Following increased maritime trade and a reliance on foreign goods, the commercial revolution that swept through England in the late sixteenth century resulted in an intensified desire for new and hitherto inaccessible luxury commodities. One such commodity, china porcelain, resulted in a “china fever” that continued well into the eighteenth century, introducing new notions of social refinement and, more importantly, social and economic superficiality. In the infamous “china scene” of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), Lady Fidget operates within the discourse of “woman as consumer” in order to forward her sexual agency, participating in the surface play that luxury commodities as ultimately empty signifiers afford.
England’s commercial revolution not only saw to expanding economic interest in new foreign commodities, but it also engendered an aesthetic and sociocultural shift in consumer culture (Degenhardt 146–48; Porter 396). China porcelain received its value as a “luxury” commodity in part due to the mystery surrounding the technology of porcelain manufacturing—the secrets of its production unknown to England until the introduction of the first European porcelain in 1710—as well due to changing definitions of “luxury” in English society. Jane Hwang Degenhardt explains that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, “The meaning of ‘luxury’ underwent transformation and expansion in England, as it largely shed its connotations of immorality and sin and assumed associations of gentility, fashion, respectability, emulation, and refinement” (158). As a result, china porcelain came to be associated with idealised attributes of the middle and upper classes, who were more often than not the only members of English society who could afford to purchase and display china porcelain. More importantly, china porcelain as an inherently superficial object—where “superficial” refers to the surface of the object, which takes precedence over the actual object and its possible functions—led it to become an ideal mode through which constructions of social class, gender, and sociocultural value were inscribed, perpetuated, and, in the case of city comedies, challenged.
For city comedies (sharp and often satirical plays centred on “citizen” life) like The Country Wife in the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century, increasing consumer-centric demands for retail goods and fashionable novelties provided immense satirical fodder. Degenhardt observes that “the popular London stage appropriated chinaware as a marker for gauging the cultural competencies and moral principles of urban citizens during a period when London’s social classes were in flux . . . chinaware represented a standard of luxury that exposes the follies of unsuccessful social climbers and the moral and sexual excesses of unrestrained consumers” (136). The view of china shifted from that of refinement, authenticity, and the height of sophistication to the view of “decadence, superficiality, and brittleness” (152)—a shift best articulated in The Country Wife’s “china scene.”
In the scene, Horner and Lady Fidget navigate their sexual liaison under the nose of the oblivious Sir Jaspar by employing the farce of Lady Fidget “toiling and moiling for the prettiest piece / of china” (Wycherley 4.3.187–88) in Horner’s china porcelain collection, where “china” signals Horner’s sexual potency and Lady Fidget’s desire for him. The object of luxury, understood as a signifier of aesthetic and social refinement by both the characters of The Country Wife and the audience, is overtly juxtaposed with the sexual activity that is encoded onto its surface. Awareness of the surface play at work in the china scene is available only to those who realise the arbitrary nature of positioning porcelain as a sign of luxury. More specifically, china porcelain has the capacity to be shaped into what the user needs (a symbol of social refinement; an object by which to encode a farce) just as it shapes the user (a member of a sect of society constructed by an arbitrary signifier of “refinement”; a participant in the construction of arbitrary signification for ultimately empty signifiers). Deborah C. Payne brings to light how the coded language used in this scene is also by nature arbitrary: “Wycherley’s point here is that there is nothing inherently ‘sexual’ about the word ‘china.’ The humour of that scene derives from Horner’s and Lady Fidget’s ability to trade mutual confidences in a coded language which becomes increasingly sexual from the context, not the words . . . suggesting that context alone creates meaning rather than the particular significance given to the words” (413). We can argue that within Payne’s terms, the function of china porcelain as a luxury commodity to which specific notions of social class and gender identity are attached is contextual; its function is dependent upon the user’s knowledge and participation in the ways that china constructs middle to upper class English society. For Lady Fidget and Horner to engage in the surface play available to the word “china” is to reveal the game of china porcelain, and the luxury consumerism of the social elite more broadly, for what it is—purely contextual, entirely arbitrary.
Lady Fidget is particularly adept at manipulating the superficiality of china porcelain and its specific association with what Kowaleski-Wallace identifies as the “female china-lover” (159) of eighteenth-century domestic rhetoric. A pejorative term, “female china-lover” functioned much in the way the developing discourse of “woman as consumer” did. Both terms referred to a woman who operated within the urban sphere and whose active participation and promulgation of competitive consumer culture was viewed as destabilising the selfless, “non-materialistic” woman of the domestic sphere. We witness this discourse at work when Mrs Squeamish, eager to have her own share of Horner’s “china” and disgruntled by Lady Fidget’s statement that he has none left to give, suggests that Horner has more “china” that Lady Fidget could not find. In an attempt to keep Horner to herself, Lady Fidget states, “What, d’ye think if he had had any left, I would not have / had it too? For we women of quality never think we have / china enough” (Wycherley 4.3.200–202). There are several discursive elements of the “woman as consumer” at work in Lady Fidget’s statement here. For one, by identifying herself as “woman of quality,” Lady Fidget promulgates the notion that the competitive consumption of luxury commodities functions as a marker of socioeconomic superiority or cultural authority. More specifically, in order to maintain one’s position within the elite group of “women of quality,” one must demonstrate cultural competency and the socioeconomic means by which to participate in circulating modes of expression of wealth and class distinction. More implicitly encoded into the surface of Lady Fidget’s statement is that one must have a command over the machinations of luxury commodity consumerism in order to effectively and cunningly encode one’s self-interests (specifically, in this case, one’s sexual agency).
