Femininity, Materialism and Class
in Eighteenth Century England

By Catherine Imperatore

     An eighteenth century Englishwoman’s world was small. It emphasized beauty and domesticity and therefore the products that helped achieve those ends. Women, in their limited sphere, became associated with the vice of materialism. As materialism became a gendered concept, men who indulged in luxuries came to be considered effeminate. “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope and Marriage A-la-Mode by William Hogarth both depict men and women who lack virtue and rationality because of their luxurious and opulent lifestyles. Completed in 1717, “The Rape of the Lock” set its critique against the backdrop of an aristocratic world. However, the middle of the eighteenth century brought industrialism and changing classifications of society. English society came to associate the developing commercial class with a preoccupation with material goods. Produced thirty years after Pope's poem, Marriage A-la-Mode illustrates the addition of a more complex class dimension to the critique of femininity and materialism. Society, adding this class element to the already gendered concept of materialism, cast middle class women as the ultimate materialists.

     Prosperous marriage was the goal for most women of the eighteenth century. Beauty, grace and charms were means used to achieve this end. A decent dowry and a virtuous reputation also helped. However, a woman’s physical attractions and social graces could be both an asset and a liability to society’s perception of her virtue and morality. On the one hand, women were appraised on the basis of their physical beauty, which cannot be separated from sexuality and its association with immorality. Contradicting this was the belief that, according to Jones, “a woman’s beauty could make manifest her inner virtue” (1). English culture interpreted women’s social graces as a civilizing force, and manners and morals added to a lady’s overall attractiveness. Yet, “to every writer . . . who was prepared to suggest that women aided sociability, there was an opposing view . . . that the presence of women tempted men into effeminate assemblies devoid of virtue” (Jones 154). Vanity, as illustrated by attention to clothing and appearance, was another vice, Bouten notes (79). It was believed to be immoral to spend too much attention on clothing, Browne writes, yet this attention was necessary to demonstrate good taste and show off one’s assets modestly ( 34).

     The need to be beautiful created a demand for goods and products such as fine fabrics and perfumes. A world of material culture grew up around women, based in these products and in women’s role managing the household. “A gentlewoman," Vickery notes, "was far more likely than her brothers to inherit personal property,” due to the inheritance practices of the time (294). It was no wonder that material goods held “talismanic properties,” for a woman “used material things to honor God and her family, to lend substance to her relationships” (Vickery 284-285). Women’s involvement with objects and goods, a result of their limited sphere in life, led society to cast them as materialistic.

     In “The Rape of the Lock,” Pope condemns his heroine for such materialism. Pope first focuses on Belinda’s appearance to make his case. Pope illustrates Belinda’s physical attractions in no uncertain terms. When she looks in the mirror, “a heavenly image in the glass appears” (1:125). Her eyes are “bright as the sun” and her neck is “smooth and ivory” (2:14, 22). Our heroine’s power is in her beauty, which is the reason she nurtures “two locks which graceful hung behind” (2:20). These are the very locks that the Baron desires. Belinda’s beauty is her primary tool in her quest for a suitable husband.

     Belinda seems to have a natural loveliness, but it is her intricate toilet that turns her into an exquisitely finished product. Pope describes her morning routine as he would a mass. Her servant or “inferior priestess . . . begins the sacred rites of Pride” (1:127-128). Through the use of cosmetics, Belinda “arms” herself for the drawing room and the battle to make a good match (1:139). She emerges from her efforts as a “painted vessel,” her natural loveliness enhanced by arts available to her class. Belinda’s dressing table is a menagerie of cosmetics, many from exotic lands like Arabia and India. These products must be relatively new to British shores, brought over by the beginnings of colonization and industrialization, and attest to Belinda’s financial and social situation as well as her vanity and materialism.

