Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Princess Seraphina and the Transvestite Escapades

The Age of Enlightenment brought with it a huge fad for the masquerade. Where else could you, for one night, be something you were not? And get totally trashed in the process. Harlequins, dominos, and shepherdesses were some of the most popular costumes to grace the party halls. Another popular costume? The queen. Not the kind with a crown.

Masquerades also allowed those who never felt comfortable in their own bodies to try out the clothes of the opposite sex for a night. In fact, every masquerade could be a chance to enter public in drag and not be ostracized. The masked balls had a reputation for lasciviousness to begin with; some only went to get laid, and this went for those seeking the same sex as well. In fact, to be blunt, they tended to be parties full of horny people. So what was a little cross-dressing?

In France, the Chevalier d'Eon became a famous transgender person who was also a spy. She sported both elegant gowns and her dragoon uniform. You could put money into a betting pool at the London Stock Exchange whether you thought she was a woman or man. She fenced like a man but walked like a woman.

That brings us to Princess Seraphina. Back in these dark ages, gay men were yet to be referred to as "queens," they were merely "princesses." They have apparently moved up in rank. Princess Seraphina is the first recognized English drag queen in history. That means that like the drag queens of today, Seraphina was out and about in public regularly as a female. Even when she wasn't in drag people called her Seraphina. It was her identity. She was a servant for a "molly" (another term for a gay male) and hustled on the side a bit. But drama erupted in 1732 when a Tom Gordon stole Girlfriend's clothes and then threatened that if she charged him he would accuse her of sodomy. Well, that didn't scare Seraphina she sued him (yay!) but lost (boo!). Interesting enough, the clothing was her male garb.

But I do not bring this up because drag queens are funny or "hot tranny messes". Crossdressers, homosexual and gender dysmorphic people have been around forever. But here we see a time and a place in western civilization where it is beginning to be okay for them to be themselves in public. We also see a gay culture developing with "Molly Houses" (gay clubs) being established and sexual relations more easily found. Of course, as with most developments in the 18th century, these advancements in Enlightened thought were dashed in the Victorian age and had to be re-established in the 20th century.

To end this expose, I would like to close with a excerpt from a witness at the trial. Elizabeth Jones' account gives you a little glimpse into how others reacted to Seraphina as a transsexual in the 18th century:


"I saw the Princess Seraphina standing at Mr. Poplet's Door. "What, have you been robb'd, Princess?" says I, "Has Tom Gordon stripp'd your Highness stark naked? An impudent Rogue! And yet, Ma'm, I think, your Highness had better make it up with him, than expose yourself, for some say it was only an Exchange." "Why," says he, "at first I would have made it up, and taken my Cloaths again, but now it's too late, and I must prosecute, for those that were concerned in taking him up, expect their Share in the Reward, and won't let me drop the Prosecution."



[Rictor Norton]

7 comments:

Polonaise said...

Love this post! I have a couple of books on 18c sexual deviance, black sheep and the like, but they make no mention the Princess. Is there a book you know of/have that you can recommend that includes her? I also am interested in the masquerade experience, as well as the variety of costumes it spawned. Thanks for taking us for a walk on the wild side.

Heather Carroll said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I haven't found her in any text, I just came across her trial on the site listed at the bottom. Good timing too because the state of CT just legalized gay marriage today, so yay for that!

I keep planning on writing on the masquerade, seeing how it's very important. These plans began at the commencement of the blog and have yet to happen. If only I could get my own copy of Aileen Ribierio's dissertation, which was just fascinating when I read it.

Polonaise said...

Oooo...do you mean The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England...Fancy Dress in Portraiture? It's a great read and so many wonderful pictures. I was thrilled to bitty-bits when I *finally* found a copy about three years ago. I had been looking in every moth-infested used book store for 15 years and no luck. One of the aspects I like best about it is the time spent on male costumes, which usually get short shifted. I can't imagine why--I just love a man with hair powder!

To veer even more off the subject (I'm notorious once I get started), I'd recommend Terry Castle's Masquerade and Civilization if you haven't yet come across it. A dry read, but pretty wide in its approach to masquerade in fiction and society. There are just too many books! If I had a nickel for all the hours I've spent drooling at Amazon....

Anonymous said...

If you're interested in a largely fictional portrayal of Princess Seraphina, check out the second episode of the British TV series, "City of Vice" (first season available on DVD). Set in the 1740s, the show follows city magistrates Henry and John Fielding(yes, the same Henry Fielding who wrote "Tom Jones")as they attempt to establish the first professional police force, the Bow Street Runners, in London. The Fielding brothers find themselves plunged into the underground society of the "Mollies" during an investigation of a prominent clergyman's murder. The show features real historical figures (the Fielding brothers, Bow Street Runners, Princess Seraphina) in fictional situations, but it provides a fascinating and unusually bleak portrait of London in the mid-18th century.

Heather Carroll said...

Thanks for the tip! I wasn't aware of that but now I am definitely curious.

Rictor Norton said...

There is an extensive section on Princess Seraphina in my book Mother Clap's Molly House, (first published in 2006, but 2nd edition pub. last year) available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. This was the basis for my article on her at my website, cited by Heather.

Heather Carroll said...

So sorry Rictor, I posted your site but I totally forgot you had a link to your book
on there as well! ...Which is on my wishlist, because it sounds absolutely incredible.