Published: Oct. 1, 2010 By

[1] Eighteenth-century court records and periodicals provide glimpses of the bodies of women who cross-dressed and married other women, the so-called female husbands whose bodies challenged emergent categories of sex, gender, and sexuality. Mary East, a woman who identified herself as James How for most of her adult life, lived with another woman as husband and wife; Charlotte Charke presented herself as Mr. Brown for many years; and other cross-dressing women like the female soldier Hannah Snell and the pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read all took on traditionally masculine roles by wearing men’s clothes.

[2] The ambiguities that emerged as cross-dressing and other sex/gender practices were prosecuted as crimes help demonstrate the precariousness of what ultimately became a falsely naturalized binary sex/gender system. During the long eighteenth century, court records show how much effort went into consolidating non-standard sexualities, even before the idea of fixed sex and gender identities had been fully developed and institutionally perpetuated. The Newgate Calendar records the ways in which criminal prosecution led to the delegitimization of a spectrum of sex/gender roles; moreover, it serves as a site for the inscription of class- and gender-based ideologies of sexuality. Kristina Straub has suggested that this is especially clear in how the Newgate Calendars represent female and/or feminine sexuality. She notes that “female sexuality” returns “as the root of the problem” in the descriptions of criminals like Mary Blandy, who was hanged for murdering her father, and Mary/Charles Hamilton, who was whipped for cross-dressing and subsequently marrying fourteen women (“Feminine Sexuality,” 228).

[3] Not surprisingly such bodies tantalized Henry Fielding. He explores the body’s tricky status as an inscriptive site in so many of his works and was drawn to Blandy and Hamilton (the main focus of this study). Fielding showcases the ways in which exteriority produces an individual’s interiority of identity: the gestures, postures, clothing, accessories, and discourses layered onto a body exist prior to anything that might be described as a psychic core or an autonomous, essential identity. His satiric poem The Masquerade (1728) offers a telling example of this unexpected relationship. As Terry Castle has observed inMasquerade and Civilization, Fielding situates the “sartorial travesty” permitted within the context of the masquerade as necessarily pointing towards sexual transgressions that led to the production of a new “Amazonian race” of women (Castle, 47). Sexual chaos results from socially sanctioned transgressions of what we now regard as gender norms. In works as different as The Author’s Farce(1730) and An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), Fielding offers up female bodies as signs of the externalized nature of identity. More often than not, male characters in his texts maintain at least some semblance of psychic coherence, whereas female characters literally become constituted by the costumes that they wear.

[4] Fielding’s 1746 potboiler The Female Husband, an anonymously published narrative he wrote to cash in on the scandal surrounding the true story of Hamilton, foregrounds his fascination with and fear of the ambiguities surrounding gendered embodiment and the epistemological confusion resulting from cross-dressing. Like much of Fielding’s explicitly fictional novelistic writing, this text provides him space in which he grapples with the narrative construction of sexual difference, particularly in so far as such difference is simultaneously assumed and prescribed by legal structures. With The Female Husband, he attempts to situate Hamilton’s body in ways that make it socially, sexually, and morally intelligible, even as he considers her body’s unfixity—its changeability and unintelligibility—as the basis for his narrative. Fielding’s fictionalization of Hamilton’s story serves as an attempt to render as legitimate “bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible” (Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions,” 101), while implying something even more radical (at least in the context of eighteenth-century experiments with genre): that unintelligible bodies can be contained and disciplined by narrative.

[5] The Female Husband offers crucial insights into the relationship between mixed media and mixed-gender or mixed-sex bodies. Bodies like Mary/Charles Hamilton’s function in ways that seem to have proved incredibly seductive to Fielding (who renames Hamilton’s masculine identity George Hamilton). His text explicitly posits a connection between textual and sexual seductions, both of which Fielding tries to refuse even as he replicates and embodies them. Fielding’s self-conscious fictionalization of the trial records and his narrative structure allow him to adapt Hamilton’s story in order to highlight, first, the containment and disciplining of desire and, then, the body’s public, published visibility as a mixed-gender spectacle.

The True Story of an Eighteenth-Century “Woman Imposter”

[6] Mary Hamilton began cross-dressing as an adolescent. She assumed the name of Charles Hamilton when she left Scotland. At the age of fourteen, wearing her brother’s clothes, Hamilton served as an apprentice to a mountebank physician. After two or three years, she set up her own practice. On July 16, 1746, Hamilton—then presenting herself as a male physician—married Mary Price, the niece of her landlady, Mary Creed. In the months after their marriage, Price “discovered” (according to Allyson N. May’s entry on Hamilton in theDictionary of National Biography) “that she had been deceived,” and a court case ensued that unearthed claims that Hamilton had married fourteen women.

