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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 731-752
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Skirting around the Sex in Mary Tighe's Psyche
Harriet Kramer Linkin
"Psyche" is the legend of love; the poem is infused with a rather delightful suppressed eroticism which may have had something to do with its huge success, though Mary herself announced: "I have only pictured innocent love, such love as the purest bosom might confess." If purity in bosoms is maintained by ambiguity and lofty language, she may be right about the innocence of all those "kisses bathed in ambrosial dew."
—Victoria Glendinning (1974) 1
When in 1801 Mary Tighe began composing Psyche; or, The Legend of Love, an epic romance that offers a sensual, often erotic reworking of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, she knew how dangerous articulating sexual passion could be for a woman's literary reputation. 2 As if the history of women's literature lacked sufficient examples, the reception of two recently departed Marys—Wollstonecraft and Robinson—demonstrated how women writers who voice passion do so with peril. Though Wollstonecraft promoted the rational in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) whereas Robinson inscribed the erotic in Sappho and Phaon (1796), both Wollstonecraft and Robinson alike were castigated by conservative critics for unleashing indecorous passions in their writings, whether those passions were political or sexual. Indeed Richard Polwhele's diatribe on The Unsex'd Females (1798) baldly categorized Tighe's contemporaries as good girls or bad girls based on his assessment of their sexual politics. 3 For Polwhele, [End Page 731] Wollstonecraft epitomized the bad seed who enticed other women writers such as Robinson, Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, or Ann Yearsley into her "female band despising NATURE's law" by urging them "To blend mental energy with Passion's fire." 4 Good women writers such as Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Hester Chapone, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Anna Seward, Fanny Burney, or Ann Radcliffe resisted Wollstonecraft's infecting "strain" by joining Hannah More's seraphic "train." 5 The stratification of Romantic-era women writers into such camps by Polwhele (and others) made it increasingly difficult for a woman writer to express passion without being consigned to the bad girl camp, "unsex'd" by her critics and therefore unavailable to a larger female constituency who only had access to culturally sanctioned publications. If women writers wanted to be read by the largest possible constituency but wanted to express the passions, was there an acceptable way to make passion manifest? Would they simply adopt the traditional male positioning of the female as the object of desire, or could they dare to show the female as the subject of her own erotic experience, without dire consequences to the female or the writer? Was it conceivable to present a female character in an erotic relationship who is not preparing to take the leap of Leucata (Sappho in Robinson's Sappho and Phaon), finding herself "bastilled" in a madhouse (Maria in Wollstonecraft's Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman ), or discovering herself in league and in love with the devil (Victoria in Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya )?
Tighe turns to the legend of Cupid and Psyche to take up these questions. By doing so, she locates a narrative framework that allows for a more promising outcome at the outset than the conclusions prescripted by many of the comparable source texts her peers select. In contrast to Robinson's treatment of Sappho's fatal passion, Dacre's revision of M. G. Lewis's The Monk (1796), or Felicia Hemans's representation of women's tragic histories in Records of Woman (1828), Tighe can show that despite (or perhaps because of) Psyche's trials, her erotic relationship with Cupid culminates with her transformation into a goddess. Moreover, because Tighe models portions of her Psyche on Lucius Apuleius's rendition of the tale in his bawdy Latin novel The Golden Ass, she grants herself a classicist's license to express the licentious. 6 But Tighe seeks more than a translator's...