The hawker shows you [the poem] in print,
As fresh as farthings from the mint:
The product of your toil and sweating;
A bastard of your own begetting.
Swift, “On Poetry: A Rhapsody”
<1> When Cardinal Querini requests copies of her books for prominent
display in his public library, Mary Wortley Montagu is offended,
telling her friend and patron that she has never “printed a
single line in [her] Life” (Selected
In a letter detailing the quarrel, Montagu explains to her
daughter that she has been passive on principle when it comes to
Sure no body ever had such various provocations to print as my
selfe. I have seen things
I have wrote so mangle’d and falsify’d I have scarce known them.
I have seen Poems I
never read publish’d with my Name at length, and others that
were truly and singly wrote
by me, printed under the names of others. I have made my selfe
easy under all these
mortifications by the refflection I did not deserve them, having
never aim’d at the Vanity
of popular Applause . . . . (Selected
that the corruptions associated with unauthorized editions—from
local errors to outright misattributions—might be taken as
“provocations to print” but she purposely renounces
the control that could come with selling and publicly owning her
The cost to her sense of decorum and integrity would be too
high. In fact, the messy, greedy print market has her within its
grasp: her writings have made their way from manuscript to
print; they have been sold and read and connected with her name.
She even admits that she now objects less fervently when
recognized as an author in Italy: “I confess I have often been
complemented . . . on the Books I have given the Public. I us’d
at first to deny it with some Warmth, but finding I persuaded no
body, I have of late contented my selfe with laughing when ever
I heard it mention’d . . . ” (Selected 392) However she
justifies her identification with the aristocratic—and obviously
increasingly anachronistic—ideal of the closeted person of
letters scribbling for her own pleasure and that of her intimate
friends, on intentional grounds: she has “never aim’d at . . .
popular Applause.” Another comment later in the same letter
suggests it’s not only nobility but femininity too that fuels
Montagu’s investment in this traditional ideal. She tells her
daughter that there’s a silver lining in female subservience:
“The small proportion of Authority that has fallen to my share .
. . has allwaies been a Burden and never a pleasure . . . I have
allwaies thought corrections (even when necessary) as painful to
the giver as to the Sufferer, and am therefore very well
satisfy’d with the state of Subjection we [women] are placed in”
(Selected 393). To be female is to be exempt from the
pain of giving “corrections.” It is telling that Montagu invokes
the term commonly used in the period to refer to the process of
copyediting a manuscript for publication: her authorial
innocence is still on her mind.
her significant output of poems, essays, and letters, and
notwithstanding the urgings of several accomplished—and
published—friends and acquaintances including Alexander Pope and
Mary Astell, Montagu kept her distance from print throughout her
Here her rationale for refusing to publish bears the stamp of
her special brand of contrarian feminism. It echoes, for
instance, her celebration of Muslim’s women’s full-body veil as
an instrument of empowerment that, like a masquerade costume, “gives [women] the entire liberty of following their inclinations
without discovery” (Turkish
Embassy Letters 71). The social and cultural limitations
women face in fact provide fertile soil for female
self-definition: lemonade will be made from lemons. Yet
Montagu’s belief that attaching one’s name to printed works
would necessarily entail a loss or compromise for an author was
by no means unique to her: many writers shared such concerns in
a period of dramatic change in the socioeconomics of literary
circulation. In 1694 the Bank of England had been founded,
facilitating the flow of capital around the country. The
following year Parliament had allowed the Printing and Licensing
Act to lapse: both the state and the booksellers’ guild, known
as The Stationers’ Company, lost their official jurisdiction
over not only which
books were made and sold, but also where, how, and by whom. A
commercial publishing industry soon began to flourish. By 1705,
the number of printers in London had nearly tripled.
