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Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a radical change occurred in notions of self and personal identity. This was a sudden transformation, says Dror Wahrman, and nothing short of a revolution in the understanding of selfhood and of identity categories including race, gender, and class. In this pathbreaking book, he offers a fundamentally new interpretation of this critical turning point in Western history.
Wahrman demonstrates this transformation with a fascinating variety of cultural evidence from eighteenth-century England, from theater to beekeeping, fashion to philosophy, art to travel and translations of the classics. He discusses notions of self in the earlier 1700s—what he terms the ancien regime of identity—that seem bizarre, even incomprehensible, to present-day readers. He then examines how this peculiar world came to an abrupt end, and the far-reaching consequences of that change. This unrecognized cultural revolution, the author argues, set the scene for the array of new departures that signaled the onset of Western modernity.
If bees are good to think with, as early-modern people certainly believed, let us inquire further into the cultural currents that intersected in the driving of the Amazon queen out of the beehive by the late eighteenth century and in the emergence of the queen mother as her most likely replacement. This chapter therefore begins by tracing the evolution of both sides in this balance - the image of the Amazon on the one hand, and that of the mother on the other. Both, I want to suggest, went through parallel shifts during the same period: shifts from understandings capacious enough to allow for individual deviation from dominant gender norms to more inflexible understandings that rendered such deviations very costly. It was as a consequence of this double shift that "Amazon" became an unacceptable characterization for a female - whether bee or human - just as maternity was about to become an inescapable one for her very essence.
First, then, the Amazon. In looking at the cultural position of the Amazon, scholars have often asserted - orrather assumed - that her image, involving a more or less radical renunciation of prevailing gender norms, has always presented, by definition, a threatening challenge to patriarchy. Therefore, this line of reasoning continues, Amazons became an inevitable target of repression and vilification throughout the history of Western society - what one writer summed up as "the war against the Amazons". But this can readily be shown not to have been the case: in fact, Amazons were not necessarily perceived as threatening, and they were as likely to have a good reputation as they were a bad one, depending on historical circumstances.
Thus, throughout the short eighteenth century, the lot of human Amazons, like that of Amazonian bees, was overall quite a good one. This for instance was how Ephraim Chambers began the relevant entry in his famous Cyclopædia of 1728: "Amazon, in Antiquity, a Term signifying a bold, courageous Woman: capable of daring, hardy Atchievements. See VIRAGO, HEROINE, &c." Thus, tout court: a heroic bundle of extraordinary qualities. These qualities of the Amazons - their "greatest Valour and Heroism" (1758) - were often commented upon: "Have we not read of Amazons of Old," versed another mid-century writer, "How great in War, how resolute and bold?" Yet another not only complimented "Amazonian Ladies", but insisted they were the best that "Dame Nature design'd". In Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, Olivia was to be "drawn as an Amazon, sitting upon a bank of flowers ... and a whip in her hand" as part of an idyllic, flattering family portrait. Contemporary art critics would have approved: Goldsmith perhaps got the idea from Joseph Spence's observation in his recently published learned treatise on the imagery of classical mythology, that the ancients had done well to represent Virtue as a manly, armed Amazon, in order to highlight her "firmness and resolution". Spence in turn may have got the idea from the Earl of Shaftesbury, who earlier in the century had suggested that the firmness and manliness of Virtue - "a martial Dame" - could be well conveyed by clothing her like an Amazon.
Moreover, throughout most of the eighteenth century one can readily find representations of actual Amazon queens - be they avowedly mythical or supposedly historical - as noble, honorable, and heroic. Nor were these only the Amazon queens of antiquity: Joseph Warder, after all, considered it genuinely flattering to dedicate his account of the "glorious" Amazonian queen bee and her entourage to his own queen, Anne. Warder's effort resonated with other contemporary attempts to portray the queen as a martial Amazon, from Anne's coronation medal that showed her as the warrior goddess Pallas actively engaged in warfare, to the "Amazons, with Bows and Arrows" that greeted her ceremonial entry into Bath in 1702 (fig. 1). (These attempts, it is also true, did not go very far, but this was because of their incongruity with Anne's personal inclinations, rather than because the Amazonian image itself was unacceptable.) Indeed, nobody understood better the positive implications of Warder's Amazonian tribute than an adversary in the debate on bees, one Robert Maxwell: Maxwell, who was convinced that the head of the beehive was in fact male, accused Warder of deliberately misrepresenting it as an Amazonian female only in order to be able to sway the queen with a "fine Compliment".
