Ever since the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray made a series of critical remarks about Jonathan Swift in his Lectures on the English Humourists of the 18th Century (1851), Swift has been maligned and calumniated as a misanthrope.1 As this essay argues, however, Thackeray’s charges are largely baseless, and may be criticised and rejected themselves. Indeed, Swift’s poetic reputation should be restored, for his acerbic poems remain valuable to modern readers in many ways. To this end, this essay takes as its object of study Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732), which I will interrogate through a feminist lens.2 This poem views the scenario of Celia’s dressing room through the focalised perspective of a judgemental narrator who describes how “Strephon the rogue” furtively steals into his “goddess” Celia’s dressing room, which is vacant, to discover its secrets. There, Celia has spent the better part of “Five hours, (and [End page 5] who can do it less in?)” dressing; although, when Strephon sees the dressing room, he feels great disillusionment, surprised by its filthy state (1).
While the poem mocks womanly vanity, it also mocks the illusions and delusions that males possess regarding female bodies and the gendered performance of woman. Commencing with an image of the woman paragon, the poem describes the way in which Strephon’s sense of taste and propriety is pushed over the precipice as he clumsily uncovers the baseness of the human body’s function and the innumerable accoutrements that attend the woman’s gendered performance, all of which repulse him. My primary argument is that Strephon is himself mocked and castigated by the narrator for the naive revulsion he feels upon discovering that Celia is, at least in his mind, disgustingly human, particularly as she prepares to enact the gendered performance of a woman. In this sense, this close reading of the poem adopts Judith Butler’s theories of performance and performativity, and Naomi Wolf’s formulation of the beauty myth, to newly demonstrate that Swift’s poem criticises rather than reinforces the patriarchal culture of his day, which underpinned the gendered performance of woman.3
Born in 1667, Swift was an Anglo-Irish prose writer, poet, and cleric who, in 1713, when 46 years old, was appointed to Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. As a writer, Swift presented himself, as Anthony Kamm observes, as “a thorn in the flesh of the British Government,” particularly by writing comically vexatious political commentary.4 The influence of Swift’s literary activism was immense, and with his A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland he ignited the boycott of a proposed new coin system, one that was eventually abandoned by the government.5 The appeal and relevance of Swift’s most acclaimed and recognisable work, Gulliver’s Travels, has persisted to the present, in part due to its satirical insights into human nature and behaviour. Swift’s later years were dedicated to his satirical pamphleteering, when Swift wrote such satirical essays as A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick [End page 6] (1729).6 Commonly abbreviated to A Modest Proposal, the essay proposed the extensive and indiscriminate consumption—which is to say the cannibal eating—of poor Catholic children, and came complete with culinary recipes for cooking them. Swift’s relentless saeva Indignatio—his fierce indignation—was the impetus for his writing, and his uniquely facetious verse has ensured his veneration in literary history.7
Despite Swift’s widely acknowledged talent, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” has been maligned by literary critics who have, for the last two-hundred-and-fifty years, psychoanalysed and diagnosed the poet for his “excremental vision.”8 But then, some critics, such as Pat Rogers, also argue that Swift’s long poetry, composed during the 1730s, represents his most superlative work.9 “The Lady’s Dressing Room” is but one of many scatological poems that Swift wrote; others include “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (1734) and “Strephon and Chloe” (1734).10 These scatological poems often invoke romantic and idealised notions of femininity, but soon interrupt and supplant these visions with revolting and voyeuristic portraits of female intimacy and “base” humanity, presented through graphic and grotesque imagery.
Swift’s apparent fixation on such grotesque scatological imagery has led critics to question his sanity, diagnose him with various psychopathologies, and consider at length varied evidence of his dysfunction, neurosis, and perverted sexuality.11 The biographer Middleton Murry, for instance, has famously described Swift’s scatological poems as “so perverse, so unnatural, so mentally diseased, so humanly wrong.”12 Similarly, Geoffrey Hill categorises Swift as “coprophilious,” seemingly unable (as Thomas B. Gilmore notes) to imagine a purpose for his scatological writing “beyond [that of] amusement.”13 The almost unilateral critical response to and engagement with Swift’s scatological vision is, I argue, a disservice to the poet’s imagination and poetry. Of course, some critics have offered favourable assessments of Swift’s scatological work. Norman O. Brown’s renowned defence of Swift, for example, argues that psychological diagnosis is the remit of psychoanalysts, and should be avoided by literary critics.14 In addition, Brown praises Swift’s imaginative [End page 7] and even prescientific understanding of the notions relating to repression and sublimation, asserting that art is just as effective as science in unveiling and exploring perversion.15 Moreover, as Joseph McMinn observes, Brown’s defence has been influential in quelling the widespread indictment of Swift as a neurotic, an indictment that his scatological poems have incited.16
Critical Responses to Swift
Critical responses to Swift’s scatological poems have included embarrassment, rage, diagnosis, and, finally, serious and careful examination of the poetry.17 The careful examination commenced with Herbert Davis, with his seminal essay “Swift’s view of Poetry” (1967) and with Irvin Ehrenpries, who wrote The Personality of Jonathan Swift (1958).18 But even these appraisals of Swift ignore the humour of the poems, as Davis perceives the poetry “to make every sense revolt with disgust” at “all the bestialities hidden beneath the surface of polite society,” and at “the insane pride of these miserable vermin, crawling about the face of the earth.”19 Ehrenpries posits that Swift’s poem satirises “the stale conventions of love songs,” and is something of an afflicted paean whose calamitous portrayal of humans foments revulsion on the part of the reader.20 Nevertheless, scholars have been reticent to embrace the aesthetic and affective possibilities opened up by Swift’s scatological imagery. There is therefore a need for new analyses of Swift’s scatological poems that do not have recourse to emotional interpretations characterised by repulsion or frivolous embarrassment.
