- Gender, Empire, and Nation in Sarah Fielding’s Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia
The novels of Sarah Fielding (1710–65) offer freshly conceived notions of masculinity and redefinitions of femininity, as well as the possibility of new relationships between men and women based on nonhierarchical structures of mutual benevolence and caring. Fielding’s fifth novel, The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia (1757), was published by subscription early in the Seven Years’ War, the outcome of which would make the British Empire possible. It explores the uneasy tensions of an emerging commercial culture, as gender and class relations are renegotiated in a nascent mercantile economy. Classic Rome represents a constant reminder of the evils of luxury and overconsumption, and, as England’s commercial enterprise and empire begin to develop, comparisons with the Roman Empire become increasingly uneasy. Against this background, Cleopatra and Octavia exploits cultural fears of effeminacy, luxury, and moral corruption in an effort to claim a place for strong and active women in the republic of virtue.
In this, her only historical novel, Fielding uses the simple format of two personal narratives told from beyond the grave by historical rather than fictional characters, her title being an ironic reference to Plutarch’s Lives. She contends in her introduction that historical figures “are better suited to inform, and give us juster Notions of Ourselves, as they are Originals, and present the Eye with the prospect of Human Nature, taken from Life, and not extended beyond the Limits of Credibility and Truth.” 1 Yet she retells a story that has been retold many times before, and, like each teller, she revises and reinterprets her “Originals” to fit her own allegiances. [End Page 523]
She rejects the image of the virtuous but misunderstood Cleopatra that John Dryden uses in All for Love: Or, the World Well Lost (1678). Instead, Fielding’s Cleopatra represents a luxurious orientalism and theatricality that threatens republican manhood. The choice was a careful one. The bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, in a letter to her sister Sarah Scott, disapproves of Fielding’s decision to portray Cleopatra as evil queen rather than virtuous victim, but she understands the reason for it: “Octavia and Cleopatra are to come forth in a few days. As [Fielding] is a virtuous maiden she will make Octavia the more agreeable of the two which will give history the lye and make Anthony appear a greater fool than ever he appear’d.” 2 Anxious indeed to appear a virtuous maiden, Fielding assures her readers that her novel will “impress the fatal Consequences of a mad intoxicated Lover and a false insinuating Woman” and that “the Distresses of a virtuous Octavia will excite a more lasting Sensibility of Pity or Relentment [sic]” (p. 55). Yet more than three-quarters of the volume concerns Cleopatra, and Fielding is clearly fascinated with this powerful woman.
Well-known anecdotes are given a new look and meaning when they are narrated from Cleopatra’s ironic point of view:
One Evening, when Anthony had provided a very expensive Supper, I told him in a vein of Pleasantry, that his whole Entertainment was trifling in Comparison of what I could do, for I would provide him a Supper in which we might each of us consume more than the Value of Six Million Sesterces . . . I provided a Supper in which there was nothing extraordinary . . . then taking one of the Pearls out of my Ears, which was equal in value to the sum above-mentioned, I dissolved it in Vinegar and drank it off . . . Anthony looked first a little confounded at my Device; on which I smiling said, “these Pearls, that came into my Possession from a long Race of royal Ancestors, I would consume , as I would indeed the World itself, to give Anthony a Moment’s Diversion” . . . This turned him into the greatest Rapture imaginable; he esteemed this Contrivance a Mark of my Ingenuity, and the consuming my Pearl as a Sign of my Love.(p. 107)
When the exotic Egyptian queen takes into her body the pearl worth “Six Million Sesterces,” she becomes herself a part of the luxurious treasure of empire. This treasure, so frivolous and yet so...