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"Charlotte Charke and the Liminality of Bi-Genderings: A Study of Her Canonical Works" by Polly S. Fields from Pilgrimage for Love: Essays in Early Modern Literature In Honor of Josephine A. Roberts. Edited by Sigrid King. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Vol 213 (Tempe, AZ., 1999), pp. 221-48. Copyright Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University
Polly S. Fields
Charlotte Charke and the
Liminality of Bi-Genderings:
A Study of Her Canonical Works
Puppeteer, dancer, singer, actor, writer, Charlotte Charke (1712?-1760) specialized in playing both male and female roles, at first on stage and then in life. With her duality as Charlotte Charke/Charles Brown, she embodied the paradigm of gendered complexity of self and society in the eighteenth century, but she went beyond the masquerade of crossdressing and the staged dramatics of alternative personae. Balanced on the margins of both genders, Charke transferred her theatrical roles into a nontheatrical self as a way to interpret her own history, as well as to document her social ideals, and to present her life in "men's cloathes." Her dramas not only mirrored the cultural fluidity in gender representation but mirrored also her work as writer and actress, which generated its own cultural conflict. In so doing, she thereby committed a combination of sins for which literary criticism has since held her accountable. Clearing a space for the male/female duality at the center of her works, Charke the narrator becomes the point of reconciliation between the sexes, as she creates a new gender system. Through a metaphor of twinship, or marriage, or a brother-sister relationship, she invests the text with a oneness, an intra-penetration of male and female that lends gender boundaries. The word intra-penetration refers to the co-opting of male into female and female into male in an act that has sexual as well as spiritual implications. By her technique of obliterating boundaries, Charke as narrator not only interprets all the roles, but also becomes all the roles. In rejecting the traditions of the hierarchy, Charke found her own plot and voice by filtering her literature through her own experiential approach to gender. The works of Charke as social protest were invested with her own duality for the sovereign voice of the writer speaks in fictional autobiography and autobiographical fiction as man and woman, conjoined, standing alone against the forces of society. Using her one extant drama The Art of Management; or Tragedy Expell'd as the structure by which to demonstrate her technique of dual personas and voices, I also wish to analyze other works in her early canon: the autobiography, A Narrative of Her Life, and her first published novel, The Life of Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn.
Some literary critics find that Charke's manipulation of gender and her exploration of the male power structure indicate her desires somehow to expand it to include herself. Erin Mackie's 1990 article, "Desperate Measures: The Narratives of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke," presents the first thorough evaluation of the major works in Charke's canon. Arguing against earlier Charke studies by Felicity Nussbaum and Lynn Friedli, Mackie proposes that Charke goes beyond simple feminist stances and instead creates a new society that reinscribes the old one and casts herself in conventional male roles: "[she] reproduces a patriarchy where she may play a whole constellation of conventional roles, both male and female, making it difficult to isolate an essential female Charke who is either impowered or betrayed by transgression" ("Desperate Measures" 842).
Mackie interprets Charke's duality as a way to "affirm the value of the masculine" and her actions as transvestite are "reformative rather than subversive imitations" (844). The article calls attention to Charke's efforts in the autobiography, The History of Henry
Dumont, and The Lover's Treat as attempts to "reinscribe the patriarchy" after Charke's own desires, so that she may join it (844). Kristina Straub likewise in her 1992 study, Sexual Suspects, focuses on Charke's "restaging" of her father's masculinity, from her childhood dressing-up in his wig to her later stage roles in the Fielding dramas at the Little Theatre. Her aims involve a parodic and "ambiguous" (141) depiction to undercut his masculine authority. Straub sees Charke's gender exploration as less a protest against the continuum of male and female roles, than a revelation of the shaky nature of gender boundaries. While Sidonie Smith has viewed Charke as a male wannabe, Straub postulates that Charke achieves a parodic version of masculinity. At the same time, she presents herself to be a type of masculinity that "plays upon" the failure of gender polarities. Charke, in Straub's view, takes on the masculine as a role, through which to satirize that gender construct and to present masculinity as patriarchal failure. Clare Brant, "Scandal and Law in the Mid-Eighteenth Century," calls attention to Charke's claim in the Narrative that two Cambridge men who were to help her with the text, reneged on the agreement. She views this instance as a representation of yet another male failure in Charke's social landscape.
For my own part, I want to put forward in this essay that Charke does not simply recreate an identical social structure for the enactment of gender roles; instead she forms a new space where her characters may act out their salvation in relationships untrammeled by patriarchal expectations. The fiction in each work employs the destruction and subsequent replacement of the father figure in the work. The space that Charke clears is a marginal area, either a stage, as in The Art of Management, the strollers' territory, in the Narrative, or, in The History of Henry Dumont, Esq.; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn, a marginal and social "commons" area with the potential for metamorphosis. The area forms, as I mention above, a virtual reality. While she peoples these confines with good and bad examples of men and women, Charke creates a new gender system, through the adoption of a series of dualities. Penetrating her traditionally feminine self with the values of being masculine in the honorable, good-guy definition of the word, she attempts to erase gender distinctions and thereby to embody a symbiotic duality. This achievement of oneness, of two penetrated into one, is portrayed variously in her works as twinship, marriage, or a kind of brother-sister melding (incest?): in the drama, she is Mrs. Tragic/Headpiece; in the Narrative, Brown/Charke and Mr. Brown/Mrs. Brown; in The History of Henry Dumont, Esq.; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn, Henry Dumont/Charlotte Evelyn, Henry/Billy, and Charlotte/Ursula. I propose to trace Charke's methods beginning with her first extant work, The Art of Management, as a way to observe her means of addressing these issues in A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, along with The History of Henry Dumont, Esq.; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn.
