Mar. 19th, 2013

heart_in_the_margins: (Walking reader)
I think my paper is going to end by looking at a pair of poems by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, in order to suggest the ways in which the gendering of (royalist) women's representations of retreat shifts towards the end of the eighteenth century.

"The Petition for an Absolute Retreat"

This poem is particularly interesting because its female speaker -- addressed in the poem as Ardelia, a pastoral renaming of Anne Finch herself -- constructs a vision of paradisal retreat in some ways much like Astell's (a place of women's community and friendship, contemplation, lack of adornment in dress, knowledge production; a "petition" in the public sphere) but in other ways related to Cavendish's (centered around a pair of female friends, rejecting the intrusions of those "Who visit, but to be from home" (l. 9), addressed from one woman to another). I plan to use it as a text that will both make the distinction between Cavendish and Astell clear, and suggest that their interests perhaps represent different ends of the same spectrum, on which Finch falls more firmly in the middle. [I, uh, may have been distracted from this post for a bit while I tried to draw a Venn diagram of these three women's interrelated's currently a work in progress.]

Even the title of this poem is of interest: first, it's framed as a "petition," which suggests that it's a document that circulates in something like a public sphere and represents the requests/demands of someone without authority to someone with greater authority. The petitioned figure in the poem is possibly "Fate," personified throughout, but also possibly Arminda, Finch's pastoral renaming of her friend Catharine Countess of Thanet. I'm interested in what it might mean that this poem moves the genre of "petition" away from the public interaction between, say, subject and sovereign, and into the realm of interaction between two female friends. Second, "absolute" seems to be functioning in a way that separates this poem's interest from the typical representation of the retreat. This is not a retreat from which its inhabitants are interested in returning. Unlike the seasonal movement to and from the countryside, this is a request for a retreat that would not end, that would not have to be balanced by a return to the city and a return to work, so to speak.

The most fascinating thing about this poem is that it continually references Eden, and the happy pair of Adam and Eve, as support for its vision of a pair of female friends cohabiting in paradise. The stanza that does the most talking about these tropes (ll. 104-25) does refer implicitly to Adam and Eve, but neither names nor genders them -- nor does it name or gender the poem's addressee. As a result, it's possible to read Finch's desire for "A Partner suited to my Mind" (l. 106) as a reference to her husband (more on him in a minute). But the following stanza makes it pretty clear that the partner discussed in these terms is in fact Arminda. The poem ultimately stresses female friendship:
Friendship still has been design'd
The Support of Human-kind;
The safe Delight, the useful Bliss,
The next World's Happiness, and this. (ll. 192-5)
What does it mean that Finch can evoke God's reason for creating Eve, and a common justification for marriage -- "Heaven has shown / It was not Good to be alone" (l. 104) -- to discuss the love she feels for a female friend? I do think this poem is about homosociality rather than homosexuality, but it's a female homosocial sphere that is deliberately separate from the influence of men.

"To Mr. F[inch] Now Earl of W[inchilsea]"

Simply put, this is a poem written to her husband about how infrequently poems about happiness and married love are actually written -- and about how hard, therefore, it is to be asked to write one. Finch actually describes her relationship to her husband in terms similar to those in which she describes her relationship to her female friend in the previous poem, and their marriage is transformed into something like the shared retreat of "Petition": a "stolen secrecy" (l. 96), located spatially "in some neighboring grove, / (Where vice nor vanity appear)" (ll. 88-9) and thus evoking the space of the pastoral retreat.

The majority of the poem consists in Finch, aka Ardelia, arguing with the muses for inspiration to write a poem in praise of her husband. The muses give some interesting reasons why it can't be done, and those are the focus of my interest:
And 'twas their business to take care,
It reached not to the public ear,
Or got about the Town:

Nor came where evening beaux were met
O'er billet-doux and chocolate,
Lest it destroyed the house;
For in that place, who could dispense
(That wore his clothes with common sense)
With mention of a spouse? (ll. 46-54)
So we get a series of interesting associations here: "public," "the Town," "beaux," "billet-doux," and the space of the coffeehouse are all at odds with "mention of a spouse." Here, the things that are public include not just men's conversation (the coffeehouse was a male homosocial sphere) but also courtship (billet-doux = "sweet letters," aka love letters), the process of pressing one's suit prior to (or outside of) the commitment of marriage. So the public/private, or public/secret divide (to use the terms of the poem) is not between private homes and public spaces, domestic women and worldly men -- it's between what can be known to all and what must be known only to a select audience. And that select audience in this poem -- the husband and wife -- are engaged in the same kind of pastoral retreat from society in which Ardelia petitions Arminda to join her. [I also suspect "petition" is a word that at this time would possess overtones of courtship...need to OED that.]

Some concluding thoughts

"To Mr. F" feels very early for the kind of companionate marriage it's describing, but this is less important to me than the way in which the companionate marriage of "To Mr. F" occurs in a very similar space to the friendship of "Petition." We haven't yet made it to anything like a gendered separation of spheres: the domestic space and the space of retreat are spaces of intimate relationship, but that relationship could perhaps be either heterosexual OR homosocial. For Finch, these still seem somewhat interchangeable -- this is why she can use references to Eden, and to Adam and Eve, to code her relationship to her friend in "Petition," but still write a poem about her incredibly loving relationship with her husband that is also couched in pastoral terms.


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