Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

THIEVES, BAWDS, AND COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY FANTASIES: The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

THIEVES, BAWDS, AND COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY FANTASIES: The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Article excerpt

This is an essay about a failed polemic. In 1662, bookseller William Gilbertson offered his patrons the anonymously written Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly called Mal Cutpurse. Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry Disposed Persons. In this work, readers found a shocking transformation. Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, had metamorphosed from the rebellious imp of Renaissance stage and street culture to a royalist heroine and counterrevolutionary whose life emphasized the perils of public interactions voided of principles of obligation and duty. Not only did the late Stuart period produce the majority of biographies on Frith, but all three of the extant biographies emphasize Frith's royalism. As late as Alexander Smith's version of her life, published as part of his A Complete History of the lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Shoplifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes (1714), Moll appears as a cavalier champion in contrast to Oliver Cromwell, the "Arch-traitor" (149). Smith even embellishes the earlier biographies' presentations of Frith's royalism by fabricating an episode in which she is "known" to have accosted and robbed the Parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax on the road to Hounslow Heath (142-43). The emphasis on Frith's political disposition, however, proved not to be enduring. For by 1722, just eight years after Smith's work, Daniel Defoe used Moll Cutpurse as shorthand for Moll Flanders' deft pick pocketing, describing her as "dexterous, as ever Moll Cut-Purse was," without any apparent reference to her political reputation (175). The question is why did late Stuart loyalists undertake this peculiar transformation in the first place?

I argue here that Mary Frith emerged in 1662 as a Royalist heroine because her life as a member of the "meanest of the Commonality," focused key aspects of the ongoing debate about political rights and the public sphere in ways that few other figures could (Lilburne). In the end, Frith's social status, her notorious outlawry, and her sojourn as a bawd-three things that should have eliminated her as a candidate for cavalier champion-were vastly over-shadowed by her devotion to preserving a traditional sense of property as movable wealth and the homosocial circuits of exchange along which that property circulated. For these are the features of Frith's life that the Gilbertson biography (the longest of the 1662 versions) consistently offers as evidence of Moll's devotion to king and country. In so doing, the Gilbertson biography offers us rare insight into the political stakes underlying the late Stuart period's use of sexual satire.

To say that The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith surmounts its heroine's social status and various unsavory occupations is not to say that those biographical features failed to pose challenges to the work's writers, however. Indeed, that Frith's biographers managed to cut from the cloth of her life a cavalier heroine is truly remarkable. So much so that we can really only understand how and why they may have undertaken such a project by turning to the biography's "deep" cultural context in the 1640s and 1650s, when public debate about government and civic relations reached an unprecedented din.1 For among the obstacles Frith's biographers faced was a widespread antipathy, entrenched over two decades, to accepting plebeian participation in public political debate. As English political life erupted in the civil wars, individuals from virtually every social station felt authorized to exhort, cajole, plead, inveigh, or otherwise persuade those who held the reigns of power. For many, this appropriation of ancient aristocratic privilege raised serious questions about whether England could sustain both a plebeian public sphere and stable government. Political radicals and sectarians typically viewed such participations as part of the "natural" liberties with which every Englishman was endowed (Macpherson 137-59). …

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