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Perhaps best known as a heavily plotted novel of Wollstonecraftian commitments, Mary Robinson’s fifth novel, Walsingham, or the Pupil of Nature (1797) has gained prominence since the 1990s, when the growing critical interest in gender subversion, and especially cross-dressing, made these elements of its plot freshly appealing. Walsingham supports many of Wollstonecraft’s arguments about the desirability of gender equality, implying that a talented woman, offered a classical education and access to capital, might be as accomplished and virtuous as anyone else so long as she can pass for a man.[1]

Walsingham stages two scenes of “Romantic Spectacle” in its third volume, wherein our hero Walsingham Ainsforth attends a pair of masquerade balls in London. At the first masquerade, Walsingham mistakes his date Amelia for his adopted sister Isabella, with whom he has been in love. At the second masquerade, Walsingham accidentally has sex with Amelia—or, more accurately, has sex intentionally, but with Amelia accidentally, again mistaking her for Isabella. When he awakes the next morning to discover his error, he finds that has indeed made a “spectacle” of himself—and that he has landed in a sticky situation that will demand from him something altogether new.

Walsingham remains confused throughout the narrative; his inability to interpret the events around him leads him to despair, violence, and even attempted suicide. But the novel has not often been read as detailing a crisis of subjective experience; the recent criticism on Walsingham has instead focused on the novel’s cross-dressing antagonist,[2] the strangely insistent and menacing “Sir” Sidney Aubrey, a trend which has produced a sustained and always fascinating discussion of the novel’s progressive political commitments and especially its implicit feminist message. Although this novel has usually and productively been studied from the Foucauldian-inspired theoretical perspectives associated with Judith Butler and Terry Castle,[3] I have found Jacques Lacan’s alternative terminology useful for understanding Walsingham’s combinations of the spectacular and the desirous. Especially in his early work on the imaginary order, Lacan was a profound theorist of both phenomena; what is more, psychoanalysis in Lacan’s view exists to expose and undermine the cultural myths of the late eighteenth century (Seminar III 8; Seminar VII 70). When we focus on Walsingham’s subjective experience as he enters an alien set of social expectations, rather than Sir Sidney’s graceful social “passing” (just as the novel itself does), Robinson’s exploration of gender subversion becomes more complex, less immediately satisfying, and less straightforwardly heroic than has been previously acknowledged. Read with reference to Lacan’s interlocking theories of castration and the spectacle, Robinson’s novel suggests the difficulties inherent in transitioning from imaginary to symbolic logic, and indeed exposes an unsettling gap between these systems. Read with regard to this gap, Walsingham seems less like a novel about gender subversion and more like one about the gradual crystallization of conventional sexual identity. The novel, in this reading, reminds us that “there’s no queering the law” because “[f]rom the eye of Omnipotence there are no secrets hidden!” (Robinson 249, 488). A Lacanian perspective on Walsingham, then, should not compromise the novel’s status as a radical Jacobin novel of Wollstonecraftian commitments; all the same, it should provide a way to anatomize the difficulties implied by political resistance, and allows us to better understand how the imaginary order, acting as an engine for the spectacular, might at once provide a temporary refuge from the demands of patriarchal culture and a snare to entrap the subject in embarrassing and unheroic situations. We will still be able to read Walsingham as a thoroughly political text, while nevertheless tempering our enthusiasm for the political consequences of gender subversion by showing that the novel’s preferred escape routes from patriarchal authority so often prove to be awkward and embarrassing traps.

By “imaginary,” Lacan means the ego’s tendency to identify with images, including images of itself, making relations essentially specular (Seminar I 116). Far from providing an heroic escape route from the logic of patriarchal culture, in these unfortunate cases the ego, rather than the unconscious, speaks for the subject, ensnaring and entrapping her in passionate rivalry and violent confusion. Lacan calls the ego “a master of errors, the seat of illusions, the locus of a passion proper to it, one which leads essentially to misunderstanding . . . [because] misunderstanding is precisely its function” (Seminar I 62-63). It seems to me that Walsingham’s many misunderstandings emerge precisely from this seat: as he admits upon arriving in London, “[t]he events of the last month appeared like illusion,” and consequently “there lives not a being, whose conduct through life has been more frequently marked with error” (Robinson 203, 372).

