Published: Aug. 1, 2012 By

[1] In this essay, I am interested in how changing expectations of masculinity are reflected in the erotic text A Spy on Mother Midnight; or, the Templar Metamorphosed and parts two and three of that text, printed the same year, A Continuation of Mr. F—‘s Adventures in Petty-Coats and A Further Continuation of Mr. F—‘s Adventures in Petty-Coats(1748).  (Throughout this essay I will consider the three parts of the text as one, as the letters are numbered continuously throughout. I will refer to the three parts of the text by the title of the first text, A Spy on Mother Midnight, and cite them parenthetically by letter and page number). This text is particularly useful for a study of masculinity because it is published as standards of male friendship are shifting, and as ideal men are expected to govern their society and their women more benevolently.  Both the epistolary style of the text—it is written in a series of six letters from one male friend to another—and its visible but suppressed violence reveal a narrator straining against the new limitations on masculine friendship and violence. Laura Thomason is the only scholar to address A Spy on Mother Midnight at length; her argument, like mine, is interested in the homoerotic elements of the text as well as its lack of violence.  However, she argues that the text is a light-hearted celebration of libertine sexuality, and that the “sense of distance [created by the epistolary frame] and the tale’s light tone obviate the need to punishMother Midnight’s characters or its readers for either their homoerotic or their pornographic interests” (271).  My reading, however, places this text and its second and third parts—which are crucial to an understanding of the text’s homoeroticism and which are not addressed by Thomason—within a larger context of shifting expectations of male friendship and masculinity, including a decrease in the acceptability of individual violence, and argues that the epistolary frame itself calls attention to the same-sex desire at the base of all erotica.

[2] Unlike much of the period’s erotica which, as Karen Harvey notes, “allowed men to look at sexually desirable male bodies, by placing these bodies in a strictly heterosexual context: male bodies were craved for by women, revealed only to women, and responded only to women” the unique characteristics of this text call attention to the very possibilities of male vulnerability and male same-sex desire that they should obscure (“Majesty,” 214).  The narrator’s own cross-dressing—which he undertakes in order to penetrate all-female spaces and to pursue resistant lovers to their private chambers—calls into question the very masculinity that his successful conquest of multiple lovers attempts to solidify.  Indeed, though the narrator does manage to coax or trick many women into bed with him, he also incites the desire of several men convinced by his dress that he’s a beautiful young woman.  The narrator ultimately loses control over his performance; his own body becomes objectified and passive as he renders himself subject to men’s advances and—through the letters he writes documenting his escapades—to his closest male friend’s own sexual gratification.  This epistolary frame simultaneously reveals the same-sex male desire that always lingers beneath erotica which vividly displays male sexual conquest for a presumably male readership.  The narrator’s attempted performance of sexually dominant masculinity ultimately highlights the innate perversity of the insatiable libertine Englishman, as he disrupts gender boundaries which he cannot then reinstate.

[3] Jason M. Kelly points out, using the exclusive, all-male associations of the Calves-Head Club and the Mendenham Monks as examples, that there was an active “masculine libertinism” through the mid-eighteenth century.  These libertines still celebrated and reveled in a specifically aristocratic masculine privilege, but balanced those excesses with more polite interests; they represented “a specifically Enlightenment form of gentlemanly association that valued knowledge—both classical and modern—as a parallel to libertinism” (794).  The Mendenham Monks, also known as the Monks of the Order of St. Francis, engaged in clearly homosocial male bonding over erotic stories; they read and recited erotica together in a “tenuous balance of polite conviviality and masculine libertinism” which “further underlines shifting modes of acceptable gentlemanly social conduct during this period” (788).  The activities of these “monks,” however, were more or less an open secret, one which the men involved publicized only enough to highlight the secrecy and exclusivity of the group.  Significantly, in the 1779 erotic textNocturnal Revels, written by “a Monk of the Order of Saint Francis,” two books are given to the prostitutes to arouse them for the day’s work: one is Fanny Hill, and the other is The Adventures of Mr. F—in Petty-Coats.  This celebration of Mr. F—in Petty-Coats by these exemplars of Enlightenment libertinism reinforces its place as part of a larger, troubled transition in social and sexual expectations of masculinity.

[4] It seems potentially counterintuitive to locate such grave concerns about the perceived loss of masculine power in a genre like erotica; however, erotica in this period reflected a wide variety of social, economic, and even scientific concerns.    Paul-Gabriel Boucé suggests that “erotica, as a part of eighteenth-century subculture, reflect—in a more or less distorted and fragmented way—the development of such sciences as topography, cartography, geography, obstetrics, and botany” (203).  Kevin L. Cope says that the notorious pornographer Edmund Curll’s “catalogue of books-on-offer derives from the slightly esoteric thrill of seeing venerated literary forms put to devious use” (x).  Roger Thompson even cites one example in which an erotic text models itself on Lilly’s Latin Grammar (75).  According to Julie Peakman, erotica “act[ed] as a conduit for debate on various subjects, ranging from generation and the working of bodies, to botany, electricity and anti-Catholicism” (2).  Many pornographic texts also served as religious propaganda, mocking the perceived sexual excesses of Catholics and dissenters. Lynn Hunt, Melissa Mowry, and Rachel Weil have convincingly argued for pornography’s role as a vehicle for political commentary as well.

