I spent much of the past month teaching Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a great novel that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve already written about teaching the novel, so I won’t write about that again here.
Instead, I want to write a little about a different aspect of Fielding’s writing. He was born in 1707 in Somerset, where the first part of Tom Jones takes place. Upon completing his education, he moved to London to pursue his literary career. At first, Fielding concentrated on being a playwright, but his politics and the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 put an end to those aspirations. He continued to write, publishing prose works in various journals and pamphlets.
In 1746 he published “The Female Husband,” a prose work retelling the story of Mary Hamilton, who had become infamous for cross-dressing, passing as a man, and marrying/seducing a series of women before being caught and punished.
I didn’t teach this story in my eighteenth-century lit class this term, but I love teaching it in general. The piece begins with some editorializing by the narrator, presumably Fielding:
THAT propense inclination which is for very wise purposes implanted in the one sex for the other, is not only necessary for the continuance of the human species; but is, at the same time, when governed and directed by virtue and religion, productive not only of corporeal delight, but of the most rational felicity.
But if once our carnal appetites are let loose, without those prudent and secure guides, there is no excess and disorder which they are not liable to commit, even while they pursue their natural satisfaction; and, which may seem still more strange, there is nothing monstrous and unnatural, which they are not capable of inventing, nothing so brutal and shocking which they have not actually committed.
Of these unnatural lusts, all ages and countries have afforded us too many instances; but none I think more surprising than what will be found in the history of Mrs. Mary, otherwise Mr. George Hamilton.
Scholars have written about this narrative’s place in the history of sexuality, so what I’m about to say about this excerpt isn’t necessarily all that original. But I’m fascinated by this passage’s assumptions about sexuality. The first sentence, for example, seems to advocate for something that’s beginning to resemble the modern ideology of heterosexuality. According to Fielding, God has instilled within all people a “prosense inclination,” a natural propensity, toward the opposite sex. (Hetero)Sexual desire is thus natural, according to this opening sentence.