Taking the Coquette Seriously

Tonya Howe
Marymount University

It is because discourse is systematic that it produces “room for maneuver,” and reading is the name of that maneuvering, out of which change can result.[1]

[C]ounterpublics [contest] the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public, elaborating alternative styles of political behavior and alternative norms of public speech.[2]

In Refiguring the Coquette: Essays on Culture and Coquetry (Bucknell, 2008), Shelley King and Yaël Schlick have assembled a provocative collection on a figure both central to the long eighteenth century and yet surprisingly under-examined: the coquette.[3] Grounded in feminist thought and cultural theory, the collection is organized around a central claim that the coquette richly exceeds or escapes the varied definitions used to make sense of her; it seeks to “refigure” coquetry, that is, by historicizing it. Here, the coquette is a powerful figure in the rise of capitalist modernity, speaking to and of the shift from aristocratic to middle-class modes of political and civic participation, from contractual to companionate models of matrimonial economy, from exteriorized to interiorized discourses of honor and virtue. As King and Schlick’s substantial introduction glosses it, the term “coquet” initially referred to skillful talk or verbal display—where gendered, it was gendered masculine. Throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries, coquetry was not rigidly gendered at all—it was as much the province of men as of women. The rise of the two-sex model of sexual difference inaugurated a new need to comprehend a kind of behavior increasingly at odds with bourgeois political economies of virtue. Over the course of the century, the coquette became a principally feminine identity that signaled disobedience to the truths of gender differentiation (17–20). Resisting the tendencies to essentialize gender identity, this collection—part of Bucknell’s Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Cultureseries—foregrounds the performative, the public, and the political tactics[4] through which the coquette comes into being. By denaturalizing what has become the conventional feminization of the coquette, this collection opens up a vibrant space in which the practices of coquetry can be read as oppositional.[5]

The first of three sections in Refiguring the Coquette opens with excellent essays on the material world of the coquette and the techniques by which she negotiates it. In “The People that Things Make: Coquettes and Consumer Culture in Early Eighteenth-Century British Satire,” Theresa Braunschneider points out that the coquette figures centrally in evolving discourses of gender and consumerism. Noting the astonishing prevalence of the coquette in early eighteenth-century British satires, she argues that the coquette functions as a sign of both modern bourgeois consumer culture and the anxieties it produces. Not only a consumer par excellence, the coquette is also a female consumer in a world increasingly driven by acquisition. Through a series of elegant close readings of early satires against the coquette—centrally, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, Anne Finch’s “Aredlia’s Answer to Ephelia,” John Gay’s “An Elegy on a Lap-Dog,” and essays by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele—Braunschneider registers the early century’s anxious response to the coquette’s seemingly insatiable desire to be admired, a desire that reads as at once sexual and consumptive. The coquette’s desire, detoured through things, blurs the line between subject and object, ultimately threatening the sociable and masculinist public sphere. In the early eighteenth-century cultural imagination, coquetry raises the specter of modern alienation; the coquette, rerouting intersubjectivity toward a kind of interobjectivity, suggests that a subject may well become the objects she consumes—or, at least, will prefer those objects to people. Taken to their logical conclusion, such satires suggest that the coquette imperils straighter economies of desire in which women might choose men, not silks, laces, and lapdogs.

Brenda Foley’s “The Masked Coquette: A Paradigm for the Eighteenth-Century Stage” similarly takes as a point of origin the period’s anxieties about women who seem to step outside their perceived place in patriarchal narratives of being and behavior. Drawing on the coquettish female characters in a range of plays, including work by William Congreve, John Gay, George Lillo, Nicholas Rowe, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan,Foley zeroes in on the ability of the façade to create meaning in excess of prevailing stereotypes. The trope of masking, which refers both to the dominant sense of concealment and to the broader connotations of bewilderment and uncertainty, provides a useful window on the tactics of coquetry that enable actresses to both resist reductive definitions of identity and more effectively negotiate a social order hostile to their agency. Given the well-documented fascination of the eighteenth-century stage with the play of appearance and reality, deception and revelation, insincerity and authenticity, Foley puts forth an innovative reading of masking that binds the coquette—a kinetic, versatile, and powerfully theatrical persona—with her material context into a “paradox of perspective” (69) that both decenters the spectator’s view and, notably, the ostensibly fixed sense of character as well. Trompe-l’oeil scene painting, architectural metaphors for women’s bodies, and the cosmetic powers of the coquette all work to stage powerful possibilities for transformation that evoke coquetry as a sign for eighteenth-century theater itself.