[5] The gender politics of eighteenth-century erotic and pornographic writing appears, at first glance, anything but conservative.  The variety of sexual permutations—women and men with each other, in groups, with masturbatory aids, with animals—suggests that erotic writing creates a hedonistic, anything-goes world in which men and women alike gleefully abandon and even mock the sexual values that would confine them.  And yet these texts often include as much punishment as they do pleasure; they reify as many social boundaries as they appear to break.  Women and men with socially inappropriate sexual desire—while they momentarily serve as titillating spectacles for the reader—are (often violently) brought back into the fold of normative sexuality before the text’s end.  Tim Hitchcock has argued that “eighteenth-century English sexual humour and pornography seem resolutely directed towards reinforcing social norms rather than attacking them” (23).  Paul-Gabriel Boucé has similarly noted that there is a

moralizing teleology inherent in the implicit discourse of eighteenth-century erotica, apparently an unlikely place for didacticism, yet one where almost invariably homosexuality and masturbation are virtuously condemned.  Even erotica may conceal a repressive discourse beneath their apparent sexual permissiveness. (211)

Discussing “sexual folklore” more generally, Gershon Legman notes that it “almost always has the air of being humorous.  Yet actually it concerns some of the most pressing fears and most destructive life problems of the people who tell the jokes and sing the songs. . . . They are projecting the endemic sexual fears, and problems and defeats of their culture” (qtd. in Thompson 13).  Generally only the sexually dominant male of the text, whose excessive conquest of women and policing of boundaries marks him out as the social and sexual authority, enjoys his pleasures unscathed.  In fact, Alexander Pettit has convincingly argued that the notorious pornographer Edmund Curll was finally prosecuted because his version of Venus in the Cloister lacked any punishment for the sexually transgressive women in the text, and as a result the text was deemed offensive (“Pornography and Punishment”).

[6] A Spy on Mother Midnight begins in a space normally associated with the product, not the pursuit, of sexual activity: the birthing room.   The frame of the birthing room would have lent an erotic tone to the conversation; midwives’ manuals were often read as pornography, and pornography could also thinly disguise itself as midwifery manuals.  Perhaps the most popular was Aristotle’s Masterpiece, published in several versions from the late seventeenth century through the eighteenth century.  Midwives were also perceived as bawds, so any birthing room presided over by a female midwife—especially by mid-century, when male midwives and doctors were replacing women in the profession—would have been open to charges of impropriety.  Indeed, in this text the midwife knows the narrator’s secret and allows him access to the birthing room to pursue his resistant love interest; she also helps the woman she’s delivering falsely pass her baby off as her husband’s.  At this birth room gossips’ gathering, where the women are ostensibly protected from the prying eyes and ears of men, the talk naturally turns to sex, specifically the ideal size of the male member.  Women of the group who advocate the largest size effectively indict themselves as whores; when one of the company asserts that  “less than ten can never carry a Man over any thing of a grown River,” one of her companions chastises her: “I am afraid you measure other People’s Corn by your own Bushel, which, you know, may not be fair; for, if your Vessel be staved, or if there is a Hole in the Bottom, there is no Wonder if you think my Staff too short” (I.24, 25).  However, this brief mention of the female body is overshadowed by a lengthy discussion of the ideal penis.  After much debate the midwife, Mother Midnight, to whom all the women appeal as the arbiter of sexual expertise, confirms that a moderately sized member will ensure both pleasure and vigor, as a larger member is too unwieldy to be used effectively; she asks rhetorically, “what signifies a great lubberly Machine, which moves but slowly, and must be propt like an old House, or splinter’d like a broken Leg to keep it from falling” (I.28).  The entire text reflects this preoccupation with the male body, obsessively analyzing and measuring its physical abilities and limitations; Karen Harvey’s study of the period’s erotica finds this fixation to be a defining characteristic of the genre.  She argues that turning the male body into a spectacle proves acceptable only if it is done in the frame of heterosexual desire, in a way that deflects or distracts from the possibilities of same-sex desire that such texts may raise between the description of male bodies and the assumed male readers (Reading Sex, 145).  Men also proved their worth not just by dominating female bodies, she says, but by exercising power over other, inferior men (127).  According to Harvey’s argument, this admiration of the victorious masculine body in erotica is crucial to identifying the English body—and, further, particular English bodies—as dominant; as amusing and satirical as much of the period’s erotica is, there remains an underlying impulse to celebrate the virility of English male bodies against all others (145).  In fact, as Boucé notes, erotica generally set foreign cultures, and especially French and Italian men—what he calls an “effeminate homosexual fifth column”—against rabidly and even rapaciously heterosexual English culture (206).   

Male bodies and their surrogates

[7] The midwife’s argument in favor of a moderate member is meant to prove the dominance of English masculinity: “I must give my Voice for the Seven, and, I believe, I have the Votes of most of the Men in the Island on my Side; for, I believe, on a general Survey, there may be more Sugar-Canes of that Size, and under by much, than are above it” (I.27).  This discussion illuminates a common male anxiety in the period’s erotica: that well-hung foreign men are better lovers, and are stealing English women.  The insistence on the moderate member is particularly interesting when compared to Cleland’sMemoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published the same year, which obsessively depicts the English penis as so gargantuan that it physically incapacitates the women to whom it brings so much pleasure (and pain).  The narrator says of Mother Midnight’s more moderate desires: 

