Male and female perspectives on gambling in the eighteenth century
Prominent male authors, such as Alexander Pope, dominated the eighteenth century. However, there were notable female writers too, such as Susanna Centlivre - an author, an actress and a playwright. Her play The Basset-Table dealt with such everyday occurrence of that time as gambling, and provided a critique of this pastime in a shape of a play. This makes it different from such works as "The Rape of The Lock", a mock-epic poem that too involves gambling, but only mocks it and does not confront its flaws as The Basset-Table does. This is the main difference between the two works: The Basset-Table tried to improve the world while "The Rape of The Lock" did not; but the gender of their authors does not play any actual role in the differences between their approaches while other non-literary factors do.
Susanna Centlivre's play may be sentimental, but this sentimentality is serious. The Basset-Table is an aristocratic play, a play that contains plenty of humour, but the moral message is quite evident in it: gambling ruins lives, sometimes literally. This message begins in Act I, when the uncle of Lady Reveller, Sir Richard Plainsman, tells her promptly that:
[...] no matter, you shall out of my Doors, I'll promise you; my House shall no longer bear the scandalous Name of a Basset-Table: Husbands shall no more Cause to date their Ruin from my Door, nor cry, There, there my Wife gam'd my Estate away--Nor Children curse my Posterity, for their Parents knowing my House.
(The Basset-Table, 206-207)
It is worth noticing that Sir Richard himself is an unsympathetic character: his treatment of his daughter Valeria and her love, Ensign Lovely, is heavy-handed at best. When Alphiew, lady Reveller's maid, talks back to him, the audience's sympathies are on her side in that instance. (Warren, Victoria. Gender and genre in Susanna Centlivre's The Gamester and The Basset-Table.)Yet here, in his discussion with Lady Reveller, he raises valuable anti-gambling points, echoed distantly in the works of Susanna Centlivre's contemporaries, such as Jonathan Swift's "A Description of a Morning"; both in Swift's poem and Susanna Centlivre's play there are issues of gambling by the upper classes and the financial ruin that they encounter due to it. There were cases in the eighteenth century of people ruined by gambling and Sir Richard knew what he was talking about when he harangued his widowed niece about her unbecoming behaviour. Lady Reveller's sister, Lady Lucy, does the same thing.
Just as Sir Richard did previously, Lady Lucy tries to talk her cousin out of gambling. Unlike Sir Richard, who seems to be mainly concerned with obvious and practical reasons (that are also on a somewhat selfish side), Lady Lucy tries to appeal to her sister's better nature, she tries to present Lady Reveller with an alternative - going to the theatre. The alternative is not without its own flaws, as Lady Reveller suggests that going to the theatre every night is more destructive to a lady's reputation than gambling. However, Lady Lucy is certain that it is the other way around, so the question, which was worse, probably depended on one's opinion (though it is reasonable to guess that Susanna Centlivre was more pro-theatre than against).
Later on, in the play's Act IV, Lady Lucy again speaks against gambling, this time talking to Sir James Courtly, her would-be suitor. There is attraction between them but Lady Lucy refuses to succumb to it and instead stands her ground against Sir James. Unlike her sister, Lady Reveller, (who too stands her ground against Lord Worthy when he confronts her over gambling) Lady Lucy uses specific examples to further her cause. In particular, she draws Sir James' attention how gambling by the nobility ruins tradesmen - and Sir James promptly replies that only the highest nobility gamble on such a level and only they can make this sort of gambling look posh. (Once again The Basset-Table echoes Jonathan Swift's "A Description of a Morning", where creditors gather early in the morning before a lord's gates to collect their money.)
Sir James may have denied being a high-class gambler of such sort, but Mrs. Sago, who is a wife of a merchant and not a particularly rich one, almost ruined her husband's business herself by gambling at the basset. She not only loses money at basset, but she also loses her composure when losing money as well - something that was frowned upon when this play was produced. So does captain Hardy, for that matter, and he actually uses his sword to threaten the banker when he loses at basset. Gambling, Susanna Centlivre says, has a negative impact on our society, as simple as that. However, the final strike against gambling comes at the beginning of Act V, when Sir James tries to force himself onto Lady Reveller, implying that since she is a gambler, she is not a truly virtuous woman to begin with - and perhaps this idea echoes with Alexander Pope's mock epic of a poem, "The Rape of The Lock".
Like The Basset-Table, "The Rape of The Lock" deals with nobility (the idle rich) and gambling. In this case, the card game is ombre, and again, there is no actual rape, but just as in Susanna Centlivre's play, a woman's virtue is accosted, this time by cutting away a lock of her hair. Even during the more intimate modern times this is a serious intrusion into one's private space (Hunt 107). In the eighteenth century, the so-called gallant age, this was a serious breach of social protocol, not to mention that that impromptu haircut sent Belinda (the mock-epic's heroine) into a real depression:
Then see! the nymph in beauteous grief appears,
Her eyes half-languishing, half-drowned in tears;
On hear heaved bosom hung her drooping head,
Which, with a sigh, she raised
(The Rape of The Lock, IV: 144-146)
Perhaps Belinda was exaggerating her situation, but just as before, in case of Lady Reveller and Sir James, gambling led to greater social problems: non-gallant interaction between men and women on one hand, and a real brawl on the other.
