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Full citation: 

Frangos, Jennifer. 2009 “The Woman in Man’s Clothes and the Pleasures of Delarivier Manley’s ‘New Cabal’” in Sexual Perversions, 1670–1890, ed. by Julie Peakman. Palgrave Macmillan, London. ISBN 978-1-349-36397-1 pp.95-116

Contents summary: 

Frangos looks at representations of female same-sex desire in Delarivier Manley’s “New Cabal” in the satire The New Atalantis, specifically focusing on female masculinity (to use Halberstam’s terminology). [Note: I’m afraid this article got off on the wrong foot for me because it stakes a claim that desire for “the representation of men in women” is the primary form that desire takes in this depiction, but leans heavily on one passage that I believe Frangos has drastically misinterpreted.]

The article opens with a quote: “They do not in reality love men, but dote [on] the representation of men in women. Hence it is that those ladies are so fond of the dress en cavaliere, though it is extremely against my liking. I would have the sex distinguished as well by their garb as by their manner.” This passage occurs to introduce an anecdote about a woman who falls for an actress who performs “trouser roles” and does represent one theme that is present in the work.

The ladies of the (fictional) “new cabal” have a secret society dedicated to female same-sex desire. They form pairs of “favorites” to whom they are devoted, and pledge not to give their love to men (even if they can’t necessarily avoid giving their bodies to them on occasion). Frangos says “in the eighteenth-century context, and in modern critical discourse about the eighteenth century, there is no term for the women of the new Cabal. They are not tribades, tommies, or hermaphrodites…though some of them cross-dress they are not female husbands…nor are they bluestockings, romantic friends, sapphists, or ‘lesbians’ (terms used to discuss female same-sex relationships toward the end of the century).” [Note: it is true that Manley does not give the women an identity label within her work, but that doesn’t mean that there were no available descriptions that could have been applied to them at the time. For some reason, historians are enamored of concluding that—in whatever era they’re studying—“there was no name” for the particular women they’re analyzing.]

“Instead,” Frangos goes on to claim, “the erotics of the new Cabal is negotiate through the trope of the woman in man’s clothes.” That is, the woman known to be a woman, while also openly wearing male clothing. (As distinct from a passing woman.) This motif most commonly appears for actresses performing “trouser roles”, but other cited examples are early 17th c figure Moll Cutpurse and 1801 fictional character Harriot Freke (in the novel Belinda). These women may sometimes be mistaken for men, due to their clothing, but it is not their intention to be read as such on a full-time basis.

In a theatrical context, this overt cross-dressing always had an erotic aspect, with male clothing revealing the actress’s lower limbs in a way that feminine clothing did not. But the contrast between appearance and reality was part of a larger fascination with masquerade, in which the “reality” might be sex, class, or race/nationality. And it is this conflict, Frangos claims, that underlies the negotiation of same-sex desire in the New Atalantis.

The article summarizes Manley’s personal and political background and discusses the politics behind the satirical elements of the work and the specific figures it attacks (in very thinly veiled caricature). In some ways the “double vision” of the superficial satire and the underlying “truth” it criticized parallel the motif of the cross-dressed body. Holding both layers in tension creates pleasure for the reader/viewer.

The principles of the New Cabal revolve around a dedication to the primacy of desire between women. Marriage (or male lovers) are treated as a necessary evil, but affection is to be reserved for one’s female favorite. [Note: although meant as satirical exaggeration, it’s curious that few historians see this as a form of “sexual orientation”, at least in an embryonic form.]

Frangos sees cross-dressing in the first appearance of the New Cabal in the text, when the allegorical narrator introduces “these ladies (we know ‘em to be such by their voices” which Frangos interprets as meaning that their appearance is at odds (i.e., masculine) with their true nature (revealed by their voices). [Note: can’t quite confine my comments in parentheticals at this point.] I see this as an error of interpretation. The ladies are passing by in three coaches and the narrators hear them laughing and talking and ask who they are. This is not a conflict between superficial visual appearance and underlying nature, but the simple fact that they are inside closed coaches and aren’t visible at all. Unfortunately, from this starting assumption, Frangos jumps to the conclusion that all the ladies of the Cabal are cross-dressing habitually, and that this therefore represents the essential basis of their sexual desire. This is going to trip me up for the rest of this summary.