I believe the Grecian Youths frequenting our Inns of Court, and the Coffee-Houses about Temple-Bar, may fancy their Shrines in Danger, and endeavour to raise a Party against Mother Midnight’s Verdict, which seems directly aim’d at the Destruction of that tyrannical Dominion they have usurp’d in all Corners of the City, merely upon the Bulk, not the Strength, of their Parts. . . Mother Midnight has. . .done all in her Power to restore English Members to their pristine Esteem and Reputation. (II.4-5)

The narrator suggests that the English family is under siege from the sexual prowess of foreign men—a prowess enabled, of course, by women’s inherent sexual depravity and love of novelty: “I expect from hence forward that the Sons and Daughters of England shall be born and begot of English Parents, which may be one Means of restoring us to the Virtue and Spirit of our Ancestors, and our Blood to its ancient Purity, which to me appears tainted with all the Froth, Vanity, and Vices of every Nation under the Sun” (II.5).  This diversion may seem completely out of place in this genre; his admission, however, of the inappropriateness of such concerns, reinforces the seriousness of his tone: “But hang this last Reflection, it’s too grave for my present Purpose, therefore I’ll not pursue it” (II.5).  As Harvey argues, while “it is unlikely that this genre was designed primarily as pro-natal, nationalistic propaganda,” “precisely because this was not the purpose of erotica, these frequent depictions of sex as a patriotic act do suggest deep-seated concerns.  Sex was repeatedly seen as an activity which would restore the country’s fearsome fighters, replacing the current insipid and ineffectual bodies” (Reading Sex,143).  Instead, the very reduction of masculinity to a phallus reinforced by this genre makes male bodies interchangeable, and effectively subjects masculinity to the perverse whims of fickle female desire.

[8] In fact, this definition of masculinity potentially renders the male body itself superfluous.  The narrator confronts this shocking reality with his first lover, Maria.  He finds in her chamber “the Image of Manhood, an Ivory Substitute of Virility” (I.32).  After Maria admits that the birthroom talk had raised her passions for the narrator himself, he suggests that Maria get into bed with him and allow him—who Maria still believes to be her new friend, Miss Polly—to act the part of the male lover, using the ivory dildo.  Maria consents, and the speaker promptly substitutes his own member for the agreed-upon implement, vowing to himself that he will be sure “she might know the Difference between Mr. F—and a poor passive insensible Implement” (I.34).  His sexual skill is such that “She had not Power to ask the Question, but was immediately convinc’d what Sort of Bedfellow she had got.  Great was her Confusion, but not so great as to spoil our Sport; she had gone too far to recede” (I.34).  Afterwards, Maria confesses the “superior Pleasure” the narrator provided.  This exchange illustrates a common trend in the pornography of the period.  An almost identical scene takes place in Giles Jacob’sTreatise of Hermaphrodites (1719), when Philetus, who has unsuccessfully courted Theodora, dresses as a woman to win his way into her lesbian sexual “Frolicks” with Amaryllis (53).  After he substitutes his own penis for the dildo—which Theodora does not detect until the moment of ejaculation—Theodora immediately agrees to marry him.  She sings, “The Shadow I’ll no longer try,/Or use the pleasing Toy;/A Sprightly Youth I can’t defy,/The Substance I’ll enjoy” (55).  Julie Peakman notes of such scenes that “The violent scenes of defloration were to some extent a reaction to this undisciplined female sexuality, in that men were in control of women’s initiation to sexual intercourse” (65).  Significantly, too, in such scenes men permanently replace other female partners or masturbatory aids, which are portrayed as providing only immature or incomplete pleasure in comparison to heterosexual coupling.  Having graduated, essentially, to being pleasured by a man, these women repent their former sources of pleasure.  Fanny Hill, after being introduced to the joy of the penis, is no longer satisfied with masturbation: “the one thing needful to [my desires’] satisfaction was not at hand, and I could have bit my fingers for representing it so ill” (108).  Women are redefined as insufficient, as lack, while men are necessary substance; Fanny complains that she was “wearying and fatiguing myself with grasping of shadows, whilst that more sensible part of me disdain’d to content itself with less than realities.”

[9] However, the “Ivory Substitute of Virility” in Maria’s possession preoccupies the narrator’s mind even after he has seemingly proven himself superior to it.  In convincing Maria that she should forgive him for raping her, the speaker argues that “she had no Reason to complain, since I had furnish’d her with the Means of gratifying those Inclinations she could not now conceal, in a Manner, I thought, less sinful, and indisputably more natural, than those I presumed she heretofore had Recourse to.  In short, it was, as you may suppose, all Circumstances consider’d, no difficult Matter to gain her Pardon” (I.34).   While it may ring false for a cross-dressed rapist to preach about sinfulness, this concern with dildos stands out as one of the more serious moments in the text.  He mockingly complains that cuckolds should be made by virile young men like himself rather than inanimate objects, and takes a brief narrative detour about what it might be like to be reincarnated as a dildo; he also, obviously, capitalizes upon the erotic possibilities of female autoerotic desire.  He also, however, raises the possibility that women may fully satisfy their own desire with these instruments, rendering men like himself sexually useless.  The narrator sees the dildo as a legitimate rival for lovers, admitting that he “could not before look upon it without some Degree of Envy” (II.7).

