The Butcher-Kissing Duchess of Devonshire: Between Caricature and Allegory in 1784
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 23-46



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The Butcher-Kissing Duchess of Devonshire:
Between Caricature and Allegory in 1784

Amelia Rauser

[Figures]

In the Westminster election of 1784, the charismatic and politically astute Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, took an unprecedented role in the campaign of Charles James Fox, the "man of the people." Her avid canvassing of voters provoked much outrage and amusement among her contemporaries, while helping assure Fox a narrow victory. A tremendous outpouring of pamphlets, essays, prints, and ballads debated the Duchess's virtues or improprieties. At least eighty-nine different political prints survive from the month of April 1784 alone. 1 While these documents have been helpfully analyzed by historians and art historians who rank the 1784 election as a watershed event in political history, a close look at the prints reveals a small but compelling mystery. 2 One curious electioneering activity dwarfed all others, appearing more than a dozen times during the course of the Westminster election: the Duchess's supposed penchant for kissing the butchers of Westminster. 3

An especially bawdy example of this theme is William Dent's The Dutchess Canvassing for Her Favorite Member (fig. 1), which appeared on April 13. While a male canvasser talks with a ragged voter at left, the Duchess does far more than merely kiss the butcher, identified by the awl characteristic of his trade. Rather, she gropes and embraces him. Another plumed female campaigner, probably the Duchess's sister, Lady Duncannon, holds up a bribe and shouts, "Our Man forever, Huzza!" 4 In fondling the butcher, the Duchess of Devonshire is not only a sexual aggressor but is made sexually available herself. A small chimney sweep and his dog take advantage of her distraction to look up her skirt, emphasizing the way in which her public politicking made the Duchess "available" to all classes. [End Page 23]

What was behind the printmakers' repeated representation of the butcher-kissing Duchess in 1784? These prints have generally been interpreted as simple libels on the Duchess's virtue or as oblique criticism of her candidate's unprincipled bribery of voters. 5 Yet the extraordinary durability, vitriol, and repetition of this theme suggest it had an unusual resonance and symbolic charge beyond these general critiques. In this essay I will argue that the butcher-kissing scandal was a superficially titillating theme with a darker, more anxious subtext. Behind the figure of the Duchess and the butcher stood the iconography of the new nationalist character of John Bull and the status of the Duchess as a symbol of a corrupt and perhaps feminized aristocracy. The butcher-kissing prints focused the fear of and antagonism toward Fox as a dissolute libertine in the licentious and caricatured body of the Duchess and showed her sexually dominating the butcher. In response, Foxite prints attempted to abstract the Duchess into a bloodless icon of virtue and patriotism in the unassailable realm of allegory. But because nudity was the traditional index of female allegory, the Duchess's allegorical body remained perilously open to charges of licentiousness all the same.

Thus, in the political prints of April and May 1784, the Duchess of Devonshire was caught between the representational modes of caricature and allegory. Neither mode was able to represent both a single, individualized woman and that woman's effective presence in the public sphere. Instead, these political prints policed the masculine, middle-class nature of the new civic identity. 6 In what follows, I will describe why the election of 1784 was so suited to this sort of caricatural battle, examine the butcher-kissing scandal itself, and look at the broader clash between allegory and caricature in the representations of the Duchess in 1784. Neither as a caricatured woman nor as an allegory was the Duchess of Devonshire able to carve out an acceptable role for an aristocratic woman in the public and political sphere in 1784.

The 1784 Election

The 1784 election and the role Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, played in it have proved important to historians because...