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  • Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond and Lesbian Possibility in the Early Republic
  • Kristin M. Comment (bio)

Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond (1799) contains the first extended fictional portrayal in America of what the novelist calls "romantic passion" between women. Early critics generally treat the homoeroticism between Constantia Dudley and Sophia Courtland either with disdain or as a psychological aberration. Harvey R. Warfel, for example, claims that "emotions of normal love are alien to [Constantia's] nature, and there seems to be a homosexual tendency in her conduct" (135); Donald A. Ringe remarks that "Constantia's relationship with Sophia leaves much to be desired [. . .] at best, the relationship is not one to increase the stature of Constantia as the heroine of the novel" (44); Norman S. Grabo views Constantia's "queer" friendship with Sophia as one of "a series of tests or temptations" in the formation of her "sexual identity"; and Steven Watts argues that "it seems no accident that as [Constantia's] rational faculties steadily prov[e] less able to illuminate the social and moral atmosphere, she turn[s] to the attractions of female homoeroticism" (97). In contrast to these views, Lillian Faderman identifies the text as an important literary representation of female "romantic friendship"-evidence that such relationships were casually accepted in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American culture (112-115); and most recently, Julia A. Stern has interpreted the relationship within the context of republican anxieties over the breakdown of male brotherhood, suggesting that "female homoerotic longing becomes a pliant medium for Brown's investigation of republican fraternity's failure" (159). Curiously, however, no analysis of the novel has yet explored the female homoeroticism in the context of cultural debates about women's rights throughout the 1790s. New liberal ideas raised conservative fears about all kinds of sexual anarchy, including lesbianism, and this context [End Page 57] is important to a cultural understanding of Ormond's representation of homoerotic desire between women.

While Stern's reading of Ormond is particularly compelling, her emphasis on female "sympathy" as contrasted with male brotherhood skirts the centrality of women's power as an important theme in its own right, and her conclusion offers a one-dimensional view of the novel's treatment of women. Stern argues that for Ormond's women (with the exception of Martinette, who is "male-identified"), hardship and epidemic "enable compassion" and "re-open arid channels of sociality," whereas for the men, "fellow feeling takes increasingly poisonous forms, from naive and self-destructive delusions of sympathy to theatrical and homicidal performances of "fraternal" understanding" (154). But there is an important level upon which female sympathy also fails in the novel-that of maternal feeling. We learn little of Constantia's mother, who dies early in the novel, and Sophia's own mother represents the antithesis of motherly love-she is an "unnatural parent" who deserts her child at birth and falls into "the pursuit of a loathsome and detestable trade," presumably prostitution (220). These "early indulgences" lead to her insanity, forcing Sophia to bring her to England for medical care. But even as she carries out her perceived duty, Sophia notes, "conformity of sentiments and impressions of maternal tenderness did not exist to bind us together" (223). Martinette's history of her relationship with Lady D'Arcy depicts maternal feeling perverted not by its neglect or absence, but by its excess. In the end, Martinette rejects Lady Darcy's affection because she "fores[ees] restraints and inconveniences from the violence and caprice of her passions." Far from a positive maternal influence, Lady D'Arcy's overbearing affection causes Martinette to vow "henceforth to keep [her] liberty inviolate by any species of engagement, either of friendship or marriage" (203). In this context of failed maternity, Martinette becomes a symbol not just of "male-identified" non-sympathy, but also of a perverted womanhood, signified most graphically by her brutality in battle. Her features become "pregnant with delight" as she details her violent military exploits, including the murder of "thirteen officers at Jemappes" (205-6), the term "pregnant" calling attention to Martinette as a woman who takes life rather than gives it.

These images of failed maternity are only one...


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