     These extravagances are not just limited to Belinda’s appearance, but are visible in her setting. Our heroine’s lapdog, her “downy pillows” and the “pressed watch” that summons her maid all attest to her situation in life (1:18-19). Her drawing room is home for more exotic items, like a “charming Indian screen” and a Japanese lacquered table (3:14, 107). She and her friends enjoy coffee, tea and snuff. Most conspicuously, when the Sylphs seek to warn Belinda of the Baron’s impending attack, they twitch the diamond in her ear. The Sylphs, spirits who act as ladies-in-waiting to vain young beauties, are themselves described in terms of luxury. They reside in a palace, from whence they issue attired in “glittering textures” with “ever-mingling dyes” (2:64, 66). Similarly materialistic are their duties. Their function is to “tend the Fair” by curling “waving hairs” and ensuring general beauty and charm (2:91, 97). These duties are ironically juxtaposed with those performed by other spirits who “guard with arms divine the British Throne” (2:90).

     This materialism has affected Belinda’s character, and she engages in no rational and productive behavior. She and her suitor idle away the day talking and playing cards. Likewise, Belinda wastes the morning tarrying in her comfortable bed and rising at twelve. With a Baron gracing the drawing room, Belinda’s family is obviously well situated monetarily and socially. However, women in her position, at least matrons, would probably have some household responsibilities. Lorna Weatherill describes the difficulties of cleaning and running a household in the days before vacuum cleaners: “even among the better-off, considerable effort was needed” (139). As Weatherill notes, women in the gentry were “expected to be able to cook, even if they did not always do so” (149). Pope chooses not to depict Belinda performing any of these duties. Nor does he more than briefly acknowledge that it is beyond Belinda’s scope as a woman to actively participate in much of life, and not necessary for her social situation. Instead, he focuses on her “female errors” of materialism and extravagance (2:17). The wise Clarissa sums up Pope’s dissatisfaction with this lavish lifestyle:

Behold the first in virtue as in face!
Oh! if to dance all night, and dress all day
Charmed the smallpox, or chased old age away
Who would not scorn what housewife’s cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly thing of use? (5:18-22).

     Pope casts the harshest light on Belinda at the end of the poem. She is most upset that it is this particular lock that has been removed: “Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!” (4:175-176). The rape is not as important as the damaging of her appearance. In fact, this sign of the Baron’s regard excites in her no dreams of his intentions. Belinda forgets that her tendrils are merely tools in the dating game, and loves her beauty for its own sake. While readers may question whether the Baron can have intentions to wed Belinda and still commit this disrespectful act, Pope obviously means to cast Belinda as the victim of her own materialism. The Sylphs instruct us that women who are “too conscious of . . . face,” are destined to be too proud for any man (1:79). The Gnomes guide these proud beauties, as they guide Belinda in the end to draw the “deadly bodkin” (5:88). Belinda’s opulent lifestyle, her focus on her appearance, and her lack of any rational exercise of mind all contribute to her reaction to the Baron’s act. To Pope, there is nothing virtuous in this reaction; it is an irrational result of her rarified, materialistic existence.

     Belinda’s Baron, who idles away his day playing cards with Belinda and her guests, is, according to Jones, an example of women leading men into “effeminate assemblies devoid of virtue” (154). Pope portrays the Baron ironically as a valiant knight, whose jousting arena is the drawing room. There he whiles away the “instructive hours” learning “who gave the ball, or paid the visit last” (3:11-12). The Baron desires Belinda’s hair as an addition to his collection of love tokens: “three garters, half a pair of gloves, / And all the trophies of his former loves” (2:39-40). He needs material objects to remind himself of his loves and conquests. The Baron worships at the altar of Love, reminiscent of chivalrous knights and their undying passion for their lady fair. But this knight has no worthy battle to keep him from growing soft and womanly under the influence of too much sentimentality. The Baron is an aristocrat and has no occupation but to pursue love to an unmanly extent. His battlefield is first the card-table, where he advances the Ace of Hearts (a further sign of his preoccupation) and loses the field. When he claims the lock, he cries for “wreaths of triumph” as if this rude and ungentlemanly act is comparable to the fall of Troy (3:161). Belinda tries to enlist the aid of another materialistic gentleman, “Sir Plume of amber snuffbox justly vain,” but his “unthinking” efforts to defend her honor predictably fail (4:123, 125). The other men present for the final fight, “Dapperwit” and “Sir Fopling,” have telling names (5:62-63). These men are dapper fops, well dressed and useless. Belinda goes on to defeat the Baron, though she does not gain the lock, which ascends to the heavens. The Baron is far from a valiant knight. He embodies materialism, idleness and sentimentality: characteristics typically associated with women. The end of the work leaves us in little doubt that materialism has corrupted both Belinda and her Baron.