Other appraisals of Swift’s poetry include that of Donald C. Mell Jr., who persuasively argues that Swift’s poem thoroughly scrutinises the limits of both moral truths and aesthetic ideals.21 For the critic Tita Chico, the poem raises questions regarding privacy and autonomy, questions that loom especially large when one examines one of the poem’s central tropes—the satirical chamber pot—as a regulatory strategy imposed on women’s bodies.22 Past critics have fixated on the poem’s alleged immorality, while ignoring its comedy, disserving both the poem and Swift’s [End page 8] ingenuity.23 Even the contemporary critic Laura Brown, in Ends of Empire, critiques Swift’s poem on moral grounds, questioning “the status of misogyny” in Swift’s work, and underlining the fact that Celia is completely absent from the poem; indeed, as Brown notes, it seems that Swift “substitutes the accoutrements and ornaments of the female body for the woman herself.”24 While Brown’s critique is in many ways questionable, her characterisation of “mercantilist capitalist expansion” as an “essential female corruption” is specious too, as it reduces the mistreatment of women to a simple and superficial cause (namely, capitalism).25 Similar to Brown, Laura Baudot asks if the poem is “extravagantly misogynistic.” However, Baudot is less certain of the poem’s meaning, and asks whether it is better understood as, on the one hand, “exposing an essential female corruption, as embodied by Celia” or as, on the other, “an indictment of the objectifying and self-deluded male gaze, as represented by Strephon.”26 Given that the poem’s narrator overtly assails Strephon’s naivety and subtly mocks his impossible idealisation of Celia, Baudot’s latter interpretation seems far more convincing and compelling than the former.
One important rejoinder to the allegation that Swift, or his work, is misogynistic, is that a poem, or even the oeuvre, of an artist cannot suffice to expound or exhibit the author’s true or sincere personal prejudices. As Roland Barthes and others have famously postulated, the author’s identity—their feelings, ideas, beliefs—are immaterial to the interpretation of their work itself.27 What is more, it appears fruitless to question deceased figures. The accessibility to social intercourse with figures like Swift is no longer available, and so, as there can be no answer, the question dissipates into the unknowable realm. The question loses all merit. The objective is to engage with the poem. Sticking to this objective we observe several features that will be developed later once the specific feminist lens is accurately positioned for the correct optical experience. [End page 9]
Gender Performance and Feminism in History
Notions of femininity and masculinity indicate attributes of gender, which are marked on the body as codes or specific signifiers. Performances of gender may involve the making of gestures, sartorial choices, and the possessions or accoutrements of the applicable woman or man.28 However, received notions about what a woman or man is, both socially and behaviourally, only confine humans, excluding and ignoring the lives of those who live outside of these parameters. Petrarchan sonnets, popularised during the Renaissance, use the blazon, a form that details the perfection of feminine features; but this form, at least from our immediate vantage point, also demonstrates the perversion of femininity.29 Blazon poetry influenced many leading figures of English literature, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Shelley. In typical blazons, beatific figures are elevated for all to witness, while failed attempts to emulate the paragon of femininity are mocked, and subject to deliberate distortions of the female anatomy.30 According to Efrat Tseëlon, not just poetry but mythology and theology disseminated the propaganda: the idea of “woman as dissimulation,” of woman as a synonym for artifice and duplicity.31 Appearance and essence in relation to woman was much discussed in the early twentieth century, when theology continued to view femininity as fake, and when psychoanalysts came to regard women’s bodies and minds as little more than the products of a socially constructed masquerade.32 The creation of Eve was frequently cited, and her “derivative nature” said to be “predicated on dissimulation.”33 Schopenhauer made similar claims, writing that “nature has equipped . . . women with the power of dissimulation as her means of attack and defence.”34 And Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, defined woman as false, as someone who rejects truth in so much self-adornment:
What is truth to a woman! From the very first nothing has been more alien, repugnant, inimical to woman than truth—her great art is the lie, her supreme concern is appearance and beauty.35 [End page 10] In the fifteenth century, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger faulted woman: “there was a defect in the formation of the first woman,” they wrote, “since she was born from a bent rib” and “through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”36
Feminism attempts to demonstrate the shared humanity of females and males, removing the segregations and divisions of the past. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?”37 This question has been the focal point of movements that endorse unity among minorities, such as Black Lives Matter, a movement that campaigns against systemic racism in America, particularly as it inheres within the police enforcement and judicial systems.38 Various strands of feminism, at least implicitly and for the present, attempt to affirm the value of all lives (notwithstanding the avowed offensiveness of the slogan “All Lives Matter.”39) In so doing, feminist discourse attempts to unveil patriarchal and capitalist impositions, while navigating collectively toward the achievement of a culture in which equality among humans is a shared value. As Mary E. Hawkesworth suggests, one of the common goals of feminism is to define and exercise the political, economic, and social rights of women, furthering equality among sexes and genders for the betterment of all humans.40
Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
“The Lady’s Dressing Room” articulates the indiscriminate suffering of women through its portrait of their mandatory adherence to unrealistic gender roles. Swift’s poem presents the unpleasantness of humanity, exposing the fraudulence of the women’s gender performance, as well as the pretentions and illusions of men, which are likewise defined by performances of gender and the depraved vanity of narcissism.41 The poem most strikingly mocks and shatters gender codes at the point at which we discover, with the protagonist, that Celia (and therefore all females) defecates—that is, that “Celia shits!”(118) Strephon’s belief in and adherence to gender roles has prompted a departure [End page 11] from reality, so much so that his discovery that women’s bodies function in the same way as men’s elicits his earnest (yet ironic) exclamation of surprise. The ideal image that Strephon envisages of Celia as woman here metamorphoses into a different image altogether—one of the baseness of humanity, now symbolised by Celia the human. And the narrator, in their ironic focalisation of Strephon’s shocked response, castigates and mocks the shocked protagonist’s blind acceptance of the improbable gender ideal.
This poem comments on the role of the woman, exposing the theatrics of her performance. Celia possesses many dresses, or costumes, many vials of ointments, considerable amounts of makeup for her masquerades, and several brushes to complete her character’s appearance. Historically, however, cosmetic alterations to enhance the feminine illusion were achieved not just by means of these external objects, but also by other means, such as through the use of deadly nightshade, or atropa belladonna.42 The word atropa derives from Atropos, one of the fates who in Greek mythology cut the lifestrings of men, while the name bella donna derives from the Italian, meaning “beautiful woman.”43 Turned into a liquid, the ostensibly innocent herb was used by women to dilate their pupils and so to increase the seductiveness of their appearance.44 Part of the Solanaceae family, belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in the world, and its continual use in the eyes would result in blindness—a shock for the women who had merely attempted to increase their desirability.45 Not to mention the story of Oedipus, it is both a symbolic and poignant agent that women have used to attempts to adhere to the visual presentations of femininity, sometimes resulting in losses of vision.
Of course, it is notable that (while on the subject of symbolism) psychoanalysis has long explored femininity as masquerade, with Joan Riviere and Jacques Lacan having both addressed the topic.46 In 1929, Riviere wrote of the masquerading women who exposed their femininity as both non-threatening and purely a charade.47 Femininity had become, Riviere observed, a disguise of the female desire for the phallus or power, a desire that was thus worn like a masquerade.48 Masquerade emerged while the West underwent civilization, as a kin of the concept [End page 12] of privacy, which was largely absent in the Medieval period.49 As Richard Sennet has argued, the emergent belief that people’s thoughts and characters could be read on their faces led to a situation in which privacy was required, and this naturally inaugurated not just the construction of private spaces but the creation of privatising devices in public, including the uses of masks and cosmetic disguises.50
When one considers the signifiers that Strephon expects to encounter in the case of Celia, as well as of women and girls like her, one may be reminded of the nursery rhyme in which girls are said to be “made of sugar and spice and all things nice.”51 Strephon’s preconceptions evoke this same system of thought, a system in which women are denoted by attributes clearly absent from the scene (after all, “sugar and spice” are not women’s true constituents, any more than perfume or makeup). Instead, however, Strephon discovers that filth fills up the very space in the room he expects will be reserved for Celia’s grooming apparatuses. The many types of filth he discovers includes “litter” (8), a “dirty smock” with its “armpits well besmeared” (12), combs overflowing with “dirt” (21), “[s]weat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair; A forhead cloth with oil upon’t” (24–25) and “sour unsavoury streams” (28). But Strephon also comes upon “night-gloves made of Tripsy’s hide” (29), “a filthy basin” (37), “scrappings of her teeth and gums” (40), “spit,” “spew” (42), and atrocious, stinking towels that are “Begummed, bemattered, and beslimed/ With dirt, and sweat, and earwax grimed” (45–46). In addition, Strephon finds “frowzy heaps” (48) of petticoats, handkerchiefs encrusted with “snuff and snot” (50), stockings that are “Stained with the marks of stinking toes; or greasy coifs and pinners reeking/ Which Celia slept at least a week in” (52–54) and, finally, a “reeking chest” (110) with an “excremental smell” (111)—the item that confirms to Strephon that, yes, “Celia shits!” (118). The nature of the filth is inexplicable: “few words are best” (15), the narrator affirms, despite the many words devoted already to the mise en scene.
