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A person addicted to making saucy or impertinent remarks (OED).


The Special Place of 'Saucebox' in Eighteenth-Century England.

The English eighteenth century is often deemed to have been an age of civility, of enlightenment, progress, manners, gentility; an age of ‘great joining and belonging’ [Spurr, 6], an ‘age of elegance.’ Arguably it was all of these things, but the long eighteenth century is better understood as an age of tension. It was an age when reason did battle with volition, when a drive towards social cohesion and a sense of belonging was beset by ruthless individualism, as citizens sought to demarcate their positions in an increasingly stratified social hierarchy.  It was a time when increasingly stringent codes of sexual behaviour were circumvented (or outright ignored) with guile and hypocrisy. Like the Lady in Swift's Dressing Room, the carefully-drawn exterior of well-mannered, civilised society had an ugly sublayer of ribaldry lurking underneath. The eighteenth century was also, the following graphs indicate, the age of the rise (and fall) of the word 'saucebox:' 

(Figure I: Usage of the word 'saucebox' or 'sawcebox,' from Historical Texts)

(Figure II: usage of the word 'saucebox' or 'sawcebox' from Artemis)


There is of course a limited extent to which wordgrams can be trusted, bearing in mind the explosion in the printing industry that fueled the enlightenment from the late seventeenth century onward, as well as the many reproductions of texts from the foregoing century. However, these graphs do imply - I will argue, correctly - that the expression 'saucebox' was well attuned to the zeitgeist of the eighteenth century. It seems that 'saucebox' fulfilled a linguistic role that was specific to the eighteenth century; that through its use, eighteenth-century speakers and writers were able to articulate moods and feelings that were unique to their experience; that 'saucebox' both reflected and gave voice to the feel of the eighteenth century. The claim may seem a bold one, but it is less striking when one considers the tension that is inherent in the term itself. The definition of 'saucebox' (see above for the OED's definition) has changed very little over the course of some two hundred and fifty years:   


(Figure III: Thomas Sheridan's definition of 'saucebox' in 1784)

(Figure IV: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)


These definitions draw attention to the importance of the notion of impertinence, which to this day supplies the word 'saucebox' with its meaning. However they do not aptly convey the tension that underpinned - especially for contemporary users - the application of the word. Leslie Dunkling sheds  light onto this tension in her entry on 'saucebox' in A Dictionary of Epithets and Terms of Address (1990):

(Figure V: Leslie Dunkling's definition of the term in 1990) 


Dunkling points to the potentiality of 'saucebox' to be utilized (chiefly colloquially) as either an insult or 'in a friendly way' as a term expressing affection. For a helpful modern example, one might consider, as alluded to by Dunkling, the word 'sass,' whose etymology the OED describes as 'a variant on sauce,' and which can be used in both a positive (for someone who is lively or outspoken) and negative (e.g. for misbehaving children) sense. In a similar way, 'saucebox' could be applied variably to either endear or to chastise. This ambiguity is mirrored by that fact that since its inception, 'saucebox' has been used almost exclusively as a slang word in colloquial language, rarely appearing in formal writing, or in writing that is of a high register (for instance, LION records 34 instances of use of 'saucebox' in drama, yet only one for poetry, which at the time was often considered to be a 'higher' form than drama). A closer look at the etymology of 'saucebox' will also be instructive here; the word has two constituent parts, 'sauce' and 'box.' As figures I and II, as well as its derivative word, 'sass,' suggest, 'sauce' carries the notion of impudence or impertinence. 'Box' on the other hand connotes physical violence; in his Dictionary, Johnson defines it as 'a case made of wood; a blow,' or in its use as a verb 'to strike to pack in a box.' Though the word's exact origins are not known (it's first recorded use is believed to have been in the 1580s), a possible inference from its etymology is that a saucebox was, figuratively speaking, tantamount to being a box full of rudeness. A second - and more evocative - possibility, is that a 'saucebox' was someone whose level of impertinence is such that they provoke violent behaviour in others, or at least the desire to strike the saucy perpetrator (the fact that 'saucebox' has fallen out of popular usage whilst its mutant form, 'sass,' is now widely used to the same end, perhaps mirrors the decline in acceptability of corporeal punishment, whether from masters to servants, or parents to children). The fact that an expression which - from the viewpoint of its etymology - seems to threaten violence was used affectionately underscores the tension of its application. The rest of this wiki will be dedicated to an in-depth exposition of this tension, in order to consider how 'saucebox' had a special place in eighteenth-century England, allowing it to express and reflect the wider tensions of English society.         


Civility and Saucery.

