The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative: Conditional Pleasure from Spenser to Marvell

The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative: Conditional Pleasure from Spenser to Marvell

The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative: Conditional Pleasure from Spenser to Marvell

The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative: Conditional Pleasure from Spenser to Marvell

Synopsis

Although theories of exploitation and subversion have radically changed our understanding of gender in Renaissance literature, to favour only those theories is to risk ignoring productive exchanges between 'masculine' and 'feminine' in Renaissance culture. 'Appropriation' is too simple a term to describe these exchanges - as when Petrarchan lovers flirt dangerously with potentially destructive femininity. Spenser revises this Petrarchan phenomenon, constructing flirtations whose participants are figures of speech, readers or narrative voices. His plots allow such exchanges to occur only through conditional speech, but this very conditionality powerfully shapes his work. Seventeenth-century works - including a comedy by Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley, and Upon Appleton House by Andrew Marvell - suggest that the civil war and the upsurge of female writers necessitated a reformulation of conditional erotics.

Excerpt

While browsing through a card shop just before Valentine's Day a few years ago, I noticed a valentine with a photograph of a pre-Raphaelite painting on its cover. In the painting, a medieval woman with a cloud of golden hair bent fervently to kiss the hand of a knight who had clearly just slain the dragon now lying behind them. Half of a red lance protruded from the dragon's side, while the other splintered half remained in the knight's now-quiet hand. Because something about the card seemed out of kilter, I took it down to look inside. No surprises there: “You're My Knight In Shining Armour. Happy Valentine's Day.” The problem was that in the painting, the knight was gazing quietly over his lady's shoulder, as though at some invisible complication or heaviness. Only when I looked at the back of the card did I learn that the 1898 painting by Mary F. Raphael (fl. 1889-1915) was titled Britomart and Amoret. I felt as though someone were teasing me - or perhaps (since I did not know the sex, sexual orientation, politics, or education of the card-maker who had paired Raphael's painting with that tag to form a valentine) it was my private pleasure rather than one I shared with someone else. To a card-maker who had not read The Faerie Queene's third book, with its bold heroine disguised as a knight in armor, the name “Britomart” would not necessarily look feminine, would it? Given that the card shop's valentine display clearly assumed heterosexuality and that the card's message did not announce itself as anything other than timeworn, I imagined an unsuspecting female customer buying the card for her guy. She would thus be sending an erotic message far more complex than she had intended - or than he would be likely to receive. This was a delightful game, yet I did not even know whose it was. Which two figures did this armored dalliance engage? Britomart and Amoret? (In the poem, after all, Amoret does not know at first that her rescuer is a woman.) Spenser and Britomart? An employee of the Marcel Schurman card company and myself? Myself and another purchaser? Mary . . .

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