Privy to the Privy — Political Intimacy in the Monarch’s Dressing Room
There is little doubt that Jonathan Swift meant to disgust his readership with the intense scatology of “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The secrets of dear Celia’s morning routine might have traumatized the poor voyeur Strephon, but such secrets were sometimes granted as a sign of political favor. A position in which an aristocrat was allowed to view and assist the monarch in dressing ritual or even personal hygiene was granted as a sign of utmost trust. While the monarch’s dressing room might hold such horrors as Swift lovingly detailed, the honor of glimpsing it was considerably high.
The degree of intimacy and involvement with the monarch’s daily preparations varied with dynasty, culture, and political trends. Henry VIII maintained a position in his household for a “Groom of the Stool”. G.J. Meyer describes this as “assur[ing] that his majesty always had a “sweet and clear” place for his daily evacuations” and “collect[ing] what he expelled” (Meyer, 110). But as he notes immediately afterwards, such a position signified a level of trust and a “degree of access that not even the king’s senior ministers and private secretaries could equal”. The honorable position of defecation-assistant was not typically afforded to many aristocrats, but lesser intimacies could be enjoyed by a greater audience. The French ritual of levée — semi-public dressing and meeting with the monarch — was introduced to the English nobility during the Restoration. Brian Weiser, quoting Simon Thurley, notes that Charles II built a new bedchamber for the purpose of “institut[ing] a daily levee and receiv[ing] guests of distinction”, albeit with less pomp than the Sun King demanded (Weiser, 34). While not as advanced as the privileges enjoyed by the Groom of the Stool, such access into a semi-private arena was seen as a gift — “a sign of intimacy” (Weiser, 35).
However, by the time Swift was lampooning pastoral romance in “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, the levée was a dying ritual. The rise of the Hanoverian dynasty and the increasing power of Parliament proved fatal for the practice. George I severely restricted access to his chambers, preferring instead the company of his trusted servants (“Key Monarchs”). His son staged a brief revival, but his successor George III ended the practice altogether — reworking it into a sort of business meeting devoid of the old intimacy (“Key Monarchs”). Reading “The Lady’s Dressing Room” as a critique of the levée certainly spins the poem in a rare interpretation, but it should be noted that Swift was no stranger to political satire . Perhaps the fast-dying tradition of privileged intimacy with the monarch– like most things in Swift’s misanthropic perspective — hid dank terrors underneath.