(Figure VI: A visual representation of impertinence from 1809)


The eighteenth-century 'age of elegance' was characterised in no small part by a drive towards civility. The civilized social order was predicated upon the psychological norm of the 'sober, reasonable and self controlled individual' [Spurr, 25]. Essayists, dramatists, novelists, philosophers, preachers, and even scientists, all turned their pens towards the construction of civility based on 'tolerance, conversation and intellectual commerce' [28], something reflected in the shift in literature's focus from heroes and adventures to everyday citizens, to men of feeling and women of sentiment. The civilized ideal put a premium on sociability, urbanity and politeness as key to managing social difference and averting disorder. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury posited civility as the cornerstone of British liberalism (the programme according to which the Enlightenment unfolded), arguing that politeness and liberty were mutually supportive. In his Letters to his Son (1746-7), Lord Chesterfield would assert 'it is almost as neccessary to learn a genteel behaviour and polite manners as it is to learn to speak or write' [quoted in Porter, 73], whilst in his Essay on Conversation (1745), Henry Fielding would stress 'the art of pleasing, or contributing as much as possible to the ease and happiness of those with whom you converse' [quoted in Spurr, 27]. Magazines like Spectator helped to satisfy the growing public desire for the refinement of manners, leading to the publication of Archibald Alison's Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste in 1790. The 'emotions of taste' were crucial to eighteenth-century modernity; one contemporary guide to the 'pleasures of the imagination' held that


The cultivation of the polite arts is justly deemed an object of the highest importance in every well-regulated state; for it is universally allowed, that in proportion as these are encouraged or discouraged, the manners of the people are civilized and improved, or degenerate into brutal ferocity and savage moroseness. [quoted in Brewer, 3-4]


It is not difficult to imagine how the word 'saucebox' played into this widespread desire for good manners (or good breeding) in eighteenth-century England. As outlined above, the etymology of the word implies a causal relationship between its two parts ('sauce' and 'box'); saucy, or rude and impertinent behaviour causes (or at the very least ought to warrant) physical punishment (e.g. a boxing of the ears, or a cuffing). Used negatively, the linguistic function of 'saucebox' can be understood as censuring ill-mannered or uncivilised behviour. If to be saucy is to be insolent, then the meaning of insolence as a concept must be understood as being specific to its cultural context; certainly in the eighteenth century, which was perhaps a more self-consciously civilised century than any preceding it (in high society at least), insolence, and therefore sauciness too, denoted a transgression against good manners. Anyone who violated social codes of conduct could justly be upbraided with being a saucebox, as the two following examples from early in the century will demonstrate:

(Figure VII: Sir Mannerly reprimands Booby for his unbecoming behaviour towards the former's aunt.)

(Figure VIII: Archer, a beau in the guise of a servant, is forward with Cherry, the daughter of a landlord who suspects Archer is a thief. She rebukes his advances.)


In the first example, Sir Mannerly, who, as his aptronym suggests, exhibits a keen discernment regarding the finer points of politeness, variably dispensing compliments and apologies that are measured perfectly to satisfy his stern and somewhat irascible aunt. Booby, however, lacks Mannerly's sophistication, and - living up to his namesake as a socially inept maladroit - makes his addresses to Lady Faddle, whose servants are onlooking, in an over-forward manner. For this, he is well deserving of the epithet 'saucebox,' which Mannerly duly applies. The irony is of course that Mannerly himself was just chided by his aunt for being too reserved in his addresses. But, whereas Mannerly makes an expert recovery, Booby fails to recognize that good manners demand a different conduct towards one's family members than to one's friends and acquaintances. Booby flaunts the maxim that one keep a respectful distance between oneself and one's friend's aunt. Such is the impertinence one might expect from a typical eighteenth-century saucebox. 


In the second example, the topic of manners is explicitly raised by both characters; the mood is therefore just right for the saucebox card to be played. As with the previous example, it is the issue of distance - the level of familiarity - which is the trigger for the accusation of saucebox. Though, whereas previously it was Booby who was chastised for being too familiar, now Cherry is scolded by a disgruntled Archer for disdaining his advances. In other words, she has deviated from the pattern of social behaviour he expects from her (it should be noted that, as a fashionable beau, his expectations of a lowly innkeeper's daughter are very different to the way Cherry expects him to comport himself, believing him to be a footman. More on the class dimensions of 'saucebox' in the next section). What both examples have in common, is that unpleasantness has been allowed to interrupt the easy flow of the conversation; an unwelcome intrusion which is strictly proscribed by eighteenth-century codes of civility. This recalls Fielding's stipulation in his treatise on the art of conversation that 'Conversation among reasonable individuals should not be disrupted by contention' [quoted in Spurr, 27]. Though twenty-first-century readers would perhaps be more inclined to lenience towards Cherry, given that she is essentially being sexually harassed by Archer, eighteenth-century audiences would appreciate that, having been called out as a saucebox, she ought to apologise for her transgression against pleasant conversation, which she does ('I hope, Sir, you a'n't affronted').