As Margaret Ezell, Harold Love, Paula McDowell, and others have
pointed out, what we would now call print culture did not emerge
in a single decade. Montagu was one of many eighteenth-century
authors—particularly poets, aristocrats, and women—who continued
the dominant practice of the previous century: authorizing only
the manual transmission of her writings, she subscribed to a
traditional system of literary value which held that fame rhymed
with shame, that it was the quality, not the quantity, of one’s
readers that mattered. However, the success of the print trade
was changing the terms of all textual production, not least
because there was nothing to stop publishers from printing and
selling any manuscript that came their way.
<3> This essay will argue that Montagu’s pose of willful passivity
with respect to print and her awareness of the archaism of her
position given the development of the publishing industry are
central to “Reasons that Induced Dr S[wift] to write a Poem
call’d the Lady’s Dressing room,” which she wrote within two
years of the appearance of Jonathan Swift’s most famous
scatological poem. In Swift’s poem, Strephon takes an illicit,
and too intimate, tour of Celia’s toilet, which concludes when
he reaches into a chamber pot that has been disguised as a
pretty cabinet. In Montagu’s poem, Dean Swift shames himself
sexually then proposes to get revenge on his lover by publishing
an obscene description of her chamber. Since Robert Halsband
introduced it in 1970, other critics have tended to agree with
him that in imagining Swift’s poem’s fictional origins, Montagu
particularly targeted its misogyny.
Certainly the title of Montagu’s poem, which borrows from a
formula used by early eighteenth-century political pamphleteers
(“Reasons that Induced”), promises an ideological critique of
some kind (Lady Mary
343). However, as I read it, the battle of the sexes Montagu
stages is entangled in and ultimately subordinated to her
critique of the print market: layered allusions to classical,
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry at once shape her
attack on Swift’s conflicted relation to commercial authorship
and ultimately shed light on her own evasive dance with
publicity and publication. Now widely anthologized, Montagu’s
poem is known as one of the most energetic expressions of
antipatriarchal outrage in the early eighteenth-century canon. I
aim not so much to challenge as to nuance this reputation by
shifting attention to the poem’s sophisticated formal engagement
with a set of issues as close to Swift’s heart as her own.
<4> Though Montagu imitates the broad octosyllabic couplets and the
urban grit of Swift’s mock-pastoral, she replaces his
dressing-room-tour-as-cure-for-love theme with another
that of the imperfect enjoyment.
Having roots in Book 3 of Ovid’s
Amores and Petronius’s
satirical narrative of male sexual dysfunction had been revived
by Rémy Belleau in sixteenth-century France, then translated or
revised by a handful of English Restoration poets including
Aphra Behn, George Etherege, and the Earl of Rochester.
Montagu repeats the basic plot of the imperfect enjoyment, or
disappointment: after her Doctor Swift finally gains access to
his beloved Betty’s “bower,” he “tries—and tries” to please her
as a lover but discovers that he is impotent, and this makes him
angry. Yet, focusing in particular on how a new era
of economic opportunism affects experiences of authorship and
erotic embodiment, Montagu adapts the mock-pastoral convention
in several significant ways.
<5> Typically the swains in impotence poetry are quickly enflamed
and aggressive. Behn’s “Amorous Lysander,” for instance, is “by
an Impatient Passion sway’d” (2), Rochester’s speaker “clasp[s]”
his lover in “longing Armes” (1). Etherege’s lover makes a first
move that his “enemy” must resist “with pleasing force” (qtd. in
Braudy 182). Montagu’s Swift is anything but. He’s slow and
fussy, a fop. He “stalks” (5) down a London street in a “clean,
starch’d Band” (1), flaunting his diamond ring and a “Golden
This opening portrait conflates Swift’s pretentious tobacco
habit with Dublin’s Freedom of the City in a gold box, the
citizenship award he’d received in 1730. It was reputed that,
while clamoring loudly for the prize over a period of three
years, Swift had already composed an inscription for the box: to
“the most eminent patriot and greatest ornament of this his
native city and country” (Ehrenpreis 651; Kelly 80).