By offering readings of the novel’s two masquerade scenes from Walsingham’s perspective within the imaginary order, and then tracing Walsingham’s confusion into the symbolic, this essay will seek to explain how (and why) Walsingham makes a spectacle of himself as he enters the very scene of social spectacle. We will find that Walsingham’s lingering in the imaginary—a product of his having made a series of specular identifications—establishes the conditions of his further humiliation even as it establishes the conditions for his eventual entry into the symbolic order. In attempting to forestall sexuation and even derive a certain enjoyment from its forestallment, Walsingham in effect reinforces the phallus and eventually bows to its demands. Robinson’s novel thus presents a thorough exposition of Lacan’s assertion that “the jouissance of which the subject is . . . deprived is transferred to the imaginary other who assumes it like the jouissance of the spectacle” (Écrits 378).

For the first two volumes of the novel, Walsingham has pursued his sister Isabella despite having consistently claimed not to harbor sexual feelings for her. Having been driven out of Glenowen by embarrassment, ridicule, and a refusal to stop pursuing his sister romantically, Walsingham flees to London in a sort of self-imposed exile. Immediately upon arriving in London, he meets Amelia Woodford, the daughter of his new landlady. Although Walsingham does not notice the resemblance at first, when Amelia dresses for the masquerade in the guise of a Welsh peasant he notes that “[s]he resembled, fatally, strikingly resembled, Isabella” (Robinson 261). Walsingham seems to have found himself in a rare but welcome circumstance, a situation that many people who love their sisters as much as he does might well relish: Amelia is exactly like Isabella in every regard, except that she is interested in Walsingham sexually, claims to love him, is not being courted by the nefarious Sir Sidney, and, best of all, is not commonly perceived to be Walsingham’s sister. London might well have been the city of brotherly love for Walsingham. But Walsingham is instead unsettled by the minimal difference between Isabella and Amelia, nervously admitting that he feels “wounded by jealousy, neglected by scorn! I recollected Amelia’s strong resemblance to Isabella; I shrunk—I trembled!” (Robinson 262).

Walsingham and Amelia attend the first masquerade together; there, Amelia, coincidentally dressed as Isabella, declares her love for Walsingham. Walsingham rejects her advance, claiming to love another. He does not admit, probably wisely, that this “another” is his sister, nor that he is unable to tell the two women apart. But he does note to himself, and to Rosanna, that “I started as though I had seen a spectre . . . [because her disguise] concealed every dissimilarity, and she was the exact counterpart of Isabella” (Robinson 270). He admits that “I gazed like an idiot . . . contemplating the perfect resemblance of that divinity whose fascinations were yet unbroken” (Robinson 270). Rapt in the terror of confusion, Walsingham thinks he hears Isabella’s voice. He searches for Isabella but, in addition to concluding that Isabella had not been there, he also concludes that “[n]othing was to be found like Isabella” (Robinson 272)—a statement which, under these circumstances, seems both inexplicable and incorrect. Seeing a row of coaches and fearing that the real but not present “Isabella” might be escaping, Walsingham opens the carriage door to find Amelia, understandably upset at the ill humor of her date, heading home angrily without him. Walsingham does not hear from Amelia again until he finds “her” at the second masquerade.

Amelia, dressed as Isabella, is more than an engine for uncanny effects. In her very similarity to Isabella, she provides Walsingham with a pleasurable rehearsal of childhood fantasies but with a twist, arriving with familiarity from a structural place hitherto unknown to Walsingham. As Lacan would put it, here “the resemblance comes from the real,” and indeed “the real is [sometimes] what introduces the same”; it slices open the claustrophobic confines of Walsingham’s imaginary-order perceptions and allows him to construct a fantasy that will serve as the basis of his subsequent desire (Seminar IX 23.5.62 XXI: 5, 30.5.62 XXII: 4). The real dislodges Walsingham’s desire from what had been a repetitive circling around the image of Isabella, producing within Walsingham’s narcissism a structural disruption that will inevitably lead him toward the Other. Walsingham is forced to accommodate into his psychic life a fragment of the real, opening and extending his desire. Amelia, in presenting Walsingham with the image of his demand, heralds the appearance of signification and the arrival of the libidinal drive.

