Rachel Schulkins - Keats, Modesty and Masturbation. Review by Brian Rejack
Illinois State University
One can’t help but feel slightly immodest when carrying around a book titled Keats, Modesty and Masturbation. While engaged in reading the book in question, this humble reviewer unabashedly displayed it on his coffee table, which resulted in a non-academic friend regarding it—and by extension, its reader—skeptically, perhaps even accusatorily (the response: “yes, of course this is the kind of thing we do in academia!”). But fear not, gentle readers; Rachel Schulkins’s book will not betray your delicate sensibilities. What it will do is educate you on a significant aspect of the history of sexuality in the Romantic period and offer readings of Keats’s romances (and some shorter poems) which challenge and productively expand the scholarship on Keats and gender.
To begin, the term “masturbation” during the Romantic period denotes something not quite as specific as it does today. Instead of referring primarily to “stimulation, usually by hand, of one’s genitals for sexual pleasure” (thanks, OED!), there was a broader discourse at work two hundred years ago. As Schulkins demonstrates in her first two chapters, debates about (especially female) sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fit into larger political debates about liberalism and conservatism, with greater freedom of sexuality associated with the former and the ideal of female modesty associated with the latter. Those debates frequently collapsed the distinction between masturbation as abuse of body and as abuse of mind: “masturbation was connected with a phantasm created in the private sphere of the mind rather than with sheer physical gratification” (62). And it’s this sense of masturbation—the rejection of public modesty and subsequent embrace of private imaginative pleasures, not necessarily physical ones—with which the book is mostly concerned. Schulkins argues that Keats takes up the figure of the “masturbating girl” in order to critique the conservative orthodoxy which views women as devoid of sexual desire and as sexual subjects only for the purposes of the social good (childbearing) or the private pleasures of men. By portraying sympathetically the masturbating girl (Isabella, Madeline, “La Belle Dame,” and Lamia are the core figures of the book’s central chapters), Keats enters into the broader liberal/conservative political debate, defending the notion of female pleasure. Of course, his female heroines do not fare too well in matters of the heart. But as Schulkins notes, those failures help “reveal his criticism regarding the conservative construction of the female as passionless” (3). Even though the women fail to experience sexual pleasure in a free and open manner, “they, as an act of passive resistance, turn to imagination to gratify those desires, suppressed under the principles of romance” (69).
Schulkins offers compelling readings of those romances and demonstrates rather convincingly the extent to which they might be read within the historical sexual and political debates she outlines in the book’s opening chapters. In addition to contributing to the robust scholarship on Keats and politics, Schulkins’s book also participates in a growing body of work on Romanticism and sexuality (Daniela Garofalo’s Women, Love, and Commodity Culture in British Romanticism (2012) and David Sigler’s Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism (2015) are two recent monographs which cover some similar territory). But within those broader critical contexts, Schulkins seems most invested in speaking to existing work on Keats and gender. She describes recent criticism on the topic (work by Margaret Homans, Anne Mellor, and Susan Wolfson in particular) as united in the assumption that “the poet tries to silence and appropriate the feminine in order to establish a masculine poetic self” (6). Schulkins turns to Keats’s dismissal of Elizabeth Montagu and the Bluestockings, a passage from a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds which critics often cite as evidence of Keats’s “poetic-misogynistic tendencies” (8), and instead she claims that “Keats’s dismissal of female authors and readership is not gender-related but rather a political and social criticism aimed against the traditionalist notions concerning women and sex” (9). While her recuperation of Keats’s attitudes toward female sexuality as more positive and progressive than typically understood is an admirable task, it seems ultimately doomed to fail if it means trying to absolve Keats of any hint of misogyny. The book certainly expands how we might think of Keats’s attitudes toward women (for example, Schulkins does persuade that Keats understands sex and gender issues in political terms). But does this expansion need to also eliminate the possibility that some misogyny on Keats’s part is also at play? Surely it can be the case that his insults aimed at the Bluestockings are both politically motivated and misogynistic in nature. Can we really separate the two when misogyny has to do with deeply seated cultural attitudes, not merely with individual psychological conditions? When Schulkins writes that “if Keats resented female writers altogether, he would not have admitted his liking for [Katherine] Philips’s work,” it’s a bit like claiming you can’t possibly be misogynistic because you have so many female friends (or perhaps binders full of them). Again, there’s much to be admired in the expansion of how we might read Keats in relation to gender and sexuality. Schulkins is most convincing when demonstrating Keats’s critique of the conservative approach to female sexuality. But surely Keats is at the same time capable of misogyny. Allowing for that complexity might make his defense of a liberal view of women’s sexuality more intriguing precisely for its self-contradictory nature. Nonetheless, Schulkins’s study remains impressive and valuable for many reasons, not the least of which are the situating of Keats’s poetry in political and social debates about sexuality, the readings of Keats’s romances in that context, and the contributions to several areas of Romantic scholarship more broadly and to Keats scholarship in particular.