Swift's Contexts

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and the Politics in his Age

Conducted on 21-22/10/2006 at The Deanery of St Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

"Laces, Brocades, and Tissues": Swift, Women, and Finery

Louise Barnett (Rutgers University)

Louise Barnett has a PhD from Bryn Mawr College and has been teaching at Rutgers University since 1976. Her first book on Swift, SWIFT'S POETIC WORLDS, was published in 1981 by the University of Delaware Press. The paper is taken from her forthcoming book, JONATHAN SWIFT IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN, which is scheduled to appear by the end of the year from Oxford UP.

When Swift initiated a correspondence with Mary Pendarves, a young woman who had made a favorable impression on him during her year and a half visit to Ireland, he intended to compliment her by writing: "I much question whether you understand a fan, or have so good a fancy at silks as others" (Williams 4:258). For Swift, a concern with finery was a defect of most women, so he sought - as he always did with women he liked - to find Pendarves to be an exception to the customary interests of her sex.

Swift's criticism of women's clothing has multiple aspects: the inferior nature of women in preferring expertise in lace to more serious matters, the deceptive practice of disguising the body, the aggravation of Ireland's economic misery through the consumption of imported goods, and the flouting of male authority over women - in particular, Swift's own authority. This mix of motives and issues encompasses both the rational and the irrational, the objective and the vehemently personal. Some of Swift's critique of female fripperies is intelligent and responsible: shouldn't we spend our time on more altruistic activities than self-adornment? And shouldn't we lend a willing ear to a program that reduces the impoverishment of our country? Yet some of his dislike of women's finery does not belong in such reasonable categories but expresses instead his own misogynistic attitudes towards the female body.

An anecdote recounted in Sheridan's Life of Swift about Swift and a farmer's wife illustrates some of this complex of attitudes toward women and their finery. Swift came to the house of the Reillys - neighbors of the Sheridans - as a dinner guest, but when the farmer's wife appeared in a fancy dress, believing that she was honoring her important guest by doing so, he claimed that it was impossible for the woman before him to be Mrs. Reilly: "I have heard she is a prudent woman, and as such would never dress herself out in silks, and other ornaments, fit only for ladies of fashion. No - Mrs. Reilly the farmer's wife would never wear any thing better than plain stuff, with other things suitable to it" (Sheridan 100). Mrs. Reilly, described by Sheridan as "a woman of good sense," understood this pointed remark. She withdrew, changed into simpler clothing, and reappeared - to be greeted by Swift as if they were now meeting for the first time. Swift also ripped lace off the hat of the Reilly's son and threw it in the fire. He then retrieved the lace, wrapped it up, and presented the package to the family at the end of the evening. When it was opened, four guineas were found along with the burnt lace. Sheridan concludes, "They were cured of their vanities" (101).

With people of a lower social status, who were flattered and possibly intimidated by his presence, Swift felt free to act in a manner that contravened polite behavior for a dinner guest. He also, on occasion, took liberties with his equals or social superiors, but in the case of the Reillys, a sense of class decorum is strong: however much Swift might disapprove of any conspicuous consumption in the realm of dress, he disapproved more when the offending parties were a farmer's wife and child. Swift's passion for instructing others could assume a dramatic shape, as it does in the second part of the story where, like some latter-day Savonarola, he seizes the embellishment on a functional article of clothing and casts it into the fire. Presumably, his idea to wrap up the burnt lace with money to compensate for his high-handed action occurred after he had committed the lace to the fire, so he retrieved it and contrived the happy monetary surprise for the family. Their reformation earned them a handsome reward.

Swift always acted, and wrote, out of the certitude and desire to reform characteristic of both clergymen and satirists. The story of dinner at the Reillys is satisfying from Swift's point of view: he observes some practice that needs to be changed; he intervenes to change it; his outrageous action is accepted by his hosts as deserved; and most pleasing of all, it prompts them to alter their behavior permanently. In addition to his usual sense of being in the right Swift experienced the pleasure of power: he enforced his will on the Reillys, and they - well aware that Swift was one of their "betters" - cooperated in his project without complaint. In this humble microcosm Swift was able to act freely, as he would have enjoyed doing in the macrocosm: "I would hang them if I could," he says of political malefactors in his epistle To a Lady (CP 519).