II. The Art of Management; or Tragedy Expell’d
Charke's very first works, The Carnival; or, Harlequin Blunderer, and Tit for Tat, might be instructive to study, both as printed plays and as puppet plays, but they were never published. The Art of Management probably owes its publication and survival to the scandal Charke created by attacking management at the Drury Lane. Fleetwood had fired Charke for "immoral" reasons, and she invested her play with her grievance. Denied access to a playhouse stage, Charke produced the work at York Buildings; her efforts even there may have been obstructed, for Scouten notes two postponements of the play before it was finally shown. As she explains in the Preface, the work provides "publick" reasons for "publick Proceedings." Charke thereby creates the first duality in the work, making private public and public private:
for my private Misconduct, which it seems, has been (for want of a better alledged as a Reason) tho' a bad one; for while my Follies only are hurtful to my self, I know no Right that any Persons, unless Relations, or very good Friends, have to call me to Account. I'll allow private Virtues heighten publick Merits, but then the Want of those private Virtues wont affect an Actors Performance
She therefore speaks in her sovereign and authorial voice, but, at the same time, rejects the private, demanding to be judged on professional and public grounds. Her private life had long been public, "too conspicuous" and the "Town will hardly be surprize'd at what they have been so long acquainted with."
Charke's Prologue in the public-private reference employs a metaphor for duality, which she then continues to use in her fiction:
When the first Pair from Paradice were driv'd,
They sobb'd, thly [sic] wept, and mourn'd their
From the beginning, Charke ("I") is both Adam and Eve, when she is "expell'd" from Ancient Drury by the God/Manager of the place. The fiction of the Prologue continues, and she notes that "unwillingly" she has established for herself space at "this poor refuge" in order to carry out an enactment of the expulsion from Eden. With the expulsion, however, Charke would seem to claim the right to clear, to order, and to make the stage yet another Eden, with herself as a new God?
This alienation by expulsion rises on the foundation of another type of alienation. In two lines, she is able to depict her private marginalized existence (as actress) and to acknowledge that her own salvation comes through her sovereign authorship in playwriting, which formerly allowed her to gain the "shore" and escape marginalization, at least professionally. Alienated privately and now publicly through expulsion from the playhouse, Charke initiates the play's theme of duality.
The fiction of the plot involves the fired Mrs. Tragic, supported by brother Headpiece, in her fight with managers Bloodbolt and Brainless, guilty of subverting the stage into a dog and pony show at the expense of drama. The play opens with the dressers, Mrs. Glidewell and Pinwell, two working women on stage discussing the usual fate of women in the theatre and referring to the casting couch as a woman's sure means of success. If Charke is taking arms against the theatre managers, she is likewise defying the nice notion of the obedient silent woman in life and in art. Throughout the drama, she is not concerned with male assessment of her personally, but she is vigorous in being defined in terms of her profession.
Charke creates, as the first duality Charke/Mrs. Tragic who strides on stage, speaking of herself in heroic terms and, like the traditional hero, rages against the forces of fate. Mrs. Tragic's male voice can only speak in dramatic dialogue, while she valorizes her assumption of power by using male words by male writers, such as Shakespeare. Charke/Mrs. Tragic adopts the heroic masculine voice in her rage and narrates her own defense, valorizing herself in terms of her profession and repeating twice her abilities to work under pressure. She saved the day as an understudy when, at "fifteen minutes notice," she played the part of Cleopatra [sig. F 2v].
Although critics who mention the play discuss its fragmented nature, we need to look at the structure, which offers the gendered complexities. Charke moves through a series of paired speakers until she reaches the central duality, first of Charke/Mrs. Tragic and then Headpiece/Mrs. Tragic. The drama encompasses only one act and one scene, in which Charke employs a series of narrators, all presenting views of Mrs. Tragic. What is generally perceived as a flaw in the drama may arise from Charke's technical problems managing voice and persona in such a tight structure. To achieve the duality for which she strives, she breaks the one act-one scene arrangement into two parts, the first beginning with Charke/Mrs. Tragic, the stage travesty male, intervening in the masculine world by speaking as a male actor. The second part encompasses the duality of Headpiece/Mrs. Tragic in which Headpiece takes over the male voice of Mrs. Tragic and becomes her male self, her "brother." In this early work, Charke slides in and out of her male and female personas, the pronouns become confused in certain sites, and sometimes it becomes a bit difficult to know which gendered half is speaking.
Charke uses the stage itself to prove her case against the theatre. As she will do in the Narrative, Charke employs as her setting, a staged theatre, what we might call a virtual theatre, which she clears in order to put on her own show. The play opens with a bare stage, as though the theater itself were one of the chief characters. Two by two, gendered groups appear, speaking and defining the practices of the traditional stage. Glidewell and Pinwell define the theatre as a misogynist zone where women to keep their jobs must work on their backs when young, and on "Sunday" when older. Diction, Porter, and Headpiece, part of the male contingency, speak as members of the "Fraternity" and assess Tragic as just another loser to the system.
When Charke/Mrs. Tragic finally appears, we note that while Charke does not employ a literal transvestitism in the duality, she uses a male voice, speaking powerfully as the tragic hero Othello (Othello 3.3.353-600).
Oh! Farewell all pride Pomp and Circumstances of Self-Conceit.
Farewell all, for Tragic's Occupation's gone. [sig. c 2v]
Charke plays deliberately upon her known image of transvestite, and, whereas she wears woman's clothing as Mrs. Tragic, her voice is at odds with her appearance. She speaks like a man, thereby subverting and undercutting the masculine power that theatre managers Brainless and Bloodbolt possess. Charke's situation raises her to heroic levels, for more than her occupation is gone. Her life as an actress has allowed her the opportunity to enact in a virtual way her gender representations. The stage has provided for Charke/Mrs. Tragic a way to publicize gender concerns, even as the printed text has given her a medium that lifts the play above temporal boundaries. Adopting masculine clothes, voice, and attitude, Charke's stage roles enable her to carry out her protest privately, publicly, and professionally, in such a way as to evade patriarchal constraints. Her depiction of herself as both Adam and Eve employs not only a duality she has established privately, but also exposes the management as a God of the theatre who has judged her and found her evil.
When Headpiece arrives on stage, Mrs. Tragic refers to this duality as brother-sister and begins to change her gendered stance. The ambiguity of gender represented by Mrs. Tragic's female garments and male voice ceases with the appearance of Headpiece who is literally male. At this point, Charke moves into another arena of ambiguity, that of sexual taboos. For instance, the following dialogue opens the meeting between Headpiece and Mrs. Tragic:
Trag. Ha! discharg'd! dismiss'd! turn'd out! Death! Rage! Torture! Now mourn ye tragic Muse
Since Tragedy's expell'd! New Revenge alone
shall sate my Fury!
