This post was written by intern Elise Plyler.
When I was first introduced to “The Diabo-Lady” by William Combe, the title immediately caught my eye. Its full title reads, “The Diabo-Lady: or, A Match in Hell. A Poem. Dedicated to the Worst Woman in Her Majesty’s Dominion,” and seemed to be the product of a jilted lover lashing out at a woman who slighted him. What lies behind the dramatic title, though, is much juicier.
The poem, printed in 1777, follows a simple narrative: The worst man in His Majesty’s Dominion, has just been crowned Satan in Combe’s earlier poem, “The Diaboliad.” The new King of Hell decides that he should marry, and sends his minions across the world to find the most sinful women and bring them back to compete for a position as Queen of Hell (Combe 1-3). Conveniently, they find quite a selection of such women from the common gossip of eighteenth-century England. Each woman presents herself and tells Satan about her sins and misdeeds in order to convince him that she is the most evil woman in the world.
One of the fascinating aspects of this poem is that the women presenting themselves as potential brides for Satan were real women. None of the women are named in the poem except with single initials and dashes or asterisks, ostensibly to protect the reputation of the women who were featured in the poem. However, the identities of these high profile women would have been easily determined by its contemporary audience. Horace Bleackley, who put together a convenient identification key for “Diabo-Lady,” found that “most of the… names appear in the ‘Tete-a-Tete Histories’ of The Town and Country Magazine” (Bleakley). During the same time “The Diabo-Lady” was printed, “scandal sheets” such as “Town and Country” documented the stories of badly behaved, high profile men and women in much the same way as modern tabloids (Grose). The “Tete a Tete” stories in particular covered recent affairs between members of high society and made the stories common knowledge among the public.
The poem is amusing and vicious. In the introduction the author, under the pseudonym “Belphegor,” claims to have written the poem as a feminist response to “The Diaboliad” and sets the satirical tone of the poem:
I confess I felt myself considerably piqued, for the honour of your sex, upon perusing a Poem called The Diabloliad, lately published; and not seeing any manner of reason, why or wherefore Women have not as good a right, where equal merits appear, to be damned to everlasting fame, as well as Men, I have thus boldly ventured to enter the lifts of Chivalry against that partial Author… (Combe, ii)
Far from coming to the rescue of female honor, the author mocks the loose morals of women and the aristocracy. The first woman presented in “Diabo-Lady,” is Margaret Caroline Rudd. Mrs. Rudd put her husband into such debt that he went to prison and then was forced to go into exile. She then began an affair with a man named Daniel Perreau. In order to cover their growing debts, she convinced Daniel’s more reputable twin brother, Robert, to cash a bond she had forged. When it was discovered, all three were thrown into jail. Rudd was able to escape any sort of penalty and left the brothers to be hanged (“Margaret Caroline Rudd”). In the poem, the Devil is pleased by her sins, but believes the penalties paid by the Perreau brothers were “examples to deter from evil,” making her an unsuitable queen (Combe 4).
Not all of the women noted in the poem are so blatantly detestable. After Mrs. Rudd comes Lady Henrietta Grosvenor, whose only crime was to cheat on her chronically unfaithful husband (Carroll). Her story makes it obvious that women who committed an infidelity were held to a harsh double-standard and makes one question the seriousness of the sin of any woman documented in “Diabo-Lady.” Later, Duchess Elizabeth Pierrepont, who failed to officially divorce her first husband before marrying a second time, is presented (“Elizabeth Pierrepont”). While this is a serious breach of social mores, the poem makes more of an issue out of her weight than her bigamy, stating that she had “a weight to put poor Atlas on his trumps” and “Falstaff’s flesh” (Combe 10-12). While some of the women seem more deserving of scorn than others, many seem to be forced into the villain role for entertainment.
The poem is notable for its entertainment value, but it also documents the shifting purposes of books in the eighteenth century. During the Age of Enlightenment, between the mid-17th and late 18th centuries, literacy rates grew rapidly; books were no longer solely within the purview of the intellectual set. The growing literate population was hungry for books and magazines full of entertaining gossip rather than science and philosophy (Rahn). This culture of scandal and gossip supported the publication of “The Diabo-Lady;” while disguised behind a veneer of rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter, it is little more than an eighteenth-century TMZ.
On the same topic of the shifting purpose of books and the styles in which they are presented, this piece is also an interesting example of older style footnotes. As pointed out in “The Footnote: A Curious History” by Anthony Grafton, “In the eighteenth-century, the historical footnote was a high form of literary art” (Grafton 1). While these footnotes may not be art, they are certainly a curiosity worth reading. While modern footnotes tend to be dry and utilitarian, the footnotes from the editor in this piece are a discussion with the audience and a debate of the poem’s merits alongside the poem itself. The editors comment on the poem’s historical accuracy, judge the poet’s word choice, critique the Devil’s etiquette and commiserate with the reader over not knowing what the poet is referencing. At one point they ironically note that a story “is upon record, and therefore requires no note” (Combe 6).
This poem is a fascinating artifact from the rise of printing for the general public. It is also an example of the gossip-culture of the eighteenth century, the influence of which can be seen in tabloids of today. Perhaps most importantly it shows that the urge to lambast the rich and famous, fairly or not, has been a common thread through the centuries. “The Diabo-Lady” lets us glimpse the more lowbrow aspects of eighteenth-century culture and see that their interests were not all that removed from our own.
Bleackley, Horace. “‘The Diabo-Lady’: A Key.” Notes and Queries S10-IX.222 (1908): 247. Oxford Journals. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
Carroll, Heather. “Tart of the Week: Lady Henrietta Grosvenor.” The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century. N.p., 20 May 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
Combe, William. The Diabo-lady: Or, A Match in Hell. London: Fielding and Walker, 1777. Print
“Elizabeth Pierrepont, Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
Grose, Jessica. “Before Lindsay or Paris, There Was Mrs. L_fle.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Sept. 2007. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
“Margaret Caroline Rudd.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
Rahn, Josh. “The Enlightenment.” Literature Periods & Movements. Jalic Inc., 2011. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.