[10] Notably, Maria has a copy of Rochester’s poetry in her bedchamber, and Rochester’s erotic poem “Signior Dildo” portrays a similar vision: every woman, glutted with desire, worships the dildo, and for good reason: “Our dainty fine Dutchesse’s have got a Trick/To Doat on a Fool, for the Sake of his Prick,/The Fopps were undone, did their Graces but know/The Discretion and vigor of Signior Dildo” (ll. 33-36).  The men in the poem run Signior Dildo out of town, as “The Women concern’d from every Window,/Cry’d, Oh! for Heavn’s sake save Signior Dildo” (ll. 87-88).  The idea that this phallic substitute might be a rival for men seems to be historically and culturally pervasive.  The erotic poem “The Discovery” goes even further, suggesting that women who avail themselves of dildos effectively circumvent men’s power over them: “. . .she remov’d, and thence drew out a Tool,/Much like to that with which Men Women rule;/She it apply’d where I’m asham’d to tell/And acted what I could have done as well” (88).  As this voyeur’s confession shows, the woman’s skill here is at least equal to his own.  To defeat the dildo, the narrator of A Spy on Mother Midnight makes Maria burn the offender, and imagines a giant bonfire in which all of England’s dildos are destroyed—a fantasy which echoes a recent event in which an English mob intercepted and burned a shipment of French dildos, and which is re-imagined in the 1739 erotic poem “Dildoides”: “Priapusthus, in Box opprest,/Burnt, like a Phoenix in her Nest;/But with this fatal Diff’rence dies,/No Dildoes from his Ashes rise.”  The pun on rising here likely intends to point out that penises can rise again and again, but actually remind the reader that dildos never grow flaccid—hence the ‘vigor’ of Signior Dildo.  This is perhaps why the narrator ofA Spy on Mother Midnight estimates that young English lovers like himself lose fifty percent of their conquests to these tools: “it is well known, that five Parts of ten of our young and old Ladies are oblig’d to the Turner for what Comfort they have in that Way: However, my Fair-One has forsworn them, and has promis’d to preach against them to all her female Acquaintance, so that I’m in no Fear of such a Rival at present” (II.8).  As Alexander Pettit argues of the identical bed trick in A Treatise of Hermaphrodites and the marriage that follows, “Theodora’s recantation [of the dildo] is public, incorporated into the ceremony that solemnizes heterosexual union and in this instance legitimates male superiority” (“Pornography and Punishment,” 75).  Even this victory does not seem complete, however.  The text seems obsessed with the pleasures which male ejaculation brought to the woman, and the scene between Philetus and Theodora suggests that this is the sole distinction between Philetus and the dildo—it is only ejaculation that alerts Theodora to Philetus’s deception.  Although Theodora’s song claims that she chooses the “substance” of the penis over the “shadow” of the dildo, the material difference is not in the penis over the dildo, but only the semen itself.  The same obsession with semen is reflected in “The Discovery” (1739), in which the narrator assures himself that his ability to ejaculate makes him superior to the dildo, even as he has been unable to control when he ejaculates or falls flaccid as he watches Sylvia masturbate: “Thou lifeless, sapless, frozen, stubborn Tool,/Dost think thou can’st the Hearts of Women rule?/No one that ever knew the Worth of me,/Will after take up with unjuicy thee” (89).  Of course, the narrator then imprisons the dildo just to make sure.

[11] In A Spy on Mother Midnight, however, Maria does not reject her toy in the way Theodora does—the narrator only fantasizes that she will or should—and the narrator soon abandons her, leaving her free of the heterosexual bind of marriage which, according to Pettit, effectively restrains Theodora.  So, although he is fighting the good fight against such competition to his masculinity, and has won “at present,” this episode serves as a reminder of the prevalence of this rival.  In fact, he has only won this round against the dildo precisely because he was able to use one—without this prop, it is unclear how he might have convinced Maria, who has repeatedly rebuffed his advances as Mr. F.,  to yield to him in the guise of Miss Polly.  That a woman might effectively satisfy her own sexual longings, while it does provide some space for titillation in this piece of erotica, also threatens to undermine the very assumptions of the erotic form: that men must assert their dominance over women by controlling their sexuality.  Indeed, this threat goes even further, as revealed by the narrator’s getting Maria into bed as Polly: dildos not only allow women to satisfy themselves, they also allow women to satisfy each other, which opens up many more—and many more threatening—possibilities.  The reduction of the male body to a phallus allows, ultimately, for any phallus to take the place of that body (this is especially true in erotica, where the point of copulation is not to get pregnant, as the narrator reminds us by using condoms).  The sexually dominant male we are supposed to find in erotica, then, becomes interchangeable with—and even less preferable than—a “mere insensible implement.”

Cross-dressing and deceptive desire

[12] The dominance of the narrator’s own masculinity is further called into question by his willing objectification of his own body to male desires throughout the text.  The narrator brags of the ease with which he becomes a woman; as he writes to his friend:  “You know I have got a tolerable smug Face of my own, with very little Hair upon my Chin, and as I’m but a little dapper Fellow, I assure you, I made no disagreeable Figure in Petticoats. . . . Thus, in an instant, your Friend Dick was chang’d into a Damsel, with all the Ease imaginable” (I.8).  Here the narrator not only brags about the extent to which his own body lends itself to feminine dress and hides or even lacks traditional markers of masculinity—the dress fits him exactly, he is hairless and ‘little’—but he also calls upon his friend’s intimate knowledge of his features, and asks the friend to imagine how beautiful ‘your Friend Dick’ appeared in his new garb.  At the same time, the narrator jokes that his body is so masculine, that merely “the very Idea of a Petticoat, especially the Inside of one, put that Companion of mine into a mighty Fume, and it was some time before I could persuade him that, at present, it was there, and his Business to lie down” (I.9).  The text demonstrates that in the distance between intention and response, the narrator’s body becomes defined more by its reception by both men and women than by the narrator’s own original goal of pursuing heterosexual desire.  Terry Castle argues of the eighteenth-century masquerade, and of travesty more generally, that “through its stylized assault on gender boundaries, the masquerade played an interesting part in the creation of the modern ‘polymorphous’ subject—perverse by definition, sexually ambidextrous, and potentially unlimited in the range of its desires” (158).  The narrator’s goal of heterosexual conquest is redefined in the topsy-turvy sexual world created by his cross-dressing; in breaking gender boundaries to free himself from the confines of his male body, the narrator simultaneously invites other men (and women) to view and interact with his body as female.

