Comedy of Manners, Cross-Dressing, and Coxheath

Yo waddup, my peasants?  It’s ur gurl with a hella spicy blog post!

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So– like– IDK if you know this, but I used to fight in the ranks as a Loyalist private. That’s right, peasants, ya bougie AF girl was once a private in His Majesty’s forces.

Believe it or not, I once ate gunpowder, burnt my hands on hot musket barrels, ran headfirst through pricker bushes, gave Oscar worthy death performances, and drove my poor family insane by sleeping outside like some sort of heathen. Don’t believe me? I have photos! I was farbalicious and it was amazing, it was a much simpler time for me.

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I was nicknamed MacShootsalot for a reason

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That’s right, I’m wielding TWO ’76 rifles. Come at me bro
Honest-to-goodness, I loved every moment of it when I did it, the regiment I was with, the First Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers, had a terrific history; I fondly remember writing a twenty page paper on them for a history thesis when there was a ten page limit. I’m not good at condensing things when it’s a subject I like #autismismysuperpower. I left because of creative differences, I wanted to do more than simply be in the ranks and the business wound up taking off, so that left me with no time for reenactments. It was a great start and I can’t thank them enough for their support.

Even back in my simpler days, I got a TON of flack for being a woman in the ranks; turns out, reenactors get super butthurt when women try to break out of the good little camp follower role and try to play their games. Who would have ever guessed? Women in the ranks wasn’t as uncommon as the reenactors like to say it was; granted, it wasn’t a thought that crossed every woman’s mind in the late 18th century, but it happened. There are multiple accounts of women attempting to cross-dress and join both armies in the Revolution; there are a few British newspaper articles that detail women who made the bold attempt but didn’t get very far enlisting.

On Friday last, a young lady of a reputable family went and enlisted herself at Tower-Hill in one of the regiments of guards doing duty there; but upon going through the custom that is usually observed on such occasions, she was under a necessity of discovering her sex, being ordered and compelled to strip herself naked, notwithstanding all her endeavours and entreaties to the contrary. Upon being questioned by the serjeant with regard to the occasion of so extraordinary an occurrence, she gave him the following relation: that her lover was an officer belonging to the regiment in which she had enlisted herself, but that he being for some time gone to America, she had long wished for an opportunity to go to him, and had pitched upon the above method as most conducive to elude the vigilance of her friends, and expedite her design. Upon its being remonstrated to her that it was very uncertain what time she might have gone to America, it depending in a great measure on the progress she might make in learning her exercise, she practically cried that she had been long practicing before she came there, and was in every way qualified to do her duty as a soldier. She is a handsome young woman, is rather stout, and makes a very good appearance as a man.

Edinburgh Advertiser, July 6, 1779.

Extract of a Letter from Plymouth Dock, June 25… “on Sunday last it was discovered that a Woman had enlisted and been for some Time in the 13th Regiment in the Barracks at this Place. One of the Shropshire Militia quartered at Plymouth, a Sweetheart of her’s at Wells, exposed her Sex. She was immediately discharged and a Collection made to carry her home. It is surprising how very soon she learnt her Exercise, having been but three Months in the regiment, and yet expert.”

St. James’s Chronicle (London), June 29, 1778.

Yesterday a stout woman dressed in mens clothes enlisted in the Highland regiment, under the name of Peter Mitchel, and was sworn before a magistrate: a man came sometime after and claimed her as his wife – she said she was very willing to serve his Majesty, and was much abler than many of the recruits who had enlisted. She was discharged.

Edinburgh Advertiser, January 19, 1776.

For more of these accounts, Don Hagist did a wonderful job detailing them on All Things Liberty. The Continental Army had its fair share of women who attempted to enlist, among the most famous being Deborah Sampson who served for over a year and became a corporal until an injury revealed her identity. Not every woman was successful