In The Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva uses the term “abject” to describe the “jettisoned object” that “lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree with the . . . rules of the game.”52 [End page 13] The agglomeration of Celia’s possessions, including her dirty tools and costumes, which are also covered in her excretions—the “bemattered” clothing, such as the smock, the fetid towels, and the stockings marked by “stinking toes” (52)—registers Celia’s “abjection,” which is to say her “immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady” force.53 Other excretions include the dirty combs, which are filled with sweat, dandruff, and hair, the cloth, which is covered in forehead oil, and the filthy basin, in which “scrappings of her teeth and gums” reside (40). The abjection of the scenario encompasses Celia’s shitting, spewing, spitting, and general scrapping of her overall hygiene. The excretions that appear on the towels cause Strephon’s to turn “away from [this] defilement, sewage and muck,” as repulsed as Kristeva herself, who describes what it means to feel a strong loathing for the unclean.54 Of course, the reverse also occurs too, for Strephon ventures into Celia’s dressing room “resolved to go through thick and thin” (80), venturing to look into the proverbial Pandora’s box, Celia’s chest, with its “excremental smell” (111) and, whereupon opening it, to observe how her “human evils upwards flew” (86). This revelation of the woman’s abject humanity, and this exposure of her “secrets of the hoary deep” (98), is staged and executed in such a way as to perfectly titillate and amuse the reader. And while it is in many ways sexist, and perhaps knowingly so, the poem’s distinctively humanist theoretical and philosophical implications are striking.The critic Stephen Karian has underlined the classically literary “Miltonic allusion” in the phrase “Those Secrets of the hoary deep.”55 However, it is possible to identify an alternative reading of Swift’s multivalent meaning in the adjective hoary, which means “ancient” or “venerable from age, time-honoured,” but also “overused and unoriginal; trite.”56 Swift’s expression suggests not only that Celia’s “secrets” are ancient, are as old and as universal the secrets of all women, but also that they are also trite, and in fact so universal in humans as to be entirely unremarkable. After all, each human requires sustenance to live, and so all humans require a place in which to excrete waste. The moral sensibilities of the modern reader are not disturbed when they are informed that, in case we did not already know, “Celia [End page 14] shits!” (118) However, it is possible that the reader in Swift’s era was more threatened by such descriptions of the abject, perhaps because they espoused a Christian theological attitude towards excretion as indecent and unholy. In the Bible, Deuteronomy instructs the reader to defecate in a hole that has been dug outside the sand digger camps; it must be hidden and buried, because the excrement is “indecent,” and when “God walks in the midst of your camp” it “must be holy.”57 The imagined awkwardness and avowed immorality of God amid the defecation served to direct civilisation’s drive toward more hygienic practices. Explaining Hansen’s disease to juveniles or non-specialists may present pedagogical complications, while underscoring the embarrassment and immorality associated with God’s presence amid the faecal matter is more effectively didactic, overt, and persuasive.
Another reading of the term hoary might focus on the usage of the chamber pot itself, which, though crass, is in many literal ways a “hoary” object. That is, the chamber pot is both trite and overused in a functional sense: first, the purpose for which it is used is ordinary (as it is regular), and second, it used more frequently than daily, and possibly even overused. Furthermore, the noun “deep,” which is often used to denote “the sea,” also alludes to Celia’s womanly waters—the amniotic fluid of her womb—and the terrors they represent. Interestingly, water and freezing have been associated not only with women’s bodies but were features of Dante’s infernal Hell, where “The emperor of all these realms of gloom / stuck from the ice at mid-point on his breast.58 Moreover, the noun secret, which means “something unknown or unrevealed or that is known only by initiation or revelation; a mystery; the hidden affairs or workings,” clearly denotes Celia’s hidden affairs, her body’s ordinary functions.
