Manly desire: Sexual economy in English narratives, 1748-1771

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Felicity Nussbaum


English literature, masculinity, sexual roles, Eighteenth century

Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles


My dissertation argues that eighteenth-century England's emergence as a commercial and a bourgeois society creates a crisis in masculinity, especially in connection with male sexual desire, which is reflected in central literary works. In contrast to current understandings, I suggest that commercial and bourgeois ideologies are concerned at once with legitimating and with elucidating specific moral limits to men's "passions." This new vision of English manliness arises in part out of difficulties associated with men's relationship to commerce and to consumerism. In pre-capitalist classical, Christian, and civic humanist discourses, the virtuous man severely limits his desires both economically and sexually: both the desire for material possessions and sexual desire have affinities to "luxury" and may be imagined as producing "effeminacy."

The dissertation focuses on narratives by Tobias Smollett, John Cleland, James Boswell, and Laurence Sterne, then, to contend that the intense mid-eighteenth-century debate about English manhood, which is framed primarily in terms of the constitution of the "English national character," involves the articulation of a properly managed male sexual desire. Writers increasingly attack a range of sexual practices identified with aristocratic Englishmen and with "foreign" effeminacy as inconsistent with the masculine English character. Heterosexual men who overindulge in sexual pleasure, narcissists (particularly the consumer of foreign fashions), and sodomites, for example, are regarded as effeminate. Sexual aggression toward women, though manly, is viewed as a remnant of a less civilized stage of the English past. Mid-eighteenth-century male writers, therefore, define an exclusively heterosexual male desire that is neither aggressive and "barbaric," nor overindulgent and effeminate, which softens, refines, even "feminizes" men without rendering them effeminate in a commercial and a "civilized" society. By creating a status-based taxonomy of eighteenth-century male identities, then, I argue that the emergence of a new category of Englishman, marked as exclusively heterosexual and capable of regulating the sexual desire that signifies his virility, signals an important shift in the social construction of masculinity and a narrowing of the range of acceptable masculine styles.


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