- Effeminate Years: Literature, Politics, and Aesthetics in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain by Declan Kavanagh
Effeminate Years undertakes the task of exploring the extent to which the discourse of effeminacy shaped and was shaped by eighteenth-century political life, literary culture, and aesthetics, concluding that the landscape of gender ideology changed dramatically across a very short period between [End Page 119] 1756 and 1774. Using the political writings of a number of men, including John Wilkes, Tobias Smollett, and Edmund Burke, Effeminate Years locates the discourse of effeminacy within the development of ideas about the political subject and modern Western ideas about liberty and freedom. In focusing on political life, the text adds to a particularly vibrant body of scholarship on eighteenth-century masculinities that centers around shifting ideas of normativity, sexuality, and the development of dichotomous notions of male and female (including Joanne Begiato's ongoing work on embodied masculinity and the recently published special issue of ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640–1830 entitled "Eighteenth-Century Camp").
Across five well-written and clearly signposted chapters, Effeminate Years demonstrates the way in which discourses of antieffeminacy and sodomitical practices shaped emergent political discourses that challenged the aristocracy's right to political rule and promoted the ordinary man's political interests (though within a very tightly defined notion of "ordinary"). It maps these discursive turns against a shifting social and political background of privacy and power structures. If, it is suggested, the heterosexual man had a right to privacy, he also had a commensurate share in public life and the expanded democratic rights that this entailed. The introduction situates Effeminate Years' account of effeminacy in relation to the history of sexuality, including LGBTQ+ histories, gender history, and literary-historical approaches to the aftermath of the Seven Years' War. The first two chapters go on to explore the lives and writings of Charles Churchill and John Wilkes and their role in establishing what Kavanagh refers to throughout the book as "Wilkesite discourse." This discourse sought to establish a separation of an individual's private heterosexual desires from their public and political persona. To some extent, such a separation was necessary, as both Wilkes and Churchill were open to criticism in their (hetero)sexual proclivities and their defiance of social expectations. By reframing the ideological unit of the public sphere as an autonomous man free to enjoy his pleasures in private, Wilkes and Churchill both legitimized their own involvement in political culture and created an inclusive (white, heterosexual, male) public and political arena that, theoretically at least, straddled differences in social status while excluding others along sexual, gendered, or racial lines.
The following chapters look at the way Wilkesite discourse became linked to notions of independent masculinity and patriotism through a focus on two essay sheets: the North Briton, published by Wilkes and Churchill, and the Auditor, written by Arthur Murphy. They explore the way in which Wilkes expanded his ideas of a public sphere defined by sexual normativity to argue for an increased freedom of the press, particularly, the freedom of his press to publish parliamentary debates. This rhetoric of heterosexual privacy and of liberty offered the literate but nonpropertied man a place in the public sphere while also cementing conflations of sodomy or effeminacy [End Page 120] with corruption, power imbalance, and the forceful taking of property. It is somewhat unsurprising that these rhetorical devices were then pointedly deployed against a variety of enemies, from the aristocracy, to excise men, to Scotland. The final chapter of Effeminate Years traces the influence of Wilkesite discourse on the early writings of Edmund Burke, arguing that Burke's concerns about political pederasty—that is, the asymmetrical display of political power—are grounded in Wilkesite notions of effeminacy. Slightly less convincing is the portrayal of Wilkesite discourse as straddling embryonic notions of class, giving disenfranchised men a place in the political discourse. The expansion of democratic engagement through the essays produced by Wilkes and his associates remained narrow. Rather than expand notions...