Beauty and Gallantry: A Model of Polite Conversation Revisited

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Publication Date

Winter 2001

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“None but the brave deserves the fair.” — John Dryden, “Alexander’s Feast”

This famous line refers to a convention of romance wherein feminine beauty becomes the reward for masculine heroism. Although Dryden’s poem enjoyed continuous popularity throughout the eighteenth century, this phrase represents a fading, or at least mutating, construction of masculinity as martial and violent. Nonetheless, the line epitomizes a widely accepted code of behavior for men—namely, gallantry, in which a gentleman is responsible for protecting the vulnerable and proverbially beautiful sex. For much of the century, gallantry is espoused as a polite advancement over barbaric practices, whether of England’s past or of other kingdoms. It conveys social benefits to men and women alike; however, the latter are frequently less enthused about gallantry. Often overlooked in studies of civility, female writers of the eighteenth century voice considerable dissent from the general opinion on gallantry. In particular, they question the degree to which men have forsaken violence, as well as the extent to which all women are considered “fair.” Given the centrality of women to England’s development as a polite nation, such concerns merit attention.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Eighteenth Century Life v. 25, issue 1, p. 43-63