a la Chaucer or Bocaccio) unrelated to the main plot. Also much travelogue. So far the framing story is running ca. 5% of text. No lesbians yet (they come later) but 1 amusing "2 women interact both passing as men" episode. Am color-coding pdf for "omit entirely", "background", "rework thoroughly" and "use" for my potential adaptation.
This summary is assembled from a Twitter conversation
Me: Our 2 heroines having considered marriage (w Alithea in male disguise) as a way to spend their lives together, and considered the hazards of discovery daunting, Arabella is making arrangements to join Alithea on her travels also in male disguise. Alithea amuses herself by taunting Arabella's suitors. But then Alithea is persuaded to contribute to a kickstarter for some dude's treatise on moral philosophy and yields to the impulse to summarize its contents for 20 pages or so.
hawkwing_lb: Ah, moral philosophy. So very exciting! And probably illegal! ;)
Me: Don't know about illegal, but very tedious. I'm wondering if I can turn the digressions into a running gag rather than silently excising them. The content if the digressions must be excised, of course. But the frame? Might be able to do something. I think my re-write will come off best with a touch of farce.
hawkwing_lb: I remember being very thrilled when I read THE FORBIDDEN BESTSELLERS OF REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE.
Me: There could be an entire genre to be resurrected here!
hawkwing_lb: Or Pre-Revolutionary France? Title like that. Anyway. And discovering that philosophy and pornography went together.
Me: I don't think I can manage porn, but I think Mlle de Richelieu might convince me to try my hand at erotic romance after all.
hawkwing_lb: I encourage this potential direction.
When last we saw our heroines, Alithea was teasing Arabella's unwanted suitors while Arabella was getting her affairs in order in preparation for hitting the road with her. Alithea plays cat and mouse with a couple of challenges to duels then heads to Lyons so that the two of them aren't observed leaving town together. While in Lyons she is on hand for a couple of spots of excitement. A young lady jilted by her fiance when she had the bad luck to get pregnant in advance of the wedding challenges the cad to a duel while in disguise and fatally wounds him, though he manages to repent and marry her after all before expiring. (Cue music: He Had It Coming.) And the man who became Alithea's bff on arriving in town is unmasked as a fugitive felon, leaving her relieved at having escaped robbery or worse.
She then receives a letter from Arabella filling her in on all the gossip and pledging to join her soon at Lyons. Arabella concludes her letter, "I hope to see you in eight days at the farthest. My steward is to accompany me to Lyons, where I will appear in short coat and breeches, and then set out with you whenever you please upon our adventures. In the mean time, be assured that every minute is an age till I have the pleasure of embracing my dear Alithea, who is husband, lover and friend to Arabella."
::fans self:: My, is it warm in here?
Back at the very beginning of the story, Alithea had struck up a friendship with the Count of Saluce and his wife and had been planning to travel in company with them, but they had to separate for a while to take care of some unexpected business. Alithea now writes to the Count to let them know that her plans have changed and won't be able to join up with them again, alas. Since she doesn't expect Arabella to arrive for over a week, Alithea decides to make a side trip to Geneva and we get more travelogue. Then back to Lyons.
Arabella finally arrives and is very very fetching in men's clothing. The two women have a very coy conversation each declaring that if one or the other of them were truly what they appeared to be (a man) that they would overcome their distaste for marriage in an instant. Alithea predicts that Arabella is going to break many ladies' hearts on their travels (and perhaps those of a few men with unusual tastes). Arabella then proceeds to cut a swathe through several local hearts, just for practice. Volume 2 then concludes with Alithea pledging to cut back on the travelogue, as Arabella isn't as into sight-seeing as she is. (I'd have to do some page-counting to determine if she makes good on this plege.)
In Volume 3, they travel first to Genoa and then to Milan, where they take advantage of some good deals on velvet and brocade to enlarge their masculine wardrobes. Arabella is soon approached by the messenger of a lady with romantic interests, but when she plays along (at Alithea's urging) it turns out the lady takes pledges of courtly love rather to extremes and -- rather than an immediate dalliance -- sets out a 6-year plan of demonstrations of chastity and devotion in order to win her heart. This provides an excellent excuse for foregoing the intrigue. The two leave town, barely ahead of yet another importunate lady paying addresses to Arabella.
Next, to Verona and Padua, with renewed travelogue (Alithea isn't doing very well at her pledge here), and then to Venice. Immediately on arriving in Venice, they're approached by an eager local guide who offers to arrange for the company of courtesans or "temporary wives" for them, without which (he says) they have no hope of being received into polite society. After some attempts to demur, they accept his offer to identify some likely prospects. When one of those prospects turns out to be the daughter of a poor widow, who has determined to sell her oldest daughter in order to provide for her other children, our heroines are horrified and determine to go along with the charade simply in order to save the girl from such a fate. This fails to go smoothly, as there is much wailing and protestations of shame on the girl's part (as well as a certain reluctance on the mother's part, when it comes to the point). An overwhelming impulse to charity is stirred, and Alithea and Arabella connive to trick the procurer into giving up on the deal so that the two of them can then offer double the original price to the family in order to allow the girl to either marry or go into a convent as she chooses, and to allow the mother to set herself up in some trade that will provide for the other children. The girl, somewhat sensibly, decides not to take either path, but rather to combine her sum with her mother's and set the both of them up as milliners.