[13] Perhaps inevitably, then, the narrator encounters two male suitors, a Methodist minister and a young squire; he says, “they are both desperately in love with me, suspect nothing of the man about me, and treat me in every respect as an arrant woman” (VI.37).  The narrator makes the acquaintance of the minister before he pursues any women; they share a coach on the way to his first conquest in drag.  The narrator does all he can to heighten the minister’s flirtation: “he was obliged now and then to mingle his legs with mine, which I soon observ’d disorder’d the oeconomy of his spiritual meditations, which I, as if by chance, encreas’d, by now and then a squeeze of his knees between mine, then would start, cast down my eyes, affect to be confus’d, &c” (VI.38-9).  He succeeds in “[doing] enough to make [the minister] sit uneasy, and in short, to enflame our spiritual pastor to the highest degree of carnality” (VI.39).  The narrator offers no explanation of his desire to, or his methods of, titillating the minister; although he ultimately encounters the minister again at the end of his stay and punishes him for his inappropriate desire, he can hope to gain nothing for arousing his passions as he does in the coach.  What’s more, in the process of this game he offers up his body as an object upon which the minister exercises his perverse desires and his direct physical arousal.

[14] Ultimately, when the narrator is reunited with the minister and the young squire, he devises a plan to make a spectacle of their improper desire.  The narrator first raises the lovers’ passions, convincing them that he will soon yield.  The text here becomes clipped and vague, and of his courtship with the young squire the narrator merely (and mysteriously) says, “My man of the world soon came to the point, and let me understand his business was with the flesh, and that he did not care a rush for the spirit” (VI.47).  As for his more spiritual suitor, the narrator explains that he (the narrator) “seemed to comply” with the minister’s suggestive talk, and that the minister in turn “received the acknowledgments of my pure affections for him, with the most enthusiastic raptures. . . he desired to seal our contract of mutual friendship with a chaste embrace, which I permitted” (VI.47).  Later the minister abandons the guise of chastity, as the narrator says provocatively: “[b]ut not to tire you with the manner of his attack[,] in less than twenty-four hours, he solicited for the main favour with as much violence as my professedly carnal humble servant” (VI.48).  The omission of what exactly occurs during these encounters narratively mirrors the scenes in which the narrator builds up to the moment of consummation with his female lovers and then stops short, allowing the reader to imagine the rest.  The very nature of the language of erotica turns a brief narrative passage which intends to skip over an irrelevant plot point into a suggestive moment of omission.  Peter Sabor makes a similar argument about John Cleland’s censoring of Fanny Hill: “At times, the bowdlerized text pruriently draws attention to deleted material, in Sterneian fashion, through a row of asterisks. . .the asterisks invite readers to greater flights of sexual fancy than did the relatively innocuous deleted words” (195).  The language in this scene also parallels the language of the narrator’s first sexual encounter with Maria, who, he argues, was upon penetration “immediately convinc’d what sort of bedfellow she had got” (I.34).  This narrative precedent forces the reader to ponder how, exactly, the young squire may have “let [the narrator] understand his business was with the flesh.”

[15] These narrative omissions are suggestive because the double-entendre of erotica demands our realization that there is always more beneath the surface; they are enhanced by the narrator’s own more direct titillation of his readers in which he hints that he will have liaisons with men.  He ends his first letter with this promise: “I shall refer the further Particulars of this Amour ‘till another Opportunity offers; only I must acquaint you, that I am still in Petticoats, and have had more than one Affair with the Females of this Part of the World; nay, and have done some Execution among those of my own sex” (I.35).  After he inflames the courtship of both of his male lovers, he offers a similarly titillating passage, of which he defers explanation: “I had now brought them both to the point I wish’d, and the highest pitch of expectation, which I found my self under some kind of charitable obligation to gratify in some measure, and had the impudence to make an assignation with each of them, the same night” (VI.48).  Of his meeting with the vigorous young squire the narrator says simply, “I proposed to consummate in Nancy’s chamber with my squire, who entered in the dark, and was as happy for the remainder of that night, as his imagination could make him” (VI.49).  Only two pages later does the narrator explain that he has tricked the squire—whom he has forced to sign articles of marriage with him—to marry and bed his maid Nancy in place of himself.  The minister, whose hypocrisy has drawn the narrator’s disgust, meets with a much harsher punishment when the narrator lures him into a garden house, locks him in, and then has a friend “steal softly with a ladder, and pull a tile or two off the necessary house, and when he had done, to pour a pan or two of strong chamber-lie through the hole, which served Sir Domine for a bath, as scarce a drop escaped him” (VI.51).  The minister remains trapped throughout the night, until “I was so malicious as to carry all our company to the necessary house, to be present at the release of my seraphick lover, who stunk most abominably, and was almost dead with cold” (VI.53).  The minister runs straight out of town because the field he was to preach in that day provided a clear view of “that very necessary house which had brought him so much disgrace” (VI.53).  This ending, which restores the gendered social order with the narrator at the top, enacts an ironic reversal: the minister is marked by his own sin, a marking which makes visible to all who see him the depravity at his core.  At the end of the text, everyone has been made ‘visible’—the women, with their natural sexual desires that society has forced them to hide, and the male lovers, whose perverse desires have either been redirected to their proper place or been punished publicly.  The narrator has objectified his own body, it seems, only to pull off the deceptive masks of social propriety worn by others.

