The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative &ampEngland, 1680-1750

August 5, 2010

Mining the depths of late-17th- and 18th-century English novels for insights into the cultural and political turmoil of the era is standard practice for scholars; however, in her new book, The Protestant Whore, Alison Conway provides a welcome slant on this line of enquiry. Taking as her starting point a phrase attributed to Nell Gwyn, who, when confronted by an angry mob in Oxford in 1681, is quoted as saying: "Pray, good people, be civil: I am the Protestant whore", Conway explores the courtesan narrative in works pertaining to the religious and political conflicts of the reigns of the last Stuart kings. In the process, she provides detailed readings of novels by Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding in context with contemporary narratives on the reception of royal mistresses. The result is a fresh look at the ways in which notions of whoredom were invoked during this period to illustrate crises of cultural conscience and to critique government.

Conway writes: "Among literary historians, examinations of the intersection of Protestantism and gender have tended to focus on prose fiction's investment in female virtue as a source of cultural authority. In attending to the power-hungry courtesan, I highlight an alternate modernity, one that stresses Hobbesian imperatives rather than those that shaped conduct books."

Referring to the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, Conway uses what she terms the "'chronotype' of the boudoir" as a basis for her study. She draws upon mistress-related pornographic satire, political tracts, court manuscript poetry, memoirs and plays, identifying common elements of the courtesan narrative in them. She then discusses the appearance of these elements in popular fiction.

The lives of the royal mistresses that she particularly considers are those of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth; Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland; Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin; Lucy Walter; Nell Gwyn; and Sarah Churchill. She focuses her discussion in large part on how, to the English citizenry, these women represented nexuses of their anxieties about corrupt political power and Protestant and Catholic influence upon rule.

Regarding the novels, Conway analyses Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684), Defoe's Roxana (1724), Richardson's Clarissa (1748) and Fielding's Tom Jones (1749). She calls Behn's Love-Letters "a courtesan narrative that contemplates the political ramifications of religious conviction and the role that sexual knowledge plays in the shaping of a national history". For Roxana, she observes that Defoe draws on "popular representations of both Louise de Keroualle and Hortense Mancini" as well as Gwyn, creating a courtesan figure who, thanks to her Huguenot roots, ultimately identifies herself as a Protestant whore, one who is ever attentive to her economic progress.

The characters Clarissa and Lovelace, Conway suggests, represent "idealized and perverse forms of monarchical ambition", which ultimately defeat each other "in their quests to impose their singular visions on each other", thanks to a new social and sexual realism. Perhaps most intriguing of all, Conway explores how Tom Jones himself becomes the Protestant whore, as he consigns himself to Lady Bellaston and declares his loyalty to the Protestant cause - "it is the cause of common sense".

Ultimately, Conway notes that the iconography of the Protestant whore shows her (or him) to be many things: a Restoration court agent; a political observer; a propagandist; and an entrepreneur. At times representing the interests of the court and at other times the interests of the people, the Protestant whore provides authors with an instrument both tragic and comic through which to illustrate their anxieties about the period.

Admirably, Conway avoids the pitfall of oversimplifying the notion of the Protestant whore as she traces the sometimes subtle tracks of this figure through the novels in question. She remains mindful of the complexity of the discourses in which the authors engage, tracing their occasional changes of opinion as she contextualises the novels with commentary about each author's body of work.

On the whole, Conway takes what on the surface seems a rather simple concept, that of the Protestant whore, and elegantly unravels the political and religious discourses embedded within this figure in these novels.

The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative & Religious Controversy in England, 1680-1750

By Alison Conway. University of Toronto Press. 304pp, £42.00 ISBN 9781442641372. Published 1 August 2010

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