Opening the second section of the collection, organized around “The Perils and Politics of Femininity,” Tamara Wagner’s work relates clearly and coherently to both Braunschneider’s and Foley’s essays. In “The Decaying Coquette: Refashioning Highlife in Early Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing, 1801–1831,” Wagner elaborates on the metaphorics of the female-body-as-building as well as the symbol of the coquette as a danger to the structures of domestic life. What Wagner usefully terms the generational paradigm of coquetry developed in late-Romantic and Regency novels by Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth figures the aging coquette as both a sign of changing attitudes toward the eighteenth century and a foil to heroines who must prepare for their domestic roles. Belinda’s Lady Delacour, whose literally decaying body is a metaphor for the outmoded aristocratic moralities of the past, is finally reconstituted as a site of bourgeois domesticity, and in Pride and Prejudice, the aged Lady Catherine’s final irrelevance becomes a backdrop for the proliferation of new coquetries, themselves varyingly subject to domestication. The decaying coquette is further reimagined in the silver fork novels (Wagner focuses on Catherine Gore’s work) of the early Victorian period to evoke the degenerative effects of coquetry in an increasingly moralized, sentimental fashion. There, the coquette must learn when to leave off her empty flirtations and make the domestic choice, lest she become entombed in a crumbling edifice of the past. The flush of coquetry may have peaked in the eighteenth century, but as Wagner notes, it was no less fascinating for the popular middle-class readership of the early nineteenth century, for whom such images of the past worked to create new stories and new characters.

Like Wagner’s diagnosis of the nineteenth-century domestication of the coquette, Temma Berg’s “Un/Becoming a Coquette; or, ‘one Victim of Fancy Loves Another’” similarly explores the ways in which the figure of the coquette might be used, reconfigured, or given up. However, Berg is unique in drawing her analysis from the letters of Sylvia Brathwaite, a gentleman’s daughter writing of her life on the late eighteenth-century marriage market. Grounding her discussion of Brathwaite’s letters in post-structuralist approaches to epistolarity, Berg reads them as a collection of discourses that blur the line both between public and private and between the real and the imaginary (106), opening up a space to read coquetry as a tool. As a young woman subject to the demands of the marital marketplace and threatened by the solicitations of powerful aristocratic men, Brathwaite used the resources of coquetry, gleaned from popular novels and dramas of the day, to understand her position and assert her agency. The tactics of coquetry empowered Brathwaite, enabling her to control potentially dangerous situations and defer her choice. Yet, in her letters, she also draws on the indices provided by literary plots and characters to help her determine how to choose a husband and when to unbecome the coquette. In Berg’s analysis, as in the collection as a whole, the “flat predictability” of the coquette type “curves into unexpected roundness” (104).

