- The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative and Religious Controversy in England, 1680–1750
Alison Conway’s study shows the figure of the royal courtesan to be a primary cultural signifier in England’s efforts to resolve the political and religious instabilities that manifested in the late seventeenth century. The “Protestant Whore,” in addition to being Nell Gwyn’s self-appointed moniker, is a conceptual social category through which writers imagined an ethical system separate from the interests that corrupted most other subject positions. The legacy of the Protest Whore maintains this self-sufficient integrity, Conway argues, throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, where we see literary texts and cultural debates invoke the English royal courtesan as an entity with a special capacity to opt out of the passionate discourses of throne and Church, the corruptions of aristocratic masculinity, and the normativity of domestic ideology. The great many strengths of this study include Conway’s innovative approach to period distinctions between “Restoration” and “eighteenth-century;” her emphasis on the role of gender in shoring up political legitimacy and narrative authority; and her coining of the formal category “courtesan narrative,” a thread of the novel’s origins that looks not forward to a domestic modernity but backward to a ribald cultural past in order to formulate concepts such as sovereignty, authority, and religion.
Conway richly reconstitutes the period’s textual debates over religion and politics, and begins each chapter by documenting the recurring figure of the courtesan before turning to literary texts that internalize the figure’s privileged perspective on individual, community, church, King, and God, relationships that were most explicitly questioned during the late seventeenth century but remained of the utmost importance: “Characterizations of the Restoration as a form of political and sexual pathology speak . . . to the issues immediately at hand for eighteenth-century authors, who continued to struggle with dissent, doubt, and aggression” (p. 7). Courtesan narratives persist through mid-century, which sees the last of the Jacobite rebellions and, for Conway, the waning urgency of the questions of cultural legitimacy associated with state politics.
The Protestant Whore moves chronologically from Restoration to mid-century, attending equally to political and literary events that shaped authors’ perspectives. Vividly documenting the textual wars over succession, religious tolerance, Charles II’s sexual [End Page 197] conduct, and Monmouth’s claims to the throne, Conway’s first two chapters reveal the royal courtesan in all her signifying power—as Catholic interloper in English governance, as victim of monarchical neglect, as mother of legitimate heir to the throne. Gwyn emerges as a folk-heroine in a sea of corruption, “a Protestant vaginal antidote to the Catholic distemper” represented by Charles’ treasonous French mistresses (p. 36). Driven by erotic and material interests, Gwyn’s professional sexuality “renders her impervious to political corruption, a court agent whose integrity the nation might trust because of, not despite, her sexual character” (p. 37). The Protestant Whore—an abstraction of this ethical sexuality—migrates from the explicit association with Gwyn in political satire to a position of narrative authority in contemporary whore dialogues, and later in fiction by Behn, Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Behn’s Love-Letters, as the second chapter shows, draws on this female authority to pit the historical sensibility of woman-author and heroine against the shifting loyalties of male aristocrats and literary characters implicated in the Monmouth affair. Further, the courtesan-heroine Silvia focalizes a skepticism regarding providential design in political affairs, voicing Behn’s concern “about religious factionalism and the role played by personal belief . . . in political narratives,” an urgent set of questions that had not yet been given resolution by the arrival of William III when Behn was writing (p. 78).
The historical acumen Conway recognizes in Behn’s narrative practice is in many ways the anchor for the readings of later novels. In the last two chapters, Conway locates the authority of the Protestant Whore in men’s writing, where, while abstracted from a purely feminine authority, the associations between the courtesan and a Restoration past...