Male friendship and homosocial bonds

[16] The epistolary frame of the story, however, problematizes this reading.  Textually, this frame provides the pleasure of a double voyeurism—the reader not only witnesses the narrator’s exploits, but effectively spies on the narrator’s relationship with his friend Jack through their personal letters.  The intimate nature of the epistolary form adds another layer of passivity to the narrator’s body, as he describes these escapades to Jack in order to satisfy Jack’s own sexual desires.  The narrator often calls on Jack in his letters, reminding readers of both their voyeurism and of his own need to craft the stories of his sexual conquest in the way that will be most pleasing to his friend.  At the beginning of the second letter, the narrator says suggestively, “I suppose my last letter quite tir’d you before you got to the End of it; but, however, I imagine you read it with a greater Pleasure, than you would a Bill in Chancery of the same Dimensions” (II.1).  Jack’s exhaustion from that letter suggests, of course, that it was so satisfying to him that he was spent before he could finish reading it.  This insertion of a fictional male reader within the text—between the reader and the text itself—highlights the homosocial tensions seemingly inherent in erotica.  For while men in the period went so far as to consume erotica together—in coffeehouses and bars, and in private homes, where they read it out loud to one another or even masturbated together—these relationships were between male equals, with women as the ostensible source of their arousal.  This text highlights the homoerotic impulse inherent in all of these male group engagements with erotica by setting into sharp relief the understood end result of erotica—the masturbating male—and his relationship to the male body of the text, a relationship which is here represented as one between a partner whose goal is to please, and a partner whose prerogative it is to be pleased.  The narrator calls on Jack’s intimate knowledge of him in the first erotic scene, switching to the imperative tense as he describes the morning after: “Suppose us then in amorous bliss. . . suppose this, and thousand nameless Somethings that add Significance to the important Business of Love, and at last, when you are wearied with imagining all, you may, if you will, fancy your Friend drown’d in soft Slumbers in her Snowy bosom. . .after you have given me a few Hours Repose, you may awaken me to Love and Beauty, and bring me fresh and vigorous to the Morning Charge” (VI.6).  However, it seems that Jack needs no such details: “all this I fancy will be no hard Matter for you to suppose, without my telling you any thing of the Matter; you know me too well to believe me sluggish in these Affairs” (VI.6).

[17] It is possible to read the strikingly homoerotic relationship between the narrator and Jack through the lens of a common, but increasingly less accepted, model of male friendship which maintains an intimate, and even seemingly eroticized, bond between close male friends.  In fact, nurturing such friendships could ostensibly keep a man grounded in rational, safe male relationships which would prevent him from succumbing too fully to the powers of female seduction.   The epistolary frame that connects the narrator to Jack could be a safety net of sorts—an assurance that the narrator has not lost himself in the search for sex, but pursues his conquests in order to share them with the male friend who provides his primary personal relationship.  Read in this way, such a relationship would save the potentially hyper-sexualized man from himself by encouraging him to tether himself not to his need for the female body, but to the male friend to whom he returns after his exploits are over.  George Haggerty argues, using Dryden’s All For Love (1677) as his example, that “men must find in one another an erotic attraction in order to compete. .  . with the debilitating force of female desire” (31).  Raymond Stephanson’s study of letters between prominent male friends, such as those between Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, displays the range of erotic terms in which male friends could describe themselves and their feelings for one another; in these letters it was not uncommon for men to “dramatize [their] friendship as though it was a heterosexual passion or longing,” or even to take on the posture of a young girl or woman missing her lover (156).  As Stephanson notes, “these epistolary moments are rich in physical desire and physicalized passion” (158).  However, these expressions of physical desire for the presence of the friend, which are often primarily literary exercises of wit, become difficult to discuss within the highly dichotomized language of friendship and sexuality currently available to us; they suggest “an eros of the body, a desire for the body of the male friend—which suggests an emotional position somewhere beyond (or outside) our own relatively rigid modern notions of asexual male friendship” (159).  In A Spy on Mother Midnight, then, a simple overlap between the language of friendship and the language of erotic love could reframe the seemingly homosocial elements of the erotic text.  Two of Stephanson’s conclusions underscore this reading: first, he finds that the language of what he terms “epicoene friendship” was not mutually exclusive with homophobic beliefs; second, he argues that these letters could also reflect “scenarios of a shared phallic aggression in which male friends traffic in figurative women or exchange female principles within a homocentric erotic economy” (160; 162).  A Spy on Mother Midnight potentially reflects both of these conclusions, as the narrator’s punishment of the young squire and the minister demonstrate an impulse that could be read as ‘homophobic,’ and as he also obscures one of his sexual conquests from the prying eyes of Jack for fear that Jack will try to steal his lover if he learns too much about her sexual prowess.

