There was an excellent turn out to this hotly awaited addition to the CRECS programme, which set out to explore the (fifty?) shades of grey that existed in eighteenth century attitudes to sex, gender and domesticity.
Participants gathered around the tables in Special Collections and Archives, upon which were scattered extracts from the texts for discussion. First, we heard from Melanie Bigold, introducing Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina; or Love in a Maze (1725). A radical rewrite of the typical ‘persecuted maiden’ tale, Haywood attributes sexual desire, cunning and power to her female protagonist. Our heroine, an upper-class lady from the provinces, newly arrived in London, decides to impersonate a prostitute, upon observing the relaxed, easy conversation they seem able to hold with men. In this guise, she successfully engages the rakish Beauplaisir in conversation, an encounter which ends in her rape. Undefeated, yet concerned for her reputation, she creates a false identity, ‘Fantomina’, and continues to pursue Beauplaisir. He quickly tires of her, and in response to this inconstancy, Fantomina turns once more to her dressing up box. She dons a series of disguises in order to engineer multiple seductions of Beauplaisir, posing as different women. There is no mention of Fantomina’s hope or need for marriage; she is solely motivated by desire, and possibly the power-play and revenge implicit in routinely tricking Beauplaisir into sex. Participants took turns reading sections of Fantomina aloud, to fully immerse themselves in Haywood’s prose style.
Next, Anthony Mandal distributed copies of William Hogarth’s sequence of six satirical paintings depicting the consequences of arranged marriage, Marriage à-la-Mode (1743–45). The series plots the failed relationship of the young Viscount (later Earl) Squanderfield who is married to a miserly merchant’s daughter, whom he proceeds to neglect in favour of his child-like mistress. The young countess takes herself a lover (the lawyer Silvertongue), who—when confronted in flagrante delicto —murders the earl, leading to his own execution and the countess’s suicide. While not as successful as Hogarth’s more famous A Harlot’s Progress (1731–32) and A Rake’s Progress (1732–33), Anthony argued that in many ways Marriage represents the crowning achievement of Hogarth’s satirical didacticism. As well as pointing out how Hogarth straddled the division between high art (in his paintings) and popular trade (through his engravings), Anthony also suggested that in examining Hogarth’s work we see both developments in the genre of art and in the representation of society itself. Hogarth’s rise is emblematic of the emergence of the bourgeoisie during the eighteenth century, and his didacticism suggests an attitude critical of both the debauched upper classes and the aspirational middle classes.
Close inspection reveals fascinating details in the tableaux, and their symbolism:
- black patches of skin: syphilis
- overturned furniture: domestic disarray
- scattered playing cards: moral dissolution
- broken sword: impotence
- carpet rolled at the base of a column: lack of foresight
- a half-obscured painting: obscenity
- cobwebs: neglect
Finally, Sophie Coulombeau discussed the eighteenth century conduct book: the ancestor of the modern self-help book or magazine advice column. These didactic books were aimed largely at young women, and sought to instruct them in correct behaviour and deportment. Sophie began by pointing out how present-day glamour magazines aimed at young women play on the objectification and policing of women, whose identities continue to be predicated on pleasing male desire. Establishing connections between these aspirational magazines that focus on glamour and sexuality and the moralising primers aimed at young women, Sophie focused on one of the most popular works of the genre, Dr John Gregory’s Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1774, written 1761). Again, the group read extracts from the work aloud, which were met with raucous gales of most unladylike laughter. Gregory warns women against all expressions of wit: ‘it may sometimes gain you applause, but will never procure you respect’, and learning, which should be kept ‘a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look [upon it] with a jealous and malignant eye.’ A number of conduct books and advice manuals in Special Collections and Archives, which are available for consultation—provided mirth can be controlled in the reading room, of course.
The seminar concluded with a lively group discussions on the texts and paintings, in which the group were asked to read and discuss extracts from each of the texts and copies of the images considered. A range of issues were flagged by the audience, not least concepts of gender as performance, the unavoidable presence of capitalism within Hogarth’s pictures and the ways in which these readings of eighteenth-century materials could be connected to a longer tradition (back to Early Modern religious material and forward to Victorian sensation fiction). The evening concluded by participants’ withdrawal to the CRECS parlour to partake of some well-deserved pretzels and wine.