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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


Book cover: Fashioning Masculinity. National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century

Author's response


Fashioning Masculinity. National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century

Michèle Cohen
Routledge, London, 1996; ISBN 0415107369, pp. xii + 170

Robert B. Shoemaker

University of Sheffield

I am very pleased to be given the opportunity to reply to a review of my book, and I thank the IHR for making this possibility available.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing a book that crosses disciplinary boundaries – linguistics, gender studies, history – was weaving the different themes into a coherent pattern. Bob Shoemaker's review implies that I have achieved this reasonably successfully and for this I thank him.

As I state in the introduction, my aim was to explore how the play of tongues – English, Latin and French – was implicated in the shaping of the English gentleman and why tongues (as languages) and the tongue (of the speaking subject) came to be critical sites for the representation, articulation and production of national and gender identities. Language and national character were thought to be interrelated, so the tongue (in both its senses) constructed the man.

Initially, I aimed to follow the history of French and its relation to the gentleman's self-fashioning, but as my research developed, I became aware of the many and intricate ways in which French culture as well as language was woven into the culture of eighteenth-century England. I was able, then, to use French not just as an object of inquiry but, as a tool of analysis, a distinction which Shoemaker s review does not make explicit. This was especially productive in exploring English constructions of the French as Other. Thus, the English tongue was construed as 'manly' by contrast with the airy and 'overly polished' French tongue; the English were represented as taciturn and blunt in contrast to the polite and fluent French conversationalists; the English were sincere while the French were hypocritical flatterers, and manly and free while the French, doubly subjugated by an arbitrary monarchy and by women, were effeminate. The use of French as a tool of analysis also enabled me to map the gendering of the notion of 'accomplishment' – from an indispensable element in the panoply of the 'compleat gentleman' to a 'shewy' female pastime – and relate this gendering to the increasingly problematic position of women in social and public spaces. In this context, I am still convinced, despite Shoemaker's remark that I overemphasise 'the novelty of the emergence of the domestic sphere' in the latter half of the eighteenth century, that the meanings attached to that sphere were specific to that moment. The complex repositioning of women in that idealised space was meant, precisely, to emblematise their domestic virtue as national character.

These issues, as Shoemaker rightly suggests, are very complex. Indeed, complexity and contradiction are at the heart of my book. The fashioning of the English gentleman in the eighteenth century was modelled on French practices of sociability, especially politeness and conversation. Yet at the same time, there was concern because politeness was not just refining but 'softening', and the mixed conversation of the sexes (mainly in English, not in French as my reviewer understood it) held out the promise of improvement but also the risk of effeminacy and ruin. Until well into the second half of the eighteenth century, the dominant concern remained: could the distinction between manly politeness and luxurious effeminacy be sustained? It was out of these contradictions that a masculine national identity emerged at the turn of the century.

Conversation may appear a trifling and ephemeral gauge for measuring shifts in the definition of the gentleman and national character, compared to the emergence of a middle-class identity and changes in definition of gentility which Shoemaker suggests as more substantial criteria. This is a valid point, but had I been concerned with those changes I would have written a different book. I wanted to describe the way a cultural practice which, for a nearly a century, was held to be the ultimate expression not only of the refinement of a nation but of its evolution, came to be treated as a frivolous drawing room practice best left to women and to the French - on both of whom it had been modelled in the first place. When I decided to exploit the eighteenth-century slippage between the tongue as language spoken and as metonym for the speaking subject, I worried that this relation might be misconstrued. To my mind, Shoemaker underplays the tongue s shifting meanings and therefore both the value put upon speaking (English more than French) as a central technique for self-fashioning in the eighteenth century, and the significance of its derogation in the nineteenth. In my view, it is this shift that marks the change from sociability to homosociality, from politeness as an ambiguously gendered social ideal to masculinity as the core of English national identity.

Many scholars would like to believe, like Shoemaker, that the Napoleonic wars effected a change in English attitudes to French. Yet, it is Linda Colley who remarks in Britons (p.165) that French was still 'a prerequisite for entry into high society or high office' for men at the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century. In my view, the 'reevaluation of the merits of speaking French had already begun to take place by the 1780s, when fluency in foreign languages was losing its central importance in the education of elite males. This meant not that they must stop learning foreign languages, but that they must learn them primarily as a means of training the mind, not just to speak them. Crucially, it was the reverse for females, and it is ladies French conversation that increased in importance after the French revolution (thanks to the influx of French aristocratic emigrees), and throughout the nineteenth century. I agree with Shoemaker that the fate of French is puzzling, but perhaps that is because we expect nineteenth century war to function like war in the twentieth, when few opted to learn German because it was akin to treason to speak the language of the enemy.

Shoemaker makes the point that I do not explain sufficiently why conceptions of masculinity changed the way they did. This criticism may be justified, especially as my starting point, as I made it quite clear, was not to answer that question. It is in the course of my research that the insistent presence of effeminacy and the anxieties surrounding it forced me to alter my direction. In other words, it is through a historicising of effeminacy that the problematisation of masculinity emerged and became an issue in my work. A number of scholars have argued that in the eighteenth century, effeminacy was just a way of referring to the luxurious aristocracy and by extension, to the French. In my view, this rather conventional perspective does not capture the concept's complex and contradictory discursive domains, and its pervasiveness as a dominant metaphor throughout the eighteenth century. What I found particularly fascinating is how effeminacy related to English anxieties about the seductiveness of France. This seduction threatened all levels of society, and, because the desire came from within, was much more insidious and difficult to overcome than French enemies on the field of battle. English vulnerability to the seductiveness of things French could sap the very moral fibre of the nation at its core, its masculinity. I was a little surprised that Shoemaker paid little attention to the sexed mind, a chapter which I take to be crucial for the history of gender since it attempts to identify the discursive conditions for the emergence of a scientific discourse on gendered abilities. The repercussions of the 'truth' of the superior male intellect on the construction of masculinity and the education of males and females are still felt today, as witnessed by current debates about boys underachievement in school.

That said, I do feel Shoemaker has engaged with the main issues in my book and was sympathetic to its aims. His review was constructive, and made me think further. For this, I thank him.

November 1997

Original review

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