Philobiblon: Terms of abuse

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Terms of abuse

Odd, isn't it, how the abuse, by contemporaries and historians, of prominent women always seems to follow certain paths. Queens are, when they come from lesser backgrounds always originally prostitutes (or the worst sort, of course) e.g. Justinian's empress Theodora, and when in power are said to follow all sorts of deviant sexual practices, e.g. Catherine the Great, to be mad for luxury (Cleopatra and the asses' milk) and be utterly tyrannical (pretty well all of them).

Scholarly women are by contrast dismissed as slightly, or more than slightly, mad, masculine or plain ugly in their appearance, and hopelessly overarching in their intellectual ambitions.

I first heard of Egalantine Lady Wallace, the sister of the duchess of Gordon, from a rather fun piece of popular history The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale, J. Bondeson, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, 2001.

She was presented, as usual, as "an eccentric playwright and poetess", "a boisterous hoyden in her youth, and a woman of violent temper in her maturer years".
Lady Wallace wrote a play, The Ton, that caused a riot in the theatre when staged in 1790.

This is usually dismissed as a result of its poor quality, but the story seems to have been more complicated, as this website explains.

The picture presented is strikingly like that applied to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.


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