Reminder: WSG seminar 19 September 2020

The first seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (BST), 19 September 2020.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm BST/GMT* (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

September 19, 2020
Stephen Spiess: Reading Strumpets: Thomas Heywood, Sexual Epistemology, and the Making of English Whoredom

In a decidedly offhand tone, as if sharing an insight so obvious as to barely merit acknowledgement, Thomas Heywood asserts in Gynaikeion (1624), his encyclopaedic catalogue of women historical and mythological, that “almost every boy of fifteen or sixteen years old knows what a strumpet is, better by his own practice than I can illustrate to him by all my reading.” How, we might ask, can he be so sure? Upon what terms, standards, and practices does such sexual knowledge depend? In this paper, I leverage Heywood’s provocation as an invitation to think early modern “whoredom” not simply as an historical practice or literary trope, but a knowledge-relation whose contours and problematics open onto broader questions of sexual epistemology, both in the early modern period and our own. My reading thus unfolds on two levels. First, I situate Heywood’s claim in relation to the broader project in which it appears: a 466-page treatise which aims to distinguish between chaste and illicit women, and whose manifold anecdotes and exempla consistently unsettle the sexual knowability it promises to secure. In this, Gynaikeion exemplifies in strong form what I call the “making of English whoredom”—that is, the immense social, textual, and discursive labor necessary to produce and sustain the fiction of the early modern “whore” as a fixed, transparent object of knowledge. Second, and by detailing this claim, I discuss how my epistemological approach fits within the broader scholarship of early modern sex, as well as how it offers new traction on old problems (archival, hermeneutic, historiographic, etc.) faced by historians and literary critics interested in the structures and meanings of English whoredom.

Sonia Villegas Lopez: Female Libertinism in Gabriel de Brémond’s Transnational Oriental Fictions.

French oriental narratives were both translated and published profusely in England in the 1670s and 1680s. The action of many of these novellas was situated in the exotic territories of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, though often telling stories about the French and the English nobility under cover. They illustrated sexual scandals, in which women, though primarily the objects of love and gallantry, were also prone to give free rein to their desires. Gabriel de Brémond’s Hattige, or the Amours of the King of Tamaran (1680) and Homais, Queen of Tunis (1681), reproduce Charles II’s sexual affairs, and construe both Hattige, the king of Tamaran’s favourite, and Homais, wife of the King of Tunis, as emblems of female libertinism within the safe boundaries of the seraglio. Tamaran (or England) and Tunis were described as places of gallantry, the perfect environment for stories of intrigue, love and passion. These female rakes followed their ambition and used their sexual authority over kings and nobles, making fools of them to earn political power in return. They behaved as apt manipulators but their downfall was precipitated by their own romantic weaknesses for other men whom they loved, in spite of not being rich or powerful. I argue that, far from being read as models of female exoticism and otherness, as in later Enlightenment oriental novels, these strong women and the love intrigues they spin could be interpreted as examples of what Srinivas Aravamudan has fitly called “transcultural allegories” (2012: 202). I subscribe to Aravamudan’s interpretation of the late seventeenth-century oriental novel as the vehicle to introduce the culturally foreign, which displaces the local and the national in favour of transculturalism. The selected novels suggest a transnational vision of the orient not in either/or exclusive categories, but in inclusive terms, according to which the east is feminised and associated to a glorious and hedonistic past.

Anthony Walker-Cook: Descending into the Underworld with Mary Leapor and Sarah Fielding.

Of women and epic poetry, this paper will explore. Following Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad (1715-20) and the Odyssey (1725-26), it was considered by many that Homer had been rendered into English in an edition perfect for women to use. This, alongside Dryden’s 1697 Virgil, meant the essential texts of the epic genre were now available for women to read in acceptable English translations. In the few accounts of the history of the epic genre that consider the presence of women writers of the mode, the eighteenth century is often missed. In 1716, Richard Blackmore thought that epic need not be ‘restrain’d to a Hero; since no Reason […] can be assign’d, why a Heroine may not be the principal person of an Epick.’ To go further, why might a woman not be the writer of an epic poem? This paper suggests that the works of Mary Leapor and Sarah Fielding represents the best claim for women’s work of the period to be classified within the epic genre. Both Leapor and Fielding use the underworld, the classical space par excellence, to explore the status of women in the eighteenth century, but both also register the influence of the mock-heroic, a mode popular throughout the period. Exploring Leapor’s poetry and Sarah Fielding’s The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759), it shall be shown how each writer uses the underworld to depict the lives of the serving class and of a woman marked by divorce respectively. This paper will thus overall suggest that the traces of the epic genre that can be detected throughout work of Leapor and Fielding warrant examination as an important part of the broadly-unwritten history that details how women writers engaged with the mode.

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

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