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Lady Libertines and Female Freethinkers in Early Modern English Drama and Society
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This dissertation reevaluates the role of early modern female libertines as sexual celebrities and analyzes how they performed their libertine sexuality in various types of literary and cultural texts. Female libertine performance should be conceived of differently than that of male libertines because women thrived as sexual celebrities both in variety of literary genres (such as plays, anonymous lampoons, memoirs, and secret histories) and in diverse media, including theatrical performances, painted/printed portraits, and extra-illustrated books. The focus of the dissertation is on female libertines whose public appearances took place between 1660 and 1700 but who have enjoyed culturally visible images for centuries: Nell Gwyn (1651?-1687), Barbara Palmer, countess of Castlemaine and later the duchess of Cleveland (bap. 1640, d. 1709), and Louise de Kéroualle, later duchess of Portsmouth (1649-1734). Their power and influence of transgressive sexuality, both political and cultural, becomes clearer when we stop dismissing them simply as Charles II’s mistresses, or labelling them as “whores.” In order to appreciate the full complexity of the past where early modern female libertines powerfully and radically challenge the early modern status quo, this dissertation locates how historical and fictional women performed at the intersection of visual culture, literature, theater, politics, and other cultural forms. Literary and cultural representations of female libertine transgression were collaborations between playwrights, authors, actresses, and inspiring lady libertines outside the theater. Playwrights wrote plays for celebrity actresses based on their public behavior. Actresses played libertine characters that often mirrored, played with, and parodied their public images. Audiences watched these performances with notions of transgressive female behavior in mind from the scandals surrounding the performers. Lady libertines of early modern England challenged the conventional role of women in the patrilineage and the notion of family based on heterosexual and monogamous relationship. These women, both historical and fictional, sometimes carefully engineered transgression to shock and aggressively assert their rejection of the social norms they were meant to follow. In addition, their public image and celebrity take on a life on their own when initially personally maneuvered libertine transgression become social and cultural currency that can be exchanged and commercialized in visual, oral, and print media.
Barbara Palmer, countess of Castlemaine and duchess of Cleveland
Louise de Kéroualle, duchess of Portsmouth
Gay Couple in Restoration Comedy
Jung, Youmi (2019). Lady Libertines and Female Freethinkers in Early Modern English Drama and Society. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from