I'll rant and roar! Sound; not Sense, impart!--
No more with just Accent grace my Tale,
But Nonsense, Noise, and Spangles shall prevail.
Head. Prithee, no more; Learn rather to make yourself a real Loss, to them, than a happy Riddance; will your acting ill make them, or yourself most. Let Reason get the better of these mad Passions! and be advis'd by
me. You know I wish you well; and as you are ally'd to me, consequently, have you more at Heart. [sig. C 1-1v]
And we may observe the change when she no longer is the masculine half, but rather the flirt, the "little woman", who turns to Headpiece for professional sagacity. She even makes reference to herself as Heroine. The male and heroic voice gone, she says that she will just play-act in the traditional way with "Noise and Spangles" since real professionalism is not valued. She does not roar her complaints, but rather speaks traditionally as a woman and looks to Headpiece, her masculine savior, for timely succor and wise advice:
Trag. My Thanks receive with Gratitude sincere
But, oh! alas! Fate like mine, what Heroine can bear;
This with prophetic voice, I now proclaim
That thou, my Hero, shall in Drury reign.
Head. Perhaps the Prophecy is good, yet for a while, we'll our Thoughts in our own Bosoms we'll confine; but see the Author of your Wrongs; be calm as summer Seas, and patient as the Dove. [sig. C 1-1v]
Headpiece has gained control over Mrs. Tragic's voice, or at least assumed he can do so. She still has one more outburst as a male, however. In the unification of the duality that they become, Mrs. Tragic urges the other pairs--Diction and Porter, Glidewell and Pinwell--to allow Headpiece to speak, and Headpiece says, "[L]et me speak my Thanks." Mrs. Tragic reconciles the other pairs with each other and with herself and Headpiece. Mrs. Tragic, in suddenly becoming the feminine half to her brother Headpiece's male half, defines the terms of their duality, which Charke seems to show as incestuous and a way of removing or blurring gender lines. Tragic's female voice merges with Headpiece's as the penetration of female with male occurs. Charke herself then has served as the point of reconciliation between Headpiece and Mrs. Tragic, as their genders become one.
Head. My Sister! Oh! Let me hold thee to my heart
Trag. There if I grow the Harvest is your own.
[sig. F 1v]
While the amorous lyricism remains conventional, if not trite, the interchange between the brother and sister brings an uncomfortable level of intimacy into play. Charke relies on staging bodies to make the point of melding; the twining of the two bodies allows more than a suggestion of penetration. Headpiece has moved rather quickly from the wise elder brother to the lover-ish stance and offers to shield her on his heart. The physicality of the scene, with the pair apparently standing clasped bosom to bosom, must have been emphasized on stage. The pair would appear to become "one" with the implied incestuous union being another way to blend opposites. The "virtual" stage allowed Charke a free zone where the forbidden, only an idea acted on stage, existed without penalty.
A major difference in the drama in comparison to later works under study here, however, concerns Charke's sudden reverting to conventions. In the cleared space of the theatre or other marginalized territory, Charke obviates patriarchal control by establishing a series of male figures, usually fathers, who have titular control, but who are too weak or stupid to use it or even appear to use it. In this play, however, she reconciles the opposites and the genders and reestablishes the hierarchy, notwithstanding her role as the king-maker. She invokes the "Gods" on Headpiece whom she "crowns" as "our King." Bloodbolt, before depicted both as God and king on the "theatric throne" (sig. C 2), has been defeated, arrested for debt, and the throne is vacant. Headpiece is Charke’s basic definition of masculine good-guy, and he has already become the brother/lover to whom and in whom Mrs. Tragic "lost" her heroic voice. Mrs. Tragic reinforces our idea of incest/unification as she melds with him and his control in a formal coronation. Because the play's final message is so very different from the techniques she uses in the autobiography, for instance, we need to quote the final song Air III, sung by Mrs. Tragic to King Headpiece:
With Transport I glow, and with Pleasure,
At once bid adieu to my Pain,
My Wishes succeed beyond Measure,
Nor can I my Joy then refrain.
Then come to my Arms and partake,
The Transport that rises from thee,
Dame Fortune at length for thy Sake,
No longer then blinded will be,
No longer then blinded will be. [sig. F 3v]
Since she has established a three-way control of masculinity over herself and her future, she offers to him her "Arms" so that he may "partake" in her joy; one result of their union being the blessing of "Dame Fortune" for both of them. She opens her "Arms" and offers him the "Transport" that he at the same time gives to her. Bowing to his assumption of her body along with her assumption of his body, they play off their positions in the traditional hierarchy. Mrs. Tragic has put on, so to speak, Headpiece's power and masculinity, an assumption so blessed that Dame Fortune will favor them both.
In summary, Charke establishes in her first play, many of the techniques she uses in subsequent works. She establishes a free zone that is not Foucault's punishment arena. Charke, with the writer's sovereignty, dramatizes the politics of gender and power, and through the representation of a series of dual characters, offers reconciliation and salvation within the free space. In the first two works under study, the technique that Charke employs, allows for a multiplicity of voices within Charke's free zone, and the "I" becomes male and female, with the masculine voice dominating in these particular works.
III. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke
In the considerations of her work for the stage, critics have chiefly focused on Charke herself, without looking hard at the work itself. The body of critical opinion on Charke presents the first and best case in point; concern with labeling her as transvestite, crossdresser, lesbian, bisexual, hermaphrodite, or sensationalist gets in the way of the literary vision she offers. Part of the responsibility, of course, lies with Charke's autobiography. Unlike Colley Cibber's Apology, which allows him to posture elegantly in a real-life narration, Charke's life allows her to invent herself almost as she is in the process of writing. She succeeds in portraying a society that damned her as a female for riding asses and donning breeches, and her Narrative may be taken as a metaphorical nose-thumbing, enabling her to say, "So What?" Certain subjects, however, are off-limits, such as the reasons for her crossdressing, and her associations with the writers and actors at the Little Theatre, not to mention self-revelations about her mother, her husband and her pregnancy. Charke quite possibly is not interested in our knowing why she was marginalized, but what her artistic vision became as a result.