[7] Hamilton’s trial engendered a set of provocative questions. Lesbianism was not a named or criminal offense, and the lack of a penis made charges of polygamy untenable at best. Called a “woman imposter” (Baker, 220), the members of Hamilton’s community in Glastonbury requested that she receive a sever punishment, even if they could not precisely name her crime. Imprisoned for impersonating a man and for being a vagrant, Hamilton was publicly whipped in four different towns over a course of three weeks and subsequently imprisoned. She achieved tabloid celebrity status while in prison but then disappeared from historical records.

[8] The Newgate Calendar’s record of Hamilton, like so many of its accounts of female criminals, highlights the sexual transgressions constituting her crime and exaggerates the extent to which Hamilton broke social codes by calling her a “woman who was imprisoned and whipped for marrying Fourteen women.” It is not her body’s illegibility that the Newgate Calendar documents but the threat that this illegibility posed to other women’s sexualities and on the emergent codes of marriage. The entry on Hamilton in the Newgate Calendar begins with an interrogation of categories:

POLYGAMY, or a man marrying two or more wives—and, vice versa, a woman marrying two or more husbands—is a crime frequently committed; but a woman marrying a woman according to the rites of the Established Church is something strange and unnatural. Yet did this woman, under the outward garb of a man, marry fourteen of her own sex!

Polygamy and same-sex marriage are juxtaposed against one another. Polygamy is an unexceptional crime; “a woman marrying a woman” is “something strange and unnatural.” But even though the Newgate Calendar refers to her as a shameful “monopoliser of her own sex,” the court could only call her “an uncommon, notorious cheat” because of the limitations of the terminology then available to inscribe and penalize sex, gender, and sexuality.

[9] Hamilton’s story thus draws attention to the emergence of a new set of sex/gender codes that Randolph Trumbach locates at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In his words, “The paradigm that there are two genders founded on two biological sexes began to predominate in western culture only in the early eighteenth century. It can be tied to the beginnings of modern equality between the two legitimated genders” (112). As Trumbach suggests, the social construction and codification of a two-sex, two-gender system was inextricably interwoven with legal structures that depended on the categories they produced. Or, in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s words, “the legal system has an interest in maintaining only two sexes, our collective biologies do not” (31). Sociosexual institutions connected to marriage, property ownership, and suffrage as well as to the prohibition of same-sex relationships and cross-dressing, for example, have always been prescriptive rather than descriptive, crafted and organized to ensure the perpetuation and maintenance of categories that helped uphold goals connected to nation and family, as these structures took on their centrality.

[10] Hamilton’s crime confounded the court system by foregrounding semantic gaps between the appearance of the gendered and sexed body, its practices, and its ability to slip between sex/gender categories. Even though most accounts of Hamilton’s story include assumptions that she employed a dildo to convince her female lovers, at least temporarily, that she was biologically male, the case also hinges on the very uncertainty of what more generally was accepted as a sexual fact: that male and female anatomy conformed to a binary sex system.

[11] Hamilton’s story is accessible through court records, eighteenth-century periodicals, and tabloid narratives, like The Female Husbandand a later pamphlet. But her voice is persistently elided and omitted—a problem connected to the historical othering of marginal sexualities and gender categories. Articulating a range of gendered and sexual identities by literally inscribing them on the surface of her body, Hamilton functions as a crucial example of the difficulty of recovering and reading gendered embodiment from a historical perspective, especially when the body in question is historically notated by its inclusion in narratives that absent her voice. Terry Castle’s suggestion that Fielding “makes no attempt to imagine what complex motive might have led [Hamilton] to her act of impersonation” and doesn’t consider how she “might have described the meaning of her behavior” (The Female Thermometer, 71) helps draw attention to the irreconcilability of the body and the texts that control and regulate it in order to disseminate a particular, fixed version of its meanings. Textually rendered as a gender imposter and a criminal, Hamilton becomes relegated to the periphery of her story simply because her gender, sex, and sexuality are restructured according to the eighteenth-century media that became—ephemerally but with high social, sexual, and political stakes—fascinated by her case.