A prissy appetite for approval defines Montagu’s Dean’s
seduction style too. He first tries to impress Betty with verbal
tricks—joking, punning, swearing (9)—then resorts to
anecdotes about the “part he bore / In OXFORD’s Schemes in Days
of yore” (11-12)—that is, his short-lived career, two decades
before, as a Tory propagandist. Thus, well before any sexual
contact with Betty, Swift’s masculinity appears damaged—not by
an excess of testosterone, but rather by his too cerebral and
self-conscious pursuit of public recognition.
<6> For her part, Betty, Swift’s beloved, as the British name
signals, is no Arcadian maiden, but the servant to Celia, the
absent lady of “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Betty’s intimacy with
the Dean is as forced as his with her, though far less
romanticized. In traditional impotence poetry, nymphs comply
sexually because they can’t help themselves. Ovid’s Corinna
“pressed / Her thighs up snug under [his] [and] plied [him] with
sexy kisses / Tongue exploring like mad” (7: 8-10); Rochester’s
Corinna “clipps [him] to her Breast and sucks [him] to her face”
(6); Etherege’s beloved “seem[s] to guide [his hands] to the
fought-for place” (qtd. in Braudy 183); even Behn’s coy nymph
“wants the pow’r” to say no (20). In Montagu’s parody, Jenny the
maid informs the Doctor that to gain access to her mistress he
need simply pay four pounds (18). The significance of this
payment appears to go over his head. He represents the payment
for services-to-be-rendered in the language of chivalry: “The
destin’d Off’ring now he brought, / And in a Paradise of
Thought; / With a low Bow approach’d the Dame, / Who smiling
heard him preach his Flame” (21-24). Betty’s smile is barely
repressed laughter, and it is the “destin’d Off’ring” not the
Dean’s verboseness that “convinces” (26) her of his attraction
to her. When the gold is securely locked away (27), she returns
in a state that the speaker has Swift interpret as “blushing
Grace” (29)—presumably naked and ready to go, given that he will
soon “peep” (69) at her breasts “with surprise” (68).
Prostitution was a very flexible category in the eighteenth
century, subsuming all forms of extramarital sexuality. Montagu
is careful to specify that Betty is drawn to Swift not by carnal
desire or political ambition, either of which would qualify her
for the elevated subcategory of courtesan, but by bare economic
self-interest. As Laura J. Rosenthal has recently argued, common
fears of the psychological effects of “navigating the radically
unstable financial world with only the body’s labour and
imagination’s capacity as resources” were exemplified in the
figure of the whore whose obsession with money destroyed all her
other passions and interests (Infamous
75). Swift’s contract with Betty situates their relationship
squarely within the realm of commerce.
<7> In the
imperfect-enjoyment tradition, men externalize their anger
immediately following impotence or premature ejaculation:
embodiment, it turns out, is a bitch. Following Ovid and
Petronius, Rochester has his speaker chastise his own
objectified penis at length—“Thou Treacherous, base Deserter of
my Flame” (46). Women’s bodies are generally made to take the
fall—for attracting men too much: Behn’s swain blames the “Shepherdess’s Charms” (138), as does Etherege’s in a roundabout way,
telling his nymph, “You’d been more happy had you been less
fair” (qtd. in Braudy 184). Rochester’s speaker holds Corinna at
least partly responsible: “A
touch from any part of her had done’t: / Her hand, her foot, her
very look's a Cunt” (17-18).
when Montagu’s Doctor Swift gets mad, his object is economically
rather than physically material. Though he has up till now
feigned ignorance of it, at the moment of his impotence it is
revealed that he is all too aware that his connection to Betty
is founded on exchange: “The Ev’ning in this hellish Play /
Besides his Guineas thrown away, / Provok’d the Priest to that
degree, / He swore . . . ” (70-73). Indeed the “Rev’rend Lover”
(67) is unable to sustain his façade of courtship through a
single sentence: “With all my Heart, I’ll go away,” he tells
Betty, “But nothing done, I’ll nothing pay: / Give back the
Money” (82-84). There’s a subtextual pun here: if the Dean
cannot spend—ejaculate—then why must he spend his guineas? For
all Swift’s old-fashioned foreplay, even mock-pastoral vestiges
of sensuality are gone. He can conceive of his sexual loss only
in the abstract quantitative terms of the marketplace.