Because sameness and equality are valued above all else in the imaginary, even minor differences are there thought to be unjust. In saying this, I do not mean to assert that these injustices are not present in reality or rightly experienced as such: rather, I am saying that the imaginary order comes to structure social injustices and determine how they can be perceived. In the imaginary, differences between subjects are either collapsed or accepted with resentment, and, as Bruce Fink reminds us, “everything is played out in terms of but one opposition: same or different” (The Lacanian Subject 84). Calling a social injustice imaginary, for Lacan, neither implies that situations are “illusory” nor unreal (Écrits 290); rather, it means that actually existing injustices can be evaluated only according to a framework of “same or different” (indeed, such seems to provide the logical basis of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman). The psychic consequences of such a narrow interpretive system can be devastating in their own right. In particular it tends to produce rivalry, jealousy, persecutory delusion, and the impulse to flee—all of which abound in Walsingham.[4] For instance, even as Isabella seems poised to reveal Sir Sidney’s secret to Walsingham (“I have a world of wonders to disclose,” she promises), Walsingham perceives his circumstances with confusion and seeks escape, concluding only that “I must quit this scene of enchantment . . . and fly from that magic which has too often fascinated and beguiled me” (Robinson 441). It is this impulse to flee which had earlier landed Walsingham in London for the masquerades.

The scenes of masquerade—and the lure that Amelia extends—is for Walsingham situated on the imaginary plane, which we know because Walsingham describes it as “a somber similarity, which levelled all forms and features to one gloomy mass of insipidity” (Robinson 273). At these events, though, he begins making a difficult transition into the symbolic field: he describes himself as “[a]lmost unconscious of what I was doing” (Robinson 275). At the first masquerade he begins searching for Isabella somewhat more directly, instead of focusing on his rivalry with Sir Sidney. Or, more accurately (considering that Isabella is hundreds of miles away), we might say that he begins searching not exactly for Isabella so much as for the mysterious Isabella-ness that seems to exceed Isabella personally. It seems that he can find that lost Isabella-ness almost anywhere, and thus he discovers the Freudian lesson that one libidinal object can be easily substituted for another. Seeing this, Walsingham recoils, terrified. But it is too late for escape; Walsingham has already been coaxed into the symbolic. For the first time in the novel, Walsingham interprets his world not as a mesh of interwoven similarities and differences but rather as a series of signifiers, linked one by one in a chain to an inaccessible master signifier and held together, however tenuously, at specific anchoring points. As he explains, “Miss Woodford was amiable, lovely, and accomplished.—I could have loved her sincerely, tenderly; but the image of Isabella was placed by destiny as a centinel before my heart, forbidding every other object to find access even for a moment. Such is the perverse nature of our sex . . . every instance of contempt, adds a new link to the chain which enthrals us” (Robinson 248). In my reading, the action of this masquerade allows Walsingham to oscillate between “the image of Isabella” and “the chain which enthrals us”: Walsingham is disoriented as his desire is being rerouted through the unconscious—that is, through language—rather than narcissistically from ego to ideal ego. That is, in Walsingham the spectacle afforded by the masquerade allows Walsingham to stop being “a creature of the spectacle,” to borrow Douglas Collins’s designation for those long entrapped by imagistic ego identifications, and become a phallic desirer (Collins 10).

Whereas, according to Lacan, phallic subjectivity forms itself as such through pursuit of the objet a, imaginary subjectivity has no such “cause” and forms its structures “before” the law, desire, and the phallus. I am arguing that, at the first masquerade, Isabella is becoming the cause of Walsingham’s desire, not simply an occasion for his jealous enjoyment. It seems appropriate, then, that when Walsingham’s wallet is stolen shortly after the first masquerade (“my own lamented pocket-book, purloined,” Walsingham exclaims [Robinson 281]), we learn, upon his receiving it back emptied of its money, that it has borne Isabella’s initials. The itinerary of the purloined wallet perhaps implies that a metonymic version of Isabella has begun circulating in the symbolic from Walsingham’s perspective. This is precisely the pattern of sexuation that Lacan describes as “phallic”: seemingly heterosexual sex, under this rubric, can only be an elaborate and commodified form of masturbation, as there can be no sexual relation under these guises. By the end of the novel, Walsingham will declare the ultimate motto of phallic jouissance: as he says, “[t]he fever of the mind, like that of the body, presents the greatest peril when it attacks us amidst the plenitude of enjoyment” (Robinson 490).

