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  • Women, China, and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century England
  • Beth Kowaleski-Wallace (bio)

In The Rape of the Lock, Belinda occupies two places within an economy of exchange. She is both, as critics have often indicated, an item to be traded and a consumer of commodities. Within the poem, one image—that of fine china or porcelain—best conveys her dual status. On the one hand, Belinda is like a precious piece of china, ready to be broken at any moment. In Canto II, dire events are foreshadowed by Ariel, who likens Belinda’s virginity to a piece of china: “Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law, / Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw.” After Belinda’s lock—symbolizing her maidenhead—has been cut, the affinity between virginity and china is evoked once more: “Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast, / When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last, / Or when rich China Vessels, fal’n from high,’ / In glittring Dust and painted Fragments lie.” 1

On the other hand, the poem asserts Belinda’s keen appreciation for the very commodity that serves as a metaphor for her condition. In Canto III, her guests enjoy coffee: “From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide, / While China’s Earth receives the smoking Tyde. / At once they gratify their Scent and Taste, / And frequent Cups prolong the rich Repast” (Canto III, lines 109–12). Belinda’s status as a consumer of imported luxuries has already been discussed, but it is also clear that her taste extends to expensive porcelain. 2 [End Page 153]

Thus, Belinda’s situation as marketable commodity is matched by her status as participant in the marketplace. If the presence of china in the poem encapsulates Belinda’s condition (as Cleanth Brook has suggested), it also signals a range of qualities in her which, to this day, stereotypically attend the woman shopper, namely, an obsession with what is expensive and beautiful; a taste for what is sensual or luxurious; a longing to possess extraordinary articles of value. 3

As in The Rape of the Lock, throughout a variety of eighteenth-century texts, fine china or porcelain denotes women and their weaknesses. Often, the image of china functions as a marker for female superficiality, or for a potential female depravity located in an inordinate attraction to “things.” While the rituals of the tea table dictated a female preoccupation with the appearances of things—gestures carefully choreographed, tea equipage displayed just so—that same preoccupation could be cited as a dangerous indication of a woman without “depth.” 4 Any item could have been deployed to denote the feminine, but historical coincidence made china an appropriate marker in the effort to define “woman.” Located at the very center of her prescribed domain, china made it possible for people to talk about women and their qualities in a particular way.

Formalist analysis, represented by the work of Brooks or Aubrey Williams, has long given us access to this trope. A New Historical reconsideration of china as a trope for woman can take us further, however. Such an approach insists that literary representation refers us not to a fixed, historical “reality,” but to ideological process: in this case, what we discern when we interpret literary texts is not the “the history of women and their things,” but rather a history of the representation of women and their things. The work of Laura Brown exemplifies this more recent approach. In The Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Brown demonstrates how eighteenth-century discourse attributes “mercantile capitalism itself, with all of its attractions, as well as its ambiguous consequences” to women, “whose marginality allows them to serve, in the writings of celebrants and satirists alike, as a perfect proxy or scapegoat.” 5 Brown deploys the trope of dressing in particular to demonstrate how “female adornment becomes the main emblem of commodity fetishism.” 6

Privileging china, rather than dressing, as a defining trope for femininity introduces a separate set of themes. First, china deflects the issue of a female essentialism which inevitably underlies the dressing metaphor. Whereas underneath the adorned female figure, one might imagine discovering “some underlying...

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