Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Gender, Neutrality, and the Nursing Father in Pratt's Emma Corbett

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Gender, Neutrality, and the Nursing Father in Pratt's Emma Corbett

Article excerpt

Because Samuel Jackson Pratt's sentimental epistolary novel, Emma Corbett, or the Miseries of Civil War (1780), explores national feelings about the American Revolutionary War, much critical conversation about this transatlantic tale has been focused on Pratt's depiction of the war as well as on his own national alliances.1 Critics have also examined the ways that men should appropriately behave in times of war or, conversely, how they should not act.2 Emma Corbett represents masculine conduct in terms of reason and sensibility, and the novel codes these elements as masculine and feminine, respectively. However, masculinity in Emma Corbett is not represented dichotomously: men do not have to act solely with reason or entirely eschew sensibility. In fact, I argue that Pratt explored a variety of gender identities in a process that linked proper masculine hybridity, a hybrid of balanced feminine and masculine sides, to psychological balance, political neutrality, and domestic efficacy. To feel, to show emotion, was a sensible, "manly" quality, but, as the novel shows, sensibility needed to be tempered lest a man become too emotional or effeminate. Patriotic feeling, as Emma Corbett reveals, functions as perhaps the most powerful emotion in need of regulation precisely because it can lead men either to behave effeminately or too emotionally.

As a novel interested in what it means to defend and to feel for one's nation, Emma Corbett is a story of a family torn apart because of its disparate political affiliations. Set in both England and America, Emma Corbett tells the story of Charles Corbett, a self-described American expatriate (and one who avidly supports the American fight for independence) living in England with his family: his daughter, Emma, and his son, Edward, who goes to America to fight and to defend his land. Edward's wife, Louisa, and her brother, Henry Hammond, are also a part of Corbett's family, and it is Henry, a staunch defender of the British cause, who falls in love with Emma. Thus, the "civil war" denominated in the novel's subtitle refers to how these "brothers," Edward and Henry, differ in their national allegiances, but also to how Emma's love for Henry causes a familial and ideological rift between her and her father. Both Henry and Edward go to America out of their respective patriotic duties, and their sweethearts respond to their absences differently: Louisa remains in England while Emma follows Henry across the Atlantic. Robert Raymond, Charles Corbett's friend and desired suitor for Emma, also follows these lovers to America, but he does so because he loves and desires to protect Emma. Raymond's role in the novel is an important one because he can ultimately heal the wounds created by civil war, and because he is the only character who can successfully care for the Hammond and Corbett babies, both of whom are left parentless as the novel concludes.

The subject positions of the principal male characters, Corbett, Hammond, and Raymond, and their conduct in relation to the war, are defined through their relationships to Emma. Central to how these three men are connected to one another are Emma and her body. I argue that Emma is used as a cipher upon which each man projects his national feelings, as well as his sentiments about the war. As a cipher and channel for masculine emotion, Emma is used to demonstrate that the nursing father, the neutral patriarch who exemplifies the proper balance of sensibility and reason, is to be preferred to merely sensible, poetic men and to dutiful, soldierly ones, and is worthy of supplanting even women such as Emma herself. As Dror Wahrman argues, "inadequate gender identities fused together the harmful consequences of civil war both in disrupting family relationships and in disrupting identity categories."3 As this paper discusses, Emma, Hammond, and Corbett all in one way or another demonstrate "inadequate gender identities," which ultimately makes them ineffective in reinstating peace in the aftermath of war. …

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