Henry Fielding’s “Sex-Ploitive” Fiction

[12] When Fielding began crafting his version of Hamilton’s story for anonymous publication in 1746, he used tabloid media sources to render a narrative that cannibalized gossip and details drawn from the papers in a highly titillating way, designed to help Fielding earn quick money. He had never met Hamilton and probably did not receive any first-hand information about her life or trial, even though one of his lawyer cousins oversaw the trial. In many ways, Fielding’s narrative structuring of Hamilton’s story provides insight into the broader pattern of practices by which gendered and sexual anomalies were contained, regulated, and marginalized during this period. He takes a body that could, as Castle suggests, have provided glimpses into the complexity of gendered embodiment prior to the rigid codification of a two-sex, two-gender, heteronormative system and transforms it into the voiceless, fetishized object of a gaze that is simultaneously pornographic and moralistic.

[13] According to Sheridan Baker, most of The Female Husband is “pure fiction”; even the details that reflect knowledge of the case are “not altogether lacking” in fictional details (Baker, 219). Fielding altered many of the facts about Hamilton’s life and her trial, adding his own fictional flourishes and satiric gibes, such as his references to the sexual rapacity of Methodists and his playful reference to Hamilton’s birthplace as the Isle of Man rather than Somerset. As the remainder of this study argues, Fielding’s fascination with Hamilton and his attempt to recast her story according to his own textual, sexual, and social values is key to The Female Husband‘s historical importance. He has not told Hamilton’s story; rather, he provides a glimpse into the practices by which individuals like Hamilton have been modified, made unavailable to us by particular inscriptive practices of literature, politics, and culture, emergent during the eighteenth century.

[14] Castle has agued that “Fielding’s eminently ‘enlightened’ approach to the world, his yearning for categorical distinctions and differences (particularly with regard to sex)” produced his “curious obsession” with Hamilton (The Female Thermometer,16). Beyond reflecting Fielding’s personal investment in categorizing “distinctions and differences” in ways that uphold a binary sex/gender system, the text confirms two related points: first, that Fielding’s fictional works by and large depend on the slipperiness of categories that he contains after textually exploring their many permutations and complexities and, second, that such narrative strategies produce what Castle calls a “psychological paradox,” by which the authority that is spoken and speaking is always already satirized. Fielding’s narrative structure, his generic mixing, and his problematization of the metanarratives of sexual virtue make the narrative into a document not of Hamilton’s story but instead of the visceral and intellectual processes by which sexuality was conferred and codified during this period of change and instability.

[15] The Female Husband incorporates a tabloid celebrity into a text that ostensibly performs the same culture work that William B. Warner suggests Fielding took on in Shamela, a book Warner labels as “anti-absorptive and anti-pornographic” (Warner, 240). Although Warner identifies The Female Husband as a “more sex-ploitive” version ofShamela (240, footnote 4), the terms anti-absorptive and anti-pornographic apply to The Female Husband as well, especially in the concluding paragraphs. Fielding evokes Hamilton’s scarred, hypersexual body as a legible text but also as one that highlights its own ending:

those persons who have more regard to beauty than to justice, could not refrain from exerting some pity toward her, when they saw so lovely a skin scarified with rods, in such a manner that her back was almost flead: yet so little effect had the smart or shame of this punishment on the person who underwent it, that the very evening she had suffered the first whipping, she offered the goaler money, to procure her a young girl to satisfy her most monstrous and unnatural desires. (22-23)

Hamilton’s body is overwritten with signs of transgression that, Fielding suggests, have aesthetic and erotic meaning to her readers. She becomes a site of desire and an alternative to the codified norms of sexual and textual order. But she also literally transforms from a sexual agent into a text that corresponds to Fielding’s ideas about poetic justice. Even though she bears markings of the punishment, she reiterates the story of her “monstrous and unnatural desires.” The story written on her skin is not her own, impressed on her as it is by scarifying rods, but her body continues to write it.

[16] Fielding emphatically locates Hamilton’s story on her body—the site of inscription and interpretation to which he returns throughout the text. Further, Fielding’s narrator emphatically privileges corporeal embodiments of narrative to written and recorded forms by highlighting the oral root of his sources. Even with his subtitle, he positions his story as an extension of Hamilton’s body, “taken from her own Mouth since her confinement.” Of course, nothing has been taken from Hamilton’s “own Mouth.” Fielding had never met her, and he attaches so many of his own stylistic flourishes, character attributes, and narrative events to her story that it is much easier to argue for the text’s literariness than for its authenticity. Fielding seems to strike this balance in order to destabilize any clear relationship between embodiment and essence: the truths of the narrative are not connected to an historical figure or to an individual but rather to a type of story, which is—again—anti-absorptive and anti-pornographic. The narrative is about a body that fails to conform to sociosexual expectations, but Fielding abnegates the potential unruliness and danger of this body by making the narrative hinge on moments of rupture. Repeatedly in the text, Fielding pulls away from his story and suggests that language is too prescriptive to embody something or someone who does not correlate to preexisting registers—a point, ironically, that stands in opposition to his initial suggestion that “there is nothing monstrous and unnatural, which they [the carnal appetites] are not capable of inventing” (1).