[I confess I was somewhat expecting the whole thing to be a scam and to have them discover, after handing over the charity to the family, that it had all been play-acting in league with the procurer. I suppose I'm glad to have been wrong.]
However after concluding this charitable transaction (and determining to leave Venice as soon as possible), Alithea gets a little snitty with Arabella, saying that it was clear the girl was actually quite attracted to her (Arabella) and that they ought to test her to see if it were the case. Arabella is somewhat taken aback at this fit of jealousy, and says that if there were any truth to it, she would be glad to disabuse the girl of her attraction by disclosing her true sex to her. Arabella goes off to do just that while Alithea takes several pages to describe the sights of Venice.
And this is as far as I've gotten today. The whole Venice episode takes up a great deal of page-count. I've somehow left out the little bit about the two women socializing with their local banker's family in Venice--the banker having two lovely daughters, both of whom immediately begin pining after Arabella. It's quite reasonable that Alithea is starting to get her nose rather out of joint about the whole thing!
When last we saw our heroines, Arabella was going to meet privately with the girl they had declined to purchase (and whose family they instead set on the path to respectability by a charitable donation) to see if she really was romantically attached to her. Meanwhile Alithea goes off to do some sightseeing and to sulk a little. They meet again over dinner with their banker's family where Arabella is once more the object of longing sighs from the banker's daughters. Alone later together, Arabella assures Alithea that the girl could not be induced to express any preference between the two of them, though she did seem somewhat romantically moved by both. The two women are trying to quit Venice at this point but cannot escape without being entertained for a humble dinner by the family they have benefitted, during which they are quite mortifyingly embarrassed by the amount of gratitude shown. On their last evening before leaving town, Alithea once again gets snippy with Arabella about how the banker's daughters were so taken with her and Arabella assures her they'll get over it soon enough.
After 12 pages of travelogue through various cities and towns, they arrive at Rome where they plan to spend the winter. Letters of introduction see them received by the French ambassador who -- among their other touristy experiences -- gets them a brief audience with the Pope. (!) They pick up a local tour guide and we are entertained by 16 pages of the sights of Rome and surrounding attractions. Our heroines then settle down to more frivolous amusements and Alithea declares that she no longer finds it amusing to help Arabella attract women; she's going to work on her own behalf and Arabella can do the same. Arabella is amused by this and teases her about toying with women's affections when there is no hope of carrying through. Alithea gives a little speech to the effect that the anticipation of love is far more satisfying to ladies than the consummation would be anyway. Arabella then cautions her against jilting any lady too harshly as the Romans are known for taking somewhat violent revenge for these things. This gives Alithea pause, but she notes that they can get away with all manner of flirtations because, after all, they are French and it will only be expected of them.
There is then a somewhat amusing series of encounters where Alithea cozies up to a beautiful young widow who is disinclined to re-marry; convinces her to reconsider; and then, on being successful in this and being coyly solicited by the widow for suggestions for a potential husband, Alithea recants and says she's disconsolate to have turned the widow's mind toward marriage when now she (Alithea) has concluded she was right from the first. In turn-about, Arabella falls in with a lady who is quite interested in contemplating matrimony, while Arabella (who never was all that enthusiastic about the state, if you recall) argues against it. She is also successful, and her conversational partner then declares she's dead-set against marrying, whereupon Arabella implies that her heart is now broken as the lady had successfully changed her own heart. (This all occurs over several exchanges of letters and casual meetings at the opera.) Having had their amusement, our heroines determine to make sure to put an end to the flirtations in a firm but non-hazardous way.
While comparing notes over these adventures, Arabella makes the mistake of noting that the lady of her entanglement was so fair and sweet and virtuous that she could indeed have convinced her to marriage, if there were not the Obvious Impediment. "Next to yourself, my dear Alithea," she says, "I know no woman that I would sooner contract a friendship with." Well, now Alithea teases her sharply, "Tell me seroiusly, you whimsical waggish creature, if this girl would not tempt you if you were a man. I am sure she would me, for I think she possesses every thing that would make a man happy. Very well, Maria is to have Alithea's place in your heart and poor Alithea is no more Arabella's edearest friend." All this with "so grave an air that she really thought me serious and was so affected that the tear came in her eye."
Well. Arabella is much taken aback and embraces Alithea and assures her that no other woman on earth could rival her or take her place. Alithea sulks, "I am as jealous of you as a man could be of his mistress, and were you to get a husband I believe I should have difficulty enough to keep my temper." At which Arabella assures her that she has no intention ever to marry, but pledges that if she were ever to change her mind, she would swear never to do so unless Arabella gave her consent. They make this a mutual pledge.
There are no further romantic adventures mentioned for the remainder of the time they are in Rome, though there are some satirical comments on how given the Romans are to politics and religious mysteries.
