A War of Wits

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Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

1661-1720

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

1689-1762

          Who thought it possible for a woman to be a wit? Among the greatest male Neoclassic authors and poets, a handful of female writers who also crafted witty allusions and wrote within the constraints of the period, were left unrecognized and underappreciated. In anthologies, scholars represent female writers far less than their male counterparts; and even Martin Price’s seemingly comprehensive “The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century” casts women aside without one reference to a female author. Yet, by recognizing how these female poets used wit, we can better understand what it meant to be a woman of the time who challenged the status quo with a precise pen and a sharp tongue. For these women, wit was their tool to showcase great skill in writing and empower their true emotions in a manner appropriate to the era: Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea brilliantly draws her pen in response to Alexander Pope’s disregard of female wit; and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu devises a satirical commentary on the male and female contemporary system of romance. In a variety of styles, these Neoclassic women defiantly expanded the perception of who could be witty to prove once and for all that we are all truly “born to wit.”

          In “The Answer,” Finch does not deny her own wit, on which she was “complimented” by Pope, but rather subverts his words in order to prove that any sentiments against women shall not go unnoticed, or unpunished. Pope’s “Impromptu” attempts to deflect his criticism about women trying to be witty by praising the great “Ardelia” (Pope, 4)– Finch’s pen name– as the sole reason why female wit is overlooked, and not his own misogyny. However, instead of resorting to this amusing, but nonetheless childish, slander, Finch elegantly asserts herself and her female counterparts through a classical allusion to Orpheus, the ancient Greek musician and poet. She taunts Pope, suggesting that he could never be as oppressive as the mythological figure who “left his wife in hell” (Finch, 15). Of course, her reverse psychology is ironic and serves as a light-hearted warning to Pope for underestimating female wit. Just as Orpheus turns around to glimpse Eurydice, losing her to the mythological Underworld, Finch suggests that if Pope reverts to his mocking words, he may lose her from his circle of friends in reality. Finch deviates from the “naming and shaming” device which many male writers, including Dryden and Pope, adopted; however, she subtly connects Pope’s actions to Orpheus’. For example, Orpheus’ “scoffing rhymes” (Finch, 17) are synonymous to Pope’s own words because they are not only disdainful of women, but also poorly masked by a lyrical rhythm to create a false sense of harmony. Pope feels free to expose Ardelia, who “fights and subdues in quarrels not her own” (Pope, 8) with the expectation that “all [will be] well” for him (Finch, 13). Conversely, Orpheus, who thought the same, was severely punished: Finch’s vivid and harsh diction of “blood” and “clashing” (Finch, 22-23) disrupts the former monosyllabic and harmonious rhythm in lines 13 – 16. Her skillful parallelism between both poets equates the value of her writing to any man’s, and since she never even engages in direct accusations, her words and dignity are elevated as genuine wit.

          Finch’s authentic wit, thus, calls to question whether or not “Impromptu” is simply a prejudiced argument compared to “The Answer.” This seems too harsh considering the good-natured relationship between Finch and Pope in reality. Nonetheless, towards the end of her poem, Finch’s mercy for Pope is what makes her wit sharper than his. For example, instead of casting any serious blame on Pope, she finally differentiates him from Orpheus, declaring Pope “need not fear” (Finch, 27) because she is certain he will now speak carefully, and perhaps even appraisingly, about female wit. She finds no reason to insult his character and instead provides an inclusive alternative to the final line of his poem where Pope implies a male’s pen will always be stronger than a female’s: “shines himself till [women] are seen no more” (Pope, 12). Finch subverts this by using “we’re” (Finch, 35) to expand the scope of who may identify as witty to her circle of male and female writers. Thus, Finch transforms Pope’s initial thoughts centering on “himself” and aligns them with her own feminist agenda. She volunteers his “hand… [to] soothe the ladies,” (Finch, 31-33) suggesting that she does not mean to exclude or degrade Pope but instead give him the chance to advocate for and support female writing. This opportunity is also extended to the reader: Finch establishes that “we’re born… to be wise”, (Finch, 35) referring to all those engaged in various intellectual endeavors. However, the double syntax of the final line indicates that the only way to wholeheartedly uplift women in social, intellectual and political life, is if we are wary about the “admonitions taught” (Finch, 36) to children about who is allowed to think, write, and be witty. Finch’s subtle advocacy for female empowerment in the Neoclassic period triumphs over Pope’s equally subtle but all too prejudiced poem. Unlike Pope, who must literally declare that men outwit women, Finch has no need to say the opposite. She simply outwits this idea.