[17] The text begins and ends with Fielding’s reliance on a narrative framework that offers, first, tactics for reading the story and, second, moral sentiments that seem to contradict the material of the text while also reinforcing it. The Female Husband opens with a morally didactic description of the “propense inclination which is for very wise purposes implanted in the one sex for the other” (1). Fielding represents the heterosexual desire as, borrowing from Judith Butler, “setting itself up as the original, the true, the authentic” (Butler, “Imitation,” 715):

That propense inclination which is for very wise purposes implanted in the one sex for the other, is not only necessary for the continuance of the human species; but is, at the same time, when govern’d and directed by virtue and religion, productive not only of corporeal delight, but of the most rational felicity.

But if once our carnal appetites are let loose, without those prudent and secure guides, there is no excess and disorder which they are not liable to commit, even while they pursue their natural satisfaction; and, which may seem still more strange, there is nothing monstrous and unnatural, which they are not capable of inventing, nothing so brutal and shocking which they have not actually committed. (1)

In these two sentences, Fielding achieves several interrelated goals. First, he identifies The Female Husbandas a text about sexual inclination or “carnal appetites.” The narrative that Fielding has selected hinges on the repetition of concealment, sustained cross-gender performance, ambisexual desire, and its embodiment. He employs a dysphoric register here that allows him to contain Hamilton’s story, literally by enveloping it in prose that makes the reader uncomfortable. He also builds an assumption of normalcy into the narrative in order to make a two-folded claim: one, that “carnal appetites” create and invent “unnatural” sexualities and, two, that the language of normal people fails to acknowledge the “monstrous and unnatural,” “brutal and shocking” things that loosed appetites invent.

[18] Throughout the narrative, Fielding elliptically conveys the unspeakable nature of Hamilton’s sexuality; yet he also plies The Female Husband with textual hints that this unspeakableness and the resulting unintelligibility is the real fiction. That is, the “monstrous and unnatural” acts that the “carnal appetites” produce become written on the skin in ways that are always legible—people simply pretend not to be able to read them so that they can enjoy deviant sexualities before deflecting the social punishments onto the marked body of the “sexual imposter.”

[19] This is perhaps clearest in his depiction of Mary Price. Fielding suggests a deliberate misreading of a highly legible corporeal text. Price even sees Hamilton’s distinctly female breasts before consummating her marriage and her sexual relationship with her:

a quarrel arose between the Doctor and a man there present, upon which the mother seizing the former violently by the collar, tore open her wastecoat, and rent her shirt, so that all her breast was discovered, which, tho’ beyond expression beautiful in a woman, were of so different a kind from the bosom of a man, that the married women were set up a great titter; and tho’ it did not bring the Doctor’s sex into an absolute suspicion, yet caused some whispers, which perhaps might have spoiled the match with a less innocent and less enamoured virgin. (19)

Here Fielding underlines the visibility of Hamilton’s sex. Her breasts signify her femaleness, but only to people who want to read femaleness onto her apparently male body. This passage, moreover, draws attention to some of the issues of intelligibility that Fielding addresses throughout his pamphlet. How do people read bodies when, suddenly, those bodies literally shift in their somatic meaning? Who reads them? And how do social codes force bodily signs into preexisting linguistic forms? Fielding addresses these interconnected issues in this episode and throughout the text in contradictory ways—he shows that even when a body is fully visible, when biological markers reveal themselves, readers of the body (like readers of his text) construe the inscriptions in such a way as to continue the narrative that they want to read. The oppositions that Fielding sets up in this passage between “absolute suspicion” and an innocent, enamored virgin, between sartorial violence and naked beauty, and between the breast of a woman and “the bosom of a man” are presented, almost, as fixities. He suggests that one cannot be the other, but he then deconstructs each of these relationships, showing his readers that one body can substitute itself for another, a suggestion that dismantles the relationship between signs and signifiers throughout the text and that ostensibly breaks down terms like innocence and virginity as well. Fielding thus refuses to yield up linguistic fixities. The body’s marked surface is transient; its meanings depend upon a variety of intersecting practices and processes of interpretation and do not embody an essential, coherent, unified identity. For Fielding, this is frightening and fascinating. Hamilton’s body offers a perfect crucible for experimenting with the changeability of language, the insufficiency of interpretation, and the slipperiness of intelligibility.