What is also implicit in both of these examples, is the tension that underlies use of the word 'saucebox.' Whilst the expression is clearly used to censure any transgression against civility, it is, paradoxically, itself also an instance of bad manners. Two further examples will serve to explore this contradiction further:

(Figure IX: Mr. Reveller spars with Mr. Callow, the play's protagonist.)


In this example, Mr. Reveller, who is the representative of an older, more rakish generation, accuses Mr. Callow of sauciness, insisting that he should make himself ;more agreeable' when the latter makes a hint at the duplicity of modern society, and by implication, Mr. Reveller (who affects a respectable exterior in order to satisfy his desires). Mr. Callow, the play's hero, is the younger and much more likeable of the two; use of the word 'saucebox' here accentuates the gulf between the young and old generation, drawing attention to the hypocrisy of Mr. Reveller, who demands agreeable behaviour from his younger companion, but whose use of the insult sets him apart as the less mannerly of the two. A similar thing happens in The Father of a Family, by Charles Stearns (1798):


Maj.  [Major Robertson]

By heavens! this is insufferable. I had rather you had died---I had rather when we stormed Stoney. Point, that one of the enemy had skewered you with his bayonet, and dropped you in the ditch among the dead. Leave my presence, you saucebox, in a moment. [288]


Major Robertson is scolding his nephew, who has refused to comply with his father (Major Robertson's brother)'s commandment that he must renounce Sophia (the nephew's lover) because she is not 'a lady of fortune, a lady of great relations who will help you to get places in government.' Conversely, the nephew wants to marry her because she is 'beautiful, good tempered, sensible, genteel, and converses finely,' in other words, he loves her for her interior qualities. Whilst Major Robertson attacks his nephew for being disrespectful, he inadvertently reveals his own rudeness; like Mr. Reveller, he is a hypocrite of sorts. Men like the major and Mr. Reveller are clearly left behind by the eighteenth century's desire for well-mannered men of sentiment. Jenny Davidson has written extensively on the potential hypocrisy lying beneath the veneer of civility: 'commerce operates by means f manners to define the characteristically modern virtue of politeness, which is often threatened by corruption' (2), arguing that 'manners - the social constraints that check the dictates of individual desire - represent a subtle but pervasive hypocrisy, a form of discipline that exacts certain penalties but also promises social and moral rewards' (8). In the excerpt from Griffin's appropriately titled The Masquerade, Mr. Callow clearly alludes to the potential for the appearance of civility to deceive. Instances of the word 'saucebox' often draw attention to moments when an outburst of thoroughly impolite indignation breaks through the surface of this performance of good manners. This helps to explain the decline in use of the word, as the century drew to its close (there is not one mention of 'saucebox' in Austen's entire corpus) and the imperative for one's polite exterior to match one's morally good interior accrued more and more cultural weight. Davidson's mention of 'commerce' and the promise of 'rewards' also draws attention to social aspects of civility, which will now be considered with reference to the use of 'saucebox.'


Saucebox and Social Class

 The rise of civility in English society is inextricable from the 'birth of class' in the eighteenth century [Perkin, 177]. Davidson describes how 'manners as a political topos [offered] crucial opportunities to the previously excluded' [11]. By 'the previously excluded' Davidson of course means the middling classes, who, within the context of increasing commercialisation, found ever more opporunities to interact with their landed betters on a more level pegging. This was a class 'eager to clothe its naked wealth in the elegant and respectable garments of good taste' [Brewer, 7]. Or rather, this was many classes: in a famous table drawn up in the 1690s, Gregory Kind dissected English society into 26 different classes. The middle class was an 'elastic concept, which could be stretched to include craftsmen at the bottom and professional men such as lawyers and the clergy at the top' [Brumwell and Speck, 87]. The dissemination of good manners oiled the machinery of social intercourse in the eighteenth century, allowing the 'complex fabric' of social order to remain intact and cohesive [Porter, 97].


However, as the subsequent century would prove definitively, the course of social mobility never did run smooth. The opportunism that pervaded the middling ranks in the wake of commerce was not welcomed by all. Samuel Johnson would lament 'subordination is sadly broken down in this age, there are many causes, the chief of which is the great increase of money,' [quoted in Porter, 49], whilst Defoe would quip: 'Wealth however got in England makes/Lords of mechanics, gentlemen of rakes.'


