The Queer Contact Zone: Empire and Military Masculinity in the Memoirs of Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot, 1750-1810 (2019)
Ellen Malenas Ledoux
The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 60(3).
The cross-dressed female soldier played a prominent role within Anglophone popular culture from the American Revolution through the Napoleonic Wars, appearing in ballads, comic operas, plays, and life writing. Feminist and queer analyses of these figures have largely been celebratory, framing historical military cross-dressers as working-class heroines or important examples of an emerging model of female masculinity. However, these interpretations have yet to acknowledge how these transgressive figures’ claims to subjectivity as representatives of the British military depend upon active participation in the imperial project. These female soldiers’ ability to perform masculinity is contingent upon a narrative and discursive investment in colonialism, violence, and racial hegemony. Using concepts from contemporary decolonial theory as a point of entry into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture, this article documents how the memoirs of two combat veterans--Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot--serve as early examples of what Jasbir Puar and others describe as “homonationalism.” By repeatedly marking the difference between their own “queerness” and the strangeness of the cisgender women, slaves, and indigenous people they encounter, Snell and Talbot garner legitimacy within the dominant by aligning themselves with masculinity, patriotism, and imperialism. Re-examining these warriors’ self-proclaimed “surprising adventures” within their colonial context reveals an unsettling relationship between queer historicism and the history of imperialism.