The dirty clothing in the dressing room resembles costume apparel. The besmeared smock, the hide of Tripsy (Celia’s deceased dog), which has been fashioned into night gloves, and the heap of dirty petticoats, handkerchiefs, and stockings: all of these items suggest that Celia has collected the garments for their presentational or performative uses rather than for the mere utility of body covering clothing. Dresses, handkerchiefs, and gloves are [End page 15] quintessentially theatrical items, integral components that mark one’s sartorial identity. The significations of these elements of costume denote not only Celia’s abjection, however, but her role as a woman: they indicate the way in which Celia plays her role as woman and—just as any theatrical role requires backstage preparation—so does Celia’s role require that she maintains her sartorial identity and masquerade. Thus, Celia’s dressing room is described as the backstage of a theatre. However, no accompanying actors are present in the room, for they would distract from the mise en scene, and from the tools of transformation that are left idle and unprotected, vulnerable to Strephon’s surveilling gaze.
In his isolation, Strephon is able to guess from what and where these marks of grime derive, and the uses to which the tweezers are put, and so to conclude that these artefacts, the tools of Celia’s performance of a woman, are “Begummed . . . with dirt” (45–46) from overuse. The condition of the tools, however, suggests not simply Celia’s failure to clean them, but the fact that Celia habitually uses them, these tools of transformation, often, and presumably every day. The tools are not merely tools of beautification, then, but aids of humanly function, used as often as the “reeking chest” (110) is used for daily excretion. In this way the poem reflects what Butler claims is at the essence of the performance of gender: that gender is constructed through a repetitive performance of gender, commonly in time with the “repetition of heterosexual constructs within sexual cultures.”59 Performativity “produces a series of effects” in consolidating the impression of gender, and that, following this process, the impression becomes an internal fact, a real and “true” aspect of the subject’s identity.60
Celia’s gender performance becomes performative in her habitual enactment of her womanhood, as well as through her repeated uses of her tools of transformation. The consequence of this recurrent performance is that Celia can only ever be understood as this performance: hence Strephon’s disillusionment in the dressing room. However, the importance and existence of the concept of the woman is cyclical and evolutionary. Celia’s [End page 16] habitual transformation into (and in conformity with) the socially constructed concept of woman, serves to reaffirm and reify the concept of woman in the broader social consciousness. In this way, Celia’s performance (and others like it) renders the concept of woman as truer and more essential as a category; indeed, her performance begins to appear as something that is not a performance at all, but a “natural kind.” Butler states explicitly that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed,” but instead is a loose and volatile phenomenon, furnishing “an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.”61 If gender is constructed through repeated performances of normalised acts, then Swift’s poem stands as demonstration or instance of this very procedural construction of gender. At the same time as Celia is “arrayed in lace, brocades and tissues,” so is Strephon led to spuriously conflate her gender performance with an imagined (and fictitious) concept of her sexual biology.
But it is not only Celia’s clothing that makes her a woman;
her possession of innumerable vials and other objects allows her to adhere to gender norms too. Celia slavishly performs the role of woman with such conviction that her performance ensures she is only ever intelligible as a woman. Hence Strephon’s horror when he discovers that Celia is not this construction known as woman but is, rather, a seemingly disgusting human. Heavily but covertly critical of the construction of gender, the poem comments on the assumptions and conclusions that the viewers of such performances as Celia’s make and draw. Strephon cannot appreciate women as humans or simply delight in the masquerade of her performance—at least not while the poem proceeds. However, as the narrator suggests, there is hope. We are told that Strephon “soon would learn to think like me, / And bless his ravished sight to see / Such order from confusion sprung, / Such gaudy tulips raised from dung” (141–144).
The chest is also described as performing a significant rolein the poem: “In vain the workman showed his wit / With rings and hinges counterfeit / To make it seem in this disguise / A cabinet to vulgar eyes” (75–78). Here the use of the terms “coun [End page 17] terfeit” and “disguise,” which denote the chest and represent Celia’s performance through prosopopoeia, implies the theological interpretation of woman as false, duplicitous, and innately deceptive, at the same time as it characterises the workman and his crafted object, which is also deceptive, as witty.62 Unlike the workman, Celia presumably does not expose her wit by using or possessing the chest, but only the obverse: that is, she exposes only her abject nature. In this way, Swift’s poem identifies the gender of woman as not only theatrical but depraved; although performativity as such, in its contemporary Butlerian definition, may have been beyond Swift’s understanding. Nevertheless, Strephon is a misogynist writ large. The narrator commences the poem by informing readers that Strephon has been obsequiously pondering his “goddess” Celia’s dressing routine. Strephon places Celia on a pedestal to be adored as an inanimate object; and yet he also transgresses her right to privacy, knowingly violating the restricted space of her dressing room, quietly entering the locus while Betty, one of the maids, is “otherwise employed” (6). Strephon then compiles “[a]n inventory” (10) of Celia’s possessions, perhaps reflecting the popularity of inventories in the early eighteenth century, when ordering systems and taxonomies were burgeoning in literature, and when Enlightenment philosophers and scientists continued their attempts to systematise nature.63 In another way, we could also read Strephon’s use of an inventory as his method of documenting Celia’s value, as a business owner might calculate and enumerate the value of their on-hand product.
