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  • The Eloquence of Blood in Eliza Haywood’s Lasselia
  • David Oakleaf* (bio)

A lot is written in blood. We have “blood relatives.” We may call a friend “hot-blooded” or know someone with music or theater “in her blood.” Someone might still remark that “blood will out.” Now hardly recognized as dead metaphors, such expressions reveal that blood once embodied, quite literally, people’s most complex experience. Since the porous humoral body scarcely contained its precious fluids, the slightest discharge of blood was portentous, 1 and beliefs we dismiss as folklore were widely credited. On the morning after he hid from Roundheads in a pollarded oak tree, for example, Charles II frightened his otherwise dauntless protectors simply by bleeding: “Soon after His Majesty coming down into the Parlor, his nose fell a bleeding, which put his poor faithful servants into a great fright.” 2 Of course Charles lived to regain his throne, but his friends’ alarm at this omen of death reveals how fraught with meaning blood could be. More was at stake than an individual’s life. Charles’s protectors acted out of loyalty to his blood itself, the Stuart blood that entitled him to the throne of England. Devotion to the lineage carried in that frail vessel intensified their generic fear for a life. As Gail Kern Paster observes, “blood in early modern England was a discursive site of multiple, competing, even self-contradictory meanings and the relationship between blood and the individual body containing it was no less ideological than physiological. In one’s blood were carried the decisive attributes of one’s cultural identity.” 3 Blood included one’s life and one’s lineage, the accompanying social codes or their significant lack, even one’s lust. In what follows, I explore a few of these meanings, and the tensions between them, by considering the alarm or embarrassment that nosebleeds provoke in a variety of texts. I then suggest that in Lasselia; or, The Self-Abandon’d: A Novel (1723), a little-studied [End Page 483] ironic tale written seven decades and several succession crises after Charles’s flight, Eliza Haywood mounts a skeptical and shrewdly gendered scrutiny of the imperatives her culture writes in blood.

Blood traditionally encodes what Michael McKeon calls “the genealogical prescriptions of blood.” 4 The king embodies definitively but not exclusively the principles of patrilineage and inheritance that structure his society. Those who share the same blood constitute a lineage that inherits an estate, wields a corresponding social authority, and defends its honor through duels; that is, through the ritualized shedding of blood. 5 To conserve their noble or gentle blood, they chasten the impulsive body and police the sexual alliances that channel it to the next generation. Their blood’s ominous discharge signals danger to their lineage. Rosader’s nose bleeds in Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590) even before he knows that the man watched by a crouching lion is his brother. “[I]f his nose bleede,” writes Thomas Nashe in The Terrors of the Night (1594), “some of his kinsfolkes is dead.” After staining her brother’s “face and linen with some drops of blood that fell from [her] nose,” Elonora in Mary Delarivière Manley’s New Atalantis (1709) reflects, “I think this accident has (by a prevailing weakness) in all ages, and in all countries, been accounted ominous.” 6 In the event, her blood foreshadows her brother’s imminent death in a duel over the threat her body poses to his family’s honor. Its kinship written in its blood, the aristocratic or gentle body is a vulnerable link in a valuable lineage.

The discharge of patrician blood especially portends danger when a cherished lineage is confined to that proverbially leaky vessel, a female body. Parsimoniously rationed to a few drops, it forebodes the heroine’s doom from The Duchess of Malfi to The X-Files. 7 Late in Charles II’s reign, for example, the female line forms the only alternative to James (legitimate blood royal but an illegitimate religion) or the duke of Monmouth (illegitimate blood royal but the legitimate religion). When John Banks confronts the ensuing dynastic anxieties, portents warn doomed queens. As death nears...

Additional Information

ISSN
1522-9270
Print ISSN
0039-3657
Pages
pp. 483-498
Launched on MUSE
1999-08-01
Open Access
No
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