In the age of the consumer revolution and the 'shopocracy' [Rule, 77], citizens became customers, and they would look to literature to consume the values of civility that would position them favourably in newly commercialised markets [Lynch, 13]. Words such as saucebox were helpful to the enterprise of the upwardly mobile middle class, in that, as aforementioned, they clearly marked out instances of poor, unmannerly conduct, examples of impertinence or cheekiness which were not to be followed. Middle class individuals could then in turn use 'saucebox' to demarcate their own positions as practitioners of civility, defining themselves in opposition to those lacking in the fine arts of conversation.


Moreover, 'saucebox' served a similar purpose for those who felt threatened by the shifts in the social order. England in the eighteenth century was still a nation where 'distributions of wealth and power were unashamedly inegalitarian, hierarchical, hereditary and privileged' [Porter, 2], and the word 'saucebox' very often gave voice to the anxiety of those at the top, who saw the traditional culture of English paternalism as being under attack from the forces of money and commerce. The Duchess of Buckingham, for example, once bemoaned that it was 'monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the Earth. This is highly offensive and insulting and at variance with high rank and good breeding.' The 'servant problem' was felt with urgency by members of the upper class, who sought to distance themselves from their servants: 'preoccupation with bad servants' was both 'the most pressing threat to virtue, and, paradoxically its best security' [Davidson, 44]. This satirical plea from a 1768 edition of the Public Advertiser illustrates how servants were viewed as simultaneously being a threat to the social order, and also the key to upholding the established hierarchy:

 (Figure X: Sally Saucebox's letter to the printer of the Public Advertiser.)


In this letter, Sally Saucebox complains of such injustices as being forced to get up at ten, never being invited to sit with her masters, and being only given two bottles of port to drink with her supper (enviable working conditions for any eighteenth-century servant!); and desires to humble her mistress to her so that she might also be treated like a lady. As her namesake suggests, she is the accomplished saucebox: her non standard language betrays her lack of good breeding, and she makes very impertinent claims on her lady's good will. Sally is represented as a detestable social climber, comparing herself to the shopkeepers in the area; she is also clearly very concerned with money. She is the embodiment of everything that the upper classes hate, and as such is a threat to the patrician social order. But by being exposed and ridiculed as a 'saucebox,' the threat is neutralised and the more civilised ranks can reassert their claims to cultural hegemony.

Similarly in Thomas Francklin's The Contract (1776), 'saucebox' is used to put servants who have overstepped the mark back into their place:

(Figure XI: Betty discusses the Captain with her mistress)


Betty, a witty young servant girl who has intelligence and good manners in such ample supply as to be able to converse on even intellectual terms with her cantankerous, 'old maid' mistress, constitutes a threat to Lady Eleanor's sense of superiority, so must be put down as a 'saucebox.' It is also revealing that Eleanor tells her maid to hold her impertinent tongue. The link between sauciness and impertinence has already been made explicit, but the word 'impertinent' itself merits closer attention:


(Figure XII: from Johnson's Dictionary)


Intrusion: it is as if Betty is intruding on class prerogatives by presuming to give her mistress counsel on sexual matters. The concept of intrusion also recalls the public/private divide promoted by Locke, which was structurally at the heart of eighteenth-century society. If individuals used the values of civility to 'render their property truly private' [Lynch, 5],then we can see here how civility also rendered the property of the upper classes (i.e. the culture of deference) open for consumption by the middle classes. The word 'saucebox' often appears at moments of resistance against this violation of property, whether intellectual or physical. It is incidentally telling that the word 'saucy' appears in trials for theft of property at the Old Bailey with shockingly high frequency (thieves are often described as having 'behaved very saucily'). The ultimate act of sauciness being of course, theft committed against God's property (murder):


Dare any be guilty of such saucy Presumptions, as to assume the divine Prerogative, as to dispose of the Life and Death of his Creatures, of destroying, as much as in him lies, at one Stroke, suddenly, by surprize and unexpectedly, both Soul and Body to all Eternity; and after all, can such a one expect to pass unpunished? None can deliver such Persons out of God's Hand' (From an Ordinary's account, 9th July 1734).


In other trials, 'saucy' carries the imputation of insubordination; children and servants are regularly described as having 'given some saucy answer' to their superiors. The use of the concept of sauciness in this sense is echoed in the literature of the period. In Griffin's Love in a Sack (1715), for example, when Sir Arthur accosts his servant thus 


What an Impudent Rascal art thou, to think that a Man of my Age and Experience should want the Advice of his Impertinent Servant; be quiet, Saucebox, Silence will become you much better than prating. Though I condescend to accept your honest Intention to serve me, and trust you with the Secret of my Love; yet I'll not permit you to advise, nor will I hear a Word shall contradict my Will. [9-10]


'saucebox clearly carries the charge of insubordination, an intrusion onto his intellectual property as master. Used in this insulting way, 'saucebox' performs a kind of othering; just as it was offensive to the Duchess of Buckingham to be deemed even the same species as one's servants, so here too 'saucebox' effects an (ideally) insurmountable social barrier.


