The Misogyny of Jonathan Swift & the Feminist Response of Lady Mary Montagu
Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” written in 1732, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s direct response, “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S to Write a Poem Call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room” from 1734 are systematic breakdowns of illusion- both male and female- and close examinations of social and gender conventions within high society, satirical and otherwise. The deep-rooted constructs of misogyny and, in turn, the necessity of feminism, are displayed clearly in these two texts. It is pertinent to bear in mind that even though Swift’s piece was looked at in the context of satire in our classroom discussions, its content is still subject to be considered misogynistic and anti-feminist, and although my knowledge of feminist (and anti-feminist) literature in the 1700s is limited, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” was taken seriously enough by Montagu to elicit a much-needed and well-written response.
“The Lady’s Dressing Room” is an examination of the performance that women put on in regards to their appearance (also seen in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”), and is used both to criticize women for this performance, and to potentially criticize men for allowing themselves to believe that such a performance could be real. Strephon steals into Celia’s dressing room only to find it in disarray and full of foul and odorous belongings: “And first a dirty smock appeared,/ Beneath the armpits well besmeared.” As Strephon stumbles upon the smock, he begins to lament that women are not what they seem, in the following lines, “And Strephon bids us guess the rest,/ But swears how damnably the men lie,/ In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.” It is interesting that in what seems to be a target on women for being unclean and less than hygienic, the lines place the blame on men for calling Celia sweet and cleanly, not on Celia for actually being something other than sweet and cleanly.
Strephon continues to find Celia’s brushes and washcloths and the necessary accessories that make her what she is outside of her dressing room, that prior to sneaking in, he had never considered existed. “Hard by a filthy basin stands,/ Fouled with the scouring of her hands;/ The basin takes whatever comes/ The scrapings of her teeth and gums,/ A nasty compound of all hues,/ For here she spits, and here she spews.” The language used is unwomanly and blatantly unflattering, but still describes nothing that is inhuman or too beyond comprehension, and although the piece really can be seen as quite an attack on the vanity of women, to me, it just calls to attention men’s expectations and their inability to deal with reality when they are faced with it.
In what I find to be the most important line of the poem- “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!.” it is shocking and somewhat dismaying that a human bodily function is viewed as something that entirely tarnishes Strephon’s view of his lover. (Although I myself would be less than pleased to find a reeking chamber pot disguised as a cabinet.) “He lifts the lid, there needs no more,/ He smelled it all the time before./ As from within Pandora’s box,/ When Epimetheus op’d the locks,/ A sudden universal crew/Of human evils upwards flew.” It is a bizarre tendency that many men seem to have, believing that women somehow don’t use the restroom and have bodies that do not need to excrete waste, and calling the stench of a chamber pot “human evils” seems a little excessive and hyperbolic; to my mind, Strephon may be too faint of heart to be able to tolerate (or deserve) a woman.
In the closing of the poem, Strephon laments his findings and acknowledges that he may now be unable to look upon a woman, however made up she may be, and see past her façade of beauty: “But Vengeance, goddess never sleeping/ Soon punished Strephon for his peeping;/ His foul imagination links/ Each Dame he sees with all her stinks.” Maybe, then, more than criticizing the vanity of women, Swift is highlighting the incompetencies in men.
Regardless of Swift’s intentions in “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu two years later published “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S to Write a Poem Call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room,” which is a pithy and haughty piece describing a doctor’s attempt to meet with a prostitute, and his inability to perform: “The Reverend Lover with surprize/ Peeps in her Bubbys, and her Eyes,/ And kisses both, and trys–and trys./ The Evening in this Hellish Play,/ Beside his Guineas thrown away,/ Provok’d the Preist to that degree/ he swore, the Fault is not in me.”
The doctor claims the fault is Betty’s, that her dirty smock smells too strongly and that no man could possibly be aroused with a stench that potent present, saying, “Your damn’d Close stool so near my Nose,/ Your Dirty Smock, and Stinking Toes/ Would make a Hercules as tame/ As any Beau that you can name.” He demands his money back, and when she refuses, the doctor threatens to expose the foulness of her dressing room, to which she responds in the closing couplet (which is my favorite line of Montagu’s poem), “She answer’d short, I’m glad you’l write,/ You’l furnish paper when I shite.” Montagu uses satire in her favor to suggest that Swift’s poem is merely him lashing out at women because of his own anger at himself resulting from his sexual dissatisfaction, and she blames his anger on his own issues in the bedroom.
Both Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Montagu are prime examples of solid critical writing on social conventions in regards to gender from the eighteenth century, and their pieces frame the mindset that was held about both men and women during that time.
Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. “The Reasons that Induced Dr S to Write a Poem Call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room.” http://www.poemhunter.com. Web. 25 Feb 2014. http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/lady-mary-wortley-montagu/the-reasons-that-induced-dr-s-to-write-a-poem-ca/