Wednesday 2 August 2023

Review: Rakes, Highwaymen and Pirates by Erin Mackie

 When I bought Erin Mackie’s Rakes, Highwaymen and Pirates: The making of the modern gentleman in the eighteenth century, I was aware I was buying an academic work and not a fun collection of criminal anecdotes.

Given that expectation, nothing quite prepared me for the convoluted, dry, academic style this book was written in. Mackie is fond of paragraph length sentences packed with long, technical vocabulary which seem to hint at a point just as it veils it. I picked a bit at random;

“My use of the term “culturally mythic type” means to register, first of all the special intensity of meaning these types exercise in both sociocultural and subjective worlds. Emphatically, this term bares no relation to psychological, psychoanalytic or structuralist elaboration of the notion of the myth.”

I get an impression of an idea from this. I think it means that she’ll be looking at these “culturally mythic type(s)” of rake, highwayman and pirate through a sociological lens, looking at their place in society and the mythical place they gained in it but not looking through other academic lenses. I also presume that she will look at them in a subjective manner, as in, the myths of these people from her own point of view. It took me a while to parse this from the text though - I kept getting a clash between something being subjective but not psychological.. And I’m not convinced I’ve parsed it correctly. Pretty much every sentence in the book is like this, so I am very aware my reading of it is hazy and misty and that I’m trying to follow arguments viewed dimly, like in a fog. 

The first chapter, ‘historicising masculinity’ is, as far as I can conceive, a helpful(?) summary of the position of masculinity in England at the beginning of the 18th century and how things changed. Following the English Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration, a new form of masculinity was being developed, distinct from the cavalier/royalist masculinity of previous eras. 

That former masculinity was linked to wealth and privilege. Closeness to the King and wielding of authority and power were its main signifiers. So much so, those restoration rakes were all flagrantly bi-sexual, the importance was that a rake sexually dominates someone of a lower class, be that woman or young boy. It was also not important that a ‘proper man’ follows the laws, as he is above them, so it’s possible to be both criminal and display healthy masculinity.

However, by the 18th century, things were changing. In Defoe’s Colonel Jack, Jack isn’t a proper man because he is criminal. This is because of the rise in a new idea, the gentleman. Heralded by publications such as The Tatler and The Spectator, this new man was middle-class, moderate in all things and a firm upholder of laws and institutions. With the rise of this form of masculinity, those still enamoured with the older forms find them in the rake, highwayman and pirate - and to a certain extent, still do. (She then goes on for ten pages about how she won’t talk about Jonathan Wilde and Jack Shepherd because they don’t really fit, Shepherd being more working class hero than male fantasy, and Wilde being hated by everyone).

The next chapter, ‘always making excuses’ deals with the rake. I’ve been reading Clarissa throughout this year, so I am quite full of rakes, or at least of Lovelace. The rake takes a lot of the sexual elements of the former masculinity. The gentleman was in a tough spot when it comes to sex, as sex still confirms his masculinity but gentleman-ness calls for a respect for, at the very least, respectable women. This would later blossom into full-on Victorian hypocrisy and the labelling of murdered women (such as Jack the Ripper’s five) as prostitutes - not a point Mackie makes, but I feel it fits.

The rake doesn’t have this doublebind and is celebrated for his conquests. Unlike the regency variation though, the rake has to be heterosexual, even if he is homosocial. He also needs to balance the egotistical nature of the casual lovemaker so it doesn’t become self-love, which would turn him into the rake’s nemesis… the fop.

The rake succeeds in not being criminalised, partly due to an aristocratic position, but also through his ‘superior stylistic mastery’ - in essence, he’s too cool doing what he does that people accept it, a bit like James Bond. Lovelace, in his heightened speech, the complexity of his schemes, his ‘sheer staginess’ creates an ‘art’ of seduction that excuses his actions and builds a myth. A myth that can be quickly dispelled when you realise that in the course of a 2 million word novel, taking place over the course of a year, he only has sex once, and that with someone he has drugged insensible first. Some myth!

Mackie also says that an element of the rake that was excused in their time and forgotten in ours is the hooliganism, the theatre riots, the rampant destruction as exemplified in gangs of young toffs who called themselves Mohocks. These young bucks hounded nightwatchman and beat people up for fun. Their behaviour was excused by “apologetic formulas” which “retain their currency right up to the present.” Namely, boys will be boys. 

Were she British, I think Mackie would bring up the Bullingdon Club at this point. A group of Oxford toffs (including at least two former PMs), who go into restaurants and trash them to pieces while yelling “bully, bully, bully.” Given that former PM, Boris Johnson was a member, has cheated on all his partners and possibly stuck one of (many) secret children into the House of Lords - he’d seem to be a firm contender as a modern rake. At least Lovelace was handsome.

The next chapter, ‘romancing the highwayman’ explains itself. The first highwaymen were out-of-work cavaliers who justified their robbery by robbing only republicans. As such, the first highwayman had a link back to the old masculinity, and, while they maintained the theft as a political act, could spin it as loyal and heroic. Interestingly, come the reformation, there were still highwaymen. Claude Duval and and James MacLaine did not rob for a cause, but to maintain lifestyles they couldn’t afford. They borrowed a trick from the rakes and made it look stylish.

With Gay’s creation of Macheath, the Highwayman was mixed with the rake and deserved to be let off at the end of the play. People like Boswell even imagined he was Macheath before going out on the pull, singing one of his songs. The highwayman was further removed from reality by one of my favourite authors, William Harrison Ainsworth. His Dick Turpin is a highwayman figure born from the author’s daydreams as a boy. He performs no acts of cruelty or villainy in the book and simply stands as a force of mastery and freedom, accidentally creating the Dick Turpin of legend - as far removed from the torturing housebreaker as possible. Mackie also makes the interesting point that Turpin is removed from the gothic plot, a plot that is caused by the rakish behaviours of the Rookwood ancestors.

The third chapter, ‘welcome the outlaw’ is about pirates but takes a sharp veer off into another direction. First she claims that pirates, as a legend are assexual, ‘there’s no pirate sex’. I’d disagree, I think gay pirates are definitely a thing, but that’s not her main point in this chapter.

Makie’s main point has nothing to do with gentleman, or masculinity, or anything the book has previously been about. Instead she wants to draw a link between pirates and the modern gangs of Jamaica. More particularly, she wants to say that the maroons, the free slaves who formed their own towns within Jamaica (like Nanny) are similar to Rastafarians. She sees them both as being pro-Africa, even if that conception of Africa is more of a generic promised land. She also made some connection between maroons being hired to re-capture escaped slaves with a complicity of the Rastas with Babylon. Pirates she equates with the Yardie Rudeboys, both anti-authoritarian but chasing the same things that the system chases. “Pirates expose, even as they mimic, the aggressive self assertion, and ruthless greed of early-modern capitalism” She links this with rudeboys performing the role of private security to political parties. 

Aside from being an utter tangent to the rest of the book, I thought these some bold and broad claims and questioned her authority to make them. Certainly, she is not Jamaican and doesn’t appear to be of Jamaican heritage. What’s more her previous published works are all about The Spectator and The Tatler, nothing much there about Jamaica. 

The last chapter, ‘privacy and ideology’ is a bit of a whimper. It looks at Lord Orville as the perfect new gentleman and compares him to other characters in Evelina who show themselves up to be more rakishly inclined. It also looks at Caleb Williams, but I sped over that a bit because I haven’t read it yet and was fed up with this book.

What the whimper of a last chapter emphasises is how little the book has no real overarching point or argument. It’s less a book about something, as a book about lots of little somethings. And it’s painfully written.  

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