Insult of the Week: an ass and her panniers

the desert world - ass and or donkey

The terminally bored aristocrat Lady Delacour, of Maria Edgeworth’s 1800 novel Belinda, declares in chapter 4 that the only reason she has made it through the last few years is her cherished enmity with her foewoman, Mrs. Luttridge:

I cannot count the number of extravagant things I have done on purpose to eclipse her. We have had rival routs, rival concerts, rival galas, rival theatres: she has cost me more than she’s worth; but then I certainly have mortified her once a month at least.

In a long tale she tells to her protegée Belinda, she describes the occasion on which their quarrel almost reached the point of bloodshed over a political dispute… although it’s clear that on Lady Delacour’s side, at least, the political dimension is simply a pretext for annoying her rival.

Mrs. Luttridge – who is called many things in chapter 4, but is particularly frequently associated with the term “odious” – has put in a great effort to get her husband elected to MP of a particular shire, and Lady Delacour has expended equal efforts on the campaign of a rival candidate.  This gentleman is a nonentity, but has the good fortune to be a cousin of Lady D’s good friend Harriot Freke, who is – to put it mildly – a bit of a loose cannon.

Lady D and Harriot take to the stage on the day of the election, in a (largely successful) attempt to win hearts and minds:

The day of election came; Harriot Freke and I made our appearance on the hustings, dressed in splendid party uniforms; and before us our knights and squires held two enormous panniers full of ribands and cockades, which we distributed with a grace that won all hearts, if not all votes.

Not to be outdone, odious Mrs. Luttridge sends for similar – but larger! – panniers, whereupon Lady D resorts to propaganda.

I took out my pencil, and drew a caricature of the ass and her panniers; wrote an epigram at the bottom of it; and the epigram and the caricature were soon in the hands of half ——shire.

belinda - mrs. luttridge was enraged
For reasons that I will never understand, the illustrator of this book neglected an opportunity to draw the caricature.

The enraged Mrs. Luttridge rants and storms about honour, whereupon Harriot gleefully encourages Lady Delacour to challenge her to a duel.  Lady D is not entirely thrilled at this proposition – Mrs. L is known to be a good shot – but gamely goes along with Harriot.

The reluctant duellist and her second (Harriot, of course) show up to the predetermined location, armed with Mrs. L’s choice of weapon (pistols), and find their antagonist present with her own second, a Miss Honour O’Grady.  All four ladies have elected to dress in honour of the occasion, in menswear.  Lady D by now is really not looking forward to the event, and is consequently delighted when the courteous Miss O’Grady comes over to negotiate an honourable settlement.

Unfortunately, upon both duellists firing their guns into the air (for the purpose of keeping up appearances), disaster comes over the hill, in the form of a mob of enraged locals.  These people are scandalised not by the spectacle of women duelling, but by their temerity at fighting in men’s clothing.  To punish the ladies, they have decided to throw them in the river.

Stupid blockheads! I am convinced that they would not have been half so much scandalized if we had boxed in petticoats. The want of these petticoats had nearly proved our destruction, or at least our disgrace: a peeress after being ducked, could never have held her head above water again with any grace.

In the nick of time, a saviour arrives, in the form of the duellists’ mutual acquaintance Mr. Clarence Hervey (who we’ve met with before).  Clarence provides an excellent diversion by riding in with a herd of pigs; he’s challenged a French officer to a hundred-guinea bet, claiming that his pigs can beat the Frenchman’s flock of turkeys in a race.

belinda - a herd of pigs
According to Lady Delacour, Mr. Hervey “can do every thing, you know, even drive pigs, better than any  body else!”

The townspeople are distracted for the time being, and it looks as though the ladies are about to get away with it, until with trepidation, Lady D overhears a cry of “Don’t forget the ducking!”

Mr. Hervey has his wits about him, however, and nationalism saves the day.

How I trembled! but our knight shouted to his followers—‘For the love of Old England, my brave boys, keep between my pigs and the pond:—if our pigs see the water, they’ll run to it, and England’s undone.’

Sadly, it’s too late both for Mr. Hervey’s hundred guineas – won by the French officer and his turkeys – and for the prospective MPs.  The local electorate is so scandalised by the duel that they declare both candidates to be unsuitable.

[N]either ribands nor brandy could bring them to reason. With true English pig-headedness, they went every man of them and polled for an independent candidate of their own choosing, whose wife, forsooth, was a proper behaved woman.

Lady Delacour consoles herself with the fact that at least Clarence believes “that I looked better in man’s clothes than my friend Harriot Freke”.


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