Gender Play/Gender Panic

Here’s a pairing of concepts that’s new to me. I haven’t read his work yet, but historian Dror Wahrman apparently argues/suggests/indicates/frames the British 18th century as one of gender play followed by gender panic.

Hmmm, reading a review of his book The Making of the Modern Self, it looks like he may be addressing something that Horace Walpole exemplifies. And that is the Addisonian condemnation of English character as shallow and superficial. I noted that Walpole embraced these qualities.

One reviewer writes:

“Dror Wahrman is only the most recent historian to attempt to elevate the “forgotten century” to greater prominence in British historical studies, but he has done so by focusing our attention on the very superficiality that has consigned the period to the margins for so long.”

Eglin, John. “The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England.” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007).

I like the countering of the two concepts of gender play and gender panic because it neatly captures something about Timothy Mowl’s biography of Walpole I couldn’t articulate before.

Mowl writes his biography as if he is a historian in an era of gender panic writing about a figure in an era of gender play. (Perhaps mindset is a better term than era?) Mowl deserves abundant credit for taking up issues of gender and sex in the world of Horace Walpole when a few centuries of criticism, review, and biography skated around the topic. Mowl, however, doesn’t have a particularly strong concept of gender history. His work feels dated, even for the mid-1990s. He takes a paragraph in the introduction to establish his heterosexual bonifides and assure the reader he is “happily married to a second wife,” and “father of [a] school-age son,” but he can write about queer life because there is much “homosexual activity” in his chose profession of architectural history. I can smell the gender panic rising from the page.

I’m intrigued by Wahrman’s framing because it suggests Walpole wasn’t an outlier (Mowl calls him “the great outsider”). He was representative of the gender play of his era.

Looking forward to reading Wahrman’s book.

As far as Mowl’s book? Definitely worthwhile for the serious walpolianite, not so necessary for the cursory reader. For the cursory reader interested in Walpolian gender/sex I recommend: Haggerty, George E. “Queering Horace Walpole.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 46, no. 3 (2006): 543–62.

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