A “poor puny thing”: Giuseppe Baretti and rhetorical violence against political women

Shane Greentree finds resonances between Giuseppe Baretti’s didactic text Easy Phraseology for the use of young ladies… (1775) and violent political rhetoric against contemporary women.

The republican historian and political philosopher Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791) was among the most discussed women writers of her age, commented upon by luminaries of the age from David Hume to Mary Wollstonecraft, and many lesser-known figures besides. The Italian travel writer and linguist Giuseppe Baretti (1718-1789) is among the latter, a member of Samuel Johnson’s circle (and subject of a Joshua Reynolds portrait) whose once-popular travel writings and other texts are largely forgotten.

Giuseppe Baretti, after Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, early 1770s NPG 6248. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Modern scholars such as Robert Bufalini consider Baretti a talented but “cantankerous” writer whose voice too often launches into invective, a mode in full display in his writings on Macaulay. Indeed, his Easy phraseology for the use of young ladies… (1775) stands as a largely overlooked yet intriguing example of what responses to Macaulay can reveal about broader attitudes toward eighteenth-century women who engaged in politics and political debate. Baretti’s didactic text teaches elegant Italian conversation across fifty-six dual language dialogues: the thirty-ninth, a discussion between the young student Hetty and her tutor on the propriety of women expressing their political beliefs being among the most interesting in the work, no small feat in a curious text which also includes imagined dialogues involving inanimate objects and even one between Baretti and two oppressed elephants.

Baretti’s dialogue primarily debates and seeks to limit the proper intellectual sphere of women. In response to Hetty’s arguments that women are as capable as men to attain “knowledge of every kind” and that intelligent women should reasonably be able to cultivate their minds and even delve into science, the tutor uses language strikingly resembling Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and its notorious strictures for the domestic confinement of female intellect.

While Baretti allows women to write and even publish their work so long as they confine themselves to the safe ground of the “elegant and pretty”, he utterly condemns those who concern themselves with “deep erudition, metaphysical researches into every recess of nature, and politicks above all”. These women are deemed ridiculous in the eyes of all past and present societies, with Baretti in effect declaring all histories are against them. In return, Hetty not unreasonably, raises “that great political writer, the renowned Catherine Macaulay”, a rhetorical move which sends the tutor into fury. He makes sweeping attacks against Macaulay and her republican philosophy, criticising her “silly temerity” in engaging great men like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson in political debate, slandering her “blundering animadversions and declamations against every ministry”. Baretti argues against her views towards the historical past and the mid-1770s present, denouncing her advocacy for the traitorous rebels of the English Civil War and the rebellious colonists of the impending American Revolution.

Portrait of Catharine Macaulay (c. 1775), by Robert Edge Pine. Image via National Portrait Gallery.

Despite its intension, Baretti’s polemical response usefully catalogues Macaulay’s work to that point. By 1775, this already included five volumes of the History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line (1763-83), as well as boldly political pamphlets and substantive proposals for the constitution of Corsica addressed in a letter to the then-popular General Pasquale Paoli. Macaulay’s pamphlets to this point included Observations on a pamphlet entitled, Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770) and Loose Remarks on Certain Positions Held in Thomas Hobbes’s Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society… (1767/69), in which she engaged with the philosophy of Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbes respectively. In Baretti’s hands, these texts provide ample evidence for Macaulay as a woman foolishly encroaching upon the male world of politics.

Baretti is shaken by Macaulay’s political writings because he considers women writing on politics to be absurd. His attacks reveal a paranoid and obvious subtext, suggesting that his remarks are not intended for Macaulay alone. Rather, Baretti uses her as the most representative example of a woman acting out of her “natural character” by transgressing the feminine sphere. The most vitriolic passages of his response seek to impose and police gender boundaries. Indeed, Baretti’s most striking attack targets all politically-minded women, considering them as unable to contend intellectually with men who can physically dominate them at their will. In Baretti’s ludicrous imagery, Macaulay is “a poor puny thing with silken petticoats dingling-dangling about her legs”, who assumes “a fierce air” and falls “foul upon them who could tumble her into a ditch with a finger”. The gendered nature of this attack is made still more obvious by the following passage, with Baretti’s tutor switching at once from bitter polemic to an ostensibly warm-hearted admission that he loves and reveres many whiggish men despite his own tory beliefs.

To Baretti, men are rightly able to hold any political opinion so long as they are moral in their private lives, a luxury he denies politically-minded women.

Although thinly veiled through his tutor character, these attitudes are clearly Baretti’s own strongly-held opinions. Indeed, Hester Thrale (herself later a target for Baretti’s ire following her second marriage and the 1786 publication of her anecdotal biography of Samuel Johnson) commented in a May 1777 diary entry that Baretti “abused her as usual”, having “a comical aversion to Mrs Macaulay and his aversions are numerous and strong.”

Although this judgement has been taken as an apt summary of Baretti’s writings on Macaulay, his writings reveal a darker strain lying beneath their comically exaggerated veneer. Despite its utter lack of subtlety, it is an important textual response. Macaulay and other women writers attracted a range of reactions from their contemporaries: admiration, condescension, and, in the case of voices like Baretti’s, passionate rage. Responses such as Baretti’s increase our understanding of the writers themselves. In Macaulay’s case, they help modern readers capture something of what the literary critic Karen O’Brien’s Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2009) aptly describes as the “intellectual shock value” that her writing had, with her bold interventions into politics and political theory utterly upsetting the expectations of those who still considered these fields entirely male domains.

Baretti’s misogynist writings are a discomforting experience for the modern reader. His work does not merely express a long-dead worldview, and considering the situation of female politicians today creates frightening resonances. As expressions of rhetorical violence, little separates Baretti’s image of Catharine Macaulay tumbled into a ditch from broadcaster Alan Jones’s notorious wish for then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard to be put in a chaff bag and tossed into the sea. The rise of right-wing populist leaders from President Donald Trump in the United States to President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have been bolstered by their common language of threat and violence towards women. Baretti’s thinly-veiled language of physical intimidation gains new meaning against reports that more than half of female British Members of Parliament faced threats of physical violence in 2017.

In this fraught historical moment, restoring the violent rhetoric of eighteenth-century men such as Giuseppe Baretti to the historical record offers us a fuller view of how women who boldly expressed their own political opinions were and are too-often regarded with anger and fear. In this light, that Catharine Macaulay’s republican writings sent Baretti into paroxysms of rage is another example of a phenomenon that is sadly all too familiar.


SGShane Greentree is a Casual Research Assistant at The University of Sydney. His research focuses upon eighteenth-century radical women writers such as Catharine Macaulay and Mary Hays, including both close textual reading and broader examination of authorial reputation over the long nineteenth century and beyond. He is currently working on studies of early posthumous writing on Mary Wollstonecraft and the eighteenth-century historiographical debate on sympathy.

Follow Shane on Twitter @shanemgreentree.

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