When Swift admonished the public in his writing, the gratification of instantly seeing his words acted upon, as was the case with Mrs. Reilly, or of taking action himself, as he did in stripping the lace from her son's cap, was denied him. He might rail against women and their finery in the harshest terms without making a dent in his countrymen's importation of luxuries.

As Ireland's suffering under England's mercantilist policy increased, Swift seems to have become obsessed with the failure of the Irish - primarily the Anglo-Irish - to adopt the remedy of curbing imports. In a series of polemical pieces, he tried a number of appeals that, unlike his successful Drapier's Letters, failed to arouse the people. The extremism of Swift's prescriptions was not in fact likely to persuade. In these tracts Swift saw women as the prime agents of economic ruin, just as he saw their bodies as repulsive and their pastimes as frivolous. Love of female finery is simply one example of women's weakness, albeit one that inspires a particular ferocity in Swift at this time because it becomes his primary example of destructive consumption.

The Proposal that All the Ladies Should Appear Constantly in Irish Manufactures shows Swift making his case for the wearing of Irish textiles in the restrained terms of a rational argument supported by numbers in the manner of A Modest Proposal: so many pounds of imported articles at such-and-such cost. There is a brief outburst in which Swift wishes that those ladies who resist wearing native manufactures "may go in rags" (PW 12:127), but this typical Swiftian eruption is followed by a politic compliment: "Let them vie with each other in the fineness of their native linen: Their beauty and gentleness will as well appear, as if they were covered over with diamonds and brocade" (PW 12:127). Swift must have imagined this to be a persuasive idea although "diamonds and brocade" could only be read as more powerful examples of enhancement than "native linen." In making his suggestion, Swift takes into account the competitive nature of wearing finery but wishes to artificially restrict the competition to native textiles.

This particular tract concludes with an appeal to the men who govern Ireland to pledge themselves, their families, and their circles of influence to use only Irish products. Quixotic as such an idea may be, it is based on the hierarchy of gender and class that Swift's society subscribed to, in which men have power over their families and other dependents like tenants; yet, at Swift should have realized, most men would be unlikely to challenge the women of their households on a question of fabric. Nor, since their wives and daughters reflected upon their own status, would they be willing to see them clothed disadvantageously in a society where finery commanded respect.

Swift's Letter to the Archbishop of Dublin, Concerning the Weavers pursues the question of male authority over women by indicting the "cowardly slavish indulgence of the men to the intolerable pride, arrogance, vanity and Luxury of the Women" (PW 12:67). This indictment faults both men and women, although for different behaviors. Men are culpable for sins of omission in not controlling women, women for the zealous commission of sins. While both may be regarded as blameworthy, a larger share of blame belongs to women as the evil in need of checking, the sex that turns a deaf ear to rational policy and to the advice of their superiors, including the author of these appeals.

Another treatise, An Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Persons, most tellingly illuminates the difference between Swift the rational critic of economic policy and Swift the misogynist. The essay introduces its topic of profligate consumption by comparing the importation of nonessential products to "the beggar who could not eat his Veal without Oranges" (PW 12:80), a telling linkage. Swift abhorred beggars, a class that drew from rather than contributed to society, and he would accordingly regard a beggar's expecting a fancy dish rather than simple sustenance as a violation of social and moral principle. This is followed by an assertion that begins as a rhetorical question but then becomes a periodic sentence, gathering force as it sweeps authoritatively through a number of damning clauses to conclude where Swift's deepest fears and quarrels with women are always situated—the female body:

