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Alison Conway. The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative and Religious Controversy in England, 1680-1750.

Alison Conway. The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative and Religious Controversy in England, 1680-1750. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Illustrated. xii + 291 pp. $65.00.

This study argues that the English novel long bore the marks of the religious-political crisis that shaped--and shook--the Restoration political settlement. In evidence, Alison Conway offers stimulating concluding chapters on Daniel Defoe's Roxana (1724) and (together) Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747-1748) and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749). An insightful earlier chapter treats Aphra Behn's Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-1687)--a scandal romance satirizing the Monmouth conspirators and, arguably, the first English novel. But Conway first plunges into the murky waters of Restoration sexual and religious-political polemic, from which Love-Letters emerged during the parliamentary campaign to exclude the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York, from succeeding his brother as king and therefore head of an episcopal, Protestant state church. Religion was inseparable from politics. A Catholic head of the English Church could--as the Duke of York did when he became James II and VII--undermine the Church's authority and its monopoly on power. The Restoration Court's flagrant libertinism made sex too political. An attack on a French Catholic mistress like Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, covertly challenged Charles II's pro-French foreign policy. In a familiar but apocryphal anecdote, Nell Gwyn called herself the king's Protestant whore. Oddly wrapping fallen flesh in a mantle of religious and national virtue, she became for some an apolitical counterpart to Portsmouth or the Duke of Monmouth, the Protestant bastard who sought the throne of his uncle and king. The courtesan paradoxically made public the monarch's private vices, incarnated domestically political threats to the kingdom, and problematized the affiliations of sex and gender with power and authority.

Asserting its unifying authority, the Church of England excluded Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters from civic office and was divided internally between High Church exclusiveness and Broad Church solidarity with other Protestants. Since partisan rivalry begot stories faster than Charles could beget bastards, the courtesan became a potent figure with which to conjure. Viewed by Protestants as a version of the Scarlet Whore, a Catholic mistress was nominally subordinate to Protestant English masculinity but potentially the subversive agent of foreign power. The Protestant Lucy Walters (or Walter), Monmouth's mother, inspired subversive stories that Charles n had secretly married her, making not James but her son by (perhaps) Charles the heir to the throne. James was further discredited by the story that he had acknowledged his marriage to Anne Hyde only reluctantly, in effect slurring as a whore the mother of Queens Mary n and Anne. As the Protestant whore, Nell Gwyn variously embodied the rise from obscurity to prosperity, femininity corrupted by a dissolute aristocracy, Protestant Englishness, and loyalty to the person and authority of the king. Conway is a sure guide to the ways courtesan narratives address, in shifting contexts, contradictions at the heart of religious-national ideology. Dedicating works to Nell Gwyn and the foreign Catholic mistress, Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, Behn characteristically links the female author, the courtesan, and the often corrupt sources of political power. Seduced by a Monmouth conspirator, Silvia in Love-Letters becomes a sexual adventurer on the Continent--a Protestant whore who, like Behn, unsettlingly blends staunch royalism with a feminist critique of masculine power.

The story that Mary n and her Dutch Protestant husband William m had providentially rescued the nation from Papist absolutism in 1688-89 proved to be a problem. Many feared (or hoped) that the exiled James II or his descendants would return at the head of a foreign army. By tolerating dissenting Protestants, William undermined Anglican trust, reviving religious ferment. Popular tales of the illicit female power that had corrupted Restoration England troubled even the legitimate rule of Mary II and then Anne. Did Providence favour Mary or James? Mary was a queen but not a mother, a pious Protestant but an undutiful daughter struck down young by smallpox. Anne was staunchly English and Anglican, but versions of courtesan narrative cast her female favourites as insidious agents of the godless Whigs (Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough) or the Church Party (Abigail Masham). Conway carefully explicates the most famous of these, The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians (1705), illuminating its treatment of female political ambition.

Students of the fascinating poetry, drama, and prose spawned by the sexual-political-religious ferment of the Restoration will find this study invaluable. Conway interprets her political figure with authority, examining images as well as unfamiliar tracts: she considers (and includes photographs of) a 1683 frontispiece, seven portraits of royal mistresses, and Govanni Battista Tiepolo's Empire of Flora (circa 1743). Students of the novel, though, may find the early chapters heavy going. Conway is not to blame. Late Stuart polemic tackles with alarming passion issues and events now familiar only to specialists. Any usefully thick description of Restoration politics--Conway cites Clifford Geertz (15)--necessarily obscures the larger contours of cultural change. Even the historical glossary of dates, declarations, and acts nestled between the text and the notes (183-85) presupposes knowledge the reader may not have to hand.

Fortunately, the heavy going opens onto stimulating views of central novels. The religious conflict charted here preceded Protestant individualism. In Roxana, Defoe chooses a Restoration setting and a protagonist who calls herself a Protestant whore because, Conway argues, he refuses to uncouple religious interiority from the political repression that opposes it, economic modernity from the potentially tyrannical monarchy that oversees its institutions. A seasoned propagandist, he begins his novel within a community of Protestant refugees from Catholic persecution and ends it within a divided family. Roxana flees from the abandoned daughter with her name, Susan figuring here as an authoritarian daughter who would subjugate her parent, reabsorbing her capitalist self-fashioning into familial structures.

To turn next to Clarissa might seem perverse, but Conway makes a strong case that Richardson's implacably virtuous protagonist allows him, within the microcosm of the family, to investigate quasi-monarchical authority in ways reminiscent of Behn: Clarissa's "radical antinomian impulses ... bring us to the brink of the courtesan's amoralism and the iconoclasm of the Protestant whore" (159). After this tour de force, the turn to a novel set during that last gasp of the late Stuart religious-political crisis can hardly surprise. In Tom Jones--a novel whose links to libertinism Tiffany Potter explored in Honest Sins: Georgian Libertinism and the Plays and Novels of Henry Fielding (1999)--the heroine is mistaken for Bonnie Prince Charlie's mistress, Jennie Cameron. But Conway productively reverses genders: Fielding's bastard protagonist "emerges as the eighteenth-century novel's last, great Protestant Whore" (161), sharing this role with, through the figure of Flora, both the narrator and Sophia. An embarrassing episode often slighted gets welcome attention: Tom accepts pay for his sexual liaison with Lady Bellaston. Tom's sexual indiscretions illuminate the extent to which the garrulous masculine narrator of Fielding's history evades alleged Protestant certainties. Turning on unexpected similarities, Conway's readings demonstrate a wit that seconds her judgment that these novels look back to the Restoration political crisis.

There are some slips. Roxana is not Defoe's "final novel" (112). Richardson's correspondent appears as Lady Bradsheigh (158). The text systematically refers to the Duke and Duchess of Malborough. And the reader could well ask for more. The leap to Defoe and beyond skips over politically effective scandal romances undeniably by Delariver Manley--as Queen Zarah is not--and novels by such women as Eliza Haywood and the Jacobite Jane Barker. Is it only in Defoe's appropriation of it that the amatory novel revisits the Restoration political crisis? As a marketing ploy if no more, Roxana originally sported a title, The Fortunate Mistress, that responded to Haywood's recent Idalia; or, The Unfortunate Mistress (1723). The Protestant whores of Richardson and Fielding may have more kin than this study acknowledges. But tracing the novel's ideological entanglement in the formative quarrels of an intensely partisan age is a task for many hands. Alison Conway has made an essential contribution.

David Oakleaf

University of Calgary
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Author:Oakleaf, David
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
Words:1331
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