However, in using 'saucebox' to put distance between high and lower walks of life, elderly aristocrats such as Sir Arthur and Lady Eleanor usually show themselves up as old-fashioned and socially backward - even downright rude and hypocritical. This tension - in using a term to mark oneself as a member of the ostensibly more civilised, upper echelons of society whilst at the same time demonstrating bad social grace and outmoded attitudes - is evident in the example of
(Figure XIII: The Lady encounters Charon at the river Styx in a short, dramatic dream sequence, printed in the Entertainer, 1754)

in which an anonymous 'Lady' of high rank - a 'woman of honour' - meets with Charon at the river Styx. Anyone wishing to past along the river Styx must first give up all their worldly possessions to the ferryman. However, like the doctor who went before her (who is more a 'miser of death' than a healer, and who cares more for his 'peruke' than his 'potions'), this 'woman of honour' is shown to be a hypocrite, who would sooner surrender her 'virtue' and 'modesty' than she would her 'paint' and 'cards' (artificial things which enable deception). Her use of the word 'saucebox' to attack Charon and deflect criticism away from herself, underscores her hypocrisy.
More often than not the (both eighteenth-century and modern) reader's sympathy is on the side of the 'saucebox' rather than the accuser. This is most evident in the case of Pamela, the heroine of Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), whom her master, Mr. B, regularly chastises for being a 'saucebox.' The novel Pamela is of particular interest to anyone studious of sauceboxes, as it is a work in which social class intersects with sexuality. The idea of a happy union between a master and a servant was hard for many contemporary readers to swallow, leading some to read Pamela as a cautionary tale about the threat posed to upper-class culture by upwardly mobile servants. Such readings however tend to overlook the significance of Mr. B's positive transformation, after which he reinvents himself (or rather Pamela reinvents him...) as a modern man of sentiment, and no longer uses the word 'saucebox' to put distance between himself and his wife. This transformation is sexual as well as social; considering use of 'saucebox' in Pamela is therefore a fitting way to bridge the social and sexual dimensions of the word.
(Figure XIV: "Come, Sawcy-face, give me another Glass of Wine")
Hot Sauce With That? The Sexual Connotations of Saucebox. 

In the English eighteenth century, the 'emerging sense of class identity was [predicated on] the acceptance of a division between the 'private' and 'public' and the organisation of sexual difference to correspond to it' [Rule, 98]. Civility, and the codes of behaviour it effectuated, were gendered as well as classed. Gender (and with it sexuality) and class were fused in such a way that different behaviour was expected of women of different ranks. Just as 'saucebox' was put to use to establish boundaries between the various strata of social class, so it also functioned to produce sexual difference. In Richardson's novel, we observe Pamela and Mr. B competing for the right to define meanings of words:

