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Alternative Histories of the Self

A Cultural History of Sexuality and Secrets, 1762-1917


Anna Clark


London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Hardcover. xi+206 p. ISBN 978-1350030633. £85


Reviewed by Guyonne Leduc

Université de Lille





Divided into six chapters, each of which (except the first one which is the introduction) is devoted to a ‘case study’ [1], that is a person who was considered as unconventional, as ‘eccentric’ in his/her lifetime and had a ‘hidden life’ [2] known thanks to ‘diaries and notebooks’ [2], this volume gathers (and sometimes develops] three items that were already published between 1996 and 2013 in academic periodicals (Journal of the History of Sexuality, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Victorian Studies, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History], a contribution that came out in a collective book on the Chevalier d’Eon (2010), and a new chapter on Edith Lees Ellis. Each chapter is followed by a ‘Select Bibliography’; a system of rich endnotes [152-159] has been chosen.    

The long ‘Introduction’, subtitled ‘Celebrating or Rejecting the Unique Self’ [1-30], opens on a quotation from the famous first page of Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) : ‘I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence’. Its second part appears as a leading thread in the chronological structure of the volume: it inspired the Chevalièr/e d’Eon and was cited by Anne Lister [1]. The aim of American historian Anna Clark (working at the university of  Minnesota) is ‘to examine how [her] subjects used—or rejected—the notion of “the unique self” ’ [1] not just as Rousseau, d’Eon and Lister could conceive it in the (late) Enlightenment, but also in the later perspective of liberal individualism launched by Adam Smith (whom Richard Johnson admired), stressing the idea of the self-interested individual. In the Victorian era, that ‘notion of the unique self’ was rejected by James Hinton in favour of ‘the sacrifice of the self’ [3]. He influenced Edith Lees Ellis, who ‘tried to reconcile individuality and socialism’ [3], and resorted to sexology and eugenics to deal with ‘the abnormal genius’ [3]; sexologist Havelock Ellis, her husband, used her (hidden] bisexuality to define the ‘sexual invert’. The Introduction is also very useful as it provides an apposite survey of the main landmarks in the intellectual, cultural and material history of the period (1762-1917), thus helping the reader to situate these three men and these two women in their respective backgrounds, to better understand the originality of each of them, and also avoid anachronisms.       

Charles d’Eon, Chevalier de Beaumont (1728-1810) – the focus of Chapter 2, ‘The Chevalièr/e d’Eon : Transgender Heroine, Pugnacious Diplomat, or Pious Lady’ [31-50] – is very well-known: he thought he was a woman born in a man’s body (already making a difference between sex and gender) but, at the same time, he refused to be a ‘feminine woman’ [31], consequently leading a chequered life, living dressed as a man for 49 years and as a woman for 32. After stressing that the boundaries between private and public were blurred at the time, Clark underlines the difficulty of defining ‘masculinity’ in the late eighteenth century and clearly explains that d’Eon ‘was caught between two versions of political manhood: the courtly diplomat and the manly citizen’ [33], the former belonging to the Ancien Régime of aristocratic and absolutist France, and the latter heralding the rise of bourgeois citizenship. As such, he was an ‘outsider’ [49], and even an ‘outlaw’ [35]. Of course, Clark resorts to the Butlerian concepts of gender fluidity [41, 49] and performance [39], just as in the next chapter [71], dedicated to Anne Lister (1791-1840], entitled ‘Secret and Lies : Anne Lister’s Love for Women and the Natural Self’ [51-76].

If the word ‘transgender’ did not exist at the time of d’Eon, neither did the term ‘lesbian’ [51, 75] when Anne Lister relied on Rousseau’s ‘unique self’ to ‘justify [...] her desires for women [...] as part of her nature’ [75]. The question of ‘nature’ is at the core of her ideas exposed in her numerous coded diaries based on Greek just as on ‘duplicity and secrecy’ [53] at the heart of her carefully controlled public self in her Yorkshire society. She constructed herself as both a ’Byronic renegade’ [53] and a learned ‘masculine woman’ [55]. Attached first to a half-Indian young woman, Eliza Raine, Lister showed a ‘masculine persona’ [69] to her numerous mistresses, but she was not a feminist, concerning female suffrage in particular [74], even if she had ‘economic and political power’ [74] as the rich landowner of Shibden Hall. This chapter helpfully rests on ideas developed by Michel Foucault and specialists of lesbianism such as Randolph Trumbach, Alan Bray, Terry Castle, Sharon Marcus, Lilian Faderman, Teresa De Lauretis, Susan S. Lanser, Lisa Moore, and Joan deJean.  