Before entering, Strephon is praising of Celia; however, now we find him appraising not just her, but her possessions, and examining them, perhaps in the manner of a man who seeks a dowry. Strephon, amid the action of his discovery, soon begins to curse the men who have falsely narrated Celia’s sweetness and cleanliness. He then confronts the comb “Filled up with dirt” (21) and oily cloth, taking notice of the varied odours emanating from the clothes and the chest. They vary, we learn, from “sour unsavoury streams” (28) to “excremental smell[s]” (111), the latter of which “waft[s] a stink round every room” (114). But the smell [End page 18] is not new: Strephon, we are told, has “smelled it all the time before” (82).
This olfactory assault mirrors that which triggers Gulliver’s revulsion in the face of the odours of the female Yahoo’s: “she had a most offensive smell,” Gulliver’s master notes, later in the book; and earlier, Gulliver himself expresses a similar disdain for such smells, bemoaning the odours of his family: “During the first year, could not endure my wife or children in my presence; the very smell of them was intolerable.” Nevertheless, Gulliver soon discovers that her prefers the natural smell of a the Lilluputians than their perfumes: “I found their natural smell was much more supportable, than when they used perfumes.”64 Swift’s fixation of smells and their properties and interactions sometimes reveals his surprising prescience. His observation that “Here alum flower to stop the steams” (27), for instance, exhibits some knowledge of alum, a natural anti-microbial that inhibits the growth of odour-causing bacteria.
In “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere discusses the mask of femininity. “Womanliness,” she writes, is “worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it.”65 In Riviere’s theory, femininity operates as a defensive mask that is worn by the woman to disguise their masculinity. But femininity also requires all the accoutrements and trappings of a masquerade, which accounts for Celia’s prodigious collection of vials. Strephon observes Celia’s glut of “gallypot and vials” (33), which are variously “filled with washes, some with paste, / Some with pomatum, paints and slops, / And ointments good for scabby chops” (34–36). Beguiled, Strephon asserts that femininity is a “natural kind” rather than a masquerade designed to disguise those traits a woman may possess that are sooner associated with masculinity. His repulsion in the face of such a masquerade demonstrates his sheer naivety, and makes him the helpless dupe of the patriarchal system, with its intrinsic mythologisation of normative gender categories. However, while Strephon understands gender as essential, the poem views gender as performance. Gender plays—and so its characters play along in obedience. [End page 19]
Figure 1. William Makepeace Thackeray, “Meditations at Versaille,” in The Paris Sketchbook (1831; repr. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1870), 435.
Costumes and masquerade that denote status and character are required, as are gestures that denote motive, whether concealed or overt. Costuming is centrally important in performances of gender, as well as for marking social status. During the first century AD, Quintilian asserted that “Vestis virum reddit”—the clothes make the man—giving expression to what was an acute awareness among Roman citizens that clothing was an index of social status.66 One example is the toga, which marked out Roman citizens from slaves. Hence Virgil’s Jupiter will assert that they are the “masters of the earth, the race that wears the toga.”67 If it is not the man but his clothes that engenders his majesty, then, the point is amply demonstrated in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1840 cartoon (figure 1), which accompanies his essay “Meditations on Versaille.”
The cartoon contrasts the fragile, unimpressive body of Louis the XIV, seen without his costume, with the garments of royalty that adorn him at other times.68 Naked humans, or even humans out of costume, have no influence on society, perhaps with the noted exception of Hans Christian Anderson’s political satire of 1837, The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the same point [End page 20] is made but in a different manner.69 The idea that clothes and costumes serve to construct, manage, and reveal one’s identity has remained in currency since the seventeenth century. Virginia Woolf draws attention to the role of clothes and costumes in her 1938 book-length essay Three Guineas.70 Woolf specifically identifies clothing and costumes as revealing of the social positions held by men, and comments on the concealed nature of gender distinctions in public life. In written argument and photographs, Woolf’s essay illustrates how the grand, opulent finery and constructed accoutrements of male attire in both office and public life serve to construct and manage male identity and authority.