[20] The text returns to the morally didactic stance of its first paragraphs in its final passages, which mark an abrupt break away from the semi-pornographic material depicted in the body of the narrative. Fielding ends on a note of caution, thereby containing his picaresque narrative in a structure that it resists and undermines:

In order to caution therefore that lovely sex, which, while they preserve their natural innocence and purity, will still look most lovely in the eyes of men, the above passages have been written, which, that they might be worthy of their perusal, such strict regard hath been had to the utmost decency, that notwithstanding the subject of this narrative be of a nature so difficult to be handled inoffensively, not a single word occurs through the whole, which might shock the most delicate ear, or give offence to the purest chastity. (23)

Just as Fielding satirically negates his representation of Price as an “innocent and…enamoured virgin,” he here enfolds a suspicion about the naturalness of female “innocence and purity” in his description of it. Moreover, like his initial reference to “monstrous and unnatural” acts (1), this passage serves to contain the narrative and to suggest an ongoing process by which the sex, gender, and sexuality are presented as falsely natural and naturalized because they have been acculturated. Women’s “natural innocence” is thus upheld in contrast to the “excess and disorder,” “monstrous and unnatural,” and “brutal and shocking” acts that Fielding attributes to anyone whose sexuality exists outside of a system of binary oppositions. The innocent woman exists because, Fielding suggests, of the monstrous other—a formulation that showcases how, in Rosi Braidotti’s words, “woman as a sign of difference is monstrous” (65).

The Containment and Disciplining of Desire

[21] Fielding emphasizes the malleability of Hamilton’s body while simultaneously forcing her sexuality to conform to a set of institutionally and textually prescribed values that make her legible. That is, he applies language to her body to suggest that her marginalization through erotic ellipsis and unnameability is always supplemented by a set of values that determine and even impose the complexity of her identity. With sections in his short narrative that locate a bric-a-brac of intersectional terms on Hamilton’s body, Fielding demonstrates the ways in which her sexualities and genders are arranged according to their relationship to and deviation from terms including the Isle of Man, Methodism, Molly, and castrato. Each of these labels is a form of interpolation; each is also insufficient and ultimately meaningless in conjunction with Hamilton’s sexual fluidity and her gender ambiguity.

[22] Fielding’s playfully overt symbolic gesture of making Hamilton’s birthplace the Isle of Man serves as one of his clearest attempts to instill a core gender identity in Hamilton—even though the inherent identity does not match or conform to the sex that her body manifests and the one-to-one sex/gender correspondence that Fielding finally upholds in his narrative’s conclusion. With its obvious pun on Hamilton’s gender identity, the reference also encompasses a set of geographical and political values that are worth noting. The Isle of Man was a liminal zone, not entirely connected to the British government. The isles were Scottish until the fourteenth century, when the Stanley family received the Isle of Man from Henry IV. The 1703 Act of Settlement led to changes in the government structure of the isles, but it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century (long after Fielding published his pamphlet) that the isles were more fully controlled by the British government.

[23] As Hariette Andreadis has suggested, early modern discourse often accommodated female same-sex erotics by representing “exoticized female erotics” as disrupting “the classically derived notions of the transgressions of tribades as the English understood them” (7). According to Andreadis, such bodies were placed outside of British domestic space, where sexualities could be described and assessed in ways that were titillating without subverting or threatening emergent discourses of family and nation in England. Briefly masquerading as a physician in order to exist outside of the confines of British domesticity, Hamilton takes on a destabilizing function that she retains by living as an itinerant doctor. This allows her to perform the role of many of Fielding’s picaresque heroes and distances her from the conduct book functions being codified in domestic fiction by Fielding’s contemporary and competitor Samuel Richardson.

[24] Hamilton “adopts male dress to evade the conventional narrative of heterosexual courtship” (Blackwell, 56)—a practice that offers her mobility and, in Fielding’s fictional version, a place outside of monogamous, marriage-oriented sexuality. In some ways, this real woman almost exactly unworks the emergent fictions of feminine domesticity that Fielding’s contemporaries—most notably his competitor Samuel Richardson—were codifying in domestic novels. But Fielding does not allow Hamilton to take on the sort of role that so many heroines in Eliza Haywood’s fictions do. In Fantomina (1724) and The Anti-Pamela (1741), as well as in many of Aphra Behn’s much earlier narratives of female criminality, sexual mobility underscores a crucial degree of textual agency. The protagonists in these texts are always punished for their transgressions, but they are more importantly allowed to embody a set of values that subvert the codes related to the containment of desire being perpetuated in literary and legal discourses.