[18] However, a shift in the expectations and possibilities for male friendship begins to take place in the mid-eighteenth century.  Several factors contribute to this shift, not the least of which is the increasing reification of sexual identity.  As sodomy becomes exclusively associated with a certain type of man—instead of being one in a range of sexual acts available to all men—the  intimacy of male friendship becomes suspect, a potential sign of a sexual pathology; as Foucault argues, the gay man becomes a species (43).  By the time Mother Midnight was written, the eroticized language of friendship was quickly losing its purchase, and was increasingly viewed as too erotic to be acceptable between men, as it resembled the language and suggested the behavior of the sodomite.  The possibilities for male relationships became circumscribed, and the kind of language in which male friendship used to be articulated was only acceptable between a man and a woman.  That male friendship was redefined in these ways created a very tangible loss for the possibilities of relationships between men.  As Alan Bray has argued, the body of the friend was itself a large part of the meaning and the closeness of male friendships; he suggests that “the good-humoured homoeroticism we sometimes see in the gift of the friend’s body signaled the place of comforting security such relationships afforded in an insecure world” (82).  A Spy on Mother Midnight can also be read, then, as registering a lament of sorts that the opportunities for male closeness have been restricted in such ways, and expressing a desire to leave intact the broader range of social and sexual possibilities for male friendship.  If erotica and pornography were inherently conservative forms, Mother Midnight hearkens back to a recent past in which the wide range of sexual possibilities for men provided more opportunities for masculine prerogative and more avenues for exercises of male sexuality and power.

[19] Randolph Trumbach’s work on Enlightenment libertinism highlights the difficult balancing act requisite to this masculine performance, and argues that the most important facet of the new masculinity was to distance oneself from the sodomite by exhibiting an absolute interest in women: “Romantic marriage ideally required men to be faithful to their wives.  But men also needed to establish that they were real men and not sodomites by displaying a constant and exclusive sexual interest in women.  These two ideals were in conflict, but the fear of sodomy was the more powerful” (“Erotic Fantasy,” 272).  Hence, given the physical interaction between the narrator and his male suitors, the text of Mother Midnight takes the homoerotic play of male friendship to a literal level which goes beyond the acceptable world of either an older form of male friendship or the newer Enlightenment libertinism.  Even within an older libertine sexual economy in which men gain power by sexually dominating other (by definition weaker or more effeminate) men, the narrator would be feminized: his is the passive body upon which other men gratify their sexual desires.  In fact, his violent punishment of those who engage in such play with him proves ironic, as he is the only man in the text who knowingly arouses desire in another man.  If the men who mistake his body for a female body come in for such punishment in the text, certainly the narrator’s own sexual transgressions—made possible by the easy accommodation of his male body to a female guise—should arouse similar, if not stronger, anxieties about manifestations of improper desire.

[20] Because this text is written as this shift is taking place, the narrator occupies an uncomfortably hybridized role; his unusual subject position as both an active lover of women and a body upon which other men’s sexual desires are fulfilled is wittily summed up by one of his love interests: she calls him “Mr. Miss, for I cannot find out a proper name for you” (IV.7).  If the woman whose body should serve as the proving ground for his masculinity cannot determine what he is, the narrator’s claim to a superior English male body becomes at best degraded, and at worst counterproductive.  Read in this context, his assertion that when he finally did bed her he “beat the rounds as often as it was necessary to secure my authority” rings more anxious than it does victorious (IV.15).  Indeed, he becomes a victim of the newly amorphous sexual world he has helped to create; as such, his narrative attempts at homosocial bonding over conquest of the female body inadvertently highlight the same-sex desire and anxieties about virility inherent in the erotic genre.

Male violence and power

[21] Occurring continuously with this shift in appropriate male friendships was an ostensibly more benevolent redefinition of men’s roles as husbands, fathers and citizens.  An inability to solidify male power through intimate friendships, coupled with a decline in the acceptability of violence as a measure of masculinity, led to anxieties about a more general male impotence in policing and reinforcing the boundaries of appropriate English masculinity.  As Michael McKeon explains of the older forms of masculinity, “under this traditional regime, finally, the defining condition of masculinity was not sexual prowess, but the capacity for violent behavior, whether toward other men or women” (274).  Such shifts caused a “new level of male anxiety,” according to Randolph Trumbach: “males were accustomed to establishing their dominance over women and children through various forms of separation and distance; the new ideals of love, companionship and affectionate childrearing made this distance more difficult to maintain” (“Erotic Fantasy,” 256-57).  Cultural changes to a more reserved masculinity left men with fewer and less direct methods of controlling those who would encroach on male prerogative.  Shaun Maurer characterizes this shift:

Attacking notions of honor derived from a feudal ethos, which endorsed bragging, aggression, and competition and expressed itself most powerfully in the code of honor that condoned or even demanded the practice of dueling, were such writers as Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, and Joseph Addison.  They proffered, in the early decades of the eighteenth century, an alternative form of heroism, one manifested in humility, charity, and benevolence as well as in the particularly commercial values of honesty and credibility.  By challenging the belief that aristocratic birth entails noble behavior as well as the view that the well-born are the only people capable of virtuous thought and action, their works redefined masculine excellence, and thus contributed significantly to the codification of a new form of masculinity. (75-76)

Maurer also notes that these changes in masculine expectations “implied a weakening of the traditional foundations of male authority” (35).  Robert Shoemaker finds that a decrease in the violent punishments of criminals, the acceptability of wife beating, and the prevalence of dueling “mark[s] important shifts in attitudes and behaviour, in which men were increasingly expected to avoid the use (and threat) of physical force” (137).  While violent punishment of sodomites had been common since the rise of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, such punishment was part of a state apparatus and not undertaken at the hands of individual men, even if those men had been propositioned by a sodomite (Trumbach, “The Heterosexual Male”).  The narrator’s almost comical punishment of the minister who pursues him, then, seems somewhat impotent compared to the older codes of honor which would allow a man to use essentially any means necessary to protect his reputation.