So the Amazon, literal or figurative, was doing rather well until the last two decades of the eighteenth century, and was routinely seen as an evocation of ancient glory, more a compliment than a complaint. This is not to say, of course, that there were no pejorative invocations of the Amazons during this period. But such negative characterizations sat side by side with more positive ones, allowing for a wide range of possible evaluations of the Amazon in which the former did not impart the dominant tone. But then the fortunes of the Amazons changed rapidly and dramatically. One would be hard pressed to find many writers in the 1780s and 1790s employing the epithet "Amazonian" in anything but a pejorative sense. When the Historical Magazine carried in 1792 a putative eyewitness report of a matrilineal and matriarchal society in Lesbos, the closest to "an Amazonian commonwealth" that had ever been found, it turned out that these "lordly ladies" were distinguished "by a haughty, disdainful, and supercilious air", their dress was "singular and disadvantageous", and their usurpation of male prerogatives had led to the disintegration of the natural social fabric even to the point of having these "unnatural daughters" turn on their own parents. And when a turn-of-the-century critic wished to denounce Gothic literature for its unwholesome unnaturalness, the characteristic that he chose - rather surprisingly - to single out as that in which "every law of nature, and every feature of the human character are violated and distorted", was the Gothic's encouragement of "amazonian spirit". Elsewhere it became commonplace to invoke, in the context of the critique of modern times, the Amazon's "folly, as a reward for her manhood" (1787), or "the unpleasing airs of an Amazon, or a virago" (1789) - words that now carried very different connotations from those, say, in Chambers's Cyclopædia of 1728. "I am no Amazon," declared the milkwoman poetess Ann Yearsley in 1796. As such Yearsley endowed her portrait as a bare-breasted figure of liberty with a sorrowfully imploring feminine expression, as a clear repudiation of the Amazonianism that "profanes [the] heart by nature made". She had moved quite a distance away from her predecessor of half a century, the washerwoman poetess Mary Collier, who, when she had published her poems, proudly imagined herself at the head of "an Army of Amazons".
By the 1790s, this change - which had already begun in the 1780s - became much easier to dress in a more explicit political garb. But the renunciation of the Amazon was true not only of anti-revolutionary conservatives, who predictably vied with each other in denouncing Mary Wollstonecraft and her ilk as "the Amazonian band". It was also true of radicals like William Godwin, whose vindication of Wollstonecraft - his erstwhile wife - sought to play down and explain away the "somewhat amazonian temper, which characterizes some parts of [her] book", a temper that he too found to be distasteful, and to emphasize instead her "essential character", as "a woman, lovely in her person, and in the best and most engaging sense, feminine in her manners". Far from being an Amazon - Amazonian behavior, Godwin wrote a few years later, was "absurd, indelicate, and unbecoming" - Wollstonecraft as he now reconstructed her turned out to have been a living reaffirmation, in a proper juxtaposition to her husband, of the basic gender distinctions between men and women. Or take Godwin's friend, the painter James Barry, who also tried to defend Wollstonecraft's reputation, offering her together with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman as an example of "why the ancients ... have chosen Minerva a female". But Barry proved unable to stick by this "feminist" stance for very long: by the next page we find his Minerva advocating "the superior sentiment and graces of feminine softness" as the sole base of women's social position. Barry's turn-of-the-century Minerva, domesticated and properly feminine, was but a faint shadow of that Amazonian Minerva who had been celebrated by his eighteenth-century forerunners in art criticism, Shaftesbury and Spence, for her "sternness that has much more of masculine than female in it".
In a less freighted context, consider the successive editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The first and second editions, of 1771 and 1778, included entries on Amazons that were neutral if not appreciative in tone. But in the third edition, of 1788, these were replaced with an avowedly critical essay that presented the Amazons as terrible, barbaric, and politically dangerous. Or take the correspondence of Horace Walpole, as good an indication as any of tremors in the tectonic plates of eighteenth-century culture, given the extraordinary scale and longevity of his letter-writing career. From the mid-1780s, and more insistently in the years following the French Revolution, we find Walpole using the term "Amazonian" frequently to denounce those virago supporters of political radicalism, both in France and at home. But twenty years earlier Walpole had actually written to a lady friend - a "heroine" in his words - in appreciation, not condemnation, of her "real Amazonian principles". In the intervening years, in Walpole's letters as well as in the other cultural registers we have seen, the overtones of "Amazon" shifted from an expression of admiration for female heroism to a denunciation of female transgression. This sudden shift, moreover, did not go unnoticed by at least one (female) contemporary, who observed in 1793 that "Amazonian virtue" had recently gone out of fashion. Small wonder, therefore, that with it the Amazonian queen bee went out of fashion too.
