- Heteronormativity in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture ed. by Ana de Freitas Boe and Abby Coykendall
“Remember: As far as anyone knows we’re a nice normal family.” Doubtless hilarious to some, the bumper stickers and wall plaques on eBay are not so funny to the queer children excluded, silenced, or sacrificed in order to preserve the so-called normal family’s image of itself. It’s in the nature of ideology that those processes of exclusion, silencing, and sacrifice are so often themselves invisible or denied. The appearance of obviousness, naturalness, this-is-just-how-things-are, is what gives particular forms of being their power to control—or, at their most extreme, to destroy—the lives of others.
In a world where, as the Scottish lesbian novelist Iona Macgregor says, “the dominant class never sees its own boundaries,” the work of a collection such as Heteronormativity in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture is an important intervention, making critically visible both “the heteronormative legacy of the eighteenth century as a historical period” and the continuing presence of heteronormativity in eighteenth-century studies. As the editors note, the chapters in this volume “set out to reconfigure our sense of how gender and sexuality have become mapped onto space; how public and private have been carved up, and gendered and sexual bodies socially sanctioned; and how narrative conventions have been put in the service of affirming or subverting cultural orthodoxies about sex, gender, and sexuality. They also spotlight the literary traditions, scholarly criticisms, and pedagogical practices that buttress or subvert heteronormativity both in the past and in the present” (15).
Whether or not one subscribes to Karma Lochrie’s argument in Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (2005)—that only the emergence of statistics as a science in the late eighteenth century makes it possible to speak meaningfully about norms and the normal (including in sexuality)—this collection makes the case for the eighteenth century as a crucial period in the formation of heteronormativity. By the end of the century, the editors argue, heteronormativity “congeals into a fully fomented hegemony,” although “alternate sex/gender configurations” continue to materialize (14–15). The chapters here explore heteronormativity across a wide range of areas and subjects: for example, the history of shopping and its impact on the sexual geography of the city (O’Driscoll); changes in French wedding-night customs (Roulston); the use of heteroerotic pornography as an element in male homosocial bonding (Kavanagh); moral panic, sexual assault, and protective masculinity in late eighteenth-century London (Braunschneider); Gothic fiction’s resistance to heteronormative closure (Haggerty); and the racial and sexual politics of colonialism (de Freitas Boe). In addition to Coykendall’s chapter on the critical and historical reception of Gray and Walpole, the two chapters that frame the volume address themselves to eighteenth-century studies, examining the workings of heteronormativity in scholarly research (Lanser) and the pedagogic practices and new readings of texts that result from attending to transgender issues in the classroom (Saxton, Mance, and Edwards).
As powerful and pervasive a force as heteronormativity becomes, it is not monolithic, but is enmeshed with other structures of power. Ana de Freitas Boe’s [End Page 427] chapter on John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1790) makes this particularly clear: “Stedman’s depiction of the erotic life of the colony forces us to reconsider how concerns about race and miscegenation shaped emergent heteronormative conceptions of sexuality in the eighteenth century. The monogamous couple—and monogamy as a concept—looks different from the vantage point of the colonial periphery” (165). Questions of class as well as of race are important in this volume, as seen particularly in Sally O’Driscoll’s chapter “Conjugal Capitalism,” which focuses on the figure of the domestic woman as “mulier mercans,” defined no longer by her sexual desires but by the fetishistic transfer of those desires onto material goods and purchasable commodities. The city in which she wanders is transformed, gentrified by the...