     William Hogarth, thirty years later, continues Pope’s critique of materialism while adding new elements of class-consciousness. In his series of plates entitled Marriage A-la-Mode, we see the disintegration of a materialistic couple. Like Pope, Hogarth focuses on the young Countess’s looks and the products she uses to achieve this beauty. She is fair and expensively dressed. The very fact that her morning party takes place at her dressing table (a phenomenon not restricted to this particular lady) attests to the importance of beauty in this culture (Hogarth, Plate 4). Even in the last plate, where the Countess has killed herself out of grief for her hanged lover, she is well dressed from the covering on her head to the buckled shoes that peek out from under her skirts (Plate 6). However, in Marriage A-la-Mode our heroine is less coveted for her looks than for her middle class, merchant family’s wealth. This reflects English society’s changing relationship to wealth and commerce.

     Material objects are the most important elements in the Countess’s world. This piece is saturated with them. They suffocate the rooms depicted and there are no outdoor scenes, as Maza and Shesgreen point out in their article “Marriage in Hogarth and Bosse” (208). Objects are of the utmost importance, and will be purchased even though bills remain unpaid (Plate 2). The black servants depicted in plate four, particularly the young boy in the turban, represent an exotic and colonial consumerism (2657). The Countess is proud to possess objects (and people) from far lands. Art pervades these plates, but it is art of a dubious nature: bawdy paintings and indifferent sculptures. The settings are composed of “the young couple’s plethora of tasteless knickknacks” (Maza and Shesgreen 208). Hogarth, an artist in a newly consumerist society, is not against the acquisition of objects that have aesthetic value. Crow suggests that he is against “the wrong sort of commodities and pleasures: meritless architecture, dismal paintings, spurious antiquities, silly toys, and silly indulgences” (237). In an era of growing consumerism, the crime Hogarth portrays is not the desire to spend but to spend indiscriminately.

     The exterior signs of materialism give clues to the moral depravity of the couple. Both the husband and wife display a lack of virtue, illustrated in their sexual excesses and neglect of their child. Their sexual liaisons outside of marriage directly cause their downfall. Marks of syphilis infect the Earl, his mistress and the child, who will most likely die young. “Sensual gratification” is just another kind of “luxuria” (Maza and Shesgreen 208). In this opulent and dissipated lifestyle, “the desire for children has been displaced by the consumption of objects and of commodified persons” (Maza and Shesgreen 208). The Earl’s mistress is one of these commodified people (Plate 3). She sells herself for money, surely one of the worst horrors of commercialization. A rattle dangles on a chair in plate four, the only evidence of the young heir. We do not see the doomed child until the last scene (Plate 4; Plate 6). The child is already crippled by inherited venereal disease and will die young. Furthermore, neither the husband nor the wife engage in any productive or rational behavior that might counteract their excesses. They are always depicted in a situation surrounding a party; one is always in progress, just ended or soon to begin.
Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode presents a portrait of men and women who are equally capable of folly. However, we must interpret this set of plates with the understanding that to eighteenth century British society, luxury and consumption were gendered female: “ “luxury” was usually described, according to Breen, as a “she,” as effeminate, soft and weak”and women were “regularly blamed . . . for consumer excess” (256).