<8> Disappointment generally makes rakes think—about the vexed
relationship between the mind and the body, between desire and
love, about the possibility that their much-vaunted pleasure
principle is as naïve as the Petrarchan ideals they consciously
reject. This turn to discourse brings a different (implicitly
better) form of satisfaction. The energy Rochester’s speaker
gets from spewing venom at himself and Corinna clearly has some
sort of compensatory effect. Ovid’s speaker even finds himself
getting aroused—“Yet now—what
perverse timing!—just look at it, stiff and urgent, / Eager to
go campaigning, get on the job” (7: 67-68)—as he remembers his
impotence in verse. And disappointment makes rakes want to
write. With respect to this sense that the body’s mechanical
failures might be redeemed through language, the Dean is not
unlike his frustrated forefathers. But the crassly
public linguistic production the Dean proposes is decidedly
un-rakish. He yells at Betty: “I’ll be revenged you sawcy Quean
. . . / I’ll so describe your
Dressing-Room, / The very
Irish shall not come” (96, 98-99). During the Restoration,
poetry in general had been almost exclusively an aristocratic
genre, and the imperfect enjoyment was the mode
par excellence of the
libertine-wit writing for the amusement of friends and
acquaintances. As they circulated in and around Whitehall
Palace, witty accounts of heterosexual humiliation especially
bolstered the homosocial relationships that were most crucial to
success at court. The printed “description” Montagu’s Swift
imagines writing hinges on a modern textual economy in which
reputation, revenge, and success have calculable values. At the
very least he wants to slander Betty and thus to spoil her
earning potential. Ideally, he also wants to recover the four
pounds he has “lost” through the unfulfilled contract. Swift’s
aim to ensure that his description of Betty’s dressing room will
put off the “very Irish”
points to the wide audience he hopes to reach and is suggestive
of more starkly instrumental author-reader relations than those
cultivated and nurtured by manuscript circulation. The
Anglo-Irish Dean doesn’t respect true Irishmen—Betty’s chamber
is going to have to sound really disgusting if he is going to
perturb these foul people. Nevertheless he is prepared to adjust
his discourse—indeed, even to lie—in order to get the attention
of members of the lowest sphere of society since this will help
his cause. In this way, Montagu evokes Swift’s complicated
attachment to the people of his home and native land and, at the
same time, efficiently caricatures the inclusivity of commercial
<9> At the end of
her poem, Behn points in passing to a hidden well of female rage
when the speaker mentions that she identifies with the young
woman whose sexual misadventures she has been narrating in the
third person: “The
Nymph’s Resentments none but I / Can well Imagine or
In Montagu’s poem,
for the first time in the history of the form, several female
subjects openly speculate about the causes of male sexual
furious” (78), Betty’s response is direct.