[25] Fielding repeatedly diminishes Hamilton by connecting her to the pejorative term Molly and the sexually polymorphous form of the eunuch. He establishes a homophobic narrative strain that he then amplifies with the highly misogynistic stereotypes he calls on in the remainder of the text, when depicting a rapacious old woman and two naive young women, both of whom he labels as harboring same-sex erotic desire. Rather than setting her up as a fully embodied and complete character, he dismantles her, rendering her as the sort of amorphous, slippery, and semantically incomplete character. As Sidonie Smith has written in a slightly different context of Charke, Fielding’s narrative structuring of Hamilton ensures that she “becomes only endless words strung together” (102).

[26] Fielding transforms Hamilton into a cross-dressing rake after her relationship with a Methodist woman. The lesbian relationship that develops between these women is cast in language that inserts Hamilton’s body into discourses of male homosexuality. The Methodist rejects Hamilton in favor of a relationship with a Methodist man, and sends her a letter that opens “Dear Molly” (4). By using the diminutive form Molly to refer to Hamilton as soon as he starts describing Johnson and Hamilton’s relationship (both in his narration and in a letter from Johnson to Hamilton), Fielding destabilizes sexual categories. During the 1700s, the term Molly was in use to mark male homosexuals and was, according to Rictor Norton, already a term that “encompass[ed] a wider range of ambiguous references” to social “rather than specifically sexual” behavior. By this point, periodicals like the London Spy were offering accounts of sexual categories like this one. Moreover, Richard Steele had described “Pretty Fellows” in the Tatler as men who “accost each other with effeminate Airs” (468), and Edward Ward had defined Mollies in a highly satiric fashion:

There are a particular Gang of Wretches in Town, who call themselves Mollies, & are so far degenerated from all Masculine Deportment or Manly exercises that they rather fancy themselves Women, imitating all the little Vanities that Custom has reconcil’d to the Female sex, affecting to speak, walk, tattle, curtsy, cry, scold, & mimick all manner of Effeminacy. (549)

Sexuality here is identified as an offshoot of gender performance. The name Molly thus affixes an emergent cultural discourse to Hamilton’s body and to her sociosexual practices, while also drawing attention to the ways in which a cross-dressing body fails to yield up interpretations that fit into discourse: she is not male or homosexual, yet her sexual identities, her gender presentation, and potentially her sexual anatomy refuse to correspond to any fixed grids of corporeal intelligibility.

[27] Hamilton’s next lover applies a different term to her body, again through epistolary exchange—this time materially informed by Hamilton’s shifting identity: she is first referred to by a male pronoun, but Fielding largely encapsulates this relationship with feminine words, thereby enforcing an interpretation of Hamilton as a tribade. He calls her “Mrs. Hamilton” and describes how she uses “her own hands” to give her desired lover a handwritten letter. The widow that Hamilton courts rejects her and underlines the manifold tensions between sex, gender, and sexuality made legible on Hamilton’s body in a cruel rejection letter. In her letter, the woman compares Hamilton to Farinelli, the famous Italian castrato. Doing so, she draws as much attention to her own predilections as she does to Hamilton’s sexual identity, for the castratos were increasingly celebrated for the desirability during the eighteenth century. Hamilton has simply selected as his potential lover a woman who wants a different sort of lover. Her letter feigns astonishment and relegates Hamilton’s beauty to the stage, suggesting that her body should be taken out of sexual circulation:

I was greatly astonished at what you put into my hands. Indeed I thought, when I took it, it might have been an Opera song, and which for certain reasons I should think, when your cold is gone, you might sing as well as Farinelli, from the great resemblance there is between your persons. (8)

The “fair widow” suggests that she has read Hamilton’s body and interpreted her as literally lacking the ducts leading to the testes.

[28] Later in The Female Husband, Hamilton draws on a similar formulation, telling one of her wives that “she would have all the pleasures of marriage without the inconveniences” (14)—a statement, notably, that shows how removed Hamilton is from the push toward an idealization of marriage that was already underway in literature of the 1740s. The widow’s substitution of Hamilton with “one Jack Strong, a cadet in an Irish regiment” (8) suggests that she prefers hyperbolic masculinity. Among Hamilton’s potential lovers, this one is most closely allied with the “new consuming woman” who treated modern man as a “phallic toy” (Armintor 76).