A view of the history of crossdressing places Charke in the context of her era and suggests the nature of her transgressions. Pat Rogers's "The Breeches Part" calls attention to the advent of the travesti roles on the Restoration stage and credits their popularity to the sexy and stylized masculinity of Nell Gwyn, Mrs. Elizabeth Barry, Mrs. Mountfort, Mrs. Bracegirdle, and especially Peg Woffington, as early practitioners.
My consideration of Charke concerns the fact that she did not specialize in the types of dramas featuring crossdressing as titillation; for instance, Charke and Woffington, who were noted for their male characterizations, acted only one part in common, that of Lothario in Rowe's The Fair Penitent. Looking at the different roles that Charke played, we may see just how committed she must have been to transvestite roles, for her wide repertoire included such representations as Pistol, George Barnwell, Macheath, Lothario, Plume and Archer (Farquhar). In addition, she undertook the very difficult role of Sir Fopling Flutter, for which she had to play a man playing an effeminate man, which would present about the same level of difficulty as a woman playing a man playing a woman. The chief difference between Charke's breeches roles and those of the Restoration actresses involves a certain dynamic of feminine sexuality. For instance, an actress, dressed to appear sexually ambiguous, might possess a femininity that showed through, alongside a masculine ease and elegance. The Life of James Quin makes clear the type of femininity/masculinity that Woffington, for instance, portrayed: "There was no woman that ever yet had appeared on the stage, who could represent with such ease and elegance the character of a man. She had besides dispossessed herself of that awkward stiffness and effeminacy which so commonly attends the fair sex in breeches" (40).
In contrast to Woffington's great male charm, which apparently only called attention to her good legs, Charke negated the Barbie-in-high-boots image or the kitten with a whip. Rejecting this type of sexual dividedness with its masculine and feminine eroticism, she created another type of gendered duality based on power and privilege. She became in her private life the male/female that she portrayed on the public stage. Later, she had printed, immortalized for eternity, a narration of her experiences within the new gender she had created for herself. The Narrative of her life advertises on the title page only the crossdressing ("Her Adventures in Mens Cloaths"), but the work itself, as I want to discuss, continues Charke's experiments with gender intra-penetration, dual personae, and voices.
Written twenty years after The Art of Management, her autobiography, simply stated, narrates how Charke arrived at the place where she was in 1755. In the Narrative, we may determine the narrator's voice and persona's identity from several clues, which taken together make us realize that Charke, much like Gertrude Stein in her autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Charke imposes a voice from the outside to tell the story of another person's life as a woman; she chooses to allow this voice, later revealed as male, to mediate and to explain, as it were, what it all meant. To emphasize this voice which more or less rescues Charke's experience as female other, Charke opens with reference to the same kind of duality featured in the play. Boldly forefronting her bifurcated voice, "The Author to Herself," Charke dedicates the piece to "Madam" as she speaks to her other half, wishing that "You and I may ripen our Acquaintance into a perfect Knowledge of each other, that may establish a lasting social Friendship between us" (Narrative viii). The paired selves again appear, discussed in terms of "Friendship" but the vocabulary suggests a deeper involvement. Without being too farfetched, we might catch in these opening phrases penetrating glimpses of The Art of Management's Adam and Eve in Eden with the words "ripen" and "perfect Knowledge."
In the Narrative, the male narrator selects for telling those instances in her woman's life, which he sees as leading to the formation of her male self. We are permitted to observe her wearing men's clothes, shooting on the moors, currying horses, digging ditches, as though this constituted her life. Only when we have been led to understand that Charke as a woman is not the narrator, do we see that at least half the picture of her childhood is missing. Charke surely had a pet rabbit or a favorite toy, just as she was sure to have had at least one friend. And yet these details are not included. Nor can we ascribe the omissions to discretion, since the narrator's rather distasteful spying on the subject's private life at private moments makes us understand that narratorial reticence is not valued. The voice shows the young unloved Charlotte who is neglected. All of a sudden she is four and dressing up in Cibber's clothes, and then she is fourteen, wearing the clothes of her guardian, Dr. Hale. I view the autobiography as not just negating the feminine stereotype but also negating a childhood, through her use of two narrators, one a predominating male, and the other a recessive, nearly silent female. The narrator prejudices our view by including only those events where the masculine takes preeminence.
Critics, such as Lynn Friedli, have commented in passing that certain characters, like Mrs. Brown, Charke's wife, "slip" in and out of the text ("Passing Woman" 241). I would argue that the reverse is true. Charke's narrator is the one who slips in and out until Charke allows us finally to glimpse him. At a certain point, Charke's narrator, who has related grimly what has happened to Charke as a woman with a perfidious, improvident husband and cold, stingy father, reveals his presence. Until now, the reader assumes that Charke's persona/narrator is a woman: only later will the reader see the ambiguity of meaning in the subtitle My Adventures in Mens Cloaths, and the implications of "Madam" in the Introduction. One particular scene, however, brings the reader up short with Charke's narratorial sleight-of-hand in blending her personae. The text reveals not only the narrator but also the nature of the dual personae. Up to this point, we as readers have considered Charke the woman as narrator. Playing on the reader's view of motherhood to be Charke's feminine role, the narrator has led us to "see" Charke acting within the feminine continuum of maternity. We are therefore not prepared for the sea change in the Narrative. In this section of the text where the persona stands revealed, the woman actress Charke has arrived at home only to find her little daughter in convulsions, but we notice a certain strange behavior when Charke says she seized the child but "immediately dropped her on the Floor; which I wonder did not absolutely end her by the Force of the Fall." Charke left the dying child lying there:
In the Hurry of my Distraction, I run [sic] into the Street, with my Shirt-Sleeves dangling loose about my Hands, my Wig standing on End, "Like Quills upon the Fretful Porcupine," and Proclaiming the sudden Death of my much-beloved child, a crowd soon gathered round me . . . The Peoples compassion was moved, 'tis true; but, as I happened not to be known to them, it drew them into Astonishment, to see the Figure of a young Gentleman, so extravagantly grieved for the Loss of a child. (Narrative 98-99)
The reader wants to say, "What young gentleman? When did he suddenly appear?" This is not a matter of an adventure in men's "cloaths." What catches us off-guard is the near collision of Charke's male and female dualities, over the body of the child. The melding which we have observed in her play has occurred in the Narrative, without our being aware. And our response is: And what else have we not been told? The narrator's voice up to now has been publicly concerned with setting forth Charke’s career, but privately focused on her maternal concerns with the child's well being. At this moment, the figure of the narrator and persona is revealed, and he is a man. Charke is very involved in the legerdemain and acknowledges our surprise, along with the onlookers' when she says "I happened not to be known to them, it drew them into Astonishment" (Narrative 99). Had the neighbors she did know been present, they might have been surprised should she have appeared dressed as a woman.
