In “Characters of Women. An Epistle to a Lady” Alexander Pope gives a characterisation of the female nature – if this is an appropriate term, as the second line of the epistle states that “most women have no character at all” (Pope l.2). This characterisation is provided by the descriptions of several representative women, Flavia being one of them. As is typical for Neo-Classicist writing, this name is drawn from Roman antiquity where it was very common. Several wives of Roman emperors bore the name that means “blond” (Stowasser 212) and thus also depicts her outer appearance.
Most strikingly, Flavia’s characterisation appears to be a list of antithesises (cf. Baines 97); for instance, she is described as a “Wise Wretch” and has “too much Thinking to have common Thought” (Pope l.77; l.80). Thus, even if in the first place Flavia seems to be a woman with positive characteristics like “Wit”, “Spirit”, “Quickness” and “Thinking” (l.69; ll.78-80), all those aspects are turned to the negative because they are immoderate. In Baines’ words she turns “what might have been a sort of harmonious pattern into chaotic oxymoron” (Baines 97). Pollack interprets this passage in an even harsher way, commenting that Flavia “preten[ds] intellect” in order to “rationalize irrational behaviour”(Pollack 476). Here Flavia is also denied the indication of positive character traits and she is left a completely narcissistic person, who is only interested in her passions.
The text gives several reasons for Flavia’s incapacity to live a convenient life. First, she is focused too much on the here and now and indulges in human desires (“toast[s] our wants and wishes” l.70); she lives up to the motto “while we live, to live” (l.72). Also, she lacks the sense for religion, because she does not pray to God but rather worships the stars (cf. l.71). As stars normally symbolise, first, something unattainable, and second, something only dreamers and fantasts intend to reach, she is here depicted as a rather fanciful person. Only after she has lived her life in this world, will she think about death.
She romanticises death, quoting stories she takes from ancient mythology and medieval legends, where women died a heroic death (cf. l.74). Lucretia’s suicide, for example, resulted from her being raped by the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius (cf. Stowasser 300). Rosamonda, a Langobardic heroine, was forced by her husband to drink out of a goblet made out of her own father’s skull. Consequently, she helped to assassinate him and married the assassin. When her situation was still desperate in the end she tried to poison her new husband, but he revealed her plan and forced her to drink the poison, too in order to die with him (Tours 398). Nevertheless, there is no indication of Flavia getting into a similar condition. Therefore, her fantasies about her death resembling that of the Roman and medieval heroines are rather naïve.
A second possible reason for Flavia’s “impotence of mind” (l.75) is that her character is inconsistent, driven by a “Spark too fickle” (l.76). The image of the “fickle Spark” can be linked to the Latin saying “varium et semper mutabile femina: woman is a various and changeable thing” (Rosslyn 214), which is often quoted in the context of Pope’s writing. As women lack a consistent mind, which is implied in the metaphor of the spark that is fast moving and transient, they can never reach the same intellectual level as men. The reason for her silliness though lies not necessarily in her character alone, but the lyrical I assumes that her husband is spoiling her too much, wherefore she does not learn to control her desires and passions (cf. l.76). As a consequence of that, she can act out of her feelings and has no man to instruct her. This shows that Pope holds men responsible for the education of women as far as this is possible.
Hence, although it seems that Flavia has the capacity to be more than a characterless creature, it is useless due to the fact that she lacks the ability to be calm and reflective (has “too much Spirit to be ever at Ease” l.78). However, her passionate manner not only makes her appear a silly person, but also deprives her of happiness. Used in the wrong way, the positive character traits like “Spirit”, “Quickness” and “Thinking”, lead to Flavia’s failure. Her uncommonly high ambitions are even said to finally cause her death.
Pope’s choice of words also makes the main flaw in Flavia’s character apparent. He uses the anaphor of “too much” followed by a climatic list of those flaws which peaks in the devastating result that is “pain” and “death”.
Going on in the considerations of Pope’s employment of stylistic devices, one may ask why he uses the aforementioned list of oxymorons. It appears that the negative description of the woman indirectly draws a picture of the ideal male character. All that Flavia lacks can be considered to be typically manly; the “sense to pray”; being “Wise” and at “Ease”; the capacity “to be taught”; “common Thought” and the capacity to “purchase […] Joy” (l.69; ll.77-81). To use Molly Smith’s and Ellen Pollack’s words, Pope describes masculinity through the “conception of the female as lack” (Smith 427). Thus, although the title of the epistle suggests that it is focused on the characterisation of women, the part concerning Flavia, rather seems to be an implicit comment on masculinity.
Notably, this construct of masculinity only contains features that concern the state of mind and leaves aside the bodily complexion. With regard to Pope’s physical appearance, which was misshaped due to spinal tuberculosis, this attitude is quite plausible (cf. Baines 8). The focus on the intellectual level of masculinity distinguishes Pope from Restoration literature and the rake as the ideal concept of masculinity. While the rake is “A fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits” (OED), Pope’s man is marked by an excellent and virtuous character. Furthermore, this can also be seen in line 75 of the epistle. While the rake stands out due to his physical potency, which is mirrored in his promiscuity, the man in Pope’s writing has no “impotence of mind” and is in consequence intellectually potent. This emphasis on intellectual qualities clearly depicts Pope as an Augustan author, since they “held common sense to be the best and most useful intellectual achievement of mankind” (Piper 505). Flavia lacks this important attribute. As the epistle says, she has “too much Thinking to have common Thought” (l.80). This line stands at the end of the climax of oppositions and is directly followed by the consequences of her inadequacy: “Pain” and death (ll.81). This shows how essential common thought is and that it is not attributed to women, who are here incorporated by Flavia, but rather to men.