- Defoe's Writings and Manliness: Contrary Men
One way to characterize the sharply increased body of scholarship on eighteenth-century maleness in the past decade is as a spectrum running from masculinity explained as a socially and morally based condition related to class, profession, and public behaviour (the excellent work of Philip Carter comes to mind) to masculinity perceived as an interiorized sexual identity or the emergence of new psychological stereotypes (consider aspects of the fine work by Thomas A. King or George Haggerty). Stephen H. Gregg's book is firmly in the former camp, an unsurprising positioning given Daniel Defoe's limited interest in male sexuality, and Gregg's study accomplishes a great deal. In showing the varieties of manliness that Defoe engages in his writings, Gregg has broadened our understanding of both Defoe and the intricacies of eighteenth-century maleness in some provocative and persuasive ways.
This well-written study is shrewd in its assessments, theoretically sophisticated, and wide-ranging in its use of literary and cultural evidence. Gregg presents a Defoe whose "abiding interest was in failures of manliness ... What he works out in so many of his writings was how men could resist this slide into a failure so often termed effeminacy" (1). His starting point is the now accepted argument that eighteenth-century manliness or masculinity was not a uniform or static quality but rather a variable condition. In Gregg's words, "manliness is shaped by the intermittent tensions and fitful syntheses between a variety of contrary forces in Defoe's writings: between for example, commerce and civic humanism; Christian and Classical virtue; patriarchy and companionate marriage; gentility and gentlemanliness; or between private friendship and public spirit" (14). The idea of contrariness is also at the centre of the book's conclusions: "Defoe had [End Page 145] the clarity of vision to see the workings of and the contrary tensions within masculinity and manliness all around him, and the stubborn contrariness to represent these in ways that were uniquely his" (166), but his "attitude to manliness and effeminacy is largely conservative and is dominated by a concern for agency and authenticity in the face of contrary forces and temptations" (165).
The first of the book's six main chapters, "'Complete men,' Trade and History," examines Defoe's attitudes towards trade, manliness, and effeminacy in literary and non-literary materials. Pointing to fictional characters such as Moll Flanders's and Roxana's first husbands—a draper and brewer—Gregg calls attention to Defoe's belief that "the tradesman who indulges his desires for outward show is aligned with the effeminate fop; the prudent tradesman, in contrast, is implicitly 'complete' and manly" (25). Participating in contemporary debates about luxury—seen either as an evil that creates effeminizing desires or as a motor of economic success—Defoe registers an "acute awareness of the potential dangers to men's manliness when engaging in trade" (16) as well as "a causal and moral link between effeminacy and economic change in which luxury poses a threat to national masculinity" (36). Like Mandeville, Defoe understands the complex interrelationship of consumerism and morality, but he also locates those problems within prevalent gender attitudes "that conceived a volatile economy as female sexual agency [which] logically led to the conception of a compromised manliness and effeminacy, in individual terms as well as national" (37).
Chapter 2, "Born Gentlemen and Godly Manliness," is concerned with Defoe's attitudes to the connections between gentility and manliness. Using two fictional characters who are gentlemen—Prigson from the satirical Reformation of Manners and Moll Flanders's Jemy—Gregg outlines the ways in which a fashionable gentility without inner worth becomes foppish effeminacy or, in the case of Jemy, how an old-style gentlemanliness that shuns work or public utility is not a true manliness at all. Not surprisingly, The Compleat English Gentleman is important to the discussion, and Gregg pinpoints the value of a practical education as Defoe's central cure for a declining gentility and as a restorative...