Similarly, in The Beauty Myth (1990), Naomi Wolf discusses how the beauty myth is the formation and performance of femininity, and a component of gender performance that is perpetuated in magazines through costume and masquerade, both in clothing and makeup styles.71 Wolf defines the beauty myth as the field of symbols and signs that define the standards of physical beauty, and the cultural movements that promote some of these signs and demote others.72 Wolf’s conceptualisation follows the lead of other formative critics, such as Betty Friedan, who described the system by which standards of beauty were imposed as the “feminine mystique.”73 But an equivalent prescription of beauty standards was also operative during the eighteenth century, during Swift’s historical milieu. Then, this myth operated with as much (if not more force) as the system of today. For instance, in The Ladies Dictionary, published in 1694, the author explicitly defines the appropriate beauty and behaviour standards and codes for women. This text presented definitive rules and influenced seventeenthand eighteenth-century womanly behaviour. These culturally prescriptive images of femininity nourished and informed the beauty myth of the era, just as they continue to do so today. As Wolf asserts “the myth isolates women by generation,” and so forms and reifies the applicable conventions of gender performance in different eras.74
Costumes narrate how agents of both fiction and fact perceive themselves, and they illustrate how their wearers perceive others. That is, the costume marks the wearer not only as [End page 21] distinguished but as distinguishable from others. The rituals and performances of public life are always constitutive of an external show, of a theatre performance or lavish spectacle. Clothes and costumes demonstrate meaning, expressing the gender roles that the actors and wearers perform. However, the material construction and cultivation of this identity continues even when the audience is absent. In Robinson Crusoe, the novel of 1719 by Daniel Defoe, the eponymous protagonist stands solitary on an island and distinguishes himself as civilised by donning a hat.75 In the words of W. S. Gilbert, “Darwinian man, though well-behaved, At best is only a monkey shaved!”76 The insight is significant, as humans are distinguishable as apes who wear hats and other garments made of other species’ skins, such as the gloves made from Celia’s dog “Tripsy’s hide” (29). Costumes, then, can also sometimes distinguish human animals from nonhuman animals.
At one point of the poem, a self-referential moment occurs in which the conventions of theatre are referred to: “To him that looks behind the scene” (133), the narrator notes, referring to the behind-the-scenes space of the dressing room. Here Strephon acts as a disgusted child who discovers the fantasy of Christmas has been merely the conjuring of their parents to please and appease him in his naivety. When Strephon walks behind the scenes, the suspension of disbelief engendered by the performance is lost, and the illusion of the theatre is broken, with the mechanics of Celia’s performance laid bare. Strephon is powerfully exposed to the theatre of Celia’s gender, with the accoutrements, tools, costume, and masquerade before him in the dressing room. The room itself is called a “dressing room” for a reason: it is for dressing, particularly in preparation for theatre, performance, and costume. Strephon’s inability to apply realism and logic to his thinking about Celia and this space is depicted as a comedic and culpable offence, for his guilty enjoyment is rudely annihilated, returning the sullen Strephon to reality. For Strephon, it is time to set aside his childish ways, and to become one who understands that women, just as men, are humans, with all that being human entails. [End page 22] At many stages of the poem, the speaker describes Strephon in such varied pejorative adjectives as “poor” (43), “frightened” (61), “disgusted” (116), “punished” (120), and “wretched” (129). These words, articulated by the narrator, expose Strephon’s subjectivity, conferring agency on him. By contrast, Celia is never realised, and is made to exists only through her varied accoutrements, which are distant metonyms for her subjectivity. The narrator, who is perhaps unable to access Celia’s consciousness, offers only the singular adjective “haughty” (2), which means “arrogantly superior and disdainful,” to describe her.77 The question, then, is whether the narrator is projecting Strephon’s assumptions of Celia onto the poem, through focalisation, or whether the narrator also regards Celia in such a way.
Wolf identifies “beauty-without-intelligence” as a value that has been attributed to women as a cultural stereotype for centuries, from Edmund Spencer, with his catalogue of feminine features, through Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Fairfax in Emma, Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, Ginevra Fanshaw in Villette, and to Amy March in Little Women.78 But this particular notion of femininity continues to pervade works of literature today. Wolf identifies one Western beauty myth as requiring women to be young, undergo surgical alteration, be of a Caucasian appearance, as well as to possess a slender and tall physique. Wolf also asserts that this beauty myth functions as political distraction, citing the flapper ideal of the 1920s as a distraction to women globally at a time when they had only recently become politically enfranchised. The proposition that the beauty myth serves as a distraction finds evidence throughout the twentieth century: in the mid-1960s, for instance, the ideal of the model Twiggy served to combat and counter the image of the empowered, hairy-legged woman activist of second-wave feminism.79 It seems that the effort toward political and social liberation cannot exist without some necessary distraction from these pursuits. Indeed, the notion that women are susceptible to distraction is very convincing when we return to the poem and note that Celia, who is absent from the verses, is unable to defend herself precisely as she is elsewhere and distracted, per [End page 23] forming the role of woman for which she has obviously prepared. If not compelled to perform her femininity as such, then Celia would not have a dressing room to be trespassed upon at all, and Strephon would be disabused of his naivety in regard to her biological reality.