[29] Both of Hamilton’s early lovers reject her in letters addressed to her, again, as Molly. These letters “pose,” as Emily Finlay suggests, “as miniature texts within the text, allowing the characters to contribute to the discussion about desire, in keeping wit theories of eighteenth-century writing as a conversation” (166). Compounding Finlay’s description of these letters’ conversational tactics is a broader tactic of textual containment that Fielding uses throughout The Female Husband: these letters do not simply produce a dialogue that lends polyvocality to the text; they also make these disruptions, these many and different voices, containable. The letters invoke desire that has an ending as much as it has an object and an impulse. That is, in the context of a narrative about a body that refuses to end where a female body should (according to eighteenth-century sociosexual norms) end—with marriage—the letters embody the containment and disciplining of bodies to fit into the marriage market. These first lovers literally write to Hamilton in order to reinsert themselves in heterosexual paradigms; both marry men shortly after denotatively and graphically writing an ending to their relationship with Hamilton.

[30] Hamilton’s rejection by her first two lovers seems to transform her into a misogynistic lothario who moves rapidly from one woman to the next, exploiting them by recognizing the standard traits that Fielding satirizes in women: old women’s rapacious passion for young men, and young women’s thinly veiled refusal to conform to expected patterns of virginity and virtue. Mrs. Rushford immediately falls in love with her, and whose impetuosity provides Fielding with a target for his satire. On a most superficial level, this satire is directed at the incongruity between Mrs. Rushford’s age and her sexual desires, but Fielding underscores the idea that of Mrs. Rushford’s foolishness by making Hamilton’s gender identity highly visible throughout the sequence. Whereas he represents Hamilton using the masculine pronoun in the last episode, he consistently calls her Mrs. Hamilton in this section and structures the affair around the premise that

It has been observed that women know much more of one another than the wisest men (if ever such have been employed in the study) have with all their art been capable of discovering. It is therefore no surprise that these hints were quickly perceived and understood by the female gallant, who animadverting on the conveniency which the old gentlewoman’s fortune would produce in her situation, very gladly embraced the opportunity. (9)

Here there is no “squeezing, kissing, toying, &c.”; Hamilton rather embraces “the opportunity” than the body putatively made available to her. Fielding’s rhetorical decision to retain the feminine pronoun—”her present situation,” “discovering herself to her,” “fortune she was desirous to possess,” “hoping to have the same success that Mrs.Johnson had found with her” (9)—heightens the idea of sameness and therefore draws attention to the ways in which Hamilton casts a same-sex relationship into the legal framework of marriage.

[31] The cycle of erotic, commercial, and legal exchange into which Hamilton enters requires an act of phallic signification that Fielding represents through ellipsis: “After some reflection, therefore, a device entered into her head, as strange and surprizing, as it was wicked and vile; and this was actually to marry the old woman, and to deceive her, by means which decency forbids me even to mention” (10). The remainder of The Female Husband includes several reiterations of such ellipses by which decency forbids the narrator to mention Hamilton’s devices and deceptions. When Mrs. Rushford discovers Hamilton’s so-called true sexual anatomy, she conflates terms about Hamilton’s gender by confounding social, sexual, and biological markers in his description of Hamilton as a husband and a woman:

O child, replied she, undone! I am married to one who is no man. My husband? a woman, a woman, a woman. Ay, said the grandson, where is she?—Run away, gone, said the great-grandmother, and indeed so she was: For no sooner was the fatal discovery made, than the poor female bridegroom, whipt on her breeches, in the pockets of which, she had stowed all the money she could, and slipping on her shoes, with her coat, waiste-coat and stockings in her hands, had made the best of her way into the street, leaving almost one half of her shirt behind, which the enraged wife had tore from her back. (12)

The passage begins with a linguistic slippage and an aporia: “I am married to one who is no man. My husband? a woman, a woman, a woman.” Fielding allows her to play with the notion that a woman is simply no man or not a man—phrasing that suggests the Galenic notion of female sex organs as inversion, lack, and absence. The grandson immediately registers the change and refers to Hamilton asshe.

[32] The remainder of the passage contains descriptions of Hamilton’s body that, like the final scene of her naked body with its flayed skin, refuses to yield up a coherent meaning: Fielding presents the reader with a scene of violence and of suffering that is enacted here on Hamilton’s clothing and later on her flesh. The “female bridegroom”—a coupling that draws attention to the biological, social, and linguistic incongruities of Hamilton’s roles—”whipt on her breeches” and has her shirt “tore from her back,” two clauses that suggest Hamilton literally wears a costume that is marked by rage directed toward her. Hamilton’s escape is inscribed not on her body but on her clothing—the costume that initially deceived Mrs. Rushford.

