chapter  9
17 Pages

Masculinity, Performance Anxiety, and Literary Impotence in Charlotte Charke’s The History of Henry Dumont

WithMary Beth Harris

Charlotte Charke has become of figure of fervent fascination for many within eighteenth-century critical discussions of gender, performance, identity, and queer theory. Most scholarship on Charke has focused on her romp of an autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (1755). Her other works have largely been ignored. This chapter makes a case for including Charke’s novels, specifically her first novel, The History of Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn (1756), in our critical discussions of Charke and in our discussions of masculinity. While the Narrative is full of ambiguity and inconsistency, the novel appears to tell the tale of two highly normative and virtuous people on their progress toward happy structural heterosexual bliss, with appropriate interruptions of sentiment and comedy along their path. However, what initially appears as a stock sentimental tale reveals itself to be a revelatory display of masculinity as performance, one that uses anxieties about emasculation contrasted with hyper-effeminate and other unruly excessive bodies to create the theoretically normative masculinity of the gentleman. Despite its best efforts, normativity always requires an audience and reveals itself to be as unruly and slippery as the bodies it seeks to contrast itself with.