In Part because of gender and class factors, these two characters continually contest a vocabulary whose terms seem sometimes to be shared, but are actually capable of encompassing diametrically opposed meanings. Mr. B. uses the word 'honour' for instance, to cloak his desire to dominate; Pamela challenges his meaning by exposing the violence towards women that lies beneath the chivalric-sounding term. [Davidson, 118-19]
'Saucebox' can hardly be said to be chivalric-sounding, but like 'honour,' or 'virtue,' we can see how Mr. B. twists the meaning of the word to fit his own dastardly purposes. Thus at one point Mr. B. flies into a passion after Pamela has refused his advances, accusing her of having robbed him, and saying to Mrs. Jervis 'Do you hear(...) how pertly I am interrogated by this saucy slut? Why, saucebox, says he, did not my good mother desire me to take care of you?' [loc. 797] Though Pamela is 'quite ignorant of his meaning,' the reader can appreciate that the only crime she has committed is robbing her master of the opportunity to rape her. Mr. B. suffers from a severe case of upper class entitlement, and cannot reconcile her lowly status with her refusal of his advances. Yet he also aware that his behaviour defies all codes of civility; his internal conflict is exposed when he says 'I can neither bear, nor forbear her - (Strange words these!) - But stay; you shan't go! - Yet begone! - No, come back again' [loc 771]. Clearly, there is a great deal of tension underlying his application of the word 'saucebox.' Used in conjunction with 'pertly' here. 'saucbox' conveys a sense of lasciviousness or wantonness; Pamela evidently provokes sexual desire in Mr. B., and when he cannot contain his appetites, he must pin the blame on her by implying she is a saucy temptress, impertinently taking liberties with her master. Pamela takes aim at his hypocrisy in a letter to her parents:
'And, alack-a-day! what a world we live in! for it is grown more a wonder that the men are resisted than that the women comply. This, I suppose, makes me such a saucebox, and boldface, and a creature, and all because I won't be a saucebox and boldface indeed. [loc. 987] 
Pamela succinctly points out that by denying her master with an utmost of respect and deference, she is deemed an impertinent coquette, even though that is exactly what she is trying to avoid being. 'Saucebox' clearly goes beyond its connotations of insubordination here; it is very obviously sexually charged. In this way, it alludes to the sexual double standards that pervaded all ranks of eighteenth-century society: women were expected to be chaste and innocent, yet also sexually capable and available to satisfy men's sexual gluttony. Pamela again challenges Mr. B.'s definition when she says 'I must be forward, bold, saucy, and what not! to dare to run away from certain ruin' [loc. 3085]. Under his definition, anyone who frustrates his sexuality is considered saucy, even if sauciness means protecting one's all-important virtue. Mr. B.'s hypocrisy is further underscored when he later refers to Pamela as 'my dear saucebox' [loc. 4296] - something of an oxymoron given his prior definition of the term - a remark that reveals he does in fact find her behaviour endearing and sexually alluring, however impertinent it may be. He would have her sacrifice good, virtuous, civilised behaviour in order to quench male thirst, like the Harlot in Hogarth's famous series:
(Figure XV: Could this have been the fate of saucebox Pamela?)
Mr. B. uses 'saucebox' to other Pamela as a servant seductress, but on reflection he clearly enjoys her sauciness, linking it to her ingenuity and resourcefulness in preventing him from lowering himself so far as to rape her. 'Saucebox' conceals his own desire whilst simultaneously reproving Pamela, in a hypocritical fashion that is not dissimilar to modern use of 'saucy' (see such exemplary tabloid headlines as 'saucy Sally Bercow,' for example). At one point Mr. B. even explicitly reveals that he relishes her sauciness:
'He kissed me, and said, I must either do thus, or be angry with you; for you are very saucy Pamela. - But, with your bewitching chit-chat, and pretty impertinence, I will not lose my question. Where did you hide your paper, pens, and ink?' [loc. 3574]
Another oxymoron here ('pretty impertinence') betrays the tension in his use of 'saucy;' he may chastise her for presuming to resist his commands, but his strictures scarcely conceal the arousal that her behaviour provokes in him. This excerpt is particularly salient as it draws attention to the male anxiety provoked not only by women's potential sexual agency (agency that can withhold as well as provide sex), but also by women's literacy, and more generally, women's intellectual subjectivity. As one reviewer put it in 1762: 
We may all remember the time, when a woman who could spell was looked on as an extraordinary phenomenon, and a reading and writing wife was considered as a miracle; but the case at present is quite otherwise(...) The men retreat and the women advance. The men prate and dress; the women read and write: it is no wonder, therefore, that they should get the upper hand of us.' [Jones, 1]
The eighteenth century saw women challenging established notions of sexual difference, whereby women were held to be passive and men to be intellectually and physically active. Women of the age witnessed a 'tension between an enlightened commitment to equality, and a discourse of difference and hierarchy; between a progressivist belief in access to education and literature, and a tendency to restrict the terms on which such access might be enjoyed' [Jones, 5]. Many men reacted angrily to the perceived feminisation of male culture vis-à-vis the increasing opportunities for publicly active women, with John Brown writing in his Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757) that 'the Character and the Manners of our Times(...) will probably appear to be that of a "vain, luxurious, and selfish EFFEMINACY."' A plethora of conduct literature appeared across the eighteenth century, with titles such as Hester Mulso Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady (1773), which could practically be retitled 'How Not to Be a Saucebox.' It is easy to see how the word 'saucebox' was made to play a role in reasserting gender difference by anxious eighteenth-century men, in the same way it was used to assert class difference.
However, as was the cause for 'saucebox' and social class, the sexual dimensions of the word saucebox were more complex than an outright attack on women with agency. As ever, there was a great deal of tension in its use. So, for example, in Fielding's An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741):