[33] Hamilton’s next two relationships are with young women who marry her. The first of these complains:

have you not married me a poor young girl, when you know, you have not——you have not——what you ought to have. I always thought indeed that your shape was something odd, and have often wondered that you had not the least bit of a beard; but I thought you had been a man for all that, or I am sure I would not have been so wicked to marry you for the world. (14)

The young woman articulates her new awareness of a rupture between appearance and reality; the images, the signs, she had thought were legible, intelligible, and pinned down to particular signifiers are severed from the body narrative she learned and enacted. At every interval of her marriage plot, as it were, there has been disjunction between sign and signifier that is ultimately embodied, again, by absence: “you have not——you have not——what you ought to have,” an elision that Finlay has argued renders the phallus as “the pervasive presence of an absence evoked, not only by euphemisms such as ‘wherewithal,’ but also by metaphor, which convolutes associations and shifts significance” (158-59).

[34] Mary Price, Fielding implies, actually wants a lover who does not have what he “ought to have.” Also referred to as Molly in the narrative, Price sends Hamilton a letter full of same-sex erotics, including pornographic puns like “Kan nut,” “Kuntry,” and “cummand” (Finlay, 164). Fielding includes the “exact copy” of the letter to demonstrate that “the woman of the strictest virtue and modesty in England might have had no reason to be asham’d of having writ it” (17), a snide remark on female morality. The containment of desire demarcated in the first two rejection letters that Hamilton receives is, here, reversed and even upended. Price’s letter does not shut down desire but instead offers shorthand for it that the reader can unfold and interpret in connection with polymorphous sexualities.

[35] After her relationship with Price is exposed, Hamilton becomes an object of surveillance and spectacle. Three times in the remainder of the text, her clothes are torn off and reveal her female breasts. When she is punished on the scaffold for her crimes, Fielding produces her body in such a way that its transgressions literally appear on her skin:

The prisoner having been convicted of this base and scandalous crime, was by the court sentenced to be publickly and severely whipt four several times, in four market towns within the county of Somerset, to wit, once in each market town, and to be imprisoned, &c.

These whippings she had accordingly undergone, and very severely have they been inflicted, insomuch, that those persons who have more regard to beauty than to justice, could not refrain from exerting some pity toward her, when they saw so lovely a skin scarified with rods, in such a manner that her back was almost flead: yet so little effect had the smart or shame of this punishment on the person who underwent it, that the very evening she had suffered the first whipping, she offered the goaler money, to procure her a young girl to satisfy her most monstrous and unnatural desires. (22-23)

On the scaffold, her body becomes a site of desire and an alternative to the codified norms of sexual and textual order. The punishment stops Hamilton from acquiring the power to denaturalize what Straub calls “the subjugation of a feminine spectacle to the dominance of the male gaze” and “the exclusive definition of feminine sexual desire in terms of its relation to masculine heterosexual desire” (Sexual Suspects, 128). Regardless of whether she married fourteen women or one, whether she cross-dressed for sexual pleasure or for social ambition, or whether she was an early modern gender outlaw (to anachronistically but I hope productively borrow Kate Bornstein’s term) or simply “an uncommon, notorious cheat,” her final containment (1) on the scaffold and (2) by Fielding’s narrative suggests more than a return to traditional roles—it codifies and makes visually, textually, and sexually accessible something that was, earlier in the eighteenth century, far from unilateral, fixed, or intelligible in any phallocentric way. Fielding emphasizes the body’s failure to correspond to societal regulations, and he suggests the limitations of readings that rely solely on such societal regulations for putting together meanings. A body cannot be judged as good or bad (or even as male or female) because of a set of signs marked onto or inscribed on it.


[36] The construction of normative sexual categories, which Fielding announces as being based on a desire “implanted in the one sex for the other,” depends upon the existence of bodies like Hamilton’s for its continuation, its valorization, and its disruptions. Sexually and textually, Hamilton’s body—or, better, her bodies, in all of their multiplicity of unintelligibility and shifting significances—responds to the patterns of womanhood, masculinity, and sexuality in the process of being codified and reified by works like Pamelaand reminds readers that there is no prior, no original gender or sexuality.

[37] The spectacle of Hamilton’s “flead” body participates in the same discourses related to the construction of the proper female body being articulated in conduct books and in popular fiction. Overlaying the controversies surrounding the idea of poetic justice on The Female Husband suggests that, in the broader context of the rise of the novel and of domestic fiction as didactic forms of entertainment, tabloid culture offered eighteenth-century readers ways of identifying their sexualities (and their gendered identities) that were provocative, visceral, and also often as much about the invention of individuals’ desires by the institutions and apparatuses that contain them.

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