Walsingham, having so long based his psychic life around identifications made on the limited basis of a single trait, is especially prone to errors of conflation. Amelia is a perfect occasion for Walsingham’s resexuation, as she is at once available to circulate both in the imaginary (as Isabella’s clone, according to the imaginary rubric of sameness/difference) and symbolic (as The Woman qua symbolic Woman, whose main concerns are courtship, honor, marriage, and social approval). Even as Amelia often enunciates the concerns of the imaginary subject, she brings Walsingham to pose questions of phallic jouissance to himself, including, “Could I look forward to enjoyments?” (Robinson 350). The phallic desirer will always have difficulty in answering this question, and indeed pursues the object a as a way to deflect the pure jouissance of the real. After the first masquerade Walsingham experiences jolts of enjoyment from partial objects such as voice, breast, and gaze; for instance, he notes that “a voice struck my ear with electric force” (Robinson 273).

The second masquerade is in many ways a repetition of the first. Walsingham dons a new disguise but frames his experience specifically as a repetition, again and again employing the word “again”: he wonders if “I should again meet the woman who was now almost an object of abhorrence . . . Again a disguise was provided, and again I flew to the scene of folly and intrigue” (Robinson 284). In his confusion we can detect signs that Walsingham is alternating between perceiving the world at the imaginary level (everything, including partygoers and social events, is still being evaluated only according to the rubric of sameness and difference) and the symbolic (as Walsingham has now identified an “object of [his] search” that is also its cause [Robinson 285]). As before, everyone at the second masquerade might as well be Isabella, or, omitting the “as”, might wellbe Isabella in relation to his desire: as he explains, “I fancied that I saw and heard, at least, a dozen Isabellas. Every pretty figure, every soft voice, seemed to mark the object of my search” (285).

Although the first masquerade is a decisive moment for Walsingham, in that it introduces a cut in the imaginary order through which he will proceed as a speaking subject, this transition must nevertheless be long, gradual, and inconsistent. The early pursuit of the objet a makes the subject all the more likely to fail to recognize erotic objects in their singularity. Amelia states the central principle of the phallic jouissance: in her words, “[t]here is only one sort of love, but there are a thousand different copies of it” (367). According to Lacan, “it is to the extent that the object can be substituted for this totality, to the extent that the image of the other can be substituted for the subject, that we enter properly speaking into symbolic activity” (Seminar VI 11.2.59 10). This is exactly what happens to poor Walsingham—and, more tragically, Amelia—at the second masquerade.

The action of the second masquerade is frenzied, to say the least. Encountering Sir Sidney there, Walsingham enters into a bitter argument with his cousin. In anger, Walsingham grabs “Isabella” and absconds with her. Walsingham, drunk, is now especially crazed (“I no longer recollected our situation,” he admits), violent (“My alarm was terrible: I concluded that, in the violence of my frenzy, I had struck her head against the carriage”), and regressive (he ducks back into the imaginary, acknowledging that “I knew not where I was; the image of Isabella still predominated”) (Robinson 290). Falling at the feet of his “sister,” Walsingham seduces her—or perhaps even forces her—into sexual intercourse.[5]