"Is it not the highest Indignity to human nature, that men should be such poltrons as to suffer the Kingdom and themselves to be undone, by the Vanity, the Folly, the Pride, and Wantonness of their Wives, who under their present Corruptions seem to be a kind of animal suffered for our sins to be sent into the world for the Destruction of Familyes, Societyes, and Kingdoms; and whose whole study seems directed to be as expensive as they possibly can in every useless article of living, who by long practice can reconcile the most pernicious forein Drugs to their health and pleasure, provided they are but expensive; as Starlings grow fat with hen bane: who contract a Robustness by meer practice of Sloth and Luxury: who can play deep severall hours after midnight, sleep beyond noon, revel upon Indian poisons, and spend the revenue of a moderate family to adorn a nauseous unwholesome living Carcase. (PW 12:80)"

There is an obvious connection between the frivolity of women's pastimes, including their love of finery, and their role as agents of economic ruin through the purchase of imported luxuries. But thinking that the body adorned is repulsive in and of itself is Swift's personal pathology. Misogyny overwhelms the rational argument about imported goods.

Swift's bill of particulars is a relentless catalogue of female sins, a pulpit remonstrance that concludes with the speaker invoking a merciful God to "look down upon a nation so shamefully besotted" (PW 12:80). The finery alluded to by the reference to adorning a female carcass is the culminating example, but it is only one part of a comprehensive portrait of women as evil in nature and in practice. Manliness, by implication the valuable opposite of what women represent, is at stake in this issue, for part of what establishes a man as a man is his authority over women. For this to be in question is, Swift asseverates, "the highest Indignity to human nature." Rather than the Proposal's abstract characterization of "this insupportable grievance of bringing in the instruments of our ruin," the Answer vividly evokes apocalypse: the "Destruction of Familyes, Societyes, and Kingdoms." In the Proposal tea is merely "the common luxury of every chambermaid, sempstress, and tradesman's wife" (PW 12:126). In the Answer it has become a "pernicious forein Drug" and an "Indian poison."

The global indictment of women for expense and luxury has a long history: like a beggar, a woman signifies the absence of productivity, but she goes beyond this lack to represent "a prodigal consumption of resources." Swift criticizes women for their preference for foreign textiles, yet the female body he represents as nauseous and unwholesome would be equally so if it were concealed by Irish cloth, and Swift would be equally repulsed by it, if more approving of the covering. The climactic example asserts that the female body is always naseous and unwholesome, in keeping with Swift's description of women in a letter to Vanessa as "bestes en juppes," animals in skirts (Woolley 2:305). In this expression the emphasis clearly falls on the animal, which seeks to clothe or disguise its bestial nature by putting on garments. "Skirts" in this instance bears no suggestion of that excessive costuming that Swift satirizes elsewhere. Without disturbing the thrust of the analogy, the clothing could be made out of any fabric, including the Irish textiles Swift urged on the women of Ireland. "Skirts" simply functions as a metonymy for female clothing: it strains credulity to believe that if women had foregone luxurious dress, Swift's antipathy towards their bodies would have been pacified.

Another direction that Swift's criticism of feminine finery takes is its frivolity. Should luxury fabrics not be imported products, Swift would still object to them as a foolish rather than a laudable interest. The most direct statement of this accusation occurs in the Letter to a Young Lady, on her Marriage, where Swift addresses the new bride as if she represents all women: "You apply your Hands to each others Lappets, and Ruffles, and Mantuas; as if the whole Business of your Lives, and the publick Concern of the World, depended upon the Cut or Colour of your Petticoats" (PW 9:90). The pastime of determining the quality of dress is so low a pursuit that Swift imagines a monkey could probably judge velvet and brocade as well as a woman can, and, he thinks, might look just as good wearing them. His stern conclusion is that the lady should eschew "the Nonsense and Frippery" of other women and resort to fashionable dress as minimally as possible.

