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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 270 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 10: Rakes

Sunday, October 22, 2023 - 15:33

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 270 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 10: Rakes - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/10/21 - listen here)

It’s “Our F/Favorite Tropes” time again! This occasional series examines how popular historic romance tropes play out differently for female couples. Once again, we’re going to look at a character type, rather than a situation, personal history, or relationship structure. One of the chapters in a book I was blogging recently dealt with libertines, rakes, and dandies, and the bibliography for that article led me to an article on female rakes, all of which inspired me to tackle the rake as a romantic archetype.

The rake is not simply a personality type, but exists within a particular historic and social context. The rake partakes somewhat of the sexual libertine–the person who pursues sexual (and other) pleasure for its own sake and rejects conventional morality. The libertine is associated with the rise of pornographic literature in the 17th century and, in England, comes into prominence when the restoration of the monarchy reversed the grip that conservative religion had over public culture.

But the rake—who also emerged in the later 17th century—adds several other layers to the archetype. The rake, above all else, is a personality. He—and the rake archetype emerged as a specifically male figure—he is an aristocrat, or at least claims the privilege of an aristocrat to be free of constraints on his behavior. He has an unrestrained sexuality, often of a somewhat predatory nature, but succeeds because he is charming, witty, and cultured. He may have a strong sense of honor, but usually only with regard to those he considers his equals. He is often a sportsman and usually drawn to drink and gambling. He is a supremely urban creature and moves easily among different classes, though without ever forgetting his own worth. What he is definitely not is responsible, respectable, reliable, or a promising romantic prospect.

The rake, in slightly different flavors, continues as a popular figure in literature into the early 19th century when the figure of the freewheeling aristocrat was being more a figure of scorn than of admiration.

In a male-female romance, the rake may achieve his happily ever after in one of two ways. The more traditional route is for him to fall in love with a virtuous and respectable woman for whom he’s willing to reform. The other possibility is for him to fall in love with an equally rakish woman who accepts and matches his every transgression. Among old-school romances, Georgette Heyer’s Venetia offers a good example of the latter.

But when we bring in this figure of the “female rake” we run into the sexual double-standard. In general, society was far less willing to admire a woman who was sexually unrestrained and aggressive than a man of those habits. The female libertine was considered little better than a whore. Certainly she could not slip in and out of respectable society with the same ease that a male rake could. And unlike male rakes, she did not have automatic access to the male aristocratic privilege that enabled him to shrug off the disapproval of conventional society.

So were there female rakes? Kathleen Wilson’s article “The Female Rake: Gender, Libertinism, and Enlightenment” (to be blogged soon) traces the biography of the 18th century courtesan Constantia Phillips, who cut a sexual swathe through prominent men in England, France, the Netherlands, and even parts of the Americas, including a handful of marriages and long-term but less formal relationships. She was dashing, attractive, fashionable, extravagant, spendthrift, and bitingly witty both in person and in print. While male rakes might be disparaged for their lack of morals, Phillips was looked askance for claiming an assertive sexuality that was viewed as a threat to masculine pride, to the image of feminine virtue, and even to the stability of the nation itself. Despite her many liaisons with prominent men, she gives the impression of not really liking men as a group very much—in the same way that male rakes often have an air of misogyny. In the autobiography that she wrote (in part to blackmail a nobleman who had dumped her) she draws on literary and theatrical tropes to depict herself as holding all the traditional “manly” virtues in contrast to the weak, self-centered, cruel men she left behind.

But Con Phillips lacks one aspect to make her of interest to this podcast: she never turned her rakish charm on a female target. So let’s turn our attention to some who did.

It is inescapable, as noted previously, that female rakes—whether in real life or fiction—were typically viewed harshly, rather than as charming rogues. (Although we should also note that real-life male rakes were not considered the charmingly amusing figures of romance novels either.) So the examples of female rakes that we find have been filtered through that misogynistic lens and we must, to some extent, unfilter them. What we’re looking for is a woman who embraces unconventional morality, who is at least somewhat open about unrestrained sexuality, who indulges in activities that may be considered “vices,” and above all else, who has some degree of class privilege that enables her to do all these things. She is likely to treat her romantic conquests somewhat cavalierly and is definitely not a likely prospect as a stable romantic partner. Whether or not her contemporaries called her a rake, who fits this general model?

If we look to the era when the image of the rake was being established—the mid to late 17th century—we find a good example in Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, a French aristocrat and sometime author of fairy tales. Perhaps in reaction to an unhappy marriage—as so many aristocratic French marriages were at the time—she not only indulged the acceptable pastime of participating in salons and writing bitingly satirical essays and allegories, but was reported to the police for singing lewd songs at all hours of the night, hosting evenings of debauchery, and having affairs with women that sometimes ended in violent quarrels. Despite the police investigation, aristocratic privilege and the disinclination of her peers to testify against her, kept the consequences away until King Louis put his finger on the scales of justice and she was packed off to a remote chateau. From which she attempted escape disguised in male clothing. (I did an entire podcast about her if you want more details.)

