John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act I Scenes 3 and 4

Peachum returns to his books, looking for the criminals he can “peach on” before the next court sessions. The ones he picks are not only the unprofitable ones, but also the one who talks about quitting the life of crime and becoming an honest tailor, or one Bob Booty. At this Mrs Peachum enters and asks what about Bob Booty, because she is very fond of him. Peachum explains that Bob spends too much time with ladies and when his money is gone, one of them is going to inform on him sooner or later, thus cashing in the reward Peachum wants. Mrs Peachum says she defers in this matter to her husband’s judgement. Women are too biased in these matters, because they always think the criminal being sent to the gallows is so handsome. She sings a song about how the executioner’s rope is as effective in making a man desirable as the mythological girdle of Venus supposedly was for women. She says Peachum has no reason for complaining because there has not been a murder in his gang for seven months, but Peachum pooh-poohs her, saying murder is a very fashionable crime and you can find a lot of actual gentlemen in Newgate charged with it. He asks here whether Captain Macheath was here this morning, and Mrs Peachum says he was and he promised to try and join her and Polly for a card game in the evening. She asks Peachum whether Macheath is rich, but Peachum answers he is too fond of gambling for that, and to be good at gambling, you have to be born rich and train from the earliest years. Mrs Peachum says she is sorry that Captain Macheath likes the company of lords and gentlemen; “he should leave them to prey upon one another”, and she lets it drop that she is sorry about that because of their daughter Polly. This immediately raises Peachum’s hackles up and he asks what Polly has to do with Macheath. Mrs Peachum admits she thinks he and Polly may be in love. Peachum angrily says that’s no reason to marry him, because highwaymen are very good to their whores, but terrible to their wives. Mrs Peachum sings a sad song about how it can’t be helped and a virgin in love is like a moth around the flame, sure to be destroyed. Peachum says that in their trade it’s OK if Polly grants all sorts of liberties to the criminals, but marriage would be a disaster, because then she and everything she owns (and by extension, everything her parents own) is going to be the property of her husband. He wouldn’t mind if Polly were like fine ladies, who can seduce twelve men at the same time, without becoming emotionally involved, but she is too warm-hearted. He tells his wife to warn her and before that, he is going to see Polly and investigate how far her affair with Macheath has gone.

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Mary Leapor – “An Epistle to a Lady”

“An Epistle to a Lady” (Leapor’s friend and patron Bridget Freemantle) is a rather depressing poem by a very depressed person. She says that the addressee of the poem strives in vain to make Mira (Leapor) thrive, because she was born under a bad star, namely under the influence of Saturn. The books she reads do not bring her any comfort but rather make her more dejected. When she is asleep, she dreams about having money, books and pictures, but then the clock rings and she is back to sweeping her kitchen and mending her clothes. Anyway, as she feels sick, she finds  the things she used to like less and less enjoyable, but she hopes at least the pleasure of friendship will be the last to go. She remembers the death of her mother, who died peacefully, with her only care in the world being her daughter’s well-being. She doesn’t wish to stretch out her life as she sees nothing good in her future. She hopes to die resigned and finds some strange comfort in the thought that on the same day when she dies, thousands of people around the world will die as well.

Mary Leapor – “An Essay on Woman”

Mary Leapor, as a working-class writer, introduces an element of intersectionality in the section on women’s writing. She was a daughter of a gardener, who worked most of her adult life in various country manors as a servant or a cook. At some point, she was befriended by the daughter of a retired Oxford don, who liked her poetry and tried to publish it. But before she achieved it, Leapor, whose health was always not very good, was finished off by measles. On the other hand, maybe this early death (we all know how album sales spike after an artist dies) coupled with the novelty of “untutored country girl writing poetry” did help to get the whopping six hundred subscribers for Leapor’s first volume of poetry – more than Pope had for the first edition of his translation of The Iliad! (Susbscriptions were like the 18th-c. Kickstarter plans, when readers agreed to advance the money to the writer and get the book later. Having the names of esteemed literary figures or aristocrats on the list of the subscribers, which was attached to the book, also could help its sales to non-subscribing readers.)

In this poem, written like everything else in the 18th c. in rhyming couplets, Leapor’s main point is that women are screwed, no matter what their social standing is. Wife is a slave, maiden is neglected, the pretty ones are betrayed, and the ugly ones despised. But if a woman happens to be wealthy, all men perceive her as beautiful – until she gets married. What’s the point of having advantages? “Sylvia”, who is beautiful, is neglected by her husband. “Pamphilia”, who is wise, is disliked by women and feared by men. And “Cornelia”, who is rich, is also stingy and finds no joy in her wealth, nor does she share it with anyone. But Leapor implores Muses to give “Mira” (her nickname for herself) to give her some of this wealth which could buy her “indolence and ease”, while she also would like to have “a friend to please”. The poem ends with reiterating the claim that no matter what the woman is, admired or despised, she is still ‘a slave at large”.