O Madam, I have strange Things to tell you! As I was reading in that charming Book about the Dealings, in comes my Master --- to be sure he is a precious One. Pamela, says he, what Book is that, I warrant you Rochester's Poems.--- No, forsooth, says I, as pertly as I could; why how now Saucy Chops, Boldface, says he --- Mighty pretty Words, says I, pert again. --- Yes (says he) you are a d---d, impudent, stinking, cursed, confounded Jade, and I have a great Mind to kick your A------. You, kiss --- says I. A-gad, says he, and so I will; with that he caught me in his Arms, and kissed me till he made my Face all over Fire. Now this served purely you know, to put upon the Fool for Anger. O! What precious Fools Men are! And so I flung from him in a mighty Rage, and pretended as how I would go out at the Door; but when I came to the End of the Room, I stood still, and my Master cryed out, Hussy, Slut, Saucebox, Boldface, come hither ------ Yes to be sure, says I; why don't you come, says he; what should I come for, says I; if you don't come to me, I'll come to you, says he; I shan't come to you I assure you, says I. Upon which he run up, caught me in his Arms, and flung me upon a Chair, and began to offer to touch my Under-Petticoat. Sir, says I, you had better not offer to be rude; well, says he, no more I won't then; and away he went out of the Room. I was so mad to be sure I could have cry'd. [16-17]


In this passage, Pamela performs the role of saucebox in order to infuriate her master, and in doing so enables Fielding to satirise male sexual hypocrisy. Moreover, however, by, in a sense, reclaiming sauciness for women, Fielding points towards a female agency that is able to transcend the prescription of gender: 'to laugh with the heroine is to resist any easy reduction of femininity to predetermined categories' [Jones, 14]. Likewise in Swift's The Journal to Stella (written 1710-13), 'saucebox' is used in a much more positive sense than it is used by, say, Mr. B.. So pervasive are the terms 'saucy' and 'saucebox' in Swift's letters (whose very existence depends on women's literacy), that some instances bear citation:
  • 'go, sauceboxes: and so good-night, and be happy, dear rogues.' [letter X]
  • 'Pshaw, I must be writing to these dear saucy brats every night, whether I will or no.' [letter X]
  • 'So, now the puppy's come in, and I have got my own ink, but a new pen; and so now you are rogues and sauceboxes till I go to bed; for I must go study, sirrahs.' [letter XI]
  • 'Morning. The weather grows cold, you sauceboxes.' [letter XII}
  • 'Are not you sauceboxes to write "lele"(27) like Presto? O poor Presto! Mr. Harley is better to-night, that makes me so pert, you saucy Gog and Magog.' [letter XVII]
  • 'O, faith, you’re an impudent saucy couple of sluttikins for presuming to write so soon.' [letter XIX]
The contradiction in terms such as 'dear rogues' recalls Mr. B.; indeed, Swift often adopts a tone that is similarly sententious to Mr. B.'s addresses to Pamela. But unlike Mr. B., Swift does not fear female agency - on the contrary, he relishes it. On the surface, Swift's admonitions are paying lip service to the sexual double standard, reprimanding his two female addressees for their impertinence in insisting on his correspondence. But actually he takes great pleasure in writing to them, nor does he make any secret of it. By applying the term 'saucebox' in such a sarcastic manner, Swift is able to accentuate the joy that is to be found in a saucy correspondence with spritely, spirited women who are unafraid to perform sauciness (like Shamela) for the sake of mutual pleasure. Gender here is performative; by performing impertinence, the women become saucy 'sirrahs' - they take on the mantle of masculinity, and this serves to emphasise their agency. Just as Swift (critics have speculated) only includes Mrs. Dingely in order to write to Stella, so he only addresses them as sauceboxes in order to express his affection for them. Saucebox therefore operates as a term of endearment through appearing to castigate, and its usage in Swift's Journal draws attention to the performance of gender in accordance with men's double standards. 
However, despite both men and women challenging the notion of sexual difference, Instances of women calling men 'saucebox' are rather isolated. But they are not unheard of:
(Figure XVI: Susan's tête-à-tête with her would-be husband, Jarvis)
In this example from Hannah Cowley's The Runaway (1776), Susan upbraids Jarvis with being a 'saucebox.' It is perhaps not surprising that one of the few examples of a woman using 'saucebox' is to be found in a work by a woman writer. In this play, Susan and Jarvis are co-schemers from the lower, servant ranks, planning to marry in order to receive two hundred pounds from Susan's mistress. As a plotting servant, it would come as no shock to contemporary audiences that Susan's linguistic register is allowed to slip to the level of her saying 'saucebox;' she is, after all, a member of an ostensibly less civilised walk of life. Modern readers, on the other hand, would perhaps be more inclined to appreciate the agency she exhibits in exploiting the institution of marriage (the cornerstone of the sexual double standard) to her own profit; agency which is reflected in her seizing the masculine prerogative and unashamedly calling Jarvis a 'saucebox.'  
One final example - the testimony of a servant at a trial for pick-pocketing - will serve nicely to tie together the various aspects - social and sexual - of the word 'saucebox.' 

