The 1714 edition of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock sold around 3,000 copies in four days. It promised readers a secret glimpse of high society folly, revealing how a young baron stole a lock of a lady’s hair. In this mock-epic poem, Pope used the grandiose style of ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry to satirise the self-importance of the fashionable London elite.

The publisher, Bernard Lintot, produced this lavish edition with six illustrations, decorated initial letters and ornate head- and tail-pieces. It was the first small book of English verse to receive this stylish treatment, and it proved a runaway success. This is a presentation copy from Pope himself, inscribed ‘Ex dono authoris’ [the gift of the author].

Why did Pope write The Rape of the Lock?

The work was inspired by the scandalous news that Robert, Baron Petre (1690–1713), had surreptitiously snipped a curl from the head of Arabella Fermor (c. 1689–1738), a society beauty. The incident caused ‘estrangement’ between two Catholic families, so John Caryll, Petre’s guardian, asked Pope to ‘laugh them together again’.

In Pope’s verse, Belinda represents Arabella, while the Baron represents Lord Petre. The first version, with just two cantos, was dashed off in a fortnight in 1711 and privately circulated. It was then printed anonymously in Lintot’s Miscellany of 1712. Two years later, Pope produced this expanded five-canto version, adding the dark Cave of Spleen episode and the supernatural ‘Machinery’ – a band of sylphs who protect mortals, like the gods in ancient epics. In 1717, Pope produced a third version, which includes Clarissa’s speech promoting ‘good-humour’ for women (5:31).

The epistle to Arabella Fermor

Arabella Fermor gave consent for Pope to publish the poem in 1712. But she later complained that she was embarrassed by it, perhaps because she had recognised the poem’s double entendres around the idea of virginity and the word ‘rape’, which at that time meant both seizure by force and sexual violation. In this 1714 edition, Pope tries to appease her with a dedicatory epistle insisting that the characters are all ‘fictitious’. Like The Rape of the Lock itself, the epistle both exalts and demeans women. It celebrates their ‘Beauty’, but condescendingly explains ‘hard words’ for them.

Louis du Guernier’s illustrations

The French-born Louis du Guernier (1677‒1716) designed one image for each canto, and a frontispiece that mingles key episodes from the poem. In the first image, Belinda flirtatiously bares her leg, while sylphs buzz around her, symbolising female vanity. One proffers a mirror, another wears high heels and one points up at Belinda’s hair which has been transformed into a shooting star. The satyr crouching in the foreground is not a character from the poem, but a representation of Pope’s satirical purposes.