Filial Piety in C & P

Kacy Dowd Tillman

University of Tampa

I taught The History of Constantius and Pulchera in my upper-level undergraduate course, “Crossdressers, Coquettes, and Libertines.” Thirteen students (primarily English majors) and I read it the second week of class to prepare to study fiction in the long eighteenth century, namely The Power of Sympathy, Charlotte Temple, The Coquette, Wieland, Ormond, Female Quixotism, and The Female Marine.  At first, the students did not believe me when I told them what they could expect from Constantius and Pulchera.  Crossdressing? Near-cannibalism? Shipwrecks? Bears? To a group of people who thought all early American literature read like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this was an interesting, scandalous, and surprising text.

When I first assigned Constantius and Pulchera, I imagined addressing a couple of issues in class: I thought the students would be fascinated, as I was, with the idea of gender performance in the eighteenth century, and I thought they might be interested to know more about the historical, political, and cultural contexts that might have inspired the anonymous writer to feature a crossdressing heroine.  The students had read and discussed Lisa Logan’s “Columbia Daughter’s in Drag” and learned about Marjorie Garber’s third term.  They had (briefly) been exposed to the notion of gender as unstable and, per Logan’s argument, had entertained the hypothesis that eighteenth-century narratives featured crossdressing characters because they indicated a “category crisis elsewhere,” a “displaced cultural anxiety that may or may not be about gender itself” (Logan 241). Part of this anxiety could have centered on “another form of self-fashioning undergoing rapid change during this time period – authorship” (Logan 242). So, I hoped that Constantius and Pulchera would introduce the class to issues concerning gender and authorship in literature of the early American republic.

My students, however, were not as interested in those issues as they were about discussing filial piety, a fact I discovered when I read the 500-word blog responses that they posted before coming to class.  In my introductory lectures, they learned that Revolutionary rhetoric often compared the war to a fight between a parent and child.  They also heard that novels written during the Revolution were likewise concerned with parent/child relationships, which have caused some critics to read those works as thinly-veiled political treatises.  In retrospect, then, I should have been ready for the students to focus on Pulchera’s defiance of her father’s mandate that she stay away from Constantius. Almost all of them either wrote about his forbiddance or her willful disobedience or both. The class as a whole was surprised that this story did not follow the pattern of the seduction novel; although most disobedient young women in these narratives stray from their families, get pregnant, and die, Pulchera, my student Ali noted, “was not obedient to her father, [but] avoids dying in the end, unlike many of her literary peers.” Genna wrote that she was sure Pulchera was doomed when she rejected Le Monte, but was shocked when “what would usually be [her] downfall” was transformed into a “positive trait.” Giuli suggested that Pulchera’s defiance early in the text gave her “power over her body” and was a necessary step before deciding to crossdress later in the text.  Most wanted to make sense of this failed father-daughter relationship in light of the American Revolution. We cannot ignore the political overtones in the story, Kristin argued, especially when Pulchera’s father says, “Remember you are under my government, and that my will is your law.”

Not all agreed that Pulchera’s story was one of defiance and mastery.  Lauren, for example, pointed out that the heroine returns to heteronormative ways by the story’s end:  “When at last Pulchera is reunited with her true love, she is once again placed into his hands and at his will.  By marrying Constantius, she is allowing herself to become domesticated and is safely placed back into her delicate gender role as a wife.” In the end, then, our conversation came back to the performative nature of gender, as I had hoped, but only once we thoroughly explored the father-daughter relationship (and its political overtones) that the students felt took precedence in the narrative.

In the class wrap-up on the last day, the students informed me that Constantius and Pulchera was an appropriate “gateway text” for exploring issues such as consent, marriage, gender, filial piety, and Revolutionary politics, which all came up again as the semester progressed.   They pronounced it a keeper, and I agreed.

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