Delarivier Manley’s early 18th century political satire The New Atalantis envisions a group of women called “The New Cabal” some of whom solidly fit the model of rakes. They seek their romantic and sexual satisfaction from other women. Though many are depicted as being in stable partnerships, certain specific figures clearly have more passing and even predatory desires. The Marchioness of Lerma took note of beautiful young women new to the court and snapped them up before anyone else could. The Marchioness of Sandomire and her best friend Ianthe went off adventuring while cross-dressed to pick up prostitutes in the pleasure gardens. The gatherings of the New Cabal give the impression of being hedonistic parties, though they are private affairs rather than being performed as part of public culture. But the (fictional) women of the Cabal are definitely of the aristocracy and are accustomed to having their libertine adventures overlooked. And, of course, I have a podcast on this topic as well.

The main characters in the mid-18th century novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu do their best to take on the role of traveling rakes in their wanderings across Europe. Alithea and Arabella cross-dress, take on the persona of Chevaliers, and flirt madly with women in every town they come to (somewhat to the detriment of the obvious love affair they have with each other that they verbally deny). They fit the model in having aristocratic privilege that protects them from the full consequences of their flirtations, and in cheerfully plunging into all sorts of sensual pleasures. But Arabella and Alithea are always very conscious that they are playing the role of rakes, rather than actually being rakes. They have no intention of going all the way with the women they romance and it’s clear throughout the book that they are dedicated to each other. So it’s a good thing they’re allowed a happily ever after together in the end. (And, of course, I have a podcast about them.)

Although the figure of the rake is most commonly associated with England and France, details of the life of Catherine Vizzani from 18th century Italy fit the rake archetype. (And, as usual, I have a podcast about her.) Vizzani was definitely a sexual adventurer, courting a sequence of women both in female performance and passing as a man. As a valued employee (in male guise) of men with significant social and political power, she was able to leverage the umbrella of that privilege to continue her adventures even when complaints were made. Vizzani didn’t meet all the characteristics of a rake: she wasn’t from the aristocracy herself and her transgressive behavior seems to have been largely confined to her romantic adventures, rather than being part of a more extensive list of vices.

One classic literary example that I’ve mentioned repeatedly in these shows (in part because she stands out as an epitome of several archetypes) is Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda. Harriot is meant as a cautionary tale about inappropriate friendships, but she warrants attention because she is behaving almost exactly as a male rake would toward the more sympathetic Lady Delacour. Harriot is regularly depicted as wearing men’s clothing, either for a masquerade or as personal habit, and behaving in stereotypically masculine fashion. She takes on the role of rake in her interactions with women, with pretended abductions and bluster. She dares to express feminist opinions, arguing for the equality of men and women along with other Jacobin social ideals such as revolution, opposition to slavery, and sexual freedom. She courts Lady Delacour aggressively and draws her into adventures and scrapes, such as participating in a duel with another woman over a political campaign. Harriot delights in discomfiting those with conventional morals and is largely allowed to act as she does for reasons of social privilege, even though the plot of the novel requires her to be punished severely in the end.

Another literary example of the same era treats the female rake even more harshly. Mistress Hobart—the woman in charge of the young maids of honor at court, in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Count de Grammont is also depicted as a “mannish” predator on young women for sexual purposes. Or at least attempting to be so, though she is foiled at every turn by her male competition. She leverages her position for access and applies wit, charm, flattery, and gifts in her attempted seductions. Mistress Hobart is depicted as a rake, in competition with other rakes, whose methods and habits are parallel and are distinguished only in that she has the access to female spaces while they have the advantage of the author’s sympathies.

In the late 18th century, we have another real-life figure who fits the rakish mould: Anne Lister. For all that Lister holds herself forth as seeking a permanent marriage-like relationship, her actual romantic and sexual adventures are those of a pleasure-seeking rake who juggles multiple lovers and has very tenuous notions of fidelity. While she may ponder questions of the morality of her life in her diary entries, she shapes her conclusions in ways convenient to her personal goals. Her behavior, even outside the bedroom, is heedless of social conventions, though she doesn’t indulge in the traditional rake’s vices of gambling, drink, and casual violence. She definitely relies on social privilege to protect her life choices, and mixes easily with people of various classes despite being very much a snob, which isn’t that different from the attitudes of male rakes.

All of these women show that the archetype of the female rake was alive and well, if different in certain ways from the male version. Female rakes were, perhaps, sometimes more covert about the sexual nature of their adventures. And the social standing that protected them from the consequences of their immorality was sometimes based on felicitous marriages, though certainly not in every case. All they need to complete the romantic trope is to find that virtuous woman they fall for hard enough to contemplate reform…or the one who kicks convention to the curb and joins them in their adventures!

Show Notes

The continuing series about historic romance tropes looks at female rakes.

  • Other episodes mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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