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Gender-Queer Historic Motif Project: 81e Krimmer 2004 - In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800 (Ch 5)

Full citation: 

Krimmer, Elisabeth. 2004. In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800. Wayne State University Press, Detroit. ISBN 0-8143-3145-9

Publication summary: 

A study of cross-dressed women (or trans men) in history and literature in 18-19th century Germany and surrounding cultures. Most of the summary for this work is provided by guest-blogger Rose Fox.

Chapter 5: Female Fantasies: Poetology and Angrogyny

This entry concludes Rose Fox's guest-analysis of Krimmer. They are doing research for a novel with a trans male protagonist and a lesbian supporting character in ~1810 London, examining the works Krimmer covers through the lens of what a transmasculine person reading these books might have thought and felt.

If other readers are interested in contributing entries to the Project, feel free to contact me about it.

* * *

(by Rose Fox)

German Romanticism was very concerned with the "transgression of polarities", so its literature has lots of crossdressing. Krimmer lists lots of examples of works with characters who crossdress or are perceived as crossdressing. Joseph von Eichendorff's "From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing"; Achim von Arnim's "Isabella of Egypt"; Clemens Brentano's "Godwi" Eichendorff's "Premonition and Present" and "Poets and Their Companions"; E.T.A. Hofmann's "Artus' Court" And Tieck's "Franz Sternbald's Migrations". All published between 1798 and 1826.

Many Romantic writers celebrated androgyny "as an ideal of human wholeness", but only as a goal state for men, not for women. Men could achieve "Bildung" by fusing with femininity. Men search for perfection; women are their foils. Dorothea Schlegel's novel Florentin is very aware that "androgynous wholeness was not meant for the female gender". "The refusal to conform to binary categories constitutes the motivating force of Schlegel's writing." Dorothea was married to Friedrich Schlegel, whose 1799 novel Lucinde celebrated androgyny; Florentin can be read as a response.

Bettina Brentano-von Arnim's gender philosophy similarly refuted the work of her brother, Clemens Brentano. [I'm going to abbreviate Bettina Brentano-von Arnim as BBvA.] BBvA's novels were written around 1840, but based on correspondence from around 1800. They interlace the period's gender ideas. BBvA's works "deconstruct the ideology of the 'gendered character' by dissociating masculinity from male bodies." BBvA sometimes dressed as a man while traveling on long journeys. Krimmer namechecks other crossdressed travelers: Lady Mary Montague, Sidonia Hedwig Zäunemann, Ulrike von Kleist.

And Krimmer returns to the concept of "female absence" and "the unresolved ambiguity of the cross-dresser". Both Schlegel and BBvA were "insisting on paradox and internal contradiction...refusing to provide closure while staging a capricious play with polar categories". Schlegal is often dismissed as her husband's "servile wife and secretary", scorned for "zealous and obsessive devotion". She was ALSO scorned for ditching her first husband for Schlegal, and not marrying him until years later. Women can't win. "Often the condemnation of her alleged immorality was interspersed with thinly veiled anti-Semitic slander." And then all her works were published under her husband's name. Women REALLY can't win.

F. Schlegel wrote Lucinde, inspired by Dorothea's scandalous behavior--the same behavior that she was scorned for. Dorothea published Florentin for the money and doubted the book's quality. She planned a sequel but never finished it. Florentin "delights in detailing narrative strands, which it then abandons silently" and alludes to secrets never explained.

Florentin, a traveler, saves Count S. from a bear. Count S. takes him home to meet wife Eleonore, daughter Juliane, and Juliane's fiancé, Eduard. There are hints of a Juliane/Eduard/Florentin ménage. The three travel across the countryside, with Juliane dressed as a man. During a storm they take refuge in a mill. It's the day before Juliane and Eduard's wedding, so totally a GREAT day to be out riding in the middle of nowhere. Florentin sneaks off to visit Juliane's aunt C, gets involved in a conflict involving C's protegé and her fiancé, and leaves. The novel ends: "Florentin was nowhere to be found." THE END

"The abrupt ending...leaves its readers puzzled." I would imagine so! Krimmer is trying to analyze this but as a book editor I have to say this just sounds like a bad book. Krimmer says "Schlegel's writing revolves around the conscious display of indeterminacy", including crossdressing. The book is very detailed about Juliane's crossdressing, and "the discovery of her 'true' gender in the mill". [Quotes around "true" are Krimmer's, not mine, and I'm not sure what they're supposed to indicate.] The narrative says Juliane frequently crossdresses and passes as male. But at the mill, she's humiliated by discovery. Her parents also dislike her crossdressing, scolding her even when they reluctantly permit her to do it.

"Cross-dressing in Florentin does not reclaim male privilege" but dissolves gender roles, leaving women "unprotected and helpless". Schlegel recognizes that those roles are restrictive but sees them as protecting women from rape [??] and subsequent social stigma. [Krimmer does not use the word "rape" but rather "male license". Ew.] The forest is "uncharted territory" where social norms are invalid. But that lets Eduard be far more aggressive than usual and his kisses and embraces frighten Juliane. Dressing like a man leaves her helpless when a man sees her as a woman. And the miller's wife makes "obscene jokes" about Juliane, not realizing she's a count's daughter.