Once we realize the duality, Brown/Charke's statement that "I was entirely lost in forgetfulness of my real Self" bears new meaning, and we see that there is not just one real self. We also see that the woman Charke does not exist, but has been penetrated by a masculine half. Her maleness is allowed to obscure her feminine self, now silent and submissive, to the extent that she forgets any automatic nurturing associated with her role as mother. She has established a discreet distance between her role as man and her role as woman, but, in the moment of crisis, allows them to blur and even forgets to be "womanly." The intra-penetration has been generally quite successful in totally blending two genders. At this instance, when the woman half should have appeared, she forgets to do so. The crowd inhabiting this poor and marginalized ghetto area notices with disapproval the "unprecedented Affection" of Charke's male, who appears effeminate to them, outside the neighborhood of definition of male. To them, he, therefore, borders on being a non-male, as we have discussed, even as we realize that Charke is a non-woman. What we also realize here is just how good Brown/Charke's metamorphosis is; further, we notice that, even lounging around the neighborhood, Brown/Charke disports herself as a man. Her maleness, therefore, is not a role assumed for public consumption, convenience, or economy, but a part of a successful gendered duality.
As I mentioned above, the male/female image that Charke presents in the prologue to The Art of Management, becomes the central images in her other fiction. Brown and Mrs. Brown are another representation of her Adam and Eve sent out of the Garden. In fact, she uses this reference when, let out of prison, she "thought it comparable to the Garden of Eden; and question much, when the first Parents beheld their Paradise, whether they were more transported at the View, than I was when let out of my Cell" (216). Brown and Mrs. Brown wander in the free-zone world of the theatre, and the earth is peopled with strollers. Deprived of her birthright in the family and theatre, as she implies with reference to the "Prodigal" (Narrative 120), the duality that she, like Eve, has become has no home, no relatives, other than her daughter (whom she mentions in only four instances). At the same time, we may see that Charke creates for her characters a free space, a virtual reality, without restrictions within which they may conduct their lives. It is not perfect--Charke's description of the strolling life is jarring in its reality:
I think going a Strolling is engaging in a little, dirty kind of War, in which I have been obliged to fight so many Battles, I have resolutely determined to throw down my Commission: And to say Truth, I am not only sick, but heartily ashamed of it, as I have had nine Years Experience of its being a very contemptible Life; rendred so, through the impudent and ignorant Behaviour of the Generality of those who pursue it; and I think it would be more reputable to earn a Groat a Day in Cinder-sifting at Tottenham-Court, than to be concerned with them. (Narrative 187).
Notwithstanding Charke's obvious ambivalence toward it, this free space where the likes of Charke can early a living acting out of season, exists as a contrast to the patriarchal territory of the town that they have left. The town presents restrictions to the union she has achieved within herself and, of course, with Charke's wife "Mrs. Brown." Far from wishing to destroy the patriarchy, Charke lives by social rules and qualifies as a decent man living as well as possible in the space he has created for his duality-- himself and wife. Brown/Charke cannot settle in one place because he is unwilling and/or unable to defeat the father-figure, so avoids confrontations with father-figure types--bailiffs, landlords, businessmen, puppetmasters, and theatre managers. In Pill, for instance, Brown/Charke leaves town taking his business key with him, planning to mail it to the landlord, rather than face him. The narrator shows us Charke as victorious, however; as Brown she never meets a man she cannot outwit eventually.
Charke's engendered self is in danger in the urban setting; Charke must give up her "very handsome lac'd hat" (Narrative 90) since it is a means of identifying her (as a man). In Mr. Brown/Mrs. Brown/Adam/Eve, Charke creates a reverberating redundancy of strong/weak, brother/sister, husband/wife, man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, which resolves the conflicts of gender and power in the autobiography. She seems intent in proving that the Brown/Charke is the "real" one, not silent, submissive Mrs. Brown who perhaps dies during the years of strolling, for she is simply not there when Charke arrives in London to begin writing. If, that is, there was a "Mrs. Brown" in actuality and not a virtual duality of Charke's bifurcated voice, with which she opened the Introduction to the work. We find one clue as to the identity toward the end of the work: The last instance of Brown/Charke's use of "we" might be a reference to Mrs. Brown, mentioned as the "good-natur'd Person" helping Brown/Charke get to London (Narrative 267). Either Charke/Brown is literally alone, or the blending and intra-penetration of the genders, as we see in the Art of Management, have occurred so completely, that Charke totally embodies the duality.
Apart from "Mrs. Brown," The Narrative contains several feminine characters. Women, such as Betty Careless who goes her bail, Mrs. Dorr the tavern owner who calls her "son," are good characters whose values are distinct and superior to patriarchal standards. On the other hand, two other women fall in love with her, and one, having found out "I was a woman," attacked her (Narrative 164). Brown/Charke wears the feminine guise herself, decking out in petticoats, when she must go to Colley Cibber for a loan. As I mention elsewhere, this may not be autobiographical but simply a Narrative technique, which Charke uses to prove a feminine co-existence, forming a gender triangle Brown/Charke/Mrs. Brown.