Anne Ingram, Viscountess Irwin – “An Epistle to Mr. Pope”

Anne Ingram, a lady poet (as many of the female poets of the era) wrote this poetic letter to answer Pope’s “Epistle 2”. She begins by stating that both men and women seem remarkably alike when they are very young or very old. She really doesn’t follow up on this observation, but notices that even though the way men and women act may seem very different, they have the same motivation. A brave soldier fighting or a beauty trying to charm as many men as possible, they are both motivated by the love of fame. And even people in different social positions have the same motivation, it’s just more difficult for those who are lowly born to achieve something big. So why is there such a difference between men and women? Ingram answer, it’s all about education. In truth, you can find as many “Nugators” (male triflers) as “Nugatrixes” (female triflers). Women’s heads are like uncultivated fields and so it’s small wonder they do not yield rich crops. Accusing women of ignorance is as fair as accusing soldiers of ignorance because they don’t know philosophy, or accusing courtiers that they don’t know how to manage flocks. All women are taught is that the only power they have is their sexuality. If they are well-born, they may be taught in addition to dance and lisp French. No wonder the void in their heads is filled up with trifles. To prove that it can be otherwise, Ingram lists the famous Roman ladies: Clelia, Cornelia, Lucretia (of course, sigh) and Portia. She singles out Portia for special praise as the one who famously stabbed herself in the thigh to prove to her husband that she can keep a secret. But one can’t expect such virtue from modern women, so Ingram asks Pope, instead of criticizing, to educate women and rescue them “from this Gothic state” in which lack of education placed them.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (the end)

Pope delivers the traditional praise of a woman who never answers her husband back, submits to his will, and if she rules him, it’s through subtle manipulation. She is above all ravages of fate and time. But “[w]oman’s at best a contradiction still” and just “a softer man”, he claims, echoing the old Aristotelian notion. He goes through the well-worn stuff how Heaven mixed all contradictory qualities, like modesty with pride etc. to create the woman. The poem ends with a birthday dedication to Martha Blount: this mixture of best qualities Phoebus promised her when she was born (“I forget the year”, he adds gallantly), Phoebus didn’t grant all the prayers of her parents: he gave her beauty but didn’t give her money. (Martha’s parents were Catholic gentry, but couldn’t afford to pay her dowry – at least not the amount that was expected for a girl of her social position. I read somewhere yesterday, but can’t find the page now, that somebody – was it John Caryll? – offered to pay Martha’s dowry if that was the only thing that stopped Pope from marrying her, but Pope declined. Pope was rich anyway and could afford a dowry-less wife if he wanted, so I don’t know if that story is true. He probably didn’t want to have a wife who would have to be to him more like a nurse.) Pope manages to put a good spin on it, claiming that dowries are only good for buying a woman a tyrant husband. (Martha was at this point forty-five, so long out of the marriage market in her era.) Instead, Martha got something much better: good sense, good humour, and a poet.

I must say this poem is not quite successful in my opinion, not only because it fails to meet the feminist standards of 2018, but also because, like in many longer poems by Pope, one has a feeling it is composed rather of fragments than constituting one organic whole. These fragments are rather awkwardly cobbled together and at places the seams do show.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (ctd.)

What about Chloe? She is without reproach but only because she is never passionate or worried about anything. Virtue is too painful for her and she is content with merely being decent. Finally, Pope mentions the Queen, whom he didn’t like. He treads carefully, saying how numerous writers and painter portray her “with truth and goodness, as with crown and ball”, i.e. they are just the attributes conventionally given to her because she is the queen. But what if we strip her of her clothes signifying her regal status? We can make Marquess of Queensberry (a famous beauty, whom Pope did like) pose naked, so when we paint Helen, we have to make do with models of humble origins. Similarly, Pope says, when I want to depict true virtue, I’d rather use Parson Hale or Mahmoud (King  George’s Turkish servant) as a model.

Then Pope move on to more general statements, claiming that men have different passions, but women only two: love of pleasure and love of power. They exercise their power mainly through their beauty, they never have enough admirers, and when their beauty is gone, they become sad hags playing cards (the passage about how terrible the old age of former beauty queens is, is quite long). The poet is happy that the addressee of his poem never aspired to dazzle with her beauty, but raised the thought and touched the heart. This quiet kind of charm prevails, like after the sun set, the moon “serene in virgin modesty” pleases us more.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (ctd.)

Sin or Philomede sleeps around, usually with footmen and the like. She is like a glutton who criticises your wine and meat, but is happy to eat plain pudding at home. Flavia is a witty atheist, too smart for her own good. Simo’s wife owns her faults “but never mends”, because she think being as honest as to admit to them is good enough. Another nameless lady spends her life on gossips and prayer. Another “laughs at hell” and exclaims “”Oh! how charming if there’s no such place” indicating perhaps that her atheism is provisional and motivated only by her fear of eternal punishment. Another is both an alcoholic and an opium addict. Then we get a longer description of Atossa (who, the Helpful Footnote thinks, might be “Duchess of Buckinghamshire”, i.e. Catherine Sheffield, nee Darnley) who has a fierce temper and managed to scare away both her friends and foes. All this feels very impressionistic and one has a feeling Pope writes about real women known to him and to the addressee of the poem, not “types” – hence why some get just two lines, some, like Atossa, extended descriptions. Pope must have felt that way, too, because then he writes about how “pictures like these… ask no firm hand and no unerring line”. They are merely his fleeting impressions, appropriate for the subject, because who can paint chamelons only in black and white?