Admittedly, while The Basset-Table kept things realistic and its brawl ended without any real violence (Captain Hardy intimidated mostly the game's banker), Canto V of "The Rape of The Lock" proceeds to parody The Iliad, The Aeneid and other epics all the way down to deaths:
When bold Sir Plume had drawn Clarissa down,
Chloe stepped in, and killed him with a frown;
She smiled to see the doughy hero slain,
But at her smile, the beau revived again.
(The Rape of The Lock, V: 66-70)
Undoubtedly, it is impossible to take "The Rape of The Lock" seriously: it is a mock-epic version of the classics, after all. Like any good parody, however, there is a kernel of authenticity under all that imitation and mockery, and in case of "The Rape of The Lock", it is the fact that there was a brawl in the Hampton courts, and people did get hurt - as they could have been when Captain Hardy drew his sword at Lady Reveller's basset table.
Susanna Centlivre and Alexander Pope wrote, actually, very similar works of literature. The Basset-Table, of course, is long and written with more seriousness: some of its main characters appear to have learned their lessons and mended their ways - Lady Reveller was `scared straight' (in a manner of speaking) by Sir James and Lord Worthy. Sir James himself was talked by Lady Lucy into abandoning his old, gambling ways shortly afterwards. (As did Mrs. Sago, when it became apparent that all that gambling brought her was the near destruction of her family's livelihood, in full accordance with Sir Richard's earlier statement.) "The Rape of The Lock" does not have that sort of redemption element: it is a parody of the old, classical epics, and nothing more - consequently, it does not have any redemptive elements, though there is some seriousness present:
`Say why are beauties praised and honoured most,
The wise man's passion, and the vain man's toast?
How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains:
What then remains but well our power to use,
And keep good-humour still whate'er we lose?
And trust me, dear! good-humour can prevail,
When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding fail.
(The Rape of The Lock, V: 9-31)
By the standards of the mock-epic, which until Canto IV was full of nothing but sarcasm and irony, this is genuine and serious advice - and it goes unnoticed: the poem's other participants simply ignore Clarissa's advice and proceed in fighting each other until the end. (Alternatively, they would have, if this fighting was for real.) The world of Alexander Pope has even less redemptive elements than the world of Susanna Centlivre.
Does this difference result from the fact that one of the authors was a woman and the other a man? Probably not. Susanna Centlivre and Alexander Pope were contemporaries and probably knew each other. Their works were on similar subjects: gambling, which was the main plot device in The Basset-Table has a prominent place in "The Rape of The Lock" as well, and in both cases, it leads to mischief and social upheaval. The fact that Alexander Pope wrote his mock epic as a request with specific real life events in the background, while Susanna Centlivre invented the contents of her play from beginning until end, is the main difference here. Alexander Pope had certain preliminary information that he used in his mock epic while Susanna Centlivre did not.
The same thing goes for the two literary pieces' differing styles and appearances. Alexander Pope was asked to put the real life events in a humorous light, and that is what he did, deliberately using the form of the mock epic for the greater comic effect. Susanna Centlivre did not have any pre-ordered demands, and being an actress and a playwright as well as a poetess, opted to write a play directly on the subject of gambling rather than using it as the part of her setting instead.
Conversely, though, the two authors were writing about the same social strata, about some very similar people. It is not surprising, that their works also contained some similarities as well. They probably just could not be avoided because the people of The Basset-Table and "The Rape of The Lock" were not only similar, they had similar, if not identical lifestyles (in real life) and thus they provided very similar, if not identical, material to work with - or to parody. "The Rape of The Lock" does it to a greater degree while The Basset-Table is not so obvious, preferring to accuse and to confront the social problem of noble gambling, rather than to make fun of, in its lines. However, the gender issue? It was probably not very important here at all.
The British society of the eighteenth century London was a colourful and complicated milieu. Susanna Centlivre, Alexander Pope and others focused only on its certain portions at a time and wrote about it. Each had his or her own distinct style, regardless of one's gender, but all tended to write about similar material, and they were in contact with each other, which is why their works are so similar after all.
Centlivre, Susanna. The Works of the celebrated Mrs. Centlivre. In three volumes. Volume the First. London: [s.n.] 1760-1761
Pope, Alexander. The Major Works. Ed. Pat Rogers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
Pope. The Rape of the Lock. Ed. John Dixon Hunt. London: Macmillan, 1968. Print