          Lady Montagu is another female poet who deploys her wit to question the latent contemporary standards against which men and women are held. “The Lover: A Ballad” is a cynical and somewhat tragic, but nonetheless amusing, commentary on romance as it currently exists for Montagu and many other women of her time. They lacked the personal, social, and oftentimes, financial freedom to choose marriage for love. Hence, it is socially ludicrous for Montagu to open her poem by challenging the status quo of what it means to be a single woman: no, she says, her fastidiousness with men is not due to “indifference,” (Montagu, 3) or religion, or repressed sexuality. This frank address transcends across time, where women today constantly feel that they must justify their romantic choices to men and the rest of society. Montagu’s self-depreciating tone is what creates trust between herself and similar readers, and by adopting a suitably witty and rational style writing, she also presents her dilemma in a manner most appropriate to the male Neoclassic understanding. Montagu’s exaggerated references to stock male characters of the time create a clear picture of what made a man desirable and undesirable. For example, Montagu rejects the “rake-helly gay… because he has nothing to say” (Montagu, 17-18). Her readers can understandably titter at this reference to the typical fop, who is consumed by excessive clothing and trivial matters. The adverb “foppishly” further reinforces the negative connotations surrounding this stereotype. She also “loath[es] the lewd rake” (Montagu, 45) because of the sexual manipulation behind the character’s actions. Inauthenticity is the most prevalent quality about these figures, and even the “toasters and songsters” (Montagu, 43) lure women through false praise and discordant melodies. By implying that these types of men exude “vain affection[s] of wit” (Montagu, 42), Montagu asserts that true wit is born in candor and sincerity– much like her own in this very poem. This list of stereotypes extends as a synecdoche to all men in her society because Montagu has not yet found one with authentic praise or chivalrous behaviors. Thus, the poem becomes a lesson to educate men about how to become better partners who treat women with genuine respect. By using wit, Montagu instills these suggestions to men in an entertaining and subtle manner, reducing the chance that they may disregard the comments proposed by a female poet.

 

          Although a large portion of the poem is dedicated to describing the ideal partner who will never materialize, Montagu also subverts the traditional structure of romance and empowers women to make choices for themselves. Montagu is far more subversive than other eighteenth-century female writers. For instance, Jane Austen’s heroines are empowered to choose their own husbands for love, but not one of her novels ends with an unmarried woman. While Finch admits her criticism of women for being too enamored with men (Finch, 11), she also crafts “A Letter to Daphnis” to declare her love for her compassionate husband. These statements do not mean to suggest that Austen and Finch are oppressive to women or that they cannot marry (fictionally or literally.) Instead, Montagu’s words accept her own decision to remain single until her “astonishing [male] creature” (Montagu, 39) appears. For example, she alludes to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” where Daphne transforms into a tree in order to escape the love-stricken Apollo. Montagu includes herself with the cohort of women who choose to “harden like trees and… grow cold” like rivers (Montagu, 48). Though this line seems harsh and gloomy, Montagu uses “sweetly” (Montagu, 47) to lighten the tone and reclaim Ovid’s imagery as something positive: as a tree, she is assertive and strong-willed; as a river she is “cold,” or detached, from any oppressive comments made about her marital status. Overall, her poem is satirical because Montagu hyperbolically lists the many conditions her ideal partner must meet: be a gentleman in public, caring in private, and a friend as well as a lover. Montagu’s self-deprecation in the poem only confirms her honesty with her readership, in contrast to the inauthenticity she laments in many men. However, I don’t believe the above list should be too much for Montagu to want in a partner. The poem’s underlying message, thus, steers us to challenge the ways men behaved in the Neoclassic romantic system, and process female– especially Lady Montagu’s– independence in love as necessary.

          Compared to the male writers of the time, Finch’s and Montagu’s wit holds more purpose than to simply criticize a compeer. John Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe” blatantly exposes Shadwell in “full stupidity” (Dryden, 18), and we can look back to Pope’s reference to Ardelia to demonstrate the same. These male poets certainly deserve their recognition, but it is worth noting how the women use wit to differentiate themselves and shed light upon issues of social elevation for all women. Dryden and Pope have earned the privilege of using comical and blunt language to reveal their rivals’ downfalls; however, Finch and Montagu subvert this male wit to challenge traditional ideas. Their readers are forced to confront and contemplate structural systems in society, making female wit the subtlest and most powerful form.

 

          Essentially, these female poets redefined what it meant to be witty in the male-dominated field of Neoclassic literature. Finch challenges Pope, and in doing so, elevates herself and all women who appreciate intellect, as an equal to his skill. Montagu defends herself through self-deprecating asides and amusing references while, too, emphasizing freedom and the right to choose. Therefore, wit is an empowering tool which transcends the pages upon which is it written and across time to demonstrate that, yes, it is truly possible for a woman to be a wit. The Neoclassic style of writing encompasses rationality, classical allusions and wit, but the authentic intentions behind these devices are what ultimately set apart the female poets from the male poets. It would be interesting to further explore the relationship between authenticity and wit in many more female authors of this time period. However, for now, it is time to edit the most famous Neoclassic anthologies and collections to assert Lady Winchelsea and Lady Montagu as two of the most brilliant wits of the eighteenth-century.

Essay written by Mimi Thompson in Spring 2019 for coursework as part of "British Writers II"