Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

By Claudia N. Thomas | Go to book overview
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2

Women's Prose Responses
to Pope's Writings

By the end of the eighteenth century, women were alluding to Pope's Iliad in a wide variety of texts. Novelists as disparate as Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliffe recurred to Pope's epic imagery. In Burney's Evelina (1778), the heroine describes her flight after rescuing Mr. Macartney from possible suicide: "Pale, and motionless, he suffered me to pass, without changing his posture, or uttering a syllable; and indeed, 'He looked a bloodless image of despair!' " 1 Evelina recalls Idomeneus's personification of cowardice as he vindicates Meriones in Iliad 13.

No Force, no Firmness, the pale Coward shows;

With chatt'ring Teeth he stands, and stiff'ning Hair,
And looks a bloodless Image of Despair!

(13.359, 364-65; Pope's trans.)

What at first appears merely a vivid, if borrowed, description is a key to Burney's characterization of Macartney. Although jealous Lord Orville suspects him of romantic rivalry, Evelina could never consider Macartney a candidate for her hand. She recognizes the fundamental cowardice of Macartney's apparent recourse to suicide to ameliorate his misfortune. Her instinctive choice of allusion—she recounts the incident while still "shocked to death" in its aftermath (181)—suggests that while Evelina may pity Mr. Macartney, she could never sufficiently esteem a man who had nearly succumbed to despair. Macartney's potential as a tragic figure is undermined, already foreshadowing his rather ignominious marriage with Polly Green at the novel's conclusion.

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