- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 173-193
[Access article in PDF]
"Great-Breasted and Fierce":
Fielding's Amazonian Heroines
As historians of the period have registered, eighteenth-century England manifested an unprecedented fascination with the female breast. Plunging necklines (and moral tracts censuring them), aesthetic treatises, scientific theories, and an explosion of medical and moral literature about the virtues of maternal breastfeeding all contributed to make the female breast an extraordinarily conspicuous feature of eighteenth-century culture and conversation. The persistence with which contemporary fashions conspired to expose and exaggerate this particular part of the body suggests something of the ideological attention it commanded throughout the period: bared, bolstered, or padded, the bosom remained the primary focal point of the fashionable female silhouette from the end of the seventeenth century until well into the nineteenth. 1 In 1786, delivering weary testimony to the sheer ubiquitousness of these breast-enhancing modes, Horace Walpole remarked of the "fine ladies" who adopted the so-called pouter-pigeon look then in vogue that "though they do not exhibit a profusion of naked bubbies down to their shoe-buckles, yet they protrude a prominence of gauze that would cover all the dugs of alma mater." 2 While many periodical essayists and print satirists shared Walpole's bemused contempt for such displays, influential eighteenth-century aestheticians and scientists, from William Hogarth to Erasmus Darwin, outdid the mantua-makers themselves in their celebration of the form and function of the female breast. To a large extent, it was the breast's association with an idealized notion of maternity that rendered it so captivating to a culture increasingly enamored of the very concept of motherhood. "The form of the mother's breast" absolutely [End Page 173] epitomizes the concept of beauty in the human imagination, Darwin claims in his Zoonomia (1794), so that, if confronted with any object that resembles the breast, "we experience an attraction to embrace it with our arms, and to salute it with our lips, as we did in our early infancy the bosom of our mother." 3 In 1758, as Londa Schiebinger has shown, Carolus Linnaeus effectively immortalized the eighteenth-century apotheosis of the maternal breast when he named the entire class of animals to which humans belong after the lactating mammae of the females. 4
The fact of the eighteenth-century's preoccupation with the female breast has attracted a substantial amount of critical attention in recent years, much of which concentrates upon the sociopolitical ramifications of the specifically maternal or domestic aspects of this phenomenon. 5 But the breast's figurative significance in the eighteenth century, as now, exceeds that of its merely maternal connotations. "The female breast," as Marina Warner observes in her study of "the allegory of the female form," is, after all, "the seat of honesty, of courage and feeling"; "it is the place of the heart, held to be the fountainhead of sincere emotion." 6 Representations of the breast in eighteenth-century literature suggest that the period's well-documented fascination with the maternal breast both derives from and is subsumed within a larger conviction that the breast is intimately connected to the female self in all its aspects--that, like mother's milk itself, to quote Daniel Defoe, it functions as a conduit to "the very soul." 7 The words "breast" and "bosom" themselves replicate on a semantic level the intricate interplay between matter and metaphor that characterizes eighteenth-century representations of the part of the body they denote. The plural noun "breasts" is usually an implicitly female, unequivocally corporeal term. But the word "bosom," like "breast" in the singular, is a more androgynous and euphemistic name for this region of the anatomy--a name, too, that hosts a wide range of figurative associations. While the very antiquity of "bosom" renders its etymology uncertain, one likely speculation is that it derives from an Indo-European word for "arm" or "bough" and was therefore originally used to define the space between the arms and the torso circumscribed by the gesture of an embrace. Accordingly, Samuel Johnson's primary definition...