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Heather Ellis Foppish Masculinity, Generational Identity and the University Authorities in Eighteenth-Century Oxbridge Abstract This article aims to bring Oxford and Cambridge back into the debate about elite masculine socialization in eighteenth-century England. The ancient universities in this period are too often described by historians as bastions of moral stability and man making. Here, a more complicated view of the universities’ role in shaping the identities of young men in the eighteenth century is presented, which takes into account the significant effect of rising student ages, generational and class tensions. In particular, the article traces the characteristics and development of foppish masculine styles among Oxbridge undergraduates, highlights their opposition to book-learning and academic regulations, and analyses the increasing suspicion which they incurred from the university authorities against the background of the American and French Revolutions.
Keywords: Oxford; Cambridge; universities, masculinity, fops, eighteenth century Historians working on masculine identities in eighteenth-century England, if they deal with the universities at all, tend to treat them rather unproblematically as bastions of moral stability and loyalty to the establishment, whose only role in shaping young men was to reproduce uncritically a rather ill-defined ideal of masculinity, based on what Philip Carter has termed ‘the traditionally manly attributes of reason or sense.’1 If we look, however, at accounts of university life produced at the time, by university-based commentators and undergraduates, we hear of debauched and decadent student subcultures, where foppish Heather Ellis and immoral behaviour prevailed, and the cherished role of Oxford and Cambridge as manmaking institutions was called into question.2 Part of the responsibility for the lack of attention paid to student subcultures in the eighteenth-century universities arguably lies with the recent dominance of gender history in the eighteenth century by the cultural historical emphasis on mixed-sex sociability and urban settings. As a result, single-sex, rural or semi-rural settings like the university have been largely ignored as sites of masculine socialization. This has been compounded by an increasing tendency to view the Enlightenment itself primarily as a cultural movement, to be studied with an emphasis on cultural practices, once again in mixed-sex, urban and continental settings. While universities as centres of intellectual thought used to be central to studies of the Enlightenment, when it was generally treated as an intellectual movement, they have received significantly less attention in recent years. Historians need to look more closely at the specific cultural contexts and dynamics of the university environment. As predominantly single-sex institutions, it is perhaps easy to assume that the inculcation of masculine values went on relatively peacefully, uninterrupted by male-female conflict. Yet, as the work of Alex Shepard on concepts of manhood in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Cambridge highlights, there existed what she terms a well-established student ‘counterculture of violence and excess’, modelling itself on the libertine character of court life, and characterised by excessive drinking and fighting.3 This article explores the continuing development of this student counter-culture against the background of the Enlightenment. Just because the attention of historians has shifted to the great urban centres, most importantly, London, does not mean the universities should be left out of the story. As it will show, a marked feature of student life at the eighteenth-century universities was a flourishing foppish subculture, in which masculinity was increasingly defined in opposition to the book-learning and academic regulation of the universities. Instead, students’ masculine self-fashioning drew increased inspiration from the aristocratic coffee-house and salon culture of the capital (in contrast to the world of the Heather Ellis court in the seventeenth century), and indeed, from the great cities of Europe, particularly Paris. Far from being remote, rural bastions of moral stability producing ‘men of sense’, Oxford and Cambridge deserve to be considered as an integral part of eighteenth-century sociability.
More than this, though, it will argue that important changes affecting life at the universities over the course of the eighteenth century, above all rising student ages, and the background of the American and French Revolutions led long-standing countercultural behaviour among the student body, in particular, the donning of unorthodox fashions, excessive drinking and violence, to assume dangerous political overtones and to stoke unprecedented class conflict within the universities themselves. In this way, the traditional function of the universities as man-making institutions was called into question, and the university authorities took action, predominantly through curriculum and examination reform, to stem the tide and bring the increasingly self-conscious and confident student body back under their control.
Oxford, Cambridge and English masculinity Carolyn Williams' discussion of Oxford and Cambridge in the context of eighteenthcentury English masculinity provides a good example of the prevailing view of the universities as bastions of moral manliness in this period. In her study, Pope, Homer and Manliness, she claimed that 'the most popular method of instilling manliness in eighteenthcentury England was a classical education.’4 For Williams, the production of the 'man of sense', characterized both by intellectual achievement and moral probity, was a long and arduous process available only to the privileged few. ‘Manliness', she wrote, 'operate[d] at the intersection of intellect and character, where clear thought [wa]s achieved by a deliberate effort to cleanse the mind of prejudice, and the resolve to speak and act rightly [wa]s supported by sound reasons based on examination of all available evidence – a process...requiring years of study.’ ‘Even the sketchiest knowledge of educational Heather Ellis opportunities' at the time makes it clear, she concluded, 'that manly understanding was reserved for a privileged minority.’5 At the public schools and universities, adolescent males could be moulded carefully into 'men of sense' over the course of several years in what she describes as 'an atmosphere of wholesome masculinity.'6 In these institutions, boys and young men were ‘subject...to strict surveillance and discipline from conscientious
the universities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For him, they hardly changed at all, seeming to have been little affected by the urban culture of politeness and sensibility.
