Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Boys Will Be Boys: Masculinity, Criminality, and the Restoration Rake

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Boys Will Be Boys: Masculinity, Criminality, and the Restoration Rake

Article excerpt

1.

As a transgressive, even criminal figure, the rake has achieved a culturally mythic outlaw status he shares with other Restoration and eighteenth-century types such as the pirate and highwayman. (1) As those characters do, the libertine rake embodies problems of masculine authority and authenticity endemic to modernity. His progress from the mid-seventeenth century through the early eighteenth century charts shifts in the values that address these problems: from court-based prestige to civic respectability; from the affirmation of the sovereign's privilege to the celebration of the sovereign individual; from hierarchical to oppositional models of sexual difference; from character as the expression of performative mastery to character as the expression of subjective integrity. As the bases of masculine authority and prestige shift they take with them much of the ground on which elite license staked its claim. The rake's outlaw status, then, is generated by what remains to him after the assault on his prestige by emerging reconfigurations of the polite gentleman and the foundational notions of subjective authenticity that underwrite them. And what remains is a kind of allure both outdated in its association with the pre-1688 Stuart world and updated in its revision around privileges authorized more immediately by gender than by status. For while society may no longer so overtly defend status and class privilege, the privilege of outlaw masculinities is preserved where gendered exceptionalism cashes in on the prestige value handed down through a history of status elitism. Boys will be boys still; their hijinks and their trespasses against decency and civility, even against the law, countenanced by conventions of (previously aristocratic) masculine privilege established in the early modern period.

The glamour of the rake and his outlaw brothers is fabulous and residual, colored by a nostalgia for a kind of fully approved license already becoming outdated by the late seventeenth century, and yet one that through the centuries has retained its currency in fantasies of masculinity. So in the early nineteenth century, Charles Lamb comments on the idealized denizens of the rakish beau monde: "They break through no laws, or conscientious restraints. They know of none. They have got out of Christendom into ... the Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom." (2) In the twentieth century these mythic outlaw types, such as the pirate, the rake, and the gentleman highwayman, enjoy a distinguished place in literary and historical studies appreciative of their stylistically masterful brand of individuality and radical independence from social conventions. (3) In part, the dream for this particular brand of liberty has its origins in notions of absolute individual sovereignty that arose even as absolutism came under assault in the political sphere. A law unto himself, the outlaw rake asserts the ultimate aristocratic privilege of sovereign will and so, in Rochester's words, as a "peerless peer," the right to lord it over everyone. (4)

Perhaps paradoxically, this assertion of aristocratic privilege above the law generates both the criminality and the glamour of modern outlaws just as it produced both the indictments against and the nostalgic allure of the Stuarts. Indeed, the notorious "frolics" of those "savage nobles" at Charles II's court set a standard of fashionable masculinity that, though under steady assault from social and cultural reform, retained potent cultural currency after 1688 and through the next century. (5) So in the 1690s, following what had become the laughably predictable formula for rakish hijinks, Jonathan Swift in A Tale of a Tub mocks the three brothers' aspirations to stylish hooliganism. Although initially untutored in the ways of the big city, they quickly began to improve in the good Qualities of the Town:

   They Writ, and Raillyed, and Rhymed, and Sung, and Said, and Said
   Nothing; They Drank, and Fought, and Whor'd, and Slept, and Swore,
   and took Snuff: They went to new Plays on the first Night, haunted
   the Chocolate-Houses, beat the Watch, lay on Bulks, and got Claps:
   They bilkt Hackney-Coachmen, ran into Debt with Shopkeepers, and lay
   with their Wives: They killed Bayliffs, kick'd Fidlers down Stairs,
   eat at Locket's, loyterd at Will's. … 
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