Last week I wrote about Restoration and 18th century women writers pushing against the marriage narrative that defined their identities and their lives. They showed it was possible, if only momentarily, for a woman to pursue a male quest narrative—or at least, given that there were limited career options, to pursue her own amorous desires.
Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, I argued, each found ways to follow their self-oriented agendas that weren’t (to quote feminist scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis) “subordinate to, or covered within, the magnet power” of the marriage plot. Haywood’s Fantomina and Montagu have illicit affairs and Behn’s Helena reimagines marriage in a way that promises her more freedom. To be sure, we’re talking about protests against the system, not anything more radical. It would have been impossible to achieve anything more, especially in the couples comedy genre, which focuses on male-female relations.
We don’t get much more than protests in the two works I look at today, Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody (1709) and Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem (1780). Still, it’s interesting to see how they reconceptualize marriage in order to gain a little freedom.
Centlivre’s Miranda and Cowley’s Leatitia are as suspicious of marriage as male characters are. Miranda, disguised as a courtesan, chastises Sir George for seeking respectable marriage—even though, it so happens, this respectable marriage would be with herself:
Matrimony! Ha, ha, ha; what Crimes have you committed against the God of Love, that he should revenge ’em so severely to stamp Husband upon your Forehead—
George is so smitten with the masked Miranda’s wit that he is torn between her and the beautiful and more respectable Miranda. Of course, he is eventually able to get both. Slumming in disguise allows Miranda to be both sexually transgressive and quietly respectable.
In The Belle’s Stratagem, Letitia takes the disguise to another level. Realizing that her intended is infatuated with foreign-born beauties and regards her with indifference, she concocts a complex plan. She will make Doricourt hate her but then woo him in masquerade. Hatred is necessary, she explains to her father, because it is easier to turn hatred into love than to do so with indifference.
Therefore she pretends to be a simpleton when he visits her (they haven’t met since they were children, when their fathers arranged their future marriage) so that he is repulsed. Then, at a masquerade ball, she sweeps him off his feet. After she and her friends have fun laughing at him, she reveals her true identity. Though the play ends with marriage, it will be a marriage in which she can be her own woman. Here is her final interchange with Doricourt:
Letitia: This little stratagem arose from my disappointment, in not having made the impression on you I wish’d. The timidity of the English character threw a veil over me, you could not penetrate. You have forced me to emerge in some measure from my natural reserve, and to throw off the veil that hid me.
Doricourt: I am yet in a state of intoxication—I cannot answer you.—Speak on, sweet Angel!
Letitia: You see I can be any thing; choose then my character—your Taste shall fix it. Shall I be an English Wife?—or, breaking from the bonds of Nature and Education, step forth to the world in all the captivating glare of Foreign Manners?
Doricourt: You shall be nothing but yourself—nothing can be captivating that you are not. I will not wrong your penetration, by pretending that you won my heart at the first interview; but you have now my whole soul—your person, your face, your mind, I would not exchange for those of any other Woman breathing.
I grant that it’s a small victory and that the marriage plot prevails. Still, to gain a little freedom is something that other women writers and readers can build on. The arc of history is long but it bends towards the feminist movements to come.