For that same reason, Charke's daughter, never described (aside from a flaw in physique) and rarely discussed, appears sporadically in the work when her presence aids the technique of duality. For instance, as mentioned earlier, her illness allows Charke to furnish the revelation of the male narrator; as a young girl, she delivers Charke's begging letters from prison; she, on her honeymoon, receives Charke's visit. Her uses are limited to displaying the feminine half, and of her, Charke speaks as a father might when looking for an acting job: "I had a Child to support." Maria Catherine appears so seldom once Charke has achieved the engendered duality as Brown/ Mrs. Brown, that we are surprised when Charke suddenly mentions that her "child" is on the road with her and Mrs. Brown. Not until the last of the Narrative do we even know that Charke called the daughter "Kitty" (Narrative 241). Charke describes her only generally as a woman who is "sober and reasonable," but she is specific in assessing the girl as a professional, stating that Kitty's "figure" (we assume some extreme of weight) should make her a good character actress and suitable for "low comedy" because "she has an infinite Share of Humour" (Narrative 243). Kitty rather fades out of the Narrative and is lost to Charke's printed history.
These references to motherhood are Charke's technique of maintaining vestiges of the feminine within herself as Brown/Charke, maybe as a sort of hermaphrodite. Such allusions may also be her acknowledgment that biology is destiny; at the very end of the Narrative, she speaks of Lymington "where my Daughter enslaved herself for Life" (265). She would seem to be referring to the birth of her daughter's baby; an alternative reading would apply the remark to Lymington as the site of her daughter's wedding to a man Brown/Charke dislikes. She leads us, however, to prefer the first reading simply because the previous paragraph ends with the statement that "I [Charke] must, while we both exist, be undoubtedly her Mother" (265). The statement contains a certain idea of doom. Usually the marriage ceremony exacts an oath of mutual bondage "till death do us part." Motherhood then in the context is the life sentence, and the fathers are notably absent from the pact. These references to motherhood may be Charke’s technique of maintaining vestiges of the feminine within herself as Brown/Charke, maybe as a sort of hermaphroditism. Then, too, the rejection of motherhood allows Charke to decenter the feminine myth. She is not a "monster" mother, such as we find in Defoe’s Roxana, for instance, but Charke’s presentation of the mother image is not image-specific, either. Tony Bowers discusses this kind of "mother anxiety" and refers to the female angst about mother-love at a time of self-construction in the eighteenth century. A writer such as Charke, fashioning herself and her image with gendered dualities, is indeed challenging "the very possibility of codifying universal maternal norms" ("The Politics of Motherhood" 101).
IV. The History of Henry Dumont Esq.;
And Miss Charlotte Evelyn
Charke calls her autobiography, the Narrative, a "trifling sketch" begun as the introduction for The History of Henry Dumont, Esq.; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn. Because Colley Cibber's daughter was "universally known to be an odd Product of Nature" (Narrative 269), she was asked for an account of her life. In several sites in the autobiography, Charke mentions the ongoing work on the novel. Once, she cuts short a
visit to her daughter, "as [Charke] had made a considerable Progress in Mr. Dumont's History" (Narrative 263) and wants to get the work published quickly as a serial. It is not surprising, then, to note strong similarities in the two works, as they were written concurrently.
I want to look at the novel in terms of the dualities which structure Charke's literature, since the plot features dual personae, which, in the course of the fiction, undergo several metamorphoses. Like the autobiography, the novel concerns itself with dual personas, along with dual voices. In place of an English theatrical setting as the Eden where Brown/Mrs. Brown wander, Charke establishes within the novel a cleared space in France, at once foreign and dangerous -- a place where a male in drag just might appear. The site again, however, is a virtual reality, where virtual protagonists live out their lives attempting a self-pairing. The plot is fairly complicated: The orphan son of Lady Charlotte and Archibald Dumont, Henry is raised by his grandfather, Mr. Allworth, and his tutor Mr. Evelyn. Evelyn dies, leaving his orphan daughter, Charlotte, whom the grandfather adopts. Henry goes off to sow wild oats, falls in with evil gambling companions, and, finally, is welcomed back home as the prodigal. Henry returns to discover that Charlotte is now his adoptive sister. During this crucial period, Henry also becomes unwittingly part of a gay triangle, extricates himself, and marries Charlotte.
Charke's basic question is the same one each of her works features: What constitutes definitions of gender? Within the space that Charke provides, each half of the duality must deal with its mirror image; Henry's potential other, the one whom he could impenetrate, is the homosexual transvestite Billy Loveman, and Charlotte's is the pig-like woman Ursula. While, as we mentioned, Charke herself is the site of resolution of Mr. Brown/Mrs. Brown in the autobiography, in this novel Charke also acts as the site of resolution of the mirror images. Charke, as sovereign writer, is dealing with another issue, perhaps economic. For Charke interposes herself in the melding/pairing of Henry and the homosexual Billy. Instead, she is the agent by whom they may avoid metamorphosis into their others, for the novel ends with the melding and intra-penetration of Henry and Charlotte.
Since the potential relationship between Henry and Billy Loveman offers great similarities to Charke and her Mr. Brown, the Henry-Billy portrayal reveals tenseness about gender transgressions. Although the few critics who comment on the novel find it to be a diatribe against the kind of gender blurring that the homosexual Loveman represents, I think that the opposite is true. As she does in the autobiography, Charke unifies sexual conflict within herself and becomes both the nearly-seduced and feminized Henry, as well as the flamboyant Billy Loveman, and, by extension, becomes also his lover, Turtle. Charke's glancing depiction of the homosexual underworld with its jealousies, loyalties, courtship patterns, and even "marriages," demonstrates that world's similarities to heterosexual practices; Charke allows us also to view Henry's overreaction as a case of protesting too much. Henry sees the line blurring and perhaps knows why Loveman singled him out for affection.
The heart of the dual personae, gender treatment and the best entry into the text for studying the dualities, occurs in Chapter Six, which centers on a letter from Billy Loveman to Henry. The text reveals Billy Loveman as a pathetically ignorant yokel unable to spell, even. At the same time, the voice in his letter is masculine in its assumption of power, while it contains the same trite messages commonly sent between lovers. Billy, assuming a positive outcome to his invitation, sets the rendezvous to occur at the "fish-ponds" an out of door location where he may pay "rispex to the civine charmur of my soul" (History 60).
