Until recently, the issue of misogyny had received little attention in Pope studies. Even when addressed, it tended to be relegated to a minor aspect of a more general misanthropy. On the debit side, Pope is perceived as harbouring an ultimately disdainful condescension towards Belinda in The Rape of the Lock; he produces some consistently unflattering portraiture in Epistle to a Lady’, and attaches some murkily foetal imagery to the ‘Mighty Mother’ of Dulness in The Dunciad (‘How hints, like spawn, scarce quick in embryo lie’ (i.59)). Against this is set the interest in a specifically female sensibility, shown in his excursions into elegy and heroic epistle; the affectionate and respectful intimacy of his addresses to the Blount sisters; and his wide-ranging awareness of the forms and conventions through which the women in his culture were ‘by Man’s Oppression curst’ (Epistle to a Lady (213)).
This consensus has been forcefuily challenged in recent books by Laura Brown, Felicity Nussbaum and Ellen Pollak. Nussbaum’s The Brink of All We Hate provides an illuminating generic study of antifeminist satire between 1660 and 1750. She convincingly demonstrates that this is an appropriate context (though not perhaps the only one) in which to situate such poems as The Rape of the Lock and Epistle to a Lady. No attempt is made, however, to break with the canon as traditionally conceived: it is assumed that the virulence of this tradition is mitigated through the capacity of literary artistry to ‘add nuance to convey the ambivalence inherent in the female sex’ (Nussbaum 1984:2). Thus Pope’s verse need not be condemned as ‘finally misogynist’ but can be partially redeemed as ‘ambiguous and complex in its use of eighteenth-century conventions and commonplaces about the sex’ (1984:40). In contrast, Brown’s Alexander Pope and Pollak’s The Poetics of Sexual Myth adopt a more