Four pages of travelogue now carry us to Florence, where letters of introduction again bring them into the most elevated society and they become acquainted with the Marquis de Grimoalti and his most flirtatious wife. And that is as far as today's reading takes me.
When last we left our heroines, they had arrived in Florence and were being entertained by the Marquis Grimoalti and his lovely and witty wife who take the two to an evening’s entertainment. Alithea dances with the Countess de Rinalto and has a playfully philosophical discussion with her about how men’s jealousy only tends to drive their ladies into a greater desire to look elsewhere for love. Alithea suggests that were the count one of those jealous sorts, she would be delighted to put horns on him, at which the countess appears to take her seriously and lays out the specifics of the necessary Contract for Indemnifying Infidelity she would require, which gives Alithea sufficient excuse for begging off, at which the countess says, “Just kidding!” and they both have a laugh about it with the count joining in. Arabella has had a turn of bad luck this time and is being bored to tears by an old woman’s stories of the court rather than being the object of romantic attention that has been more usual.
With none of the usual near-escapes from intrigue, the two take ship for Spain where more dangerous adventures await them. The spend a few days at Barcelona are once again besieged by love-letters slipped into their hands. Or, not precisely love letters, more in the way of business offers. But their local contact suggests that they beware of entanglements, telling a long and convoluted story of the lengths to which Spanish ladies had been known to go to take revenge on an unsatisfactory lover. Further, they encounter an unaccustomed gender-segregation at social events and, finding the conversation of the men tedious, leave early and determine to set out for Madrid the next day. That evening the two women have a bit of a male-bashing conversation, noting that although men may pay lip-service to women’s wit, good humor, and sweetness of temper, it all boils down to “the gratification of the sensual appetite” and, that being gratified, men soon look elsewhere. But, notes Alithea, “We [women] are condemned to be silly, empty, vain, and whimsical creatures, why should we condemn the men for despising us after we can afford them no more pleasure?” She continues, “It is a most absurd thing to exclaim against the inconsistency of men, and a more absurd thing for a woman who has any spirit, and is not subjected to certain mean and despicable desires, to expose herself to the contempt and perhaps hatred of a man, whose happiness ends with the honeymoon, if it lasts so long.” Though, she notes, it were a good thing for the human species that not all women were as scornful of men and marriage as she is. But to conclude this little scene of apparent misogyny from our heroines (on which more below), we have the following. “I am certain that we ought not to ridicule matrimony, or deter others from it. I wish I were just now a pretty fellow,” cried [Alithea] laughing, “I would improve the critical minute, and persuade the lovely Arabella to propagate the species.” “If I loved the man,” replied [Arabella], “as much as I do you, I believe I might be tempted to yield to his solicitations, though I really have an aversion to that state, and hope I shall never more enter into it.” “But it is now time, my dear,” said [Alithea] “to go to bed, where who knows but we may dream of the pleasures of matrimony.”
To digress from a simple plot-summary for a moment, it is both fascinating and somewhat uncomfortable to untangle the attitudes of the protagonists to affection, desire, and sexual gratification. Men “disgust” them because of their “brutal inclinations” and focus on “sensual gratification”, while women’s sexual desires are apparently “mean and despicable”. This (along with a certain amount of negative feeling for the women they encounter who express sexual desire for their male selves) would suggest an underlying anti-sex attitude of the “nice girls don’t” variety. And yet there is a repeating theme where one or the other of the women indicates that “were I what I appear to be [i.e., male] I’d happily jump into bed with you” without any implication in context that this would result in feelings of shame or regret for being unchaste. The two regularly valorize the emotion they feel for each other above what they imagine male-female relations to be, and yet they presuppose that their relationship would remain elevated and praiseworthy as a male-female couple.
This, for me, is the essence of what makes their relationship ring true as a lesbian one. Neither of them can stomach the idea of a sexual or marital relationship with a man, unless it were the other transformed to a man. Further, these expressions of desire for each other are ?always? (I’d need to review them in detail to be sure) with the one raising the topic expressing desire for the other as a woman, though the other may then concur in that framing and return desire for the hypothetical man. To me this reflects a difficulty with conceptualizing a sexual union between women (though they have no trouble performing a clearly sensual relationship) rather than an expression of transgender identity. In addition to expressing (carefully hypothetical) desire for each other, both women regularly express attraction to other women, even desire for them. Yet, except when interacting “in persona” with men, they don’t express any sort of identification with men as a class. The masquerade is a masquerade, not an identity. I will freely confess, however, that my interpretation of these interactions is undoubtedly colored by what I want the story to be about. And if other readers can read it in a way that makes it about something else, and that something else makes them equally happy as a reader, I won’t protest.
I was going to continue on with the Spanish adventures, but my lunch hour is up and I need to post and get back to work.
Erskine. 1744. The travels and adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu : cousin to the present Duke ... who made the tour of Europe, dressed in men's cloaths ... Done into English from the lady's own manuscript, by the translator of the Memoirs and adventures of the Marques of Bretagne. Dublin, Oli. Nelson.