While the text contains signals about Charke’s intent, the very message of a few lines defines the gender issues at play in the work. Through the missive, Loveman presents a lover-from-afar. He is, through print, therefore able to make real his persona. "Other" in class and gender, Loveman nonetheless creates a linguistic system just between himself and his male love object. Charke employs the language to suggest a kind of role playing, and the reader may reflect on how Dumont appears in a homosexual role. The letter, then, defines the persona of Loveman and re-defines Dumont’s.
The third person in the triangle of Loveman and Henry Dumont, Mr. Turtle, tells his own story and claims his own persona. Revealing the intra-penetration that has occurred between himself and Billy, Turtle rewrites the female gender system and excludes the traditional feminine. With the implied carnality in the letter and the literal reference to the carnality at work between Turtle and Billy, the pair refigure the gender system, by taking on both roles within their twin-ness, as Charke herself accomplishes in the other fiction.
When the love letter from Loveman arrives, Henry is "entirely innocent of such unnatural proceedings," and thinks that a love letter from a man must be meant for Charlotte (History 59). Instead of ignoring it, however, Henry's defense of his own virtue is a bit suspect. He wants to prove that "his behaviour could not in any degree give the smallest hope to the unnatural passion of such a detestable brute" (History 60). When he says that "[t]he bare mention of his name from the mouth of such a wretch, might throw an imputation on his character, which he would rather suffer death than deserve" (History 61). Instead of Charlotte, the virtuous heroine of the novel ironically is the handsome Henry. Bearing in mind that Loveman has so far only sent a love note to one he assumes would welcome the overture, we note that Loveman's excoriation by Henry is simply cruel. When Henry arrives for a rendezvous he has arranged in order to entrap Loveman, the homosexual kisses Henry "with the ardour which might be expected from a drunken fellow to a common prostitute" and for that, Henry and his friends brutalize him.
Charke’s depiction of the incident is interesting. In the margins outside of town law, the meeting place could possibly be the site of transformation. Loveman has already accepted the nature of his dualities and the area provides Henry an opportunity to assume and internalize his own potential for dualism He rejects the role and instead joins in the male community to punish a transgressor again manliness. All the male characters, except the fathers, gather for the gay bashing as if they were fighting off the very devil chasing them. In the scene, Henry is shown fighting what must have appeared to be a woman as the figure is wearing woman's clothes and makeup. Billy, as male, had ceased to exist, for the intra-penetration had left him with a female identity, to which we may see Henry as attracted. Indeed, we might question exactly why Henry set up a "trap" rendezvous at an inn, instead of simply ignoring Loveman's passion or challenging him to a duel. The novelistic setting is France, after all. Charke, at this point, appears to back off from the direction the plot offers. She negates the situation in the face of Henry's potential for metamorphosis into another kind of duality with Loveman. The violence with which the mob turns on Loveman, beating him and dunking/purifying him, receives confirmation of his worthlessness, when Loveman's servants and his lover Turtle fear to offer him assistance or protection from the mob:
The history of this affair in a few minutes got wind, sufficient to blow a whole mob together. And when the male-madam was permitted to decamp as he was . . . they snatched him from his supporters and very handsomely ducked him in the fish pond. (History 66-67)
The brutality culminates with the male mob treating Billy to a punishment reserved for women. He is dunked in the town pond as a common scold. At novel's end, Charke leaves us with the image of travestied woman climbing the mud banks of the pond, almost dragged down by her long skirts. With Billy penetrating the gender boundary as Charke's persona in the Narrative has done, Charke suggests that the gendered distance between the two men is also blurred, which Billy knows and Henry senses. Turtle also recognizes the potential for a pairing between Billy and Henry, for he sulks around jealously as "injured wives are apt to shew violent resentment, when they find their husbands are engaged in intrigues" (History 67). Likewise, Charlotte apparently feels herself as threatened as Turtle by Henry's potential for male pairing and for the same reason. Reacting as violently as the townsmen, she says, "no punishment was sufficiently severe for such unnatural monsters" (History 60).
Although Charlotte's sentiments are generally by critics ascribed to Charke's own views, I suggest that Mrs. Evelyn's moderate reaction, indeed sympathy, to the situation represents Charke's, since her own life bore similarity to Loveman's. Both mirror images find resolution in Charke, for she blurs the gender boundaries separating the two men, much as she does the boundaries separating her and Mr. Brown. Rather than being a diatribe against homosexuality, the novel is rather a graphic depiction of society's hypocritical treatment of homosexuals as "unnatural monsters." In her duality, we may easily see Charke as both the attacked and the attacker, acting out her own disenfranchisement and social marginalization. In a third possible interpretation, we may even toy with the idea of Charke’s presenting Henry an opportunity for personal happiness, in a free zone where he is provided with a genuine lover, Billy. Had Henry sprung to Billy's rescue at the pond and played the knight, the novel at that juncture could easily have become another kind of cautionary tale.
With Loveman and Turtle representing one kind of femininity, Ursula, Charlotte's mirror image, is another; and, I suggest, because Charke is the agent of reconciliation, she becomes yet another. Although Charke does not indicate any sexuality in their confrontation, she presents the idea that Charlotte may be contaminated by the kind of female humanity Ursula represents, just as Henry is now contaminated by Billy. Contamination in this context may be defined as loss of Edenic innocence. Although Ursula may be perceived as anti-feminine, she is meant to represent Eve as she probably was: sweaty and uncorseted. To Charlotte, Ursula undoubtedly appears to be another kind of "unnatural monster," corpulent and physical; dressed in red, she "appear'd like a moving fire," saying "lauk, lauk, measter, do but feel how I swot" (History 77, 80). She is the opposite of pale submissive Charlotte who deliberately subverts her femaleness in favor of a feminine stereotype to appease her adoptive father. We see that her purity is an act; she is not the innocent when she tells Henry that his love note comes from a man with no interest in the female sex. We may well ask how Charlotte has come by this information; or is Charke implying the widespread nature of gender anomalies in France? Charlotte's insight reveals a certain hardness, a hidden knowledge, and a secret slyness in order to reflect outwardly the patriarchal image of ignorant womanhood.