[T]he day after I arriv’d at Elizabeth, I was ordered to newark on Command
which was A very agreeable one, friday afternoon I happend at A Tavern the
Retreat began to beat, I went out to go to the Parade when I met A solr. with a
young Lad, I Question’d the solr. knowing he did not belong their, he said he
Came there to see his sister, I then ask’d who he had with him if he was A solr.
he Answer’d he was’t but wanted to Enlist. I Gave him some money & told him to
Come to my quarters he did so, I then Took an enlistment, and he remaind there
Untill the next Day without any suspicion, when for Some reasons he was
suspected to be A woman and I happened to dine out that day, when the family
was at dinner he was Calld in and desired to hand the Tankard to the Table he
did so and Made A Courtesy at the Delivery, which was suppos’d to be
Accidental. when I Came in I was Inform’d of Several Circumstances which give
me reason to believe that it was A she, I was Determind to know the Certainty,
Capt. flavin & Several other officers being there. I had him Calld in when I told
him I had suspicion of his being lame, and Desired Capt. Flavin to Afficiate as
Doctor in searching he did, and soon made the Discovery by Pulling out the Teat
of A Plump Young Girl, which caused Great divertion. She said the reason of her
behaving in the manner was, she wanted to marry A young man and her Father
would not Permit her, she remaind at my Quarters untill the next morning, when I
got Up; she Came to me and said she Dreamd I had dischar’d her, I then orderd
the Drum to beat her Threw the Town with the whores march they did so which
was Curious seeing her dress’d in mens Clothes and [th]e whores march
Beating. . . .
Source: Robert Fridlington, “A ‘Diversion’ in Newark: A Letter from the New
Jersey Continental Line, 1778,”
New Jersey History
105 (Spring/Summer 1987):
77-78
With these women’s stories in mind, allow me to segue us into the next portion of the blog. If you read these stories, you’ll notice a little bit of a theme going on here; many of these women are enlisting in order to follow a loved one into the fray– not all, but enough to inspire a comedy of errors and role reversals. Instead of the dashing hero saving the damsel in distress, the damsel is actively protecting the hero who has thrown himself into harm’s way. Enter Brinsley Sheridan: famous playwright renown for his satirical comedies such as The Rivals, School for Scandal, and the Duenna. Sheridan was most famous for his comedy of manners style satire which poked fun at contemporary etiquette of the upper class. The comedy of manners was definitely a British thing that has its roots in Restoration era comedies which were bawdy, obscene, and sex driven; many of the themes included unfaithful wives, cuckholded husbands, and trickery. The characters were amoral or hopelessly gullible which would result in lewd hilarity. By the early 18th century, this style fell out of fashion because people wanted a play that would appeal to moral sensibilities. By the late 18th century, the comedy of manners type was out of vogue and sentimental comedy replaced the crude jokes and innuendo. One no longer attended a comedy to laugh, they attended it to make themselves feel morally superior. Heroines were good and chaste while villains were one dimensional. While this style was safe, it wasn’t fun. Sheridan used the comedy of manners style to combat this idea of moral superiority; he combined both styles to create satire that still made people feel good. Heroines such as Lady Teazle from School for Scandal, the role that made Fanny Abington famous, were witty, charming, and flirtatious and through slander and gossip, she suffers from a comedy of errors with her husband. Sheridan’s comedies made people both laugh and taught moral lessons.
School for Scandal  was super popular, but for the season of 1778-1779, it was completely overshadowed by another one of his comedies: The Camp. The Camp: a Musical Entertainment has everything: military, role reversals, a comedy of errors, outrageous French Accents, and hair powder. Amidst the war in America, there was worries of an impending French invasion looming over Britain’s collective head and, to prepare for it, militia camps were set up in places such as Coxheath in Kent. These encampments were fantastic for social gatherings as opposed to any real military action.

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Paul Sandby, An Encampment at St. James Park

These encampments were also the perfect way to snatch a man!
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Because of the Franco-American alliance in 1778, the British were worried of a French invasion, so these massive encampments were established. There, troops were drilled and either added into home guards or shipped to America, but while they were there, these encampments gained a reputation for being a hotbed of escapades!
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Women began taking notice of these camps and began visiting them on the regular; ladies of fashion began wearing military inspired riding habits whilst visiting to show their support.
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The Duchess of Devonshire followed her husband to Coxheath in order to campaign for the Whig party with the fabulous idea of a ladies’ auxillary corp. The masculine style of the riding habit played a bizarre contrast to the soldiers who seemed to be more interested in spending time with the women than actually training creating a gender-reversed dynamic, which cartoonists lampooned like all getout.
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It is said that Sheridan wrote The Camp as a nod to the Duchess of Devonshire’s auxiliary corp; three of the characters, Lady Sash, Lady Plume, and Lady Gorget are depicted wearing military riding habits and are more in charge of the camp than the male officers. In this satire, men’s and women’s roles are interchangeable; masculine objects such as cartridges, gunpowder, and bullet molds alongside pins, tweezers, hair powder, and perfume. The three ladies are also the ones who call the shots as to whether or not the accused spy, Irish painter o’Daub, is hanged or released… NOT the officers, officers who have effeminate names such as Sir Harry Bouquet and don’t really do much.
At the center of this roles turned upside down story is Nancy. Nancy of the Dale is our heroine who, after spurning her William over an argument with her father, cross dresses and joins the militia at Coxheath to keep him safe. Nancy, played by Charlotte Walpole Atkins– who deserves her own blog post– and later Mary Robinson, doesn’t actually get to do any fighting, no one really does, she does get to wow the audience by performing the Manual of Arms at the end of act 1. This action, normally reserved for men, warrants raucous applause from the audience when Nancy performs it at the command of her friend Nell– something familiar in the accounts of women who enlisted I mentioned earlier. Maybe Sheridan drew inspiration from those accounts? There is, however, an element of fear with Nancy losing her William as well as her own life which is the grounding aspect to The Camp to draw in sentiment as well as add realism and is exemplified in the beautiful song When War’s Alarms. Erik and I perform this song directly from the sheet music for The Camp which was sold in New York City!
Photo by Lindsey Loves History
Nancy sings to Nell a vow to risk life and limb to protect her William after regretting the argument that drove them apart. Ladies Sash, Gorget, and Plume ensure Nancy her secret is safe and promise to have William take her under his wing as a new recruit. When they give William his new recruit, he fails to recognize Nancy and takes offense to having such a small recruit as a pupil but is soon elated to find “him” to be his beloved Nancy. The lovers reunite and all’s well that ends well.
There is a side plot of the artist o’Daub being mistaken for a spy that was taken from General Burgoyne’s comedic works. In fact, Burgoyne assisted Sheridan in writing The Camp acting as his counselor regarding military matters. After his loss in the Revolution, General Burgoyne became a successful playwright making smash hit comedies such as The Heiress; it turns out that writing comedies was more his thing than reeling in unruly colonies. I might do a future blog post on the fate of Burgoyne as a “where are they now?” sort of thing. Let me know if you want that. Anyway, I think this blog post has gone on long enough, I’m gonna wrap it up here because I’ve got more shows on the way. It’s my busy season in December because who doesn’t love a colonial Christmas? I love you peasants, I’m OUT!
Photo by Lindsey Loves History
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