Swift’s threat of slander, Betty counters: “What if your Verses
have not sold, / Must therefore I return your Gold? / Perhaps
you have no better Luck in / The Knack of Rhyming than of
[fucking]” (90-93). Given the date of the poem’s composition,
the jibe about Swift’s verses not selling may refer to the
multiple calls for subscriptions to a multi-volume collection of
writings by “Dr S” that had appeared in the
Dublin Journal since
early in 1733. To be published in Ireland by George Faulkner,
this solo venture represented a turning point in Swift’s career,
but, as Stephen Karian has demonstrated, he felt a good deal of
ambivalence about it. On the one hand, he knew he was
dissatisfied by the multi-volume, multi-author collections whose
publication his friend, Pope, had recently directed in London:
in the Miscellanies
(1727-32), authorship was unattributed, royalties were
nonexistent, and the selection and editing processes were
entirely out of his hands. He would have more control working
with a local bookseller like Faulkner. On the other hand, Swift
wasn’t thrilled to be publishing in Ireland. A London edition of
his own would have been much more prestigious, but all his
efforts to strike a deal with publishers based in the capital
had failed. For two years, the date of the first Faulkner
edition was repeatedly announced then delayed, and in letters to
friends written throughout this period Swift often implied that
Faulkner was launching the series without his permission (Ehrenpreis
779-90 and Karian 30-43). Betty’s retort invokes the new system
of values to which Swift becomes subject, whether he likes it or
not, when entering the volatile print market: popular appeal and
the bottom line are the only measures of poetic success
recognized by a bookseller. Betty makes impotence a figure for
the risks of doing business. Sexual satisfaction at “Sixty odd”
(79), like writing bestselling rhymes, requires a man to have
not only a certain “Knack” but also “Luck” (93, 92), that
arbitrary mistress, on his side.
speaker offers another explanation of Swift’s authorial and
sexual failures, which she couches in moral maxims mid-way
through the poem. In her “small Digression” (34), Montagu
sketches a normative counterpoint to the marketplace values the
poem satirizes. The prostitute Betty focuses on the salability
of Swift’s verses, which she believes depends, at least in part,
on his good fortune. In the speaker’s “noble Thoughts” (63),
talent (or the lack thereof) is the main concern, and it is
nature alone, especially in the classical sense of capacities
innate in birth and blood, that determines it. Montagu’s
digression imitates a trope from Horace that Swift had recently
reworked in “On Poetry: A Rhapsody”: “Brutes
find out where their talents lie: / A bear will not attempt to
fly . . . /
But man we find the only creature
Who, led by Folly, combats Nature . . . ” (13-14, 19-20).
For Swift, “talent” is a manifestation of “Nature” that dictates
what it is appropriate for each living thing to do. Human beings
are the only creatures so stupid as to try to fight this force,
and he will go on to specify that, among men, those who write
poetry with an eye to personal gain—whether of patronage, fame,
or money—are the most foolish of all. Montagu’s digression
subtly recasts nature in traditional social-hierarchical terms:
mad, with Learning blind,
The Ox thinks
he’s for Saddle fit,
(As long ago Friend Horace
And Men their
Talents still mistaking,
fancys his is speaking . . .
. . . The Beau
affects the Politician,
Wit is the
Citizen’s Ambition . . .
None strive to
know their proper Merit,
But strain for
Wisdom, Beauty, Spirit.
Nature to ev’ry
Points out the
Path to shine or thrive,
But Man, vain
Man, who grasps the whole,
Shows in all
Heads a Touch of Fool;
Who lose the
Praise that is their due,
th’Impossible in view . . .
Hound does better teach,
undertook to preach;
Hare from Dogs does run,
attempts to bear a Gun—
is that Swift, like the stuttering orator, political beau, and
would-be wit, is a misfit who has failed to recognize his
“proper Merit” (49). On the one hand, the Dean has “strained”
basely: his scatological impulses and attention to a common
whore are grotesque repudiations of “Wisdom, Beauty, Spirit.” On
the other hand, and worse, his affectations—his poetry and
other strategies for self-promotion, the pristine clothing, and
fussy manners—represent an “Impossible” upward strain: they are
vain (both pompous and futile) attempts to exceed the social
sphere he was born to occupy. “Nature to ev’ry thing alive, /
Points out the path to shine or thrive,” the speaker insists.
The Dean can neither “shine” nor “thrive” because he has strayed
from the path appropriate to his low blood and, to a lesser
extent, his age. The “Path . . . to thrive” also refers to the
middle path, the classical ideal of moderation, which is
obscured by the Dean’s various aspirations, and also, slyly, to
Betty’s vagina, which he will never penetrate. Via Betty,
Montagu makes the specter of Swift’s limp phallus into a
satirical symbol of the contingencies of the print market; in
the speaker’s oblique attack, impotence conjures the inevitable
failures of a lowborn man who tries to transcend his proper
place. Not only is Swift not entitled to public status, a burden
that Montagu, as a woman, shares with him, unlike her he is
naturally talentless in poetry.
