Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Belinda, Thalestris, Clarissa, ... Queen Anne?: Failures of Female Agency in the Rape of the Lock

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Belinda, Thalestris, Clarissa, ... Queen Anne?: Failures of Female Agency in the Rape of the Lock

Article excerpt

Each of the central female characters in Alexander Popes mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock is imbued with individual strength in one of the influential characteristics of their sex: Belinda in her beauty, Thalestris in her warring tongue, and Clarissa in her moral goodness. Mastery in these traditional feminine qualities could be enough to protect a woman or ensure the success of her scolding or virtuous speech. Similarly, each of these traits could also be used to attract the proper suitor at a party, like the one depicted in the mock-epic at Hampton Court. Women would have greater success in finding their husbands from among the beau monde if they over accentuated their beauty, employed their power of persuasion, or relied on their moral goodness. Michael O'Neill writes of women in the early-eighteenth century, "The scornful virgins live in a society where the sole career for a woman is advantageous marriage" (103). Using her feminine charms, a woman could hope to find the right match, marry him, and then she could enjoy another avenue of womanly power: childbirth.

There was a belief in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, according to Richard Kroll, that women needed to have many children, since England was constantly at war and the crown required a constant influx of soldiers to do the fighting. It was considered the patriotic duty of English women; becoming pregnant was a matter of national urgency. War was a numbers game and, to keep up with France politically and militarily, Englishwomen had to conceive. Any deviation from this task was met with reproach. As exotic "drugs" such as tea, coffee, or chocolate, were thought to affect a woman's ability to carry a child, pamphlets of the period would draw the "British parents' attention back to their responsibilities to the nation" and away from engaging in such "illicit" activities (Kroll 130). "Eighteenth-century medical dogma viewed the sexual body of the single woman as dangerous and menacing, and marriage as a containment of this threat" (O'Neill 119). Roy Porter adds to this sentiment: "Women were thought to be governed by their reproductive systems; they were weaker, supersensitive, and highly nervous by nature" (178). This idea regarding physiology was a carryover from the time of Plato, who asserted that "the womb was an 'animal capable of wreaking destruction'" (Meek 109). A mother who could not produce children healthy enough to reach adulthood was seen to be failing in this crucial area of female agency. The lack of children due to miscarriages, stillbirths, or mortal illnesses could lead to the direct destruction of England. This anxiety over the birth of healthy children extended to the highest peaks of society.

Queen Anne ruled Britain from 1702 until her death in 1714 and was near the end of her reign when Alexander Pope first published The Rape of the Lock in 1712. There had been a siphoning of power from the crown during her time as queen. Anne was monarch at a time of increased commercial success for Britain which led to a "healthy national life in which [the entire kingdom] was a single, harmonious economic system" (Salma 4). Britain's successes in trade gave rise to a new, merchant middle-class. As Mike Ashley points out, the birth and growth of the political party system in Britain helped to strengthen the power of men like Sidney Godolphin, Robert Harley, both Lord High Treasurers under Anne, and John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. The combination of economic prosperity for the upper classes and the strengthening of the Parliamentary political system--along with the Bill of Rights of 1689, which directly limited the control of the monarchy--worked to divert power from the crown to Parliament and the Queen's cabinet. Furthermore, according to Ashley, Queen Anne had to cede much of the direct control of the kingdom to these MPs and cabinet members towards the end of her reign due to her failing health. Neither the reduction in monarchical power nor the multiple infirmities were the worst of Anne's problems, however:

    The prospect of a disputed succession after Anne loomed as a
   Doomsday, polarizing and paralyzing the nation. … 
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