Here even the most generous reader—one who would not have been shocked to learn that Walsingham has just bedded his sister, or even one who would have readily accepted the possibility that, in his confusion, Walsingham had bedded the seemingly male “Sir” Sidney at long last—must now face the limits of her credulity. As chapter 52 ends, Walsingham is having sex with Isabella. When he awakes one paragraph later at the start of chapter 53, we discover, as he does, that his lover has really been Amelia. While it might seem possible that Walsingham could have been disoriented enough at the first masquerade to mistake his date for his sister (considering their general resemblance and Amelia’s Welsh peasant costume), the notion that Walsingham has mistaken Amelia for Isabella even unmasked, even naked, and even during the act of sexual intercourse, only to recognize his error immediately in the morning, seems baffling. Such, however, is exactly Walsingham’s situation. “The sun rose,” he notes, and “I beheld,—not Isabella—but the unfortunate Amelia! My anguish was complete!” (Robinson 290). Amelia will henceforth speak only as the symbolic Woman—the very one that Lacan alleges not to exist—seeking to be desired, married, and respected by Walsingham. But Walsingham, realizing his error, refuses to marry Amelia, reasoning that “I could not offer her an honourable union; and I shuddered at the idea of destroying a gentle, fascinated girl, whose merit as far surpassed my pretensions, as her beauty did that of every other woman,—excepting Isabella” (Robinson 283). This shudder of Walsingham’s, I am arguing, accords well with Lacan’s motto for the phallic subject: “because inexplicably I love in you something more than you—the objet petit a—I mutilate you” (Seminar XI 268). That object-cause of desire seems to reside within Isabella and Amelia—and later Arabella, and later yet Sidney—indiscriminately.

In a sense, then, the spectacle that unfolds is not unlike “the celebrated tryst of the lovers at an Opera ball,” vaguely alluded to by Lacan: here, too, we find “[h]orror when they let slip their masks: it was not at all he; she neither, for that matter,” and consequently we can likewise assert with Walsingham and Amelia that here “there is no sexual relation” (Television 134). In a gesture not without its implicit and ironic devilishness, Walsingham begins to treat Amelia as his “sister” so as to try to desexualize their acquaintance (as he says, “I continued to visit Miss Woodford as my sister” [Robinson 296]). But Walsingham’s mistaken seduction of Amelia has thrown all of his social networks—however tenuous they have hitherto been—into jeopardy: “Poor Amelia!,” he laments, “Thy virtues were thy destroyers; for the strong resemblance which they bore to those which once embellished the mind of Isabella, not only bewildered my senses, but laid the foundation for every future sorrow” (Robinson 305).

As Walsingham faces the depths of his despair after the two masquerades, a nearby chambermaid comments upon his situation, saying “I think a is bezide himzelf, zure enough. . . . Dear lack! I shou’d never be able to bide in the house for fear of his haunting it” (Robinson 352). Walsingham has indeed long been “bezide himzelf,” having doubled his experience between the ego and ideal ego (he has formed his own ego in relation to its estimate and ideal counterpart, the frustratingly charming Sir Sidney) and indeed his presence has been a “haunting” in that, as the limit of the imaginary, he cannot participate in social institutions without baffling those around him. But at the masquerade balls “dear lack” intervenes (as Amelia, a personified irruption of the real) to force Walsingham into the symbolic order. This brings about a dramatic and surprising result: when he finally accepts the coming of the Other in the form of Rosanna, Walsingham’s imaginary-level identification with Sir Sidney dissipates even to the extent that Sidney seems to switch genders, suddenly offering herself to Walsingham as his lover and bride.