The linking of the repulsive body with a covering of finery also informs The Lady's Dressing Room, which once again conjoins male authority with a critique of women's extravagant self-presentation. No motive is ever given for Strephon's violation of Celia's private space, but the poem's speaker never questions this usurpation. His trespass is validated by Strephon, by the speaker, and ultimately by the reader. In other words, regardless of how he acquired this knowledge, Strephon has discovered the truth, or a truth, about Celia, which we are invited to generalize into a truth about women: after five hours devoted to her appearance, Celia emerges from her dressing room magnificently arrayed but leaving behind a universe of disorder unsuspected by those who view the finished product. It is the poem's purpose to reattach that disorder and filth to her splendor through a wealth of particulars that, as seen through the magnification of Strephon's horror, becomes enormous and dreadful. Technically, Betty the maid is responsible for cleaning up, but the poem relentlessly focuses on the condemnation of Celia as if dandruff and other natural products of the body were culpable by their very existence.

The poem offers two extreme responses to this situation. Strephon, patronized throughout by the speaker, becomes an obsessive-compulsive and possibly a paranoic. Possessed of a romantic vision of women when he enters the dressing room, Strephon cannot bear its revelations. He is in fact so enamoured of an unrealistic ideal that he has to handle the contents of the excremental chest to verify the unwelcome knowledge that apparently unhinges him. The only words Strephon speaks in the poem is the memorable exclamation, "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" (CP 451) - as if he can neither think nor say anything else. In the line, shits is climactic, but Celia is uttered three times: the trauma is not in the excrement, familiar to Strephon from his own bodily functions, but in its association with his misguided idea of Celia (and women). Because of the distribution of power in society, whether or not Strephon's outrage is justified, Celia, and other women, will suffer for it. In response to his discovery Strephon will imagine that all women making a dazzling appearance are as tainted as Celia.

The speaker, on the other hand, seems close to the wallowing in filth that Swift cautioned against in Strephon and Chloe and other texts. He prefers to ignore the dung in order to enjoy the gaudy tulips, especially - as the allusion to the "queen of love" intimates - to enjoy them sexually. Celia has hidden her oozing and dirty body in layers of finery, a grotesque juxtaposition in and of itself, but the speaker slyly reminds us that this unseen body is also a source of pleasure. Both Strephon and the speaker embody familiar male points of view, one an immature romanticism that inevitably leads to disillusionment, the other a willingness to use women while deprecating them. Taken together, they replicate the narrative movement of Phillis and Strephon and Chloe, where the disillusionment that follows when romantic idealization encounters reality leads to an abandonment of all restraint and decency. Given Swift's investment in reason, propriety, and truth, neither Strephon's nor the speaker's view in The Lady's Dressing Room could be his own.

What Strephon reacts to emotionally, Swift finds pernicious in principle. Celia has fashioned an unreal and perfect figure that she presents to the world as a total and unchanging self - as the reality of Celia rather than an elaborate, impermanent construct. By the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir, among others, could describe the feminine process of self-creation as calculated far beyond the five hours Celia devoted to preparing her image for public consumption. A woman's appearance, Beauvoir writes, is "a rich possession, capital goods, an investment . . . for not only does the woman of fashion project herself into things, she has chosen to make herself a thing" (Beauvoir 536).

This deception provokes in Swift what might be thought of as a philosophical antipathy towards the substitution of a misleading facade of artistic perfection for what is in actuality human and imperfect. In The Lady's Dressing Room, Celia's laces, brocades, and tissues do not function economically as a way of impoverishing the nation but as a way of blinding (male) observers to the reality of Celia's existence. Swift regards men who are taken in by this feminine self-creation as naifs: he does not consider the collective male desire that has invented, authorized, and imposed that ideal on women.

Works Cited:

Beauvoir, Simone de; The Second Sex, Translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Sheridan, Thomas; The Life of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, 2nd ed. London: J. F. & C. Rivington, 1787.

Swift, Jonathan; The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, Edited by Harold Williams. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-65. In the text C + volume number.
...The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D. D. Edited by David Woolley. 4 vols, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999- . In the text W + volume number.
...Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, Edited by Pat Rogers. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. In the text CP.
...The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Edited by Herbert Davis. 14 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937-68. In the text PW + volume number.

[Back to Table of Contents] [Back to Home Page]

(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2006; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.