<11> But Montagu
cuts deepest with a pointed allusion to “The Lady’s Dressing
Room.” The Dean blames his impotence on the smell of Betty’s
chamber (74-77). After he demands a refund of his four pounds,
Betty challenges: “I’ve lock’d it in the Trunk stands there, /
Go break it open if you dare” (86-87). Montagu’s title positions
the speaker and her readers in an impossible, circular moment
that is at once chronologically prior to the writing of “The
Lady’s Dressing Room” and at the same time fully aware of its
content. Recalling Swift’s poem now, we take it as his
acceptance of Betty’s challenge—and yet another misfire. With
Betty’s challenge, Montagu retrospectively rewrites the whole of
Swift’s poem as a nightmarish repetition of this earlier
disappointment, in which, seeking retribution for his sexual
humiliation, Swift’s alterego, Strephon, “dares” to penetrate
the trunk in his beloved’s boudoir only to face a further and
greater humiliation. At the (anti)climax of the “revenge” poem,
Strephon’s discovery that “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (118)
traumatizes him. Forever thereafter “[h]is
foul imagination links / Each
dame he sees with all her stinks / And, if unsavoury odours fly
/ Conceives a lady standing by” (121-24). Appropriating and
redirecting the associative disorder depicted in “The Lady’s
Dressing Room,” Montagu has the Dean mistake his own guineas for
human waste. One dirty secret has been joined by “foul
Imagination” (121) to another. Thus Strephon’s fear of women’s
bodily materiality (which is not far from the misogynist anger
of disappointed Restoration rakes) is in fact a displacement of
Swift’s fear of the economic calculus to which he has
reluctantly made himself subject—in particular, his fear of the
exchange value that creates equivalences between utterly
disparate things, like gold coins, sex acts, and his poetry.
Betty and the speaker mock Swift’s efforts to gain public renown
through his poetry, but the poem’s more scathing abuse lies in
the anxiety over marketplace transactions attributed to the
<12> As Montagu well knew, the critique of print culture and
self-satire were both specialties of Swift’s. His
mock-treatise, Tale of a
Tub, was one of the earliest texts to warn against the
political and religious dangers posed by the lapse of the
Licensing Act, and his poem, “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” cited
above, narrates the progress of a modern poem from inspiration
and composition to publication and public reception as an absurd
and degrading waste of time that scars the poet for life. The
lines in my epigraph portray the modern poet’s profound sense of
alienation when first encountering his work in public—in this
case, in the hands of a street hawker. The poem is as “fresh as
farthings from the mint” because the commercial context of its
publication likens it to paper currency.
And it is
a “bastard” because to get it published the poet has had to form
an unholy alliance with the bookseller. “On Poetry” circulated
widely both in manuscript and in a tamer print version
throughout Swift’s lifetime (Karian 103-32). In his personal
parodies, Swift made his suspicious fascination with public
recognition—Had he achieved it? Did he desire it? What did it
signify?—central to his authorial persona, and regularly
exploited the cultural tensions between manuscript and print to
do so. One vivid example is the media event
surrounding his poem “The Life and Genuine Character of Dr
Swift.” While he was composing it between 1731 and 1733, he
staged a hoax that capitalized on the reputation of a longer
manuscript poem on the same subject called “Verses on the Death
of Dr Swift.” In both works, friends and acquaintances give
mean-spirited or trite posthumous assessments of Swift’s
contributions to British letters. First in the
Dublin Journal there
was an announcement “we have reason to believe [that the true
copy of a certain poem] will be published in a few days, to the
great delight and entertainment of the world, and probably
equally to the vexation of the author . . .” (qtd. in Ehrenpreis
709); the newer poem was published, and then there was another
announcement in which Swift denied having written it.
