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Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture.

Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture. Ed. by. CHRIS MOUNSEY (Bucknell Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture) Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses. 2001. 301 pp. 40 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-8387-5477-5.

This collection of ten diverse essays opens with a well placed piece by Conrad Brunstrom, examining ideas of masculinity and nationalism in the eighteenth century. Brunstrom explores the debate between men of letters as to the nature of masculinity, underpinning this by reference to the contemporary scientific understanding of sex and gender. The conclusion that he is able to draw, that it was believed that there was 'only a finite quantity of masculinity to go around' during this period, provides a useful starting point for an understanding of the later essays.

Carolyn D. Williams's contribution to the work shows how little early modern society appeared to be disturbed by the actions of cross-dressing women. Williams argues that such transvestism, often undertaken as a practical solution to economic or social challenges, was depicted as neither undermining masculinity nor radically altering femininity. Her lively and informative article is supported by a plethora of fictional and historical references.

Karma Williamson makes a convincing argument in her essay for more research to be carried out on the Augustan verse epistle and, in particular, its relationship to notions of gender. Williamson gives the readers a valuable overview of a fascinating genre but is then, inevitably, curtailed by space, and has to focus upon a narrow range of poems from the genre.

Thomas A. King's essay is a densely packed study of theatrical practices and theories in the period and the ways in which these related to constructions of masculinity. He also links the decline in boy players for female parts in dramatic performances with a perceived political maturing of masculinity. He enlivens his text with several illustrations.

The next essay reverts to the issue of female transvestism, principally in Mary Robinson's Walsingham. Julie Shaffer is able to achieve much in a relatively short space: she grounds Walsingham in the gender anxiety of its time, and the resultant reduction in female cross-dressing and a waning of enthusiasm for such practices in popular literature.

The political section of the book opens with David Michael Robinson's engaging piece on the continuities and connections between homosexuality and ideas of gender in the ancient world, in early modern England, and in modern society. The essay is well focused, and perceptive in its reading both of its source material and of the mores of society.

Ruth Herman has chosen a fascinating subject for her contribution: 'Enigmatic Gender in Delarivier Manley's New Atlantis'. Although her analysis is of necessity complex and at times speculative, she handles the subject matter with confidence, and her assertion of deliberate fictive gender reversal will encourage readers to reassess the material with which she is concerned.

The following two essays, by Elizabeth Kubek and Rachel K. Carnell, focus upon the work of Eliza Haywood. Kubek figures Haywood as a proto-feminist figure, immersed in the politics of her day. Kubek explores the links between eroticism and politics and the energy that is derived from opposition, within both gender and politics. Carnell is also concerned to show how Haywood was able to work as a politically astute female writer within a male political and literary discourse. She asks that readers reassess Haywood as a political force rather than simply 'as a hack writer of sexually scandalous domestic fiction' (p. 257).

Chris Mounsey develops the theme of subversive gendering in literary production in his essay on Christopher Smart. By evaluating the reasons behind, and the success of, Smart's ploy of writing as a woman in his journal The Midwife, Mounsey is able to allude to the previous essays and to conclude what is an interesting and challenging collection.

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Author:Becker, Lucinda
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: The Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre.
Next Article:Crossing Boundaries: Attending to Early Modern Women.

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