The demands of politic behavior that shape Brathwaite’s use of coquetry also inform Sandro Jung’s analysis of the philosophical, Jacobin coquette. In “The ‘New’ Woman in the Late Eighteenth-Century Novel: Miss Fluart and Coquetry in Robert Bage’s Hermsprong,” Jung situates Fluart within existing discourses of gender and education at play during the Revolutionary context of the 1790s, specifically Mary Wollstonecraft’s constructionist critique of the Rousseavian idea of coquetry as an inherent feature of femininity. Rather than a reprehensible failure of education that prevents women from becoming socially responsible subjects, as Wollstonecraft argues, Bage’s vision of coquetry represents a radicalization of female identity that approaches the political. According to Jung, the French tradition of coquetry, which enables women of a certain financial independence to explore more fully their political power and intellectual voice, allows Fluart—whom Jung describes as Bage’s mouthpiece (134)—not only to assert her individuality but also to nurture the agency of other women within a patriarchal culture by helping orchestrate a happy marriage for her friend in opposition to the desires of the novel’s authority figures. The privileges of wealth give her extensive critical rein to deploy the courtly and theatrical elements of coquetry in the service of other women, creating what King and Schlick, in their introduction, term a “version of homosocial bonding” (30). Neither a libertine, nor a narcissist, nor purely a consumer, Fluart is a philosophical coquette who throws into relief the political inequalities of gender. Though coquetry thus becomes a means of “perpetuating the concerns of female liberation” (137), Jung ultimately concludes that Bage’s image of the coquette is ambivalent, as she is unable fully to integrate into the society she seeks to influence. Fluart fashions a persona that helps her maintain her own independence and create new conditions of possibility for others; yet, her agency depends on the continued ambiguity of her own social position. Neither conventionally masculine, nor feminine, nor revolutionary (134), the coquette remains somewhere else.

The third section concludes the book with a selection of essays on the role of coquetry in shaping discourses of masculinity. In “The Reform’d Male Coquet: Coquets and Gentlemen,” Herbert Klein draws on a wide range of British literary and dramatic texts to trace the changing sense of what it means to be a man throughout the long eighteenth century, examining the relationships between images of masculinity like the rake, the fop, the man of feeling, and the coquet. Like earlier essays that read the coquette as an individual increasingly—and problematically—outside of evolving heteronormative patterns of consumption and sexuality, Klein’s piece argues that the history of the male coquet is also a history of domestication. In the shift from aristocratic to bourgeois models of marriage, women sought potential husbands endowed with the virtues of the gentleman, including “moral seriousness and emotional reliability” (158), virtues that could secure the marriage without explicit contractualism. Given the demand for these new sureties of marital compatibility, sexuality needed precise reformation; the highly sexualized ideal of the rake was redefined as unmanly and even foppish by later standards, and the valuable traits of the effeminate man of feeling needed to become masculine. The new ideal of the gentleman—a reformed coquet, a serious yet still attractive potential husband—reflects these negotiations. Klein’s argument, which is particularly interesting when read with Wagner’s and Berg’s work on the purposeful reconfiguration of the coquette, suggests that coquetry is a fluid, malleable set of signs the meanings of which are not only always under negotiation but also dynamically interwoven with other, more visible and apparently static forms of masculinity.

Leslie Ritchie also employs the shifting figure of the coquet—or in this case, the male coquette—to illustrate the performative quality of genteel masculinity. Taking as her centerpiece the richly networked social and cultural contexts of David Garrick’s The Male-Coquette: or, Seventeen Hundred Fifty-Seven, Ritchie explores the relationship between gentility, taste, and performance. In this deeply researched essay, the male coquette, described by Garrick’s Tukely as crucially lacking “Manhood, Virtue, Sense, and Shame” (175), becomes a short-lived crucible both producing, exposing, and containing town gentlemen who claim the authority of taste as a function of genteel masculinity. Ritchie cites as a kind of ur-moment a 1752 brouhaha featuring the competing entertainments of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, a thrown apple, and a dodged duel, the fallout of which farcical altercation fed into the theatricalization of the male coquette. Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, the gentleman of taste and defender of John Rich’s notoriously popular novel entertainments, pitched the infamous apple at Garrick’s actor Henry Woodward and became the prototype for Daffodil, the titular Male-Coquette. Frequent targets of caricature, Fitzpatrick and his compatriots sought in their criticism of the stage to define the limits of taste and the shape of a certain sort of masculinity; Woodward, who specialized in playing gentlemen, came under special fire because of his fluid, often mocking portrayals of gentility that, as Ritchie says, “expanded and occasionally transgressed the boundaries of recognizable theatrical masculinities” (168). By 1757, Garrick and Woodward became less inclined draw for their parodic performances on theatrical masculinities recasting, however ironically, the image of the gentleman; instead of types like Bucks and Fribbles, they constructed the novelty of the male coquette to reveal as false the intersection of good taste and genteel masculinity. Garrick and Woodward’s male coquette, who cultivates reputation without substance, inconsistently performs the traits of the honorable gentleman, in contrast to the actor, who is increasingly defined by his education as just that (179). Woodward’s effectiveness as Daffodil, a highly metatheatrical character that eludes typecasting, was dependent on his unique ability to play the gentleman, thereby exposing the similar, but ultimately ineffective because poorly acted, performances of so-called “real” gentlemen. For Ritchie, the brief life of the male coquette consigns to the dunghill of history the model of genteel masculinity as the natural site from which authoritative taste emerges.

