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“[Wit] means something pithy, penetrating, profound, aptly and forcefully expressed (and by extension, someone who is apt to speak in this way)” (Palmer 136). The female figure of wit was widely unaccepted in 18th and 19th century Britain. It was considered impolite or improper in these times for females to express witty sentiments in their writing. Despite this, “more and more poetry was written to be […] a display of wit, social grace, or accomplishment” (Backscheider 3). Anna Laetitia Barbauld demonstrates her wit in her poem “The Mouse’s Petition to Doctor Priestley Found in the Trap where he had been confined all Night” with her use of intellectual discourse and allegorical content in which the mouse is “especially adaptable to women’s concerns and their critique of masculine values” (Kraft 70).
She appeals to Dr. Priestley and readers on a number of levels, proving herself to be extremely persuading regardless of the audience. On the other hand, in her play The Belle’s Stratagem, Hannah Cowley casts her main female character, Letitia, as a female figure of wit. Letitia’s crafty plan to persuade Doricourt to fall for her makes for a very successful representation of female wit and wisdom. The works of both Barbauld and Cowley are essential to the study of gender constructions and women’s ability to express wit in their writing. Each female writer cleverly appeals to the male ego, intellect and emotions in order to get what they want.
Both Barbauld and Cowley appeal to the egos of men using tones of sarcasm and irony. “Like all fables, ‘The Mouse’s Petition’ has its interior shades of meaning [and] its winning style enacts the claim of its underlying metaphor” (Kostelanetz 197). Barbauld’s mouse is representative of a woman feeling confined by unequal gender constructions, and Dr. Priestley represents men as figures of ultimate power. Throughout the poem, Barbauld’s tone remains highly dramatized as if to mock men for believing they have ultimate reign over women. The mouse asks that Dr. Priestley “let not thy strong oppressive force/ A free-born mouse detain,” appealing to his sense of manliness by describing his force as “strong” (Barbauld 11-12). She continues this flattery a few lines later by describing his “hearth” as “hospitable” when ironically she means the opposite (Barbauld 14).
Throughout the poem, Barbauld appeals to Dr. Priestley’s ego to aid in making her petition convincing. Cowley takes a similar stance in The Belle’s Stratagem during “the second installment of her masquerade romance, [when] Letitia adopts … an alternate persona, that of a witty charmer” (Isikoff 102). She showers Doricourt with flattery: “Fashion and taste preside in this spot; they throw/ their spells around you; ten thousand delights/ spring up at their command” (Cowley 4.1.201-203). Doricourt eagerly takes the bait: “And you, the most charming being in the world,/ awake me to admiration. Did you come from the stars?” (Cowley 4.1.205-207). Letitia responds, declaring that she “shall reascend in a moment” (Cowley 4.1.208). Just when Letitia has Doricourt wrapped around her finger with flattery, she sarcastically states her leave, inevitably hurting his ego.
Any male with a damaged ego will predictably continue fighting for the eventual fulfillment of said ego, and Doricourt does so throughout the remainder of the play, determined to win the masked Letitia’s heart. While Barbauld’s mouse appeals to the male ego by flattering the male ego, Cowley’s leading woman does so by damaging it. Regardless, both women have the common goal of reaching their male target audience through the ego, hoping that the men will be blind to their mockery and in turn offer them what they desire (freedom and marriage, respectively).
Barbauld’s mouse and Cowley’s Letitia continue their attempts to out-wit their male counterparts by appealing to their intellect. On the literal level, the mouse is pleading with Dr. Priestley to refrain from using her in scientific experiments. It is logical for the mouse to appeal to the doctor’s intelligence, as he is, after all, a well-established intellectual. Barbauld argues for the compassion embodied in any well-educated person. She writes:
The well-taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives. (Barbauld 25-28)
In this passage she both appeals to his ego by describing his “philosophic mind” as “well-taught”, and to his intellectual capacity by making a general statement about the generous capacity of well-educated persons. Barbauld is charming Dr. Priestley’s intellect with rationality. Similarly, Letitia works to charm Doricourt’s intellect and his desire to be with an intelligent woman throughout the masquerade, which “licensed both of Letitia’s required devices, mystery and wit” (Isikoff 107). Upon recognizing that Doricourt is not interested in her at first glance, she chooses to mask herself as each quality that Doricourt might desire in a woman: “English beauty, French vivacity, wit, elegance” (Cowley 4.1.286-289). Letitia’s plan works seamlessly, as Doricourt professes his love to her:
You shall be nothing but yourself; nothing can be
Captivating that you are not. I will not wrong your
Penetration by pretending that you won my heart
At the first interview. But you have now my whole
Soul. Your person, your face, your mind I would
Not exchange for those of any other woman
Breathing. (Cowley 5.5.283-289)
Appealing to male intellect is significant to both Barbauld and Letitia, as they attempt to out-wit the men with whom they plea. Barbauld does so by appealing directly to Dr. Priestley’s intellect, while Cowley takes a more drawn out approach by gradually building Doricourt’s respect and admiration for Letitia because of her wit and craftiness.