But if Henry is drawn to Loveman, Charlotte is repelled by her opposite. Ursula is free and equal to men. She wrestles and boxes in matches with men; but she is not a transvestite and decorates herself with ribbons and lace. Sir Boistrous Blunder brags that "[his] daughter shall wrestle or box with e'er a two men within fifty miles of her, for a wager of as many pounds" (History 84-85). Unlike Henry, Ursula will never have her virtue threatened, but she honors her physicality and may give her virtue away if she chooses. It is difficult to see that Charke presents Charlotte as the proper mirror image for herself. Rather, it may be that Charke presents Ursula as a suggestion of a way to live, perhaps married to a rude and hearty farm boy who would let her be as female as Eve, uninhibited and uncorseted. While perhaps Charlotte Charke, dependent for revenue on her novel's mainstream sales-value, tries in this novel to exhibit the rehabilitation of her own character, she would surely not choose to be the unpleasant Charlotte, regardless of the shared first name.
In the negation of their mirror images, the Henry/Charlotte duality reveals that its wide separation of gender into distinctly male and female, is nonetheless reconciled as well as maintained in Charke, the narrator. In this traditional marriage pairing, the weakest of her fictional intra-penetrations under study here, Charke becomes the agent and site for melding. She functions in a more successful way for a blending of the mirror images of Loveman/Henry and Ursula/Charlotte. Charke has become a virtual host body, sustaining the patriarchal-approved reconciliations (in marriage), as well as the host body for the marginalized reconciliation (another kind of marriage) of Billy/Turtle. We suspect, however, that Charke intends not the fairy-tale ending, but the implication of incest in the separate-but-together relationship of Henry and Charlotte. Possibly, the role inversion, mentioned above, offers another interesting interpretation of the Henry-Charlotte marriage. Manly in her aggression and worldliness, Charlotte plays the male role in warning Henry about Loveman's passion toward him. We wonder if Charlotte during marriage will continue to educate Henry about matters of passion, or if he will retain the feminine innocence that Charlotte is lacking. We may, of course, even question whether Henry is innocent. His rambles in the world may have given Henry the knowledge of another way to live, separate from heterosexuality; if so, then Henry's rejection and fury toward Billy could be viewed as cover-up or denial. Aside from Henry, Billy, and Turtle, other men in the novel function only as their heterosexual/social titles: father, grandfather, tutor, husband, macho townsmen. Evading this kind of gender hamstring, none of the women wants to be a man (except perhaps Charlotte secretly), but at least two of the men have become women. Women are mothers (Mrs. Evelyn), patriarchal women (Charlotte), self-defined women (Ursula), redefined women (Billy Loveman), but, in the terms of the novel, traditional men do not have the luxury of redefining or self-defining their roles as men. That is, unless they are dressed as women.
V. Conclusion The stage at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket brought together Charke with Fielding, who employed her duality as part of his dramatic message. Cast in leading male roles in his 1736 and 1737 dramas, Charke received thereby public validation of her social defiance, allowing us to view her relationship with Fielding as symbiotic. While I am not suggesting that Fielding only wrote his dramas for Charke, it is clear that the impact of the later dramas would have been considerably lessened had Charke not appeared in the leading male roles. Her very presence on stage allowed him to address dramatically the issue of gender roles and social definitions, otherwise not possible.
To draw conclusions about Charlotte Charke, we need to establish what Charke wasn't, even if we cannot quite identity what she was. Outcast by her occupation and her sexual image, Charke was in a double bind of ostracism and apparently was marginalized even by those on the margins of society. Gifted as an actress and bearing Cibber’s theatrical lineage, Charke could nonetheless not garner popular approval as the actress Oldfield had done. Charke, however, was not simply defiant, nor was she part of what is termed the "culture of travesty," for her masculine/feminine identity did not play a part in that "vast masquerade" of London society. Rather in her life as in her stage career and in her publications, Charke protested the constraints against women by pursuing and portraying different and difficult ways of living.
In some ways, Charke was quite bourgeois, even strictly and strangely orthodox,
in depicting her situation and ideals. In the life, the play, and the autobiography, the intra-penetrated duality of the central character does not produce a Roaring Girl; the character is not only a good woman, but also a good guy, who neither wallows in self-pity nor self-revelation. Charke's intra-penetrated character, in reality or the virtual reality of drama and novel, raises a child, tends family obligations, packs clean underwear, pays the landlord, shows up for work. Gender restrictions imposed from without neither contribute nor enter her narratorial computations, except in the novel, where heterosexual marriage ironically presents Charke’s least successful intra-penetration and blending of genders. Gingerly avoiding any hint of prurience by a careful "custody of the eyes," Charke never looks down, so to speak. She engages in no pornographic references or sex-talk, what Foucault later calls "the great process of transforming sex into discourse" (History of Sexuality 22).
In summary, Charke aims in her fiction toward a personal ideal of a bifurcated gender, existing within the host body of one human. Employing a cleared area where personal license to act may occur, such as the stage or stroller territory, the poor suburbs, the lawless town margins, or a foreign zone, Charke begins her drama and fiction with the chief male and female characters poised at the very moment of possible gendered intra-penetration. The vicissitudes they face as a result of their choices symbolize their internal turmoil, which, however, the characters do not discuss and about which the reader/audience can only surmise. Charke is not interested in presenting confessional literature, nor the kind of expose we witness in the history of the crossdresser Chevalier D'eon or even Defoe's female soldier, Mrs. Christian Davis. Neither is Charke melancholy, self-pitying, or confrontational with demonstrating her characters' plights. She neither places on exhibition nor romanticizes the nature of sexuality existing outside the conventional. Essentially, Charke concerns herself only with the question: How may a human thrive in a repressive society? She sets about answering the query in all her protest literature, following essentially the same techniques she employed in her first work, The Art of Management, and developed later in her life and the Narrative of her Life.
Dr. Josephine Roberts was reading a version of this essay, a few days before the tragedy occurred. She called Charke "likeable," in our last phone conversation. The final revision I carried out alone, but Dr. Roberts's scholarly influence and generous interest remain imprinted on every page.
"Charlotte Charke and the Liminality of Bi-Genderings: A Study of Her Canonical Works" by Polly S. Fields from A Pilgrimage for Love: Essays in Early Modern Literature In Honor of Josephine A. Roberts. Edited by Sigrid King. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Vol 213 (Tempe, AZ, 1999), pp. 221-48. Copyright Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University