Saturday, 11 December 2010

Literary Characters - The Fop and the Macaroni

If one strips away the wit and hypersexuality of the rake one is left with the fop. The fop is the flat, shallow and superficial counterweight to the rake. He is very in touch with the fashions of the day, wearing the latest from Paris and updated on the gossip of the town. This veneer, however, conceals his lack of masculinity and wit as well as his shortcomings with women and are but vague imitations of the rakish style.

Although the fop's gentleness and domesticity gave him access to female company and thus represented a challenge to the rake (particularly in Rochester's Dictionary of Love and Richardson's Clarissa), he is generally a character of ridicule. Like the rake's association with the sword and tongue (as well as penis), the fop is associated with the mirror, emphasising his effeminacy and superficiality. Indeed, in Joseph Addison's Specatator 275, he and his lesser versions the Beau and the Pretty Fellow are described as nothing but artificiality and pretense. Thus, the fop is fundamentally unnatural as opposed to the rake being, if possible, too natural.

The macaroni, an exaggerated fop.
Notice the presence of a mirror...

In the 18th century the fop came to be regarded less as a risible figure and increasingly as a dangerously subversive one. Initially, the danger was no more than uselessness. Women, who it was thought could not penetrate the outer, effeminate layer, would end up with a useless man. By the mid-eighteent century, however, this sexual ambiguity was increasingly seen as threatening. As cross-dressing women, often called travesties or Tommies, imitated the foppish style and effeminacy lost its former meaning of "liking women" and took on the modern interpretation of "being like women", being a fop was increasingly linked to being homosexual. The distinctions between the fop, the cross-dressing man (the "Molly") and the homosexual were becoming blurred as foppishness was interpreted as outwards signs of internal perversion. Many of these perceptions can still be found in modern attitudes towards homosexualities.

Furthermore, Britain's cooling relationship to the Catholic Continent and especially France gave the fop a political aspect. With his links to French fashion and customs the fops were seen as French fifth colonists, amongst others by Samuel Foote in his An Englishman in Paris which adds "the French disease" or syphilis to the charges. Here, the fop is joined by the macaroni, an exaggerated fop who imitated foreign speech and customs to excess (and were precursors to the dandies). Both were seen as corrupting influences on British mentality and masculinity and this is witnessed in the rebirth of the risible fop in the shape of the foppish soldier thought unfit for war.

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

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