[22] The narrator’s rape of Maria is certainly violent, although of course Maria is made to confess that she ultimately enjoyed her encounter with the narrator.  Such scenes were not uncommon in the period’s erotica, as they fulfilled the self-serving stereotype that women were inherently sexually ravenous in order to justify all manner of sexual violence against them.  In Fanny HillHarriet loses her virginity when she’s raped while she is unconscious.  Despite the fact that she is “discompos’d in bleeding ruin, palpitating, speechless, unable to get off, and frighten’d, and fluttering like a poor wounded partrige” she forgives her violator: “in short, my anger ebb’d so fast, and the tide of love return’d so strong upon me, that I felt it a point of my own happiness to forgive him” (103-104).  In Kick Him, Jenny(1733; 1737), the coy Jenny gets her comeuppance for demanding a bizarre test of Roger’s love before she will agree to marry him.  Instead, he pins her face-down to the bed by her petticoats and rapes her, as her mistress and master observe through a peephole, the mistress screaming, “Kick him, Jenny!” and the master screaming, “[Fuck] her, Roger!”  Jenny’s ambiguous response to the rape displays the fantasy of feigned resistance such scenes uphold, as it is unclear whether she is begging him to stop or continue: “Dear Roger—oh!—don’t—leave off—/Oh!—do not, Roger—let me go—/Or you will kill me!—oh!—oh! oh!—/O Mercy!—how shall I get from it?—/I cannot bear it!—I shall vomit;/Such burning Pain!—why Rrr, you split me!” (30). Roger’s rape of Jenny succeeds in bringing her under control: “She hid her Head in Roger’s Breast,/And begg’d him to perform the rest./I will, my Dear, the Lad reply’d/And gladly take thee for my Bride” (32).   Such forced defloration was a relatively common bed trick in the erotica of the time, and would likely not have seemed particularly violent to eighteenth-century readers, especially as many women in erotica were punished much more graphically.

[23] Hence, the narrator lacks the ability to violently re-structure this world once he—and, through him, Jack—has enjoyed it.  A disturbing example of such punishment can be found in A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718).  This text, written by an Englishman, Giles Jacob, for an English audience, is set in Italy.  As Kevin L. Cope’s headnote to the piece reminds us, English authors often displaced sexual deviance onto warmer, foreign climates; importantly, they also imagined that Italians were tyrannical and abusive and that Englishmen were indulgent by contrast.  Displacing violence onto an Italian Count in this text betrays the belief that Italian men had more power to punish sexual deviance, and perhaps also a hint of envy that Englishmen could not avail themselves of such absolute measures.  In this text, the Count, whose sexual dominance has been compromised, deals unequivocally with the offender.  Having brought Isabella, who is, unbeknownst to him, a hermaphrodite, back to his castle for an amorous adventure, he fondles her only to discover that she has testicles.  His response is immediate: “in his passion he pull’d out a sharp Penknife and cut off the external Members ofIsabella, highly resenting the Affront, and very much displeas’d with himself, that he should embrace a Monster” (64).  The details provided in the text are graphic: “Isabella made a hideous Outcry, which disturb’d the whole Neighbourhood, but the Count sending for an experience’d Surgeon, to prevent the Effusion of too great a Quantity of Blood, it issuing out with great violence, kept her at his House all Night, and sent her the next Morning in a Chair to her Companion” (64).  Her companion Diana, also a hermaphrodite, “met at last with the same fate as Isabella, her masculine Instrument being likewise sever’d from her Privities, after which, both of them liv’d to be harmless old Women” (65).  This is the commentary in its entirety, suggesting that while this violence might be stunning to contemporary readers, within the genre of erotica such punishment required no explanation or justification.  It is only important that these two “monsters” have been removed from sexual circulation and as a result have become “harmless” women instead.

[24] That such violence is not the measure of English male control leaves the narrator of A Spy on Mother Midnight with fewer absolute means for re-drawing the social boundaries he has disrupted.  Neither Maria, who is punished by rape but whose autoerotic sexual deviance is unrestrained by marriage, nor the men who used the narrator’s body as a site of sexual titillation, are punished as completely as many of their pornographic predecessors.  As a result, the narrator has opened up a world of transgressive possibilities in his sexual play, but has limited acceptable means to punish those transgressions after he himself has enjoyed them.  His sexual exploits are located firmly within an older world of freewheeling libertine excess, while his ability to effectively dominate the men and women in his changing world are sharply limited.  What remains at the end of the text, then, is the narrator himself, who strangely resembles the “monster” castrated by the Count in A Treatise of Hermaphrodites, hiding his penis under his petticoats.  At the conclusion of his sexual exploits he leaves a world teeming with unregulated sexuality as heostensibly returns to his homoerotic friendship with Jack.  In the meantime, his readers are left with a vision of a distinctly more ambiguous sexual landscape than any they may have previously imagined.

Works Cited

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