Barbauld’s mouse and Cowley’s Letitia also attempt to win over their male audiences by drawing directly on their emotions. The witty females attempt to unveil Dr. Priestley and Doricourt as men of feeling by enchanting their delicately refined sensibilities. Barbauld begins her poem by having the mouse tug on Dr. Priestley’s emotions:
For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate. (Barbauld 5-8)
The mouse describes herself as “forlorn and sad”, trembling with dread. Any man with a shred of sensibility would feel compassionate towards a human in such a depressing state. Recognizing this likelihood, Barbauld personifies the mouse throughout the poem as a caged prisoner, hoping to appeal to Dr. Priestley’s sensibility. At the end of the poem, the mouse makes its final begging remarks: “May some kind angel clear thy path,/ And break the hidden snare” (Barbauld 47-48). Here, Barbauld’s mouse is still skillfully pulling at the doctor’s sympathies. Likewise, Letitia in The Belle’s Stratagem yearns to tug at Doricourt’s emotions as she forces him to wait until the last minute for her to remove her mask. In the meantime, Flutter has taken it upon himself to tell Doricourt that “she’s kept by Lord George Jennet” (Cowley 4.1.366). Revealing himself as a man of feeling, Doricourt begins to fall into a state of depression:
Moon! Who dares talk of the moon? The patroness
Of genius—the rectifier of wits—the—Oh! Here
She is!—I feel her—she tugs at my brain—she has
It—she has it—Oh! (Cowley 5.2.66-69)
Just as Letitia has wittily devised, Doricourt is falling madly in love with her. She appeals to his emotions in a most enchanting fashion, and in turn wins his heart. While Barbauld’s mouse appeals to Dr. Priestley’s sentiments by aiming to make him feel guilty and remorseful, Cowley’s Letitia dupes Doricourt into falling for her. The two writers take different approaches, but both artfully appeal to male emotions.
In The Mouse’s Petition and The Belle’s Stratagem, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Hannah Cowley cunningly beguile the male ego, wisdom and sensibility. In the case of The Mouse’s Petition, “however intended, the poem has indeed been read as a plea of humanity against cruelty, and also as a political statement” (Kraft 70). The mouse’s plea to Dr. Priestley comes to represent the disillusionment faced by women regarding unfair gender constructions and the male/female dichotomy in 18th and 19th century British society. Regarding The Belle’s Stratagem, “by adopting a conventional mask of reserve, Letitia makes herself indistinguishable from a sea of marriageable young ladies; it is only by literally masking herself that she unmasks her wit and talents” (Pix xlv).
Letitia’s games with Doricourt more broadly symbolize the struggle women faced during the time to be recognized as witty, intellectual beings rather than only being noticed for their looks and manners – a feat Cowley may have been attempting to overcome by writing this play. What this says about women during this time period, then, is that they were generally unappreciated as intellectuals and without putting in reasonable effort. 18th and 19th century women writers have proven themselves as females of wit with clever dialogue and allegorical content, accentuating their intellect. As defined in the Dictionary of Sensibility:
The right kind of wit goes hand in hand with strong feeling; rather than paving over sensibility, it enables active and powerful expressions of it. ‘True wit’ leads to a kind of natural invention which the Romantics will call “genius,” sensibility’s final, potent appropriation of craft. (Brady)
Both Barbauld and Cowley demonstrate this craft with flair, proving their standing as respectable female figures of wit.
Backshielder, Paula R. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005.
Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. “The Mouse’s Petition to Doctor Priestley Found in the Trap where he had been confined all Night.” Eighteenth Century Women Poets. Ed. Roger Lonsdale. Oxford University Press, 1990. 302-303. Rpt. in ENGL 2880: Women in Literature 18th & 19th Century British Literature; Or, The Unsex’d Females. Comp. Anne Milne. Guelph: University of Guelph Bookstore, 2010. 29.
Brady, Corey, Virginia Cope, Mike Millner, Ana Mitric, Kent Puckett, and Danny Siegel. “Wit/Humor/Invention.” Dictionary of Sensibility. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <http://graduate.engl.virginia.edu/enec981/termpages/wit.html>.
Cowley, Hannah. “The Belle’s Stratagem.” The Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth Century Drama, Concise Edition. Ed. J. Douglas Canfield. Broadview Press, 2004. 978-1025. Rpt. in ENGL 2880: Women in Literature 18th & 19th Century British Literature; Or, The Unsex’d Females. Comp. Anne Milne. Guelph: University of Guelph Bookstore, 2010. 79-126.
Isikoff, Erin. “Masquerade, Modesty, and Comedy in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle Stratagem.” Look Who’s Laughing: Gender and Comedy. Vol. 1. London: Taylor & Francis, 2004. 99-117. Print. Studies in Humor and Gender.
Kraft, Elizabeth. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry & Prose. Ed. William McCarthy. Peterborough: Broadview, 2001.
Palmer, Jerry. Taking Humour Seriously. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Pix, Mary, Melinda C. Finberg, Susanna Centlivre, and Elizabeth Griffith. Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
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