The sexual activities among the Cabal are evoked by means of questions and appeals to the imagination that force the reader to invent the practices that they are then expected to condemn. This is done by reference to the “vices of old Rome” (unspecified) and by “innocently” asking “but what could they be doing that would be objectionable?” Frangos asserts that those “vices of old Rome” involved “women who are masculine in one way or another” (which is an interpretation that has been prevalent at various times, so as an 18th c cultural model I can’t challenge it), and that in parallel the ladies of the Cabal “are masculine, boisterous, given to cross-dressing and passing as men, and often sexually aggressive and voracious.” [Note: One aspect this overlooks is that the Cabal is composed of couples, not simply of individual women who look outside the Cabal for their pleasures. So if one asserts that the sexuality of the Cabal was essentially “masculine” then it would seem to apply to both partners in each couple, resulting in a butch-butch model, not a butch-femme one.] This “female masculinity,” Frangos asserts, creates cover for a non-phallocentric sexuality via mimicking heteronormativity.

Superficially, the Cabal is criticized (either covertly or explicitly) for three primary reasons: for being disposed to same-sex desire, for preferring their female “favorites” over their husbands, and for ambiguous or transgressive expressions of gender. Frangos sees this last as the most serious (although this conclusion is undermined by the illusory nature of some of the transgressions). The initial appearance where they are identified as female only by their voices has already been discussed (and, in my opinion, is in error). One of the founders of the Cabal is described as so masculine in behavior and personality that she might have been claimed by men as one of their own except that her clothing declared her a woman. Shifting from the argument that the Cabal represents sartorial masculinity, the scope now expands to any aspect of masculinity, any confounding of the gender binary. The ladies of the Cabal are always clearly female, but cross the gender line in some aspect.

Picking up on the line in Manley’s work that the Cabal “dotes on the representation of men in women,” two episodes in the work are selected to support the thesis that their erotic practices were associated with women in men’s clothing. The first is the description of how the Marchioness of Sandomire “used to mask her diversions in the habit of the other sex and, with her female favourite, Ianthe, wander through the gallant quarter of Atalantis in serach of adventures.” The two enjoy the services of female sex workers who are happy to oblige. Setting aside the question of whether Ianthe is also cross-dressing or whether this is playing the female companion to Sandomire’s cross-dressed cavalier, it isn’t clear that this supports Frangos’s thesis about the Cabal’s sexuality focusing on the attractions of female masculinity, unless it is the reader who is understood as being aroused by the cross-dressed Sandomire. Are we supposed to understand that the prostitutes find Sandomire desirable? Or is Ianthe the audience for this performance, interpreted as finding her favorite’s interactions with the professionals to be arousing? The thesis becomes somewhat incoherent on this point.

The second example is more aligned with the thesis. It involves a wealthy widow who belongs to the New Cabal, who is courting a breeches-playing actress, with the intent of bringing her into the circle. The widow is clearly fascinated by the mock-masculinity of the actress, even having a portrait painted of her wearing her male costume. But the actress—presumably accustomed to men’s erotic response to her mixed-gender presentation, is confused and put off by a similar response from a woman. The gender signals are multiply confused in that the widow (the “femme” of the two) is taking the assertive, power-over role that would conventionally belong to a man. The actress fails to respond as the widow hopes she would, and eventually the adventure comes to nothing.

Interestingly, Frangos points out, although Manley’s satire regularly shows her targets punished for their vices, this doesn’t happen with the Cabal. They may not all succeed in their endeavors. They may be made to appear ridiculous in some episodes. But in the end they are allowed to go on their way, continuing to enjoy their companions and practices. Indeed, Manley might be seen as providing a positive example rather than a rejected model.

Frangos ends with the conclusion that the Cabal’s sexual practices depend on the juxtaposition of layers of meaning and contradiction to stimulate desire. I will end by maintaining that I remain unconvinced that the text supports this as an overall message, rather than as one strand within a more varied erotic experience within the Cabal.