Part Iv

Themes and Debates

The Constructions of Femininity

Femininity is never a simple given. Historically speaking, the feminine has been "constituted of the refuse of masculine transcendence" (Schor 1994: 48), and as such is not a fixed category but rather a catch-all for things not male. As the shadow side of men's lofty self-projections, the feminine tends always toward entropy and chaos. Woman is "matter too soft a lasting mark to bear," as Pope famously puts it (An Epistle to a Lady, l. 3), and she therefore threatens always to slide back into more rudimentary states of being — lustfulness and sexual disorder, to be sure, but also madness, self-absorption, triviality, and emotionalism. This relational understanding of femininity, coupled with the idea that woman is by nature more primitive and therefore more irrational, bodily, and sexual than men, gives rise in the eighteenth century to the widely held negative stereotypes described by Felicity Nussbaum in her valuable study of misogynistic satire in the period. Women are vain, inconstant, superficial, affected, susceptible to flattery, and given to self-display. Unwilling to accept their limitations, they pretend to wit and learning and succeed only in looking foolish. In the social sphere their highly susceptible nature propels them regularly into vulgarity, grotesquerie, and malapropism. Their interior lives, especially their thinking lives, are at best a mystery and more reliably a joke (Nussbaum 1984).

These dismissive stereotypes are well known. Yet the fact remains that there are few periods in history when the symbolic feminine is accorded greater cultural power or when gender difference figures more importantly across a variety of discourses. Eighteenth-century poetry abounds with representations of powerful femininity, ranging from the mighty mother Dulness in The Dunciad to Britannia herself, symbol of liberty, empire, commerce, global supremacy. As a number of commentators have shown (Barker-Benfield 1992, Guest 2000, and Wilson 2003, to name just a few), over the course of the century British culture and society came increasingly to identify itself with a set of values derived from and tied to constructions of the feminine (refinement, domesticity, propriety, sensibility, and so on), and especially in the second half of the century femininity would come to be associated with ideas of empire and national identity. This process of "feminization" holds fascinating ambiguities. The feminine can signify British greatness in one moment and, in the next, resistance to British modernity. The Dunciad (1742) uses monstrously regressive maternity to embody all that is stupid in modern culture, while poets in the next generation would attach themselves to the feminine to escape the "harsh world of traditionally male history" (Sitter 1982: 131). A radically unstable category, riddled with contradictions and available to diverse uses, the feminine plays a crucial if often paradoxical role in eighteenth-century Britain's understanding of itself. The discussion that follows considers some purposes to which some key poets put ideas of the feminine.

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