* * * The Amazonian queen bee, we recall, was replaced by the mother queen. However natural this substitution might seem, given the structural relations of the hive, it too can be analogously situated within a late-eighteenth-century cultural context.
To begin to see this, we can turn to the novelist and educator Maria Edgeworth. In 1801 Edgeworth published the highly didactic novel Belinda - she herself called it a "moral tale" - which set forth her vision for the dawning century. Belinda participated in the virulent anti-Amazonian campaign of these years: the novel's bad guy (I use this phrase advisedly) is an Amazonian "man-woman", a woman with "bold masculine arms" whose favorite pastimes include hunting, electioneering, sword-fighting, and above all donning male clothes. With a characteristic disregard for subtlety, this person is named Mrs. Harriot Freke ("Who am I? only a Freke!" she cries on one occasion, when mistaken for "a smart-looking young man"). Freke is the agent of corruption for Lady Delacour, Belinda's London patron, who after the death of two children renounces her maternal role for the third. It is this disavowal of motherhood that underlies Delacour's association with Freke, and its consequences are disastrous. Cajoled by Freke, Delacour agrees to a cross-dressed pistol duel with a female enemy - a scheme that backfires, literally, inflicting on her a "hideous" wound in one breast. The bad mother thus turns - as Lady Delacour herself does not fail to appreciate - into a literal one-breasted Amazon, a transformation that threatens to consume her body, her peace of mind, her independence, and ultimately her life. In a particularly poignant scene, Lady Delacour's surviving child attempts to hug her: but when "she pressed close to her mother's bosom", "Lady Delacour screamed, and pushed her daughter away", thus graphically linking her Amazonian wound and her renunciation of maternal duty. The point to note about this exchange is its physicality: feminine maternal identity in Belinda is innate, physical, and impossible to shed at will. The renunciation of motherhood thus necessarily entails a physical corollary on Lady Delacour's very body, the mutilated breast, just as the resolution of the novel must involve the simultaneous restoration of Lady Delacour to the role of mother and the almost miraculous cure of her breast wound. Indeed, the antithesis (over-)drawn in Belinda between unredeemable monstrous Amazonianism and idealized natural motherhood - recall again the transformation of the queen bee - can readily be found elsewhere at this juncture. Thus, when Ann Yearsley asserted in 1795 that she was "no Amazon", she too resorted to the same double breasted imagery: pitting the blissful image of a baby at his mother's breast against that of a woman whose refusal to suckle her baby ominously results in breast disease ("Too proud to nurse, maternal fevers came -/ Her burthen'd bosom caught th'invited flame"). In fact, even a cursory search can establish the diseased breast as a recurrent trope in a variety of turn-of-the-century contexts, making it the quintessential physical embodiment of unfeminine and unmaternal behavior. More broadly, the closing years of the eighteenth century were strewn with assertions of the natural, biological-physical basis of maternity: assertions, for example, of women's natural "destiny of bearing and nursing children", which for one writer of 1787 meant that "the order of nature would be totally reversed" if a woman opted for "the cold, forbidding pride of a studious virginity". "The principal destination of all women is to be mothers" (1790). "Maternal feeling" is a law of "all-powerful Nature" that transcends the differences between people in all corners of the globe (1799). Another text, of 1803, by the renowned doctor William Buchan, not only insisted obsessively on the "naturalness" of motherhood, but actually posited the maternal role as the key to feminine identity that determines the whole of women's physical and spiritual essence. "[No] virtue [can] take deep root in the breast of the female that is callous to the feelings of a mother" - a woman who thus renders herself an "unfeeling monster" by her "unnatural conduct". This, of course, was essentially the same insistence on maternity qua femininity that had appeared in Edgeworth's Belinda two years earlier - all the way to the warning about the physical injury to a woman's body that would inevitably result from her neglect of maternal breast-feeding. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Making of the Modern Self by DROR WAHRMAN Copyright © 2004 by Dror Wahrman. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface : before the self : the Ancien Regime of identity and the revolution|
|Pt. I||Snapshot : on queen bees and being queens||3|
|Ch. 1||Varieties of gender in eighteenth-century England||7|
|Ch. 2||Gender identities and the limits of cultural history||45|
|Ch. 3||Climate, civilization, and complexion : varieties of race||83|
|Wide-angle lens : gender, race, class, and other animals||127|
|Pt. II||Bird's-eye view : the eighteenth-century masquerade||157|
|Ch. 4||The Ancien Regime of identity||166|
|Ch. 5||Religion, commerce, and empire : enabling contexts of identity's Ancien Regime||198|
|Ch. 6||The Ancien Regime and the revolution||218|
|Ch. 7||The modern regime of selfhood||265|
|The panoramic view : making an example of the French||312|