"The ubiquity and necessity of masks and disguises form the centerpiece of Schlegel's social critique." In a diary entry, Schlegel compares individuality in bourgeois German culture to attending a masquerade with a bare face. Similarly, she said characters are naked until clothed by the author, and that unedited manuscripts are "out of uniform". And she said she'd rather rewrite a story over and over, like dressing a doll, than have it be too perfect to change. "Thus, the fragmentary state of Florentin might be seen as a direct result of Schlegel's poetology of openness." "In refusing definitive choices and decisive endings, Schlegel eludes the pitfalls" of binary gender systems.

I am really very thoroughly in disagreement with this entire analysis. The premise is very flawed. Ambiguity and non-binariness can be solid and satisfying. And they are not the same as fragmentation or distortion. [Skimming a lot now because otherwise I will just get more annoyed.]

Schlegel sees identity as "continually changing" so Florentin's character comes across as inconsistent and unsatisfying. "She emphasized the idea of personal discontinuity and non-identity by creating character collages that tease readers" This especially annoyed anyone who tried to figure out which real people she based the characters on. "The figure of the cross-dresser, whose existence is based on the refusal to commit to only one of two options." [argh argh argh] And that's the end of the Schlegel analysis. GOOD. It's like Krimmer keeps realizing and then forgetting that non-binarism is possible.

On to BBvA's epistolary novel, Clemens Brentano's Spring Wreath. Published 1844, based on letters from 1801 to 1803. "In Spring Wreath, as in all of BBvA's epistolary novels, facts and fiction blend into an indivisible whole." Her novels were also intended to influence the political situation of the time when they were published. One of the things she wanted to bring about was "the re-definition of traditional gender roles". Once again we have a foreign "amazon" character, Frenchwoman Louise de Gachet. BBvA was often called "boyish" or "androgynous" or even "manly" by others. She called herself "child", a gender-neutral term. Krimmer calls this "contributing to the confusion". [It doesn't sound confused to me at all. Grrr.] In adolescence BBvA was slender ("unfeminine"), unrestrained in behavior, and defiant of familial and social constraints. In her novel she amplifies this behavior and portrayers her teen self as triumphant over attempts to feminize her. [Again, I'm using the pronouns used in the text, but given BBvA's androgynous self-words, gender-neutral pronouns would probably be better.]

"It is well-nigh impossible to give a plot summary of Spring Wreath." It's all fleeting moments, impressions, thoughts. "BBvA depicts a heroine who experiences intellectual deprivation caused by a gender-specific socialization." Young Bettine constantly questions stereotypes, names and shames patriarchy, longs to change the world, be active, travel, live free. BBvA had previously expressed these desires in her novel The Günderode, based on her correspondence with Karoline von Günderrode. [As noted earlier, KvG was also an author, and almost certainly a trans man with no way to express or live that identity.] In BBvA's novelized version, Karoline tells Bettine, "If you were a boy, you would become a hero."

Spring Wreath introduces Louise de Gachet, another fictionalized real person, who led royalist military resistance in the Vendée. De Gachet made quite a splash in the small German town of Offenbach, and BBvA was "deeply influenced" by encountering de Gachet. In the novel, Clemens says that de Gachet rides wild horses, knows a lot about science, and is extremely beautiful. Lots of mixed-gender praise there. Clemens even recommends de Gachet as a role model--but advises Bettine to "overlook" "the manly wildness of her being". Eventually he realizes de Gachet's masculinity is too pervasive, and withdraws his recommendation.

Bettine first describes de Gachet as "a beautiful man-youth"; de Gachet says "Au contraire c'est une femme". De Gachet invites Bettine to travel with her, but Bettine fears being drowned out by the stronger personality, and declines. Bettine wants to transgress on her own terms, in her own ways. But the encounter encourages Bettine to reject her brother's misogynistic statements and emphasis on traditional gender roles. When he warns her against hanging out with men, she says that Karoline "does not know any male company but mine". Wow. And Bettine refers to one of Clemens's male friends by female pronouns because he behaves in what she sees as a feminine way. So for Bettine, gender is wholly performative.

In letters, BBvA often used unexpected pronouns for people; in novels, sometimes turned real people into genderswapped characters. BBvA fictionalizes her experiences traveling crossdressed in Goethe's Correspondence with a Child. Bettine (the character) climbs trees, hitches horses, and brandishes a gun. "By appropriating male clothing, Bettine appropriates qualities that are commonly attributed to men."

Krimmer observes that transgression can be easier in times of war and other cultural chaos, when many things are destabilized. BBvA was an outspoken activist for freedom fighters, the poor, prison reform but she avoided organized feminist activism. But her novels all express "her concern with the restrictive gender roles of the 1840s". She saw "all things sensual and natural [as] symbols of the spirit". More blurring of categories. BBvA sees herself not as deviating from nature but as naturally opposed to what society wants. "It was nature herself that made her this way, and that that [sic] which is natural cannot be bad." Krimmer calls this inconsistent, and an "ironic example of how the discourse on nature can be turned against itself." [Personally, I'm missing the inconsistency. Precisely this argument is made today--it's the heart of "born that way" narratives.]

Final summary, comparison of BBvA and Schlegel, etc. Gender-bending allowed them "to express the experiences of a gender that had no language of its own." So is Krimmer now perceiving both authors as non-binary or third-gender? That doesn't jibe with the rest at all! But it doesn't matter because the chapter is over! There's a conclusion section that talks about how the internet separates body from identity, etc. The conclusion is heavily binarist and also already out of date, so I'm not going to bother writing it up here. So: done!

Time period: 

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