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.
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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.