Men Behaving Badly

Laura Rosenthal
University of Maryland

Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins, 2009) asks us to reconsider the meaning and origin of the modern English gentleman. Erin Mackie argues that while many critics have explored the ways in which the modern gentleman gets defined against dangerous and untrustworthy men who seduce, rape, and pillage, a closer look will demonstrate how much these figures share. Critics have concentrated on the differences between, say, the sentimental Bevil Jr. in Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (1722) and earlier leading men like George Etherege’s Dorimant, who considers any day a failure when he hasn’t caused a lady to destroy a fan; ultimately, though, in Mackie’s view “the creation of an illicit space underwrites prestige and enshrines many of patriarchy’s privileges” (4). The emergence of polite culture constitutes less of a break from the past than a change in direction: “cultural arbiters such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele sought not to discard ideals of refinement associated with the aristocratic elite but to reorient them toward what we would call aesthetic standards unmoored from any specific status milieu” (10). As Mackie elaborates throughout the book, however, this “unmooring” is never complete, and piratical cousins scaffold the privileges of the most polite gentlemen.

The prospect that libertines and pirates underwrite privileges granted to men of feeling is intriguing and generative. This connection comes across most convincingly near the end of the book when Mackie turns to Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). As Mackie points out, Burney populates her novel with male types from Restoration drama: the fop, the rake, the crude seaman; the gauche Cit; the aspiring gentleman; the sleazy libertine, and the perfect gentleman. Mackie demonstrates how understanding this variety of masculine types helps to reveal the depth of violence in the novel and that “the novel forwards nothing more insistently than the fact of female vulnerability to male power.” When Captain Mirvan and Sir Clement Willoughby team up to attack Evelina and Madame Duval, they echo well-established, linked figures of the rake and the highwayman, revealing a persistent trope, in Mackie’s view, that doubles outlaw and respectable versions of masculinity. As Captain Mirvan terrorizes Madame Duval outside the carriage, Willoughby similarly terrorizes Evelina within. These faux highwaymen are in turn echoed by a potential real highwayman—the one that Macartney is about to become when Evelina, thinking he means to kill himself with those pistols, stops him. Mackie reads the exposure of these connections as part of Burney’s cultural revaluation, revising patriarchal power through the “absolute authority of the sentimental subject” (150). In this context, Lord Orville becomes a self-consciously proposed female fantasy vision of male perfection, combing the best elements of aristocratic and bourgeois ideals. Mackie argues against critics who see Lord Orville as thus absurd or diminished: “his considerable value and substance derive precisely form the powerful feminine forces that find in them their complement and validation” (173).

Mackie is at her best in this book when she brings these intriguing cultural tensions to bear on a close reading of a literary text, especially when, as in her reading of Evelina, she shows how these brutal figures from history and legend become doppelgangers for characters who at first glance seem only mildly out of line. She is less convincing, however, in the kind of protest that frames the project. In her opening argument, Mackie suggests that the rake figure “differs from the other two figures [highwaymen and pirates] examined in this book precisely because his outlaw status is often overlooked even as his elite prestige is assumed” (36). The use of the passive voice here disguises an elision that never entirely gets fully addressed: who is overlooking the rake’s outlaw status? Sometimes it seems like Mackie is referring to a critical establishment that has conspired to forgive rakes, but is not convincing on this point: true, John Harold Wilson writing in 1948 indeed sounds rather old-boyish, but Michael Neill, Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker, and Harold Weber offer more nuanced arguments than Mackie is willing to grant, and in themselves do not account for the full range of criticism produced about this period.[1] They do not, as Mackie implies, simply align themselves with the antifeminist side of a crude ethical binary that “forgives” male misbehavior. Other times, however, it seems like her condemnation of rake forgiveness is directed toward eighteenth-century figures, which raises a different set of problems: here and throughout the project it is often not entirely clear whether she is referring to historical figures who perpetrated actual violence or literary characters who recall those men. John Gay’s The Mohocks (1712), for example, in Mackie’s view “transform[s] the vile criminality of these youthful assailants by highly stylized parody and satiric irony. Ultimately, the Mohocks’ riots are excused as a species of genteel, youthful frolic” (57). So who are the youthful assailants in question? Are they the historical Mohocks, who might have been an urban legend to begin with? Or are they the characters that Gay creates, who are representations and thus not really capable of violence, at least on their own? Is it ever permissible in literature to create figures that are both alluring and despicable? With its turn to the passive voice at key moments and its strangely moralistic edge, Mackie’s criticism is occasionally hard to distinguish from complaints against theater by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners that flourished in the early eighteenth century.

In spite of some undertheorizing, however, Mackie’s central point—that the gentleman is not the opposite of the rake, highwayman, and pirate, but that these figures shadow him and support his privilege just as he supports theirs, as least in literary manifestations—still stands and serve to illuminate a range of cultural and literary texts. Indeed, Mackie offers one of fullest versions that we now have of masculine “types” in this period. Her work shows not just the violence that underwrites the privilege of respectable men, but also productively, though imprecisely, challenges a certain strain of critical fascination with glamorized outlaws that has become popular in recent years. In contrast to a particular kind of revisionist embrace of the pirate, Mackie astutely observes, “parasitic on the very merchant navy they refused, pirates expose, even as they mimic, the aggressive self-assertion and ruthless greed of early modern global capitalism” (147). If other critics have naively or even exploitatively proposed that rakes, highwaymen, and pirates defy the emergent commercial and sexual system, Mackie points to the other side of these figures to show how their apparent defiance depends on patriarchy and capitalism. In doing so, she makes a good case that we should think twice before letting ourselves be seduced by them.


[1]  Mackie cites John Harold Wilson, Court Wits of the Restoration (Princeton, 1948); Michael Neill, “Heroic Heads and Humble Tails: Sex, Politics, and the Restoration Comic Rake,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 24, no. 2 (1983): 115–39; Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World (Cambridge, 1987); Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1992); Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000); and Harold Weber, The Restoration Rake-Hero: Transformations of Sexual Understandings in Seventeenth-Century England (Madison, 1986).