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”.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady”

This is one of the four poems which Pope meant to incorporate at some point later into his one ambitious great work on ethics, which never happened. The poem is directed to his lifelong friend (so much so that there were even rumours about their impending marriage), Martha “Patty” Blount. The inspiration for the poem is Martha’s remark in a conversation, quoted in the second line: “Most women have no characters at all”. Pope seems to agree, saying that their nature is “too soft a lasting mark to bear” and thus women are best distinguished by the colour of their hair. As an example he quotes the practice of adopting various mythological and historical disguises in which the fashionable ladies used to be painted: a shepherdess, a princess, St Magdalen, St Cecilia. There is even a Leda on his list, even though I’m sure no lady ever allowed herself to be painted as her. But his point is, they are so different and yet so true. So now he is going to give a series of portraits of different women. Rufa (“red-haired” in Latin) attracting the attention of men in the park does not quite agree with Rufa reading Locke, just like Saphho’s diamonds do not agree with her dirty smock (this is apparently a jab at Lady Montagu, who became quite notorious for her slovenliness in dress). I’m not quite sure what he wants to say by it: should pretty women stop having intellectual ambitions? But let’s go on with the list: Silia is nice and doesn’t offend anybody, but throws a tantrum when she gets a pimple on her nose. Papilia longs for a park, but when her rich husband buys her one, she is in tears and says she hates the trees. Here Pope makes a lengthy digression about how ladies are like variegated tulips and all their charm comes from their constant change. This is how Calipso managed to keep Odysseus on the island for seven years: she was “just not ugly, and just not mad”, constantly balancing on the brink of something nasty, but never becoming it. Now I’d say that is a very interesting character. Narcissa constantly balances between piety and vice, reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs one day, and drinking brandy with Francis Charteris (a notorious rake, mentioned by Swift in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”) the next day.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – “Turkish Embassy Letters” (excerpts)

Today I’m switching to the 9th edition of the NAEL, in which “The Lover” was replaced by what is arguably the most famous text by Lady Montagu, Turkish Embassy Letters (the original title is very long and I won’t bother using it, since nobody else seems to do so). Lady Montagu, accompanying her husband during his stint as the ambassador to the Ottoman Porta, wrote numerous letters to her various friends and saved copies of them to be published posthumously. The first selected letter is the one in which Lady Montagu describes her visit to a bath in Sofia (now Bulgaria). She describes in great detail the cab she hired to get there – it has a sort of lattices instead of windowpanes, which Lady Mary finds very comfortable in a hotter climate, and she also likes the fact that you can peep outside without being seen. She gets to the bathhouse, tips the portress at the entrance, as the custom is, and then goes in. The bathhouse consists of five domed rooms joined together, the hall, one room with cold water fountain, one heated by sulphur steam, and the two other ones with hot water. The bathhouse at this early hour (about 10 am) is already full of women – Lady Mary thinks at least two hundred of them – and all of them stark naked. She feels and looks out of place among them in her European riding dress, but they treat her with utmost civility and she never hears snide comments like one could at a ball in England if one was not dressed fashionably enough (of course, at this point she doesn’t know the local language very wel, either). The women invite her to sit and try to take her dress off, but she resists. She loosens her clothes a bit and shows them her stays, which they interpret as a kind of chastity belt forced on her by her husband and let her be. All the women move about freely, without trying to conceal or cover the imperfections of their bodies. They are naked but dignified, like Eve in paradise. Many of them have quite beautiful skin and bodies, but their nudity is pure. Lady Mary comments she would like to be able to show this image to her friend Charles Jervas, a painter, because she often had a thought that if we walked around naked, our bodies would attract more attention than our faces, and in this bathhouse she sees many attractive bodies which are not paired with particularly attractive faces. The women of Sofia go to this bathhouse once a week, usually spending there four or five hours, lounging about, gossiping, drinking sherbets and the like – this is the coffee house for women, as she calls it. (It’s worth remembering that at this point women not only in Turkey but also in England could not attend coffee houses.) She’d love to stay there longer, but her husband was in a hurry and wanted to leave Sofia the next day. Lady Mary wanted to see yet St Sofia’s Church before she left, but was kind of disappointed, because the view of the bathhouse was much more agreeable to her than “a heap of stones”. St Sofia’s Church is certainly more than that, but I guess Lady Montagu was one of these travellers who are mostly interested in people watching, not seeing buildings. She ends by saying triumphantly: “see, that’s something you could not read of in any travel book so far, because any man who tries to enter the bathhouse is punished by death.”