(Figure XVII: the dramatic and hilarious account of the near theft of Edward Hartrey's purse, related from the perspective of his servant) 


In this record from the Old Bailey, Mary Blewit - a 'saucy brimstone toad' - is charged with having attempted to steal Edward Hartrey's money, under the guise of being a prostitute. It is indicative of men's double standards, that Hartrey's reasons for having contact with the woman (he was evidently attempting to procure her services as an [assumed] prostitute) are brushed aside so that the witness can focus on her mistreatment of his master. She is lambasted as a 'Hang-in-Chains Bitch' (an expression which has subsequently - and tragically - fallen out of common use, alongside - less tragically - the practice of hanging in chains) for wantonly tempting the good Mr. Hartley; use of the word 'saucy' places the blame for the crime squarely with the woman rather than the equally complicit gentleman. Like Susan from The Runaway, Mrs. Blewit has demonstrated such a level of agency in procuring money through her sexuality, and shown such a lack of social decorum in tempting a man of higher rank, as to occasion severe male anxiety; to be reckoned a 'saucebox' is her just dessert. One can only hope she was let off with a caution.


Concluding Remarks:

The foregoing has shown, that the word 'saucebox,' and its attendant concept of sauciness, or impertinence, were at the heart of eighteenth-century cultural life in England. The term may seem inconspicuous enough, but it served a very specific purpose which varied according to context. Ultimately, considering the application of the word saucebox enables us to recognise and to better understand the various tensions that are not always obvious to our idealised view of the civilised, enlightened, 'long' eighteenth century. As a slang word which could be used to reprove or to express affection, 'saucebox' was spoken by those who wished to censure rudeness or incivility, but who increasingly revealed themselves (inadvertently) to be all the more rude and unmannerly for using it. Similarly, it was used to establish social and sexual difference by those in a position of authority, but more and more the term came to be reclaimed by upwardly mobile middle classes to either mark out their own status, or to satirise the manners of the upper classes. In literature, its use by such characters as Mr. B. highlighted the sexual double standard that demanded impossible patterns on behaviour from women, insisting they be both obedient to their masters (sexual) commands, yet also chaste and virtuous. Through authors such as Jonathan Swift, we can see how 'saucebox' was charged with sexual meaning which could be positive and liberating for women. The decline in the use of 'saucebox' in the latter half of the century is perhaps due to the conscious move away from (civil/social/sexual) hypocrisy as English society gradually resolved some of its internal tensions through writers such as Jane Austen. It remains only to express hope for its grand return to popular usage in the twenty-first century, in the age of the smiley, in which imaginative and provocative insults such as 'saucebox' are in short supply for everyday use.



Primary Works Cited: 

  • Fielding, Henry. An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2013 (originally published 1741).
  • Griffin, Benjamin. Love in a Sack: As it is now Acted at the New-Theatre in Lincolns-Inn Fields. Printed for W. Mears, J. Brown, and T. Woodward, London, 1715. 
  • Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Amazon Kindle Ebook, 2012 (originally published 1740).
  • Stearns, Charles. The Father of a Family: A Comedy in Five Acts. In Dramatic Dialogues for the Use of Schools. Leominster: John Prentiss, & Co., 1798.
  • Swift, Jonathan. The Journal to Stella. Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2010 (originally published in 1766).

(See Figures, above, for further citations of primary sources) 

Secondary Works Cited:

  • Brumwell, Stephen, and Speck, W. A.. Cassel's Companion to Eighteenth Century Britain. London: Cassel & Co, 2001.
  • Brewer, John. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth-Century. Oxon: Routledge, 2013 (first published in 1997).
  • Davidson, Jenny. Hypocrisy and the politics of politeness: manners and morals from Locke to Austen. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Hay, Douglas, and Rogers, Nicholas. Eighteenth-Century English Society: Shuttles and Swords. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Jones, Vivien. 'Introduction.' Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800, ed. Vivien JonesCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1-19.
  • London, April. The Cambridge Introduction to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge Introductions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Perkin, H. J.. Origins of Modern English Society. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Porter, Roy. English Society in the Eighteenth Century, revised Ed.. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1991 (first published 1980).
  • Rule, John. Albion's People: English Society 1714 - 1815. Essex: Longman Group UK Ltd., 1992.
  • Speck, W. A.. Literature and Society in Eighteenth-Century England 1680-1820: Ideology, Politics and Culture. Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998.
  • Spurr, John. 'England 1649-1750.' Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1650-1740, ed. Steven N. Zwicker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 3-32. 

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