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Because cultural constructions of femininity have been well covered elsewhere, invaluably in the collections of primary materials and scholarly essays assembled by Vivien Jones (1990, 2000), it may no longer be necessary to delineate aspects of the feminine ideal (passivity, submissiveness, chastity, domesticity, and so on) or detail restrictions on women's status and role, or point to the institutions (law, education, religion, marriage) that secured women's separate and subordinate reality. One might begin instead with an aspect that has received less emphasis: the general sense of the "constructed-ness" of feminine identity. The modern ideology of innate femininity ("the eternal feminine," "biology is destiny") and gender complementarity ("equal but different") from whose velvet tentacles feminists in the late twentieth century had to struggle to free themselves would begin to take hold only around the 1770s. Earlier in the century, woman is distinguished precisely by her lack of any meaningful essence or moral core. According to this older view, woman is an assemblage of looks, gestures, and physical contrivances; a creature of masquerade and performance. In the scathing words applied by Pope to Atossa, she is "Scarce once herself, by turns all Womankind" (l. 116); or, as he says elsewhere in An Epistle to a Lady, she is a being equally apt to "sinner it, or saint it" (l. 15). Woman's beauty in particular is a pernicious artifice; female identity a dissemblance and outward show. Small wonder the setting for some of the more memorable poems from the period is a dressing-room or table.

Jonathan Swift (1667—1745), in his ironically entitled "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," offers an extreme but characteristically complex instance of the feminine constructed in his Corinna, a battered prostitute seemingly defined by her "scatter'd" arts and body parts (l. 68). Night-time brings the inevitable disassembly: first the removal of the add-ons — false eye, false hair, false brows, false cheeks, then downward to the improvised rag-brassiere propping up her "flabby Dugs" ("and down they drop": l. 22), the steel-ribbed bodice, the hip bolsters — and then the discovery of the running sores beneath, leaving the reader to contemplate the corruption beneath the constructed feminine surface. This undressing was once thought to project its author's disgust with female flesh and his savage haste to expose female chicanery, but the majority view these days tends to regard it instead as a satire upon the accumulated idealizations of the pastoral tradition. The satire seems, as well, to touch upon the tendency to identify woman too closely with her femininity. The "dreadful Sight!" (l. 57) that concludes the poem — Corinna's scattered body parts have fallen prey to animals: a rat has dragged her plaster away into his hole, a cat has pissed on her cheek plumpers, and so on — testifies to the almost unbearable insecurities of bodily existence. Corinna's "mangled Plight" (l. 65) is understood not in relation to the male gaze or male desire — not, that is to say, in the context of gender difference — but in relation to the larger created order: gender difference melts into the larger "Anguish, Toil, and Pain" (l. 69) of the human condition. It is on account of such "degendering" exercises as this, perhaps, that so many women readers, as Margaret Doody was the first to show, have found something bracing in what others identify as Swift's misogyny (Doody 1988).

Swift explores the ambiguities of gender construction in other poems, most memorably in the best known of the so-called "unprintables," "The Lady's Dressing Room." The absent Celia is present in the form of noisome bodily residues left behind in the detritus of her private chamber. The important point is not that the beauty Celia takes out into the public world is deceptive, or that female bodily existence is inherently disgusting — although Swift's famously revolting descriptions certainly succeed in making it seem so. (Consider the gummed and slimy towels grimed with "Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear-Wax," or the handkerchiefs "varnish'd o'er with Snuff and Snot," to take just two examples of a great many [ll. 46, 50]). The point, rather, is that Strephon entertains an idea of the feminine that bears little relation to the necessities of actual female existence. So thoroughly has he identified woman with disembodied beauty that he is overwhelmed to discover that Celia shits, and thereafter female bodily existence is tied in his mind to all that is disgusting. (A similar dynamic is at work in Swift's "Strephon and Chloe," although this Strephon takes the opposite mental journey in his good-humored acceptance that his pissing goddess is as "mortal as himself at least" [l. 186, in Swift 1958: vol. 2]). "The Lady's Dressing Room" exposes the foolishness of etherealized notions of femininity and urges the more balanced, if still perhaps queasy, reality glimpsed in the speaker's question: "Should I the Queen of Love refuse, / Because she rose from stinking Ooze?" (ll. 131—2). If Swift mocks at once the naïveté of men's idealizations of women and the absurdity of the poetic fictions that turned women into dewy flowers in the first place, the consensus reading for some time now, he also calls attention to the way the Strephons among us end up pinned inside the wreckage of their simplistic understandings of female nature. The extent to which the poem expresses Swift's misogyny remains a matter of debate. [See ch. 12, "Jonathan Swift, the 'Stella' Poems."]

Ambiguities of another sort surface in Pope's Epistle to a Lady. The irresistibly quotable aphorisms about female nature that crowd this satire on women, the fullest and most complex of the period, have made it the starting point for countless discussions of eighteenth-century constructions of femininity. Where would critics be without "ev'ry Woman is at heart a Rake" (l. 216)? And then there are the neat statement of retiring feminine passivity offered by Pope's alignment of women and the private sphere —

But grant, in Public Men sometimes are shown, A Woman's seen in Private life alone: Our bolder Talents in full light display'd, Your Virtues open fairest in the shade.

— and the brilliantly limned satiric portraits of individual women which show woman to be inconstant, giddy, flighty, fickle, self-centered, self-absorbed, short-lived, childlike, irrational, emotionally disordered, ruled by vanity, tied to a world of glittering surfaces, lacking a moral center or any other interior gravitational force, and incapable (like Atossa) of sustained thought ("No Thought advances, but her Eddy Brain / Whisks it about, and down it goes again" (ll. 121—2). And the poem closes with a strangely contradictory portrait of the feminine ideal — a portrait, inspired by Pope's lifelong friend Martha Blount, that at once desexualizes (she is associated with the moon's "Virgin Modesty" [l. 255]); attributes to her the qualities of a friend, daughter, sister, wife; and in the finish praises her as a "softer Man" (l. 272). This praise that dispraises women generally, combined with the host of confidently condescending generalizations about female character preceding this slippery ideal, has opened Pope to charges of misogyny and made "To a Lady" (along with The Rape of the Lock, discussed below) an early target of feminist critique (Nussbaum 1984; Brown 1985; Pollak 1985).

Especially problematic is the portrait of Martha Blount. From one angle the ideal she embodies would appear a welcome blend of opposing qualities of both genders. Like a woman, Martha loves pleasure and has a taste for follies; is reserved, artful, soft, modest, fanciful. Like a man, she desires rest and scorns fools; is frank, truthful, courageous, proud, and principled. The portrait is affectionate, to be sure, but some have thought the poet just a bit too pleased with his (playfully) godlike powers to add a bit of this and a bit of that to produce his own version of Martha (like the first creator he "Shakes all together, and produces — You" [l. 280]). This "You," which has struck many readers as far removed from any actual female person, seems testimony, finally, to Pope's desire to subordinate Martha to his own need for poetic mastery and control. She exists not as a voice, a force, an agent, or an independent self, that is to say, but rather as the poet's own "last best work" (l. 272) in a series of gallery portraits that capture — in this context the verb seems peculiarly apt — female character and put it on display, to the greater glory of the well-satisfied poetic maker. Discomforting too is the characterization of Martha as a softer man, which not only elevates by exemption from the category woman but also recalls the opening pronouncement that female nature is matter "too soft a lasting mark to bear" (l. 3). One is left with the suspicion that the poet's idealized construct, a blending of selected elements, is highly unstable, always in danger of collapsing into the lack that is female nature.

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