Bring out yer wigs! This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up we’re in the 18th century, enjoying the world of English fops in wigs and frivolous young ladies with nothing to do all day except play cards and drink tea. If you like Georgette Heyer and her pre-Regency romances, this poem is the real thing. It shows us how life was really lived by those rich enough to lounge in in wigs and powdered hair, with ribbons on their decorative canes, and diamonds on their shoes.
The Rape of the Lock was written by Alexander Pope in 1714 as a satirical commentary on a silly family quarrel, which was escalating into a viral spat between the most notable Roman Catholic families in England. The young blade Lord Petre cut off a lock of hair belonging to the head of a flighty young lady, Miss Arabella Fermor, and the feud of outraged manners escalated until whole families weren’t speaking to each other. Trouble was, the families were a significant part of a Catholic minority in England, and without unity, the Faith might have been compromised. This was why Alexander Pope, a dashing and fashionable young poet of the day, and also a Catholic with an apposite name, was brought in. The Rape of the Lock was so popular that a satire on this satire appeared in the following year, and Pope’s future as a poet and social commentator was assured. And the families made up the quarrel.
The poem is a shortish mock-epic in five cantos in a deliciously exaggerated neo-classical style. It laughs at the heroic mode by sending it up, and Pope laughs at the ridiculous event that caused all the trouble: the cutting of a lock of hair.
So why is it a satire? Normally, in epic poetry, the heroes and heroines are protected by gods and goddesses, so you’d have two levels of battle going on, the human and the supernatural. In this poem, the heroine, Belinda, is a spoilt young lady who only thinks about her appearance, and the hero is a Baron who worships his trophies of broken hearts. Belinda is protected by an army of invisible sylphs, fairies and sprites, who fuss about her continually, making sure her gown is arranged correctly and that she comes to no harm from the weather, or a passing shaft of sunshine. Notice that we’re not talking about attacks by savage monsters or the powers of hell, as in earlier epics, but about the most trivial of feminine concerns. This is bathos, showing how ridiculous something is by contrasting a high and noble style of writing with the low and trivial subject. (Think Monty Python.) The title is also bathetic: ‘rape’ in this context means a theft, but because of the classical legend of the rape of the Sabine women, rape also has connotations of stealing women, with sexual violence added. So Pope is applying a serious action, rape, to an utterly trivial object, a lock of hair. However, a man cutting a woman’s hair without permission, secretly, also has sexualised connotations of uninvited intimacy, so the poem is not as innocent as it purports to be. But let’s look deeper.
The poem begins with Belinda waking in the morning (actually nearly lunch-time) after a lovely dream, and proceeds to get ready for the day, attended by her sprites and her maid. The rituals of dressing and choosing the gown for the first engagement of the day mimic religious rites. After these have been performed, she’d ready to go and meet her friends. They travel by boat up the Thames to Hampton Court to play cards and drink tea. Belinda accepts a challenge from the Baron, and beats him twice at cards in an epic battle described at length, much as the combats of Achilles are described in the Iliad. She exults too loud and too often for his offended pride, so he sneaks up behind her and cuts off a lock of hair. Horror, terror, appalled maiden modesty, the girls all scream and war ensues. The sprites cannot protect Belinda because she is secretly in love with the Baron, but they struggle desperately to regain the lock, until it apotheoses, transforms into ethereal matter and ascends to heaven. And the war is over.
As well as being a satire on a great deal of fuss being made about a small and tiresome squabble between two spoiled teenagers, the poem is also an unexpected criticism of how women behave in society, their small concerns, their pointless quarrels, their gossip and their petulance, and their inability to resist true love and the domination of a man. The poem laughs at the women’s anger at the Baron’s impudence, but also laughs at the triviality of the women’s lives, ‘the moving toyshop of their hearts’. One of the ways this is done is by mimicking another standard event in the heroic epic, the descent into hell. The sprite Umbriel descends to the Cave of Spleen, a domain of gloomy fretfulness and petulance, which sends up the wastefulness of women’s lives when they have nothing but their own illnesses to interest them. This is where blackheads come from, where headaches and bad hair days are all-powerful. Spleen gives Umbriel a secret weapon for Belinda’s war against the Baron, a magical flask full of sorrows, grief and tears, and a bag of magical winds, ‘the force of female lungs, sighs, sobs, and passions’. These are epic weapons, but also ridiculously trivial, and pointedly ‘female’ weapons. I don’t think Pope was taking this quarrel at all seriously.
Up on earth the epic battle begins. The fops and wits in the Baron’s supporters are slain with ease by the furious ladies, with a look, a glance or a frown. Belinda herself attacks the Baron with first a pinch of snuff, to make him sneeze and lose his dignity, and then a deadly bodkin, a hairpin, with which she threatens him, and calls aloud ‘Restore the Lock!’ But the lock is gone, ascending to heaven where it belongs. And that is the end, and a very diplomatic one it is too, since neither side actually wins, but all are appeased, and Belinda’s name has been inscribed among the stars by the presence of her lock of hair.
As you can probably tell, the subject has considerable scope for sly comments about the inevitable subjugation of women by their hearts, and the power of women over men in matters of love. The poem is delightful, light, quite short, but absolutely epic, and very, very readable.