Betty’s parting blow in Montagu’s poem—“I’m glad you’ll write, /
You’ll furnish Paper when I Sh[it]e” (100-01)—invokes a popular
trope of the period that exploded the idea of literary exchange
value by imagining printed pages reduced to their basic
(material) use value, a trope that Swift also employs, for
instance, when, in his poem “Drapier’s Hill,” he pictures his
own “famous Letters”—the
influential political treatises he wrote in the voice of an
Irish drapier—“made waste paper” (17).
In another personal parody, a mock-country-house poem written to
circulate among friends called “Panegyric on the Dean,” Swift
how the demise of communal ideals affects experiences of all
kinds of physical and mental labour—whether writing a poem,
ejaculating, or defecating—and the cultural value of these
“products.” As Ann Cline Kelly has argued, commenting on the
changing media culture of the early eighteenth century was not
merely an intellectual exercise for Swift. He was a brilliant
media performer: circulating different versions of his writing
via multiple channels and often advertising this multiplicity,
he tested the shifting registers of meaning, modes of
authorship, and textual relations associated with manuscript and
<13> If, as critics often suggest, Montagu was hoping to beat Swift
at his own game, there are at least three ways to construe the
Induced Dr S[wift] to write a Poem call’d the Lady’s Dressing
formally. Though Montagu appropriates many of Swift’s moves and
motifs, she puts them in the service of her original
modernization of the imperfect enjoyment, a mode of
mock-pastoral that he had largely neglected. Second:
psychologically. Swift sometimes represents himself as desperate
for admiration but never for money; and Judith Mueller has
observed of his few late-career experiments with the imagery of
phallic failure in particular that
“Swift treats his impotence as an advantage”
(59), since, on the literal/physical level, it shores up his
preferred role as a discipliner of women’s erotic desires, and,
as a symbol of linguistic incompetence, it cleverly masks his
real rhetorical power.
Montagu’s representation of
Swift’s paranoid and ineffectual complicity with print commerce
is much less flattering and much less forgiving than anything in
his self-satire. Finally, the poem’s own circuitous path to
publicity opens up a third way to reckon Montagu’s out-Swifting
of Swift. The poem was published—without
after she wrote it.
notes that it is unclear whether Montagu or someone else
arranged for the poem’s printing since Montagu’s fair copy,
which she excluded from the album of works that she regularly
shared and acknowledged as her own, was significantly different
from the first published version (“Lady Mary” 342-43). Even if
she was not actively involved,
must have predicted that her lively treatment of a hot topic
would not long be constrained within close circles, that if
irresistible enough her closet experiment would be propelled
into print. Indeed Montagu probably hoped to make readers
suspect that Swift, whose career she obviously followed
attentively, was the author of her satire.
Performed as if inadvertently before a large audience, such a
disappearing act would be both a classically Swiftian gesture
and a powerful public affirmation of her elite female
entitlement to authorial privacy.
<14> Recently feminist literary scholars have begun looking to
complicate the critical approaches to eighteenth-century women’s
writing developed four decades ago when efforts to expand the
canon first became widespread. We are “recovering from
recovery,” as Rosenthal puts it. She observes that
because certain women writers “were brought into the canon at a
particular time and through the lens of particular questions, we
still have much to learn beyond those initial inquiries” (10).
Paula R. Backscheider proposes that though we should continue to
account for the different (often limited) resources available to
women writers, greater attention must be paid to their agency in
all its complexity—to their inventiveness on the page and their
ingenious modes of self-definition in the world of letters and
beyond it. In particular, Backscheider hopes we can move away
from an earlier mode of critique focused on sexism and fueled by
anger: “To seek and privilege anti-patriarchal themes falsifies
women’s—and human—literary history,” she writes, “and while I
give the theme of defiance its due, I believe that emphasis on
it has been almost as much a detriment to assessment as
trivialization” (xvi). For both Backscheider and Rosenthal, Mary
Wortley Montagu is a prime example of a female writer who has at
once benefited from and been boxed in by the recovery project.