Unlike D’Eon and Lister, Richard Johnson (1753-1807), the object of the next chapter, entitled ‘Richard Johnson and the Imperial Self’ [76-98], ‘did not believe in the true inner self’ [80]; he was rather close to Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘individual subject’ [80, 89], and influenced by Adam Ferguson’s ‘focus on the individual’s self-interest’ [91]. Richard Johnson belonged to the world of the officials of the East India Company, and is still remembered as a ‘diplomat’, an ‘Enlightenment thinker’ and an ‘orientalist’ [78]. He appears as a ‘hybrid subject’ [78] split between his commitment to empire as a civil servant in Lucknow, in Oudh, and his criticisms of imperialism expressed in his unpublished journals and letters. Even if this chapter brings much philosophical and Indian knowledge, one may wonder (just as Anna Clark, indeed, in her very last paragraph) about the question of ‘the self and gender’ [97] in connection with Johnson even if one learns, quite early in this chapter, that he ‘was completely open about his sex life in Lucknow, known for its courtesans’ [82]; Clark’s short answer is unfortunately not very convincing.

The case of the English surgeon James Hinton (1822-1875) is quite different concerning sexual matters as is proved by the next chapter, ‘James Hinton and the Sacrifice of the Self’ [99-121]. He was first respected in Victorian circles [99] since, in keeping with his Evangelical education, he wanted ‘the sacrifice of the self rather than the assertion of individuality’ [22], stressing the necessity of self-discipline and the limitation of pleasures [104] as he had a negative view of passions including sexual ones until the early 1860s [107]. He was influenced – but always kept some critical distance – by Coleridge [103-104, 107], F.D. Maurice [106], Auguste Comte [106], and Darwin [107]. In the late 1860s, he abandoned his Evangelical beliefs in self-denial and was later deemed ‘eccentric’ [99] as he came to ‘advocate polygamy as the solution to poverty and prostitution’ [99]: he may have been impressed by Mormon polygamy [112] and by explorer Richard Francis Burton’s City of Saints (1861), when he asserted that polygamy was to  solve the problem of ’surplus women’ [110] and eradicate prostitution as men’s and women’s sexual needs were to be satisfied [112]. For Hinton, sexual desire was ‘a gift of God’ [114], and had to be seen as ‘a way of connecting with the life force of the universe’ [114]. Though not published in his lifetime [118], his ideas on polygamy were alluded to in Havelock Ellis’s 1880s works on him [119].

Havelock Ellis’s wife, Edith Lees Ellis, ‘devoted herself to Hinton’s ideas’ [120] concerning the individual together with some sort of socialism (unlike that of the Fabian Society), even if she preferred to advocate ‘a different kind of monogamy’ [120], as Clark carefully explains in the final chapter dedicated to Edith’s complex personality, ‘‘Better to Be an Active Devil than a Crushed Saint’ : Edith Ellis and the New Life’ [123-146]. After they got married, Havelock and Edith often lived in ‘separate households’ [131] and both took other lovers – he, struggling with impotence and she, having same-sex relationships [131-132] but never writing openly about them [143, 145] ; besides she ‘destroyed her own personal papers’ [145]. Influenced by Richard von Kraft-Ebing’s and J.A. Symonds’s ideas on what they called ‘inversion’, Havelock Ellis considered his wife as a case study and an ‘invert’ [132]. She rather explored the implications of the ‘abnormal’ and linked it to creativity and genius, sometimes following Nietzsche [139, 141, 144] and eugenics (Francis Galton) [141] even if she later diverged from the latter’s definition of the ‘abnormal’ as meaning mental illness.

In the ‘Afterword’ [147-151] the loop is looped as Clark stresses that Havelock Ellis used the life of the Chevalièr/e d’Eon to coin the word ‘Eonism’ and develop the idea of one’s changing individual nature and sexual variation. Clark also sums up the argument of each preceding chapter and announces the point of her next book, still in the field of the history of mentalities, in particular in connection with human nature and the notion of the fragmented self. Let us hope it will prove as interesting as this one.


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