The final essay in Refiguring the Coquette, Jonathon Shears’s “Byron the Coquettish Narrator” departs from the section’s emphasis on masculine gentility but returns to the verbal prowess of the coquette explored in King and Schlick’s introduction. Seeing the coquette as principally one who arouses desire without the intention to gratify it, Shears explores coquetry as a game of seduction, delay, and flirtation between Lord Byron and his reader. In this game, the pleasures of deferred consummation are at once erotic and interpretive, subject and style. In coquetry, a public space is required for the game to function, and Byron’s narrative voice similarly creates a performative textual space of playful display and exchange. Byron’s narrative strategies take shape through Georg Simmel’s work on the productive social ambiguities of flirtation, which holds out both the promise of consent and refusal. What Shears terms Byron’s “narrative coquetry” (202) is achieved through strategies of digression and metrical and rhythmic delay. Flirtation in this sense suggests a self-referentiality that causes the reader to acknowledge the formal structures of the telling, rather than sinking into the tale. Such self-aware strategies allow Byron to position his reader as a suitor, maintaining a distanced control over the textual experience to create pleasure in the Simmelian sense of both having and not-having. This game, however, is only productive in the absence of the sense of an ending, as in Lara,where the rules of the game are always being remade and the reader is kept from imagining an end however provisional. When the textual space becomes overdetermined—when the subject of coquetry takes over the style, as in Shears’s analysis of Don Juan—the reader no longer wants to attempt the conquest of meaning; the rules of the game become known, the end becomes apparent, and the game is no longer a true game but an empty series of turns that must be navigated to reach the end. By stopping rather than ending, Byron forestalls this false coquetry and allows the narrative to coquet without end.

In these essays, the coquette emerges as less a unitary subject position and more a subject position characterized by the tactical, oppositional negotiations necessary to gain purchase in an exclusionary public sphere. This collection offers a richly productive nexus from which the many images and acts of coquetry can be explored; indeed, a monograph featuring one critical voice, one argument, one perspective would in some sense be antithetical to the project of refiguring the coquette. While the emphasis here is definitely on the Anglophone British context—despite several gestures toward Continental traditions and the broader cultural concerns of the Bucknell series—this small weakness does not compromise the collection’s contribution to the study of a fascinating and largely ignored figure. King and Schlick’s Refiguring the Coquette opens a significant oppositional space where we can start taking the coquette (a bit more) seriously.


[1]   Ross Chambers, Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative (Chicago, 1991), 18.

[2]   Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, 1991), 109–42, 116.

[3]   At the risk of falling into the very assumptions this volume seeks to problematize, I will use—in keeping with the title of the collection—the feminine form “coquette” unless specifically referring to masculine models of coquetry. The problems posed by slippages in the language of coquetry are not insignificant, however, and they contain much room, in Chambers’s words, for maneuver.

[4]   The distinction between strategies and tactics made by Michel de Certeau and expanded by Chambers are useful for understanding the potential counterpublicity of coquetry. According to Chambers, “Oppositional practices . . . are a matter of tactics as opposed to strategies. Strategy . . . is the privilege of those who are masters of the terrain of action; tactics the resource of those who must take advantage of momentary circumstances and chance opportunities to further their ends” (65).

[5]   For Chambers, oppositional practices are “survival tactics that do not challenge the power in place, but make use of circumstances set up by that power for purposes the power may ignore or deny.” Though essentially conservative, it “has a particular potential to change states of affairs, by changing people’s . . . ideas, attitudes, values, and feelings, . . . ultimately manifestations of desire” (1).