The symbolic-order explanation for Sir Sidney’s absurdly malicious, if polite, meddling is provided to Walsingham only at the very end of the novel: as the reader has very likely guessed from the novel’s unmistakable clues and general spirit of transparent equivocation, Sir Sidney is actually a woman, and has all along been in love with Walsingham. Complicating matters all the while, it seems, has been Sir Edward Aubrey’s will, which would divide its rich estate unevenly between his child Sidney and his nephew Walsingham on a series of conditional clauses that depend only on the gender of Sidney, still unborn as the will was drafted. Sidney has thus lived life disguised as a male on the advice of Mrs. Blagden and Lady Aubrey, in the hopes of inheriting Glenowen and sixty thousand pounds besides. Although in the last chapter we learn that Sir Sidney has died from an overdose of Walsingham’s laudanum, we afterward learn from Walsingham’s final letter to Rosanna that Sidney, somehow surviving, has married Walsingham, finally uniting the longtime nemeses. Equally strangely, we discover that Isabella, long the only source of inspiration and love for Walsingham, has married Walsingham’s young and annoying former student, the jive-talking and generally inconsiderate Lord Kencarth. But the ending is a happy one, against improbable odds, and the reader is left with the hope that Sidney and Walsingham—now very wealthy from their mutual inheritances—are poised to spend their lives together lovingly, whatever their previous differences. This ending is relatively safe and socially acceptable, in the sense that desire is shown to have been fully heterosexual and has been steered away from the temptations of fraternal-sororal incest. But Walsingham is a novel so deeply immersed in its family romance, so eager to explore the pleasures of incest, that it can only find safe resolution of its plot through the miraculous union of two first cousins raised as near-brothers in the same house, and can achieve this outcome only improbably, by means of a sort of Deus ex machina. Quite literally, the father’s will is upheld in the end, even if Sidney has had to dupe it for awhile. And Walsingham gets to partake in the phallic jouissance once properly oriented toward the objet a: as he remarks with relief, “Ah, Rosanna! Sidney Aubrey lives! . . . I am wild with the agony of joy:—it is an inexplicable sensation:— the soul which is not finely organized can never know it” (Robinson 495). These remarks are consistent with the argument, made by Freud in his Autobiographical Study, that “the process of arriving at an object . . . takes place alongside of the organization of the libido” (SE XX 36). Walsingham, libido reorganized, has accepted the law imposed by the Other; such is Walsingham’s “happy” ending. He has become a subject of the signifier and of the unconscious (“So deeply was I wrapped in thought, that I scarcely felt conscious,” he says [Robinson 474]).

Sir Sidney becomes Walsingham’s male rival not because of Walsingham’s psychic errors but rather as an effect of Edward Aubrey’s last will and testament. But from Walsingham’s flawed perspective there is no will to consider—Sidney is merely his male cousin, Lady Aubrey and Judith Blagden are inexplicably cruel, and Edward Aubrey’s cabinet contains merely an unknown secret with no obvious implications for future inheritances. In reading the novel from Walsingham’s point of view—such is, after all, the position that the novel encourages us to take in offering Walsingham as its narrator—we have considered both the psychic effects of entrenchment in the imaginary order and the stifling ineffectiveness of this position as a strategy for negotiating or understanding social injustice. In practice, this has meant not detaching the symbolic relations that the novel critiques from the imaginary perspective through which these relations have been expressed.[6] Read thus, Robinson’s novel suggests that the imaginary order provides a very problematic framework from which to interpret one’s social and sexual situation.

I hope to have suggested that Walsingham dramatizes a transition between modes of experience, that much of the novel’s plot stems from Walsingham’s entrapment in the imaginary, and that the novel is more invested in establishing characters within normative sexuated positions than enacting any sort of destabilizing gender trouble. Consistently humiliated and condescended to, Walsingham gradually learns how to desire “like a man” in the phallic style. This is not, in itself, a good thing: the phallic style of enjoyment is founded upon its own blind spots and problematic forms of misunderstanding, as is now well-known. The novel does not chronicle the triumph of the phallic jouissance so much as the travails of one problematic character finding the base to his psychic superstructure: as Lacan says, understanding “false-being” is not simply “a matter of an individual puffed up with the imaginary. It is a matter of something underneath [ie. language] which gives it its place” (Seminar XV 10.1.68 V: 6). Even in this committed Wollstonecraftian novel, it seems the phallus functions determinatively for sexuation, and that it reveals itself as a master signifier by making a spectacle of itself, diverting and channeling the subject’s desire, and indeed rearranging the very subject of that desire. But this grim (because typical) itinerary does not render Robinson’s novel any the less progressive: in exploring the psychic consequences of gender norms within patriarchal culture, and in acknowledging the social and economic benefits of complicity without ever justifying the logic of the patriarchy, Robinson’s novel reveals the force of the patriarchy (despite its unnaturalness) and suggests that sexual, gendered, and economic experience are interlaced through desire. The novel especially suggests that the subject is formed through the experience of the spectacle, and redeploys the entanglements of spectacle to insist that subjective experience reorganizes itself in the face of matters political and social.