Secondly, to the audience, Lady Fidget’s concept of “women of quality” may ring more clearly with what Pinchwife condemns as “naughty town-women” (Wycherley 2.1.80), or those town-women who “love plays, visits, fine coaches, / fine clothes, fiddles, balls, treats, and so lead a wicked / town-life” (2.1.80–83). Rather than a marker of “quality,” Lady Fidget’s competitive consumerism corresponds more closely with what David L. Porter highlights as the eighteenth-century association of the collection of foreign imports “with the vain extravagance of female passion in the aesthetic, economic, and sexual spheres” (406–7). Pinchwife’s condemnation of the superficial quality of “naughty town-women” echoes Porter’s observation that those who denounced the popularity of china porcelain saw it as participating in an “exaggerated concern with superficial prettiness. The very fragility of porcelain seemed emblematic of a transient visual appeal without depth or substance” (403). The “woman as consumer” discourse, then, disparagingly positioned women like Lady Fidget as voracious urban collectors of luxury commodities, whose economic participation translated into a form of self-gratification in an age of imperial expansion. Like the china porcelain the eighteenth-century woman buys, she is shaped and constructed to fit within the dictated parameters of distinctly feminine superficiality by those who deem her economic agency as non-conforming, deviant, or potentially threatening. To eighteenth century English society, there was nothing quite as dangerous as a woman capable of making her own decisions and operating within her own self-interests.
By coding her consumption of Horner’s “china” in such a way, Lady Fidget engages in the surface play that china porcelain’s inherent superficiality as an essentially empty signifier affords and upon which she is able to successfully interact with, negotiate, and even challenge eighteenth-century “woman as consumer” discourse. Her actions speak to a growing sense of independence associated with the woman as consumer that was occurring at the time, wherein the increasingly public role of women as active participants and influencers of the luxury commodity trade in England responded to the changing commercial fabric of English society. Porter speaks to this change by observing that “it seems largely to have been women who did the looking, judging, admiring, and possessing, thereby carving out the possibility of a differently structured aesthetic subjectivity . . . chinoiserie may have been associated with expanding possibilities for female agency in the commercial and economic spheres” (407). As a result, Lady Fidget forwards an encoded construction of middle- to upper-class femininity that alters the problematic discourse of “woman as consumer” from the “impertinent wife” seeking frivolous self-gratification to an outlet for changing social sensibilities and fashions, in which the superficiality of china porcelain becomes a platform through which women could construct their own economic and social agency.
Degenhardt, Jane Hwang. “Cracking the Mysteries of ‘China’: China(ware) in the Early Modern Imagination.” Studies in Philology, vol. 110, no. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 132–167. Project Muse, doi:10.1353/sip.2013.0003. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.
Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth. “Women, China, and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, Winter 1995/1996, pp. 153–167. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30053280. Accessed 20 Feb. 20. 2020.
Payne, Deborah C. “Reading the Signs in The Country Wife.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 26, no. 3, Summer 1986, pp. 403–419. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/450570. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.
Porter, David L. “Monstrous Beauty: Eighteenth-Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, Spring 2002, pp. 395–411. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30054206. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.
Wycherley, William. The Country Wife. Edited by James Ogden, New Mermaids, 1991.
“English porcelain: a handbook to the china made in England during the eighteenth century as illustrated by specimens in the national collections” via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:English_porcelain_-_a_handbook_to_the_china_made_in_England_during_the_eighteenth_century_as_illustrated_by_specimens_in_the_national_collections_(1894)_(14590392109).jpg). No known copyright restrictions.
“English porcelain: a handbook to the china made in England during the eighteenth century as illustrated by specimens in the national collections” via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:English_porcelain_-_a_handbook_to_the_china_made_in_England_during_the_eighteenth_century_as_illustrated_by_specimens_in_the_national_collections_(1894)_(14777072955).jpg). No known copyright restrictions.
“English porcelain: a handbook to the china made in England during the eighteenth century as illustrated by specimens in the national collections” via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:English_porcelain_-_a_handbook_to_the_china_made_in_England_during_the_eighteenth_century_as_illustrated_by_specimens_in_the_national_collections_(1894)_(14774698984).jpg). No known copyright restrictions.