At first glance, “Reasons that Induced Dr S[wift] to Write a
Poem Call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room” has seemed to many critics
to epitomize and authorize defiance feminism, and the fact that
it has done so has almost certainly facilitated its (and
Montagu’s) fast and smooth assimilation into the new
eighteenth-century canon. In this essay, I have
tried to point out some of the subtleties that this
characterization obscures. I have argued that Montagu reworked
the imperfect enjoyment tradition with an eye to Swift’s oeuvre
in an effort to create an innovative and apt lever for the
expression of her aristocratic distaste for the print market—and
perhaps also to lay claim to anonymity, that toehold in the
chaos of media shift, as the prerogative of the noblewoman
writer above all. In the period since the recovery project
began, scholars have looked at “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
through an amazing variety of formal, cultural, historicist,
psychoanalytic, and feminist lenses; Montagu’s reply to Swift
deserves, and will reward, the same.
Backscheider, Paula R.
Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency,
Inventing Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005. Print.
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“Swift among the Women.”
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Palmeri. New York:
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“Rochester’s World of Imperfect Enjoyment.”
Journal of English and
Philology 73.3 (1974):
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
---. “The Politics of
Female Authorship: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Reaction to the
Printing of Her
The Book Collector 31.1 (1982): 19-37. Print.
The Life of Lady Mary
Wortley Montagu. New York: Oxford UP, 1956. Print.
---. “Ladies of Letters in the Eighteenth Century.”
The Lady of Letters in the
Eighteenth Century. Eds.
Irvin Ehrenpreis and
Robert Halsband. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial
1969. 31-51. Print.
---. “‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ Explicated by a Contemporary.”
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Landa. Ed. Henry Knight Miller, Eric Rothstein and G.S.
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Kelly, Ann Cline.
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Modern Print Culture: Assessing the Models.”
The Book History Reader.
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“Mediating Media Past and Present: Toward a Genealogy of ‘Print
This is Enlightenment.
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---. “The Dean’s Provocation
for Writing the Lady’s Dressing-Room.” Halsband. 228-31.
---. “The Reasons that
Induced Dr S[wift] to Write a Poem Call’d the Lady’s Dressing
and Poems and Simplicity,
A Comedy. Eds. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy. Oxford:
Clarendon P, 1977.
---. “The Reasons that
Induced Dr S[wift] to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing
Literature, 1640-1789: An
Anthology. Ed. Robert Demaria, Jr. Malden, MA: Blackwell,
768-69, 779-81. Print.
---. “The Reasons That
Induced Dr S[wift] to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing
Norton Anthology of
Volume C: The Restoration and the Eighteenth
Century. Eds. Lawrence
Lipking and James Noggle. New York: Norton, 2006. 2593-95.
Reasons that Induced Dr. S[wift] to Write a Poem Called ‘The
Lady’s Dressing Room.’” The
Anthology of Early Women Writers: British Literary Women from
Aphra Behn to Maria
1660-1800. Eds. Katharine Rogers and William McCarthy. New York:
Library, 1987. 217-19. Print.
Turkish Embassy Letters.
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“Imperfect Enjoyment at Market Hill: Impotence, Desire, and
Reform in Swift’s Poems
to Lady Acheson.”
ELH 66.1 (Spring
1999): 51-70. Print.
The Amores: Book 3.
The Erotic Poems.
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Petronius, The Satyricon
and Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis. Trans. J.P.
Sullivan. New York:
Penguin, 1986. Print.
“French Sources of the Restoration ‘Imperfect Enjoyment’ Poem.”
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Rochester. Ed. Harold
Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
Rosenthal, Laura J.
Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and
Culture. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell UP, 2006. Print.
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