Monday, 13 December 2010

Literary Characters - The Country Maid and The Town Lady

The Country Maid and the Town Lady are both, like the coquette and the prude, characters of performance. They represent each their extremity of demography and social life, but both are morally ambiguous; they are both simultaneously associated with moral propriety and sexual availability.

The town lady shares some characteristics with the coquette. She indulges in social arrangements and is able to adapt to social situations. In addition to this, she is polite and fashionable but often decieves her husband for his money. The town lady is a married coquette.What the coquette lacks in sexual constancy (a woman's honour) is found in the town lady, although she is financially and to a degree socially inconstant. The association of the prude and the coquette's femininity to mercantilism also works for the town lady, and similarly to the ambiguity of the prude's modesty, the town lady's politeness can be seen to invite infidelity.

Where the town lady has an unnerving air of performance, the country maid has no such pretensions. She is similar to the country gentleman in her lack of polish and her "naturalness". She is often a virgin but also signifies sexual availability, making her a prime target for the rake. It is no coincidence that the protagonist of the first pornographic novel, John Cleland's eponymous Fanny Hill, was a country maid. Similarly, the country maid's simple attire signifies sexual availability as opposed to the complex and protective dress of the town lady (more on this below). When Richardson's Pamela dons the dress of a country maid she does not only visualise her poor social standing.

A country maid

The town lady's dress, while immediately discouraging sexual notions with its complexity (and immensity), held a number of qualities which made the town woman an artificial character. Its dual nature of protecting the lady within and emphasising her femininity sent mixed messages. Also, its complexity and size as well as its artificiality made her seem unnatural, exaggerated and imposing which did not go down well with current ideals for femininity.

This artifice is what sets the town lady and the country maid apart. The country maid's lack of hypocricy and guile and her inoffensiveness towards the social and sexual hierarchy makes her a positive character throughout the 18th century. However, this is accompanied with a lack of wit which, somewhat related to the "she-tragedies", leaves her at a loss towards the end of the period. Simultaneously, the increasing worry that the town lady's frivolity might lead her into infidelity, or that her debts must be paid in a similar manner saw the town lady in need of reform. In Frances Burney's Evelina, the eponymous heroine has to find a middle ground between the country maid's innocense and the town lady's politeness. Neither the one or the other could ever be a heroine as the ideal woman woman was expected to be moderate.

Source: Elaine M. McGirr, Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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