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.

But — and it’s a big but — Fielding still posits a pre-modern view of non-hetero sexual desires: once we “let loose” our “carnal appetites,” once they have burst the (presumably) God-given regulatory straps of prudence and order, there’s no telling what we might do sexually, including have sexual relations with members of our own sex. Once these bounds are broken, “there is nothing monstrous and unnatural, which they are not capable of inventing.” Goodness!

So, according to this passage, well-ordered heterosexual desires are natural and God-given, but these desires quickly become monstrous and unnatural if we transgress prudence and order. Once this happens, there’s nothing our minds and bodies won’t think about doing.

What seems to interesting to me in this passage is that what’s constructed as natural so quickly becomes unnatural. Our propense inclinations move from one object to a different kind of object in just the matter of a sentence. While this rapidity is exactly what Fielding is trying to demonstrate in this essay, I think it’s interesting that “heterosexuality” is so fragile in this view.

It’s just like all of the Republicans and evangelical preachers who keep getting caught in public men’s rooms and in male prostitution scandals. It seems to me that one’s heterosexual propensities are only really at risk of becoming something else when they aren’t really heterosexual to begin with. I don’t know if Fielding intended to show this fact, but I think this text is positioned right in the middle of English culture’s transition from a view that everyone and anyone could indulge in sodomy at a moment’s notice (provided the moment was the “right” moment, if you get what I mean) to one that identified certain kinds of people as prone to same-sex desire. In “The Female Husband,” Fielding seems to want to have it both ways, just as John Cleland does in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published just a few years after this story.

What’s sad, I guess, is that some 250 years later people (i.e., evangelicals and Republicans) are still having this conversation — is sexual desire natural only when its heterosexual and is everyone prone to homosexual temptations or just homosexuals? The current evangelical ideology has to say it believes that anyone can be tempted into gay sex acts at any moment because otherwise they would have to admit that homosexuality is innate or at least unchangeable. As long as they continue to preach this and thus fall victim to the closeted men who can use their ideology to gain power and money, then they’re going to continue to be plagued by revelations of their pastors and representatives with the pants down and enjoying “corporeal delight” with other men.

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