Lady Mary’s dream about showing the inside of the bathhouse to a painter was famously made true by Ingres’s fantasy. But of course, it’s just his imagination and as such, I’m afraid it’s very male-gazey and sort of misses the point of this description.

Eliza Haywood – “Fantomina” (ctd.)

Beauplaisir goes to bed first, thinking that she is not going to wear her mask in bed and sooner or later he is going to discover her identity. She does come to him, but in the morning, when he hears the street noises, he realizes the light has been completely shut out. He complains, but Incognita flees the room and only then the servants come and open the blinds. They help him dress and bring him tea. In the next room he finds his lover, presumably again with the mask on. He remonstrates with her, saying that it’s unfair she shows her face to her servants and not to him. He leaves her house disgruntled, promising himself not to come back. She doesn’t mind, thinking he will return anyway, or if he won’t, she can think of another disguise to lure him. In the meantime, she continues to write to Beauplaisir and meet him as Fantomina and the Widow Bloomer, but he is so insipid during these dates that she thinks about dumping him. But at this point the fun is cut short, because Fantomina’s mother returns from abroad, having heard some gossips about her daughter scandalous behaviour (so wasn’t Fantomina careful enough or even her life as herself drew some opprobrium?) Her mother controls her carefully and she can’t go out as she pleases anymore. At the same time, she finds herself pregnant. If not for her mother, she would find a way to hide her pregnancy, but at this point all she can do is to hide her pregnancy by eating little, tight lacing and big hoop skirts. Her mother wants to send her back to her country home and she hopes to escape from there to some secret place, but unfortunately childbirth starts earlier than she planned, and at a court ball, no less. Nobody guesses the cause for the sudden pain: she is sent home in a chair and her mother follows in another, thinking she is mortally ill. The summoned doctor, however, soon realizes what is going on and tells her mother she needs not a doctor but a midwife. Her mother is first astonished and then angry. She bursts into her bedroom and demands to know the identity of the father. She threatens her daughter that she won’t send for help until she reveals who the father is and finally the girl gives up. Her mother then immediately calls the midwife and sends a letter to Beauplaisir, asking him to come immediately. He gets the letter and comes immediately, although somewhat surprised at the summons, because he hasn’t met Fantomina’s mother before.

Eliza Haywood – “Fantomina” (ctd.)

After some time, Beauplaisir’s affection towards the Widow Bloomer starts to cool off as well, but Fantomina has foreseen it and already has another project “in embryo”, as the narrator notes, anticipating perhaps the conclusion of the story. She muffles herself, goes to the Mall, picks up two penniless gentlemen there. She tells them that she thinks fortune has not treated them as they deserve, which I think shows her great understanding of masculine nature. She offers them a job, which, as she assures them, is nothing illegal or compromising, just an innocent frolic, gives them some money and promises to pay much more. Of course they readily accept. She then goes off and finds another house to rent, this time picking a particularly large and expensive one. She then calls the two gentlemen and tells them to put on the liveries and pretend they are they servants. She then sends one of them with a letter to Beauplaisir, saying that he should pretend, if asked, to be unwilling to reveal the identity of his employer, not to be unable. In the letter, written with yet another hand, she introduces herself to Beauplaisir as “Incognita”, a young and beautiful lady of rank who is very much in love with him and invites him for a date tomorrow, although she will never reveal to him her name or her face. This alter ego is probably the closest to the real identity of the heroine.