'Their schooling and further education at university...was the foundation of the gentry's patriarchal command of English society'8, he wrote. 'The fierce inculcation of the classical curriculum was the core of an overall process of hardening, of teaching self-control and endurance as the basis of a sophisticated form of manhood.'9 This view of the universities as bastions of unchanging, traditional elite manhood is largely based on a study of conduct literature. A similar interpretation is offered in the most recent and comprehensive study of gentry masculinity, and one, which focuses in part, on adolescent masculinities, carried out by Mark Rothery and Henry French. Despite the advantages they gain in terms of personal subjectivity by focusing on family correspondence, like Williams and Fletcher, they allow the universities’ reputation as a successful site of traditional elite masculine socialization to remain unquestioned, considering them ‘a valuable staging-post in the development of masculine independence.’ ‘University life’, they write, ‘helped to resolve the tension between parental control and masculine autonomy by providing a regulated environment distant from familial authority, but also one in which surveillance by seniors was still possible.’10 In her important work on concepts of manhood in sixteenth and seventeenthcentury Cambridge, Alex Shepard perceptively observes that, the universities’ ‘political, religious, intellectual and architectural significance has been privileged above their Heather Ellis exploration as sites of socialisation, social relations and everyday life.’11 The situation is similar in the eighteenth-century historiography. Historians of masculinity in eighteenthcentury England have been more concerned with studying the lives of men in urban settings, particularly in the city of London. This forms part of a much broader development over recent decades to re-conceptualize the eighteenth century as an era of sociability, fashionable metropolitan culture and consumerism. This valuable and necessary revision has largely been the work of cultural historians, many of whom were, in the first instance, contributing to an important feminist critique of the Enlightenment. Scholars such as Dena Goodman rightly criticized the tendency of historians to present the Enlightenment uncritically as ‘part of a mythical history of masculine reason said to begin with the Greeks and to move triumphantly through Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, to culminate in Kant, Hegel and modern science.’ To combat this influential grand narrative, feminist critics of the Enlightenment seized on the new cultural history for its ability (in the words of Goodman) to ‘shift attention away from ideas and texts as the products of masculine reason and male genius and toward those practices and institutions in which women figured centrally’ such as the Parisian salon. When the Enlightenment was studied in this way as a set of cultural practices, rather than a set of ideas or texts produced by men, it appears, she rightly claimed, as ‘part of a very different history in which men and women have both played roles.’12 As a result of the significant influence which this and similar critiques have come to exercise within the field of cultural history, the most frequently seen image of eighteenthcentury England is now one of a primarily metropolitan culture, characterized by sociability, sentimentality, and, above all, by the principle of ‘gender complementarity’, in which both masculine and feminine values are seen as necessary to a civilized society. As a development within cultural history, and even more specifically, within feminist or women’s history, the history of masculinity in eighteenth-century England has tended only rarely to step outside of this urban, mixed-gender context.13 Models of manhood, developed Heather Ellis in different cultural contexts, particularly within largely all-male environments such as the universities have, perhaps unsurprisingly, suffered from a relative lack of scholarly attention, a point made a few years ago by Karen Harvey.14 These were, after all, precisely the institutions which critics saw as responsible for perpetuating the view of the Enlightenment as a ‘mythical history of masculine reason.’ Rising Ages and Generational Identity When looking at the English universities in the period of the Enlightenment, a helpful place to start is Alex Shepard’s work on sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Cambridge. She draws a vital distinction between the official view of the universities as centres of learning, civility and godliness, places where young men were sent to complete the final transition to manhood, supervised by careful, diligent tutors, and what she terms ‘a counter-culture of excessive consumption and bravura’ developed amongst the student body itself.15 As she rightly points out, a student culture of excess, although formed in conscious opposition to the ‘official view’ of the university held by the Cambridge authorities, did not necessarily destabilise traditional social hierarchies. Many student behaviours, especially ritualised violence and drinking bouts, were, she writes, ‘implicitly condoned, if not licensed’ by the university authorities, and were treated as an almost necessary phase of rebellion, an initiation into mature adult life.16 Much of what Alex Shepard has described for early modern Cambridge – the regular episodes of student violence, the counter-culture of drinking and eating to excess - is also readily visible in the eighteenth-century universities. What I will argue, however, is that important changes, both within the eighteenth-century universities, and in wider English society against the background of the American and French Revolutions, ensured that such behaviour came to be seen less as part of a necessary, even legitimate, phase of student rebellion, and increasingly as a troubling sign of the times, of the negative influence of French culture in England, and of the effeminate decline of elite English youth. In contrast, Heather Ellis Shepard concludes for the earlier period, ‘such conflict remained unthreatening to social and political order.’17 Few studies of the eighteenth-century universities take account of the significant social impact of the rise in the average age of students at matriculation. Shown clearly in the work of Lawrence Stone, the average student matriculating at Oxford at the start of the eighteenth century was just seventeen and a half. By the end, this had risen to eighteen and a half, meaning crucially that many more students would reach the legal age of majority (twenty-one) while still at university, putting increasing pressure on the traditional role of the college tutor in loco parentis.18 What this effectively meant was that in comparison with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when university was in many ways an extension of school, with the average matriculation age between fifteen and sixteen, Oxford and Cambridge were now responsible for supervising and training young adult males.