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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #61 Braunschneider 2010 “Reforming the Coquette: Poly, Homo, Hetero in The Reform’d Coquet and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless”

Full citation: 

Braunschneider, Theresa. 2010. “Reforming the Coquette: Poly, Homo, Hetero in The Reform’d Coquet and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

Braunschneider, Theresa. “Reforming the Coquette: Poly, Homo, Hetero in The Reform’d Coquet and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless

The texts studied in this article for an interesting blend of moralism and titillation. The figure of the coquette has the potential to be an icon for free and empowered women's sexuality, hence the need to "reform" her.

* * *

This article examines two texts in the "reformed coquette" genre to look at changes in views of women's romantic agency and how romantic relationships between women were both presumed by, and a challenge to, the notion of marriage as based on mutual affection.

The figure of the coquette--a woman who accepts all suitors but gives preference to none--poses the basic question "why should a woman marry at all?" In the novels The Reform'd Coquet and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless the protagonists pose this question directly. If a woman has no specific and particular attraction to one man, what would it benefit her to limit either the attentions she receives or those she bestows? Although female friendships are not explicitly framed as directly identical to male suitors, in both texts a very particular romantic (or at least emotional) friendship with a woman creates a situation of sexual vulnerability from which the protagonist must be rescued by the man who thereby earns her specific devotion. This framing both acknowledges that women fall within the free and open scope of a coquette's affections and identifies them as a special hazard to her virtue, even if indirectly.

In The Reform'd Coquet this conjunction is made more pointed because the woman whose affections put the protagonist in peril turns out to be a man in disguise--the man who directly poses that peril. The coquette sees nothing peculiar or unusual in the eroticized attention she receives from this character, believing him to be a woman. Others--particularly her long-suffering mentor and would-be suitor--are inherently suspicious due to the intensity of that affection. But this suspicion takes the form, not of seeing it as homoerotic, but of concluding that the person displaying the affection must therefore be a man. (As turns out to be the case.) Thus the possibility of women's homoerotic relationships is actually negated, both in the suitor's belief and in reality, remaining an accepted possibility only in the coquette's original reaction that accepted the "woman's" affections as unremarkable (but also as non-erotic). The motif is played for amusement and moralizing (although not, interestingly enough, by portraying the cross-dressing man as in any way ridiculous) and seems to frame women's affections as threatening only because they encourage a woman to let her guard down.

In Miss Betsy Thoughtless, the peril brought on by female bonds comes not from an erotic relationship with the woman, but from prioritizing that friendship over male cautions against it. Betsy's steadfast dismissal of the male warnings is punished by the friend turning out to be a prostitute whose company damages Betsy's reputation (leading her into further ruin).

In the end, the overt answer the stories give to the original question is that a woman marries because she has, finally, formed a particular attraction, to a specific man. But the subtext is that marriage is necessary to gain a dedicated protector against all other men. The homo-social or homo-erotic bonds that precipitate this conclusion are framed as representing heedless and willful female sexuality that precipitates the peril, but at least in The Reform'd Coquet this female peril is blended with the figure of a direct romantic rival, even though heteronormativity is maintained by means of the disguise motif.

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