     Hogarth portrays the young Earl as effeminate, like Belinda’s Baron. In the first plate, he gazes into a mirror, totally unconcerned with the major life decision being made for him. This interest in physical appearance was normally associated with women; there existed, according to Crown, an “identification” between “a desire for . . . visual beauty” and “effeminacy” (237). We soon find that the Earl’s priorities are partying, women and spending money (in no particular order). As an aristocrat, he can be expected to have no occupation, but the Earl is determinedly idle after the manner of a young coquette like Belinda. While equally effeminate fops attend his wife’s levees, sitting around in curlers, the Earl will likely be found with his mistress or asleep after a night of wild drinking ( Plate 4). His seemingly endless desire for women, even though he suffers from venereal disease, is a sign of a highly unmanly weakness of will. The Earl even accepts the emasculation of being cuckolded. All the signs of improper behavior on the part of his wife are apparent as early as plate two, where there is clear evidence of a party conducted while the Earl was out and ended in haste (Plate 2). He probably confronts the Countess and her lover, Silvertongue, only because they have forgotten all attempts at discretion (Plate 5). When he finally does duel with Silvertongue, he is utterly defeated. Finally, it becomes evident in plate six that the Earl has failed his noble family by producing an heir who will not live to carry on the line (2659). The young Squanderfield has squandered his life in what would be considered womanly weakness and excess.

     Marriage A-la-Mode was produced in the 1740s, thirty years after “The Rape of the Lock,” when England was entering the Industrial Revolution. Hogarth’s work reflects a world of growing commerce and consumerism as well as a developing middle class. He criticizes all classes for their obsession with money and consumer goods, but in different ways. The aristocrats are at fault for their overspending. It is the older Squanderfield’s desire for money to complete the new mansion that brings about this unhappy union. The young prostitute sells herself because wealthy men like the young Earl will pay for her services. The working class, represented by the prostitute, the apothecary and the angry woman (either the prostitute’s bawd or the apothecary’s wife) are as obsessed with money as their social betters. The older woman’s huge skirt indicates material vanity, and both the bawd and the apothecary participate in the corrupt sale of goods.

     Hogarth criticizes the middle class in a more complex manner, while acknowledging that no class is safe from the new, mid century preoccupation with money and possessions. English society in this era still associated class with character. Hogarth portrays the merchant and his daughter as social climbers, as Crown notes; the “disasters that befell the protagonists” are “caused in part by their emulating the rich and desiring similar possessions and styles of self-display” (236). We see this emulation not so much in the father, but in the daughter. She, as the woman of the household, would be responsible for furnishing it. As Maza and Shesgreen succinctly put it, “the young wife seeks out bad art” (208). Bad art, while also present in the older Earl’s drawing room, is of an even lower quality when chosen by the Countess with her middle class tastes. The Countess’s father, as a merchant, symbolizes commercialism. His attempt to purchase relationships with cash is a sign of this age’s moral illness, an illness based in commercialization and consumerism. In the last plate, at the Countess’s death, we see her father’s house. The room depicts a very different scenario from the rooms in the Earl’s home. It is stark and threadbare, with cobwebs and broken panes (Plate 6). While there is less art on these walls, it is in extremely poor taste and depicts such vulgarities as a boy urinating. A starving dog, ribs visible, eats off the table while no one is looking. The father, unmoved by his daughter’s death, busies himself removing an expensive ring from her finger. The merchant’s house bears the mark of miserliness. His money is either saved or spent on something other than the comfort of his family. In his portrayal of the merchant, Hogarth illustrates the lowest depths to which one’s character can sink under the influence of greed and commercialism.

     While neither Pope nor Hogarth let the aristocracy escape unscathed from their critiques of materialism, eighteenth century society perceived the middle class as the originator of growing consumerism and materialism. This perception is implicit in Hogarth’s merchant. In the first plate, he is a main player in bringing about the match. In the last plate, he is the unloving father who profits off his daughter’s death by taking her ring from her lifeless hand. The merchant can be seen as a corrupting force in this world. Weatherill notes that the new commercial class did have “expectations and lives” that “led them to be more interested in innovation and in varied domestic goods” (189). They “were anxious to express their refinement as a means to cultural distinction” (Jones vii). According to Jones, aristocrats and gentry, rooted in the land, looked down on “commercial wealth” that “threatened to unsettle the established orders of taste and criticism” (4). They saw its commerce, technology and town-centered lifestyle as greed and as a threat to England’s agrarian economy.