When Strephon discovers Celia’s performance, she is transformed in his mind from a woman into a “careless wench” (71; 108). That she has not adhered to the performance defies intelligibility, which explains why “Disgusted Strephon stole away” (116) upon discovering the truth. Strephon, as the narrator states, has been hitherto “blind / To all the charms of female kind” (129–30)—blind, that is, to the fact that Celia’s femininity is constituted by charms and artifices. The gender performance has had such an impact on Strephon that he believes “All women his description fits” (117). In other words, he identifies all women to be so because they perform the gendered role, and thus each who performs this gendered role to be a woman. The “gaudy tulip”(144) to which the narrator refers is the gender performance is notCelia but the performance itself, as its theatricality, something of which the narrator is aware, is indeed extravagant and showy— it is “gaudy”—and far from the essential or natural norm that Strephon identifies it to be. Ultimately, as the poem suggests, Celia’s adherence to the performative codes of her sex divorce her from her own bodily functions, refiguring her not as a human but an image.
In reaction to Swift’s poem, an offended reader, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wrote a poem titled The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to Write a Poem Call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room. 80 A masterly piece of satire itself, the poem parodies patriarchal gender roles in the early eighteenth century. These two poems, those of Swift and Mantagu, may be read as a duel between their authors, with Montagu’s poem openly slandering Swift, depicting him as impotent and emasculated. In Montagu’s poem, Swift is accompanied by a sex worker who bemoans his feebleness, while Swift can do no other than embarrassedly attempt to excuse his sexual incapacity by complaining of the room’s unhygienic nature. Montagu portrays Swift as intimidating the “saucy Queen” (92) by [End page 24] threatening to tell the world of her filthy room—“I’ll so describe your dressing room” (94). In response, the sex worker says, “I’m glad you’l write, / You’l furnish paper when I shite” (96–67).81 Here, the woman speaker’s allusion to her intended use of paper from his letter—to “wipe her arse,” as the expression goes—illustrates her sheer contempt of the work the male speaker produces. The image, however, is not new, and the same threat has been made to poets before this, such as by John Dryden in his Mac Flecknoe (1682), in which the speaker writes the following: “From dusty shops neglected authors come, / Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.”82 The image subverts and undermines the esteem in which these works might otherwise be held, and reconfigures them as no better than toilet paper. Montagu’s poem attempts to claim that a hatred of women pervades Swift’s poem—a spurious allegation; though Montagu’s poem also rightly mocks the double standards of patriarchal gender roles, illustrating the way in which men, as well as women, adhere to gender stereotypes.
While Montagu’s poem certainly takes Swift’s own assumptions to task, it also seems to consider the extent to which hygiene is a class issue, even becoming something of a prescient voice for intersectional feminism. After all, dirt in Swift’s era was commonly associated with blood, and it was typically thought that filthy blood led to filthy habits. Conversely, clean blood was associated with morality, and this ideology was encapsulated not only in the Spanish notion of limpieza de sangre, which literally means “purity of blood,” but in the blood purity laws of in sixteenth-century Spain. 83 Moreover, since the Ancient period, physicians emphasised the important of blood to humoral balance, and, together with the Spanish description of their Royal family as sangre azul, the epithet of the “blue blood,” meaning a noble, arose in Britain.84 Physiognomists and later phrenologists saw anatomy as dictating the characteristics of a person, venerating the cranial while denigrating the stomach, which was associated with the ignoble desires, and the lower organs—those for sex and excretion—as the most immoral and base of all. In this context, those whose genealogy or parentage implied mixed blood were generally regarded as at the lowest social status.85 [End page 25]
This essay has argued that critics have been generally reticent to read Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” as a poem that takes up and criticises gendered and patriarchal assumptions about the role of the woman and the body. I have sought to show how Swift ironises and slanders Celia’s compulsory performance of her gender role; I have also sought to illustrate how, happily, Swift’s poem reveals the reality of women’s human bodies, and derides Strephon for his naïve subscription to the heteronormative delusion that women’s bodies are essentially different from those of men. Images of women’s humanity and their bodies can greatly assist in furthering the rights of women as human beings, and future research should explore women’s exploitation as a fundamental part of their performance of a gender role. And while I have only touched on it briefly in the above paragraphs, further research should explore the relationship between eighteenth-century capitalism and the contemporaneous patriarchal understanding of women’s bodies as commodities.
About the Author
Stella Ktenas is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, having being awarded a firstclass honours degree in 2015. Topics of interest to Stella include disability studies, abjection, cosmopolitanism, satire, comedy, animal studies, enmity, surveillance, and Greek comedy.