     At this time, “luxury probably was the greatest single social issue and the greatest single commonplace” and played on issues of both class and gender (Maza and Shesgreen 208). Women came in for the worst of the censure because of their identification with household goods and beauty products. Women functioned as the main consumers for the family in the eighteenth century. This purchasing power was both empowering as an “important part of household management which might . . . liberate women from some of their more onerous tasks,” but, according to Honeyman, it also “supplemented the definition of women’s role” (47). Vickery suggests that “[h]ousekeeping was a form of work which lacked an obvious and lasting product” except for the products purchased that graced the drawing room or dinner table (283). Women lived, Vickery adds, in a world where the use of beauty products could determine their future and where furnishings “displayed . . . social status to the wider public” (291). Thus, society came to believe that women were inherently materialistic.

     In a culture that believed both women and the middle class were materialistic, middle class women were judged as the worst offenders. The tastes of the commercial class were described in the terms of effeminacy, Jones notes, as “the work of weak, unregulated passions, womanly cravings after fripperies” (5). Middle class women’s pretensions to upper class taste and style were interpreted as presumption and social climbing. The Countess, with her bad art, is an example of this. Hogarth’s contemporaries may have interpreted the Countess’s vulgar taste and materialism as corrosive to the dignity of her aristocratic husband, and just as damaging as her merchant father’s obsession with money.

     With the progress of the Industrial Revolution, “women became excluded from jobs as productivity and rationality, with which women were only weakly associated, became increasingly valued” (Honeyman, 31). Factory work was only for the lowest classes of women. As home and work became more distinct from each other, the association between women, family and home grew stronger. According to Jones, “The taint of luxuriance was deftly avoided” by the new image of the middle class family as a haven of “domestic propriety” (207). Owning goods came to be considered virtuous when associated with a domestic sphere that was separate from the harsh outer world. Materialism and consumerism were still associated with femininity, but with more positive connotations. This change heralded the birth of both the industrial age and Victorianism, with the middle class family as its ideal.

     This ideal still exists in much of the western world. Many Americans proudly claim to be members of the middle class, which still represents virtuous family values. Consumerism is prevalent in American society, accepted by the majority and protested by a small minority. Far more people buy material goods than produce them. The relationship between materialism, consumption and traditionally feminine characteristics lives on in advertising. Campaigns target women as primary consumers, particularly in the areas of home and beauty products. Advertising, with its barrage of beautiful women and well-run households, teaches women that material objects are essential to their survival and happiness. Materialism as a gendered concept endures in society’s assumption that men who value aesthetics are sentimental and effeminate. Modern culture has yet to escape from the effects of these long-held associations between femininity, class and materialism.

Works Cited

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Breen, T.H. “The Meanings of Things: Interpreting the Consumer Economy in the Eighteenth Century.”      Consumption and the World of Goods. Eds. John Brewer and Ray Porter. London: Routledge, 1993.

Browne, Alice. The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Crown, Patricia. “Hogarth’s Working Women.” The Other Hogarth: Aesthetics of Difference. Eds. Bernadette Fort      and Angela Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Hogarth, William. Marriage A-la-Mode. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the      Eighteenth Century. Volume 1C. Seventh edition. Eds. Lawrence Lipking, M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Honeyman, Katrina. Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700-1870. Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd,      2000.

Jones, Robert W. Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty.      Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Maza, Sarah and Sean Shesgreen. “Marriage in Hogarth and Bosse.” The Other Hogarth: Aesthetics of Difference.      Eds. Bernadette Fort and Angela Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the      Eighteenth Century. Volume 1C. Seventh edition. Eds. Lawrence Lipking, M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Vickery, Amanda. “Women and the World of Goods: a Lancashire Consumer and Her Possessions, 1751-81.”      Consumption and the World of Goods. Eds. John Brewer and Ray Porter. London: Routledge, 1993.

Weatherill, Lorna. Consumer Behaviour & Material Culture in Britain, 1660-1760. London: Routledge, 1988.