Women Battling the Marriage Plot

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


In my “Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy” class, we have been talking a lot about courtship and marriage. It’s been fascinating to see how the male and the female authors treat the subject differently.

Feminist scholars often talk about the marriage plot and the quest plot and how difficult it is for men and women to cross over. As one scholar puts it,

[In the 18th century one finds] a contradiction between love and quest, novel and fantasy, between what Du Plessis labels “bildung” and romance…What one quickly discovers is that one cannot have both love and quest, both selflessness and selfishness. The two texts—male and female—cannot exist simultaneously. The woman cannot be both selfless martyr to the man and true to herself. The quest that the female character wants to participate in is impossible and incompatible with the successful courtship and marriage that she must participate in. As Du Plessis concludes: “Quest for women was thus finite; we learn that any plot of self realization was at the service of the marriage plot and was subordinate to, or covered within, the magnet power of that ending.”

While the marriage plot may initially seem to affirm a woman’s worth—Cinderella is validated by the prince choosing her over all other women—it is at the price of her accepting the patriarchal agenda. Her ultimate fulfillment lies in her selflessly becoming his helpmeet. Whatever selfish desires she herself had—making her own choice of a mate—must end when she becomes a wife.

One sees a dramatic contrast in the male bildungsroman (formation story). David Copperfield pursues his ambition and then signals his worldly achievement by marrying the proper woman. She is the sign that he has matured and is prepared to become a pillar of society.

In the Restoration, however, marriage was seen with such suspicion that the male quest often took the form of seduction, not final marriage. Manhood was asserted by chasing after women and was validated by their surrender. The quintessential rake of the age, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, railed against anything that got in the way of this quest, including morality, convention, and vows of constancy. He was especially critical of marriage, which he regarded as a bankrupt institution that prevents men from following their natural desires.

William Wycherley puts a Wilmot figure at the heart of The Country Wife, with Horner declaring a war on marriage. His quest is to expose society’s hypocrisy, and he has found an ingenious way—he pretends that venereal disease has made him impotent—to penetrate the households of even the most jealous husbands. After “abusing the husbands,” he easily disabuses their frustrated wives. His name indicates that he plants invisible cuckold horns on husbands’ heads.

To John Wilmot’s credit, he thought that women had a right to follow their natural desires as much as men did. “But did you love your pleasure less,/ You were no match for me,” he says in “Epistle to a Lady,” before concluding,

Whilst I my pleasure to pursue,
Whole nights am taking in
The lusty juice of grapes, take you
The juice of lusty men.

A number of women writers were more than willing to take up Wilmot’s challenge. Aphra Behn’s Helena in The Rover is drawn to the rake Wilmore and rebels against her family’s plans to make her a nun, engaging in masquerade to track him down. She also realizes, however, that women face a special set of obstacles. While she knows that she will appear a prude if she insists upon the marriage plot with Wilmore, without it in she could end up with “a cradle full of mischief and a pack of repentance on my back.”

To resolve what appears to be an impossible dilemma, she works to redefine marriage itself: she envisions a marriage that resembles perpetual courtship, with all the excitement and uncertainty of a quest. If she is “Helena the Inconstant,” her husband will never be sure of her.

That’s one way that a woman imagines herself engaging in the quest plot. Eliza Heywood too refuses to dwindle into either wife or (if the genre is melodrama rather than comedy) victimized woman. In Fantomina, her heroine doesn’t chastise her lover for his inconstancy—his perpetual questing—but comes up instead with an ingenious plan. Every time her lover gets tired of her, she changes her identity and seduces him all over again. At one point she’s a courtesan, at another a maid, at another a widow, and finally a lady.

Unfortunately, she can’t solve the biology problem mentioned by Helena, becoming pregnant after the fourth seduction. Also, her mother returns to town so that she can no longer escape her chaperone. At this point we expect the story to revert to the marriage plot but, to Haywood’s credit, the story doesn’t end with the man making everything all right. Instead, Fantomina’s mother sends her to a convent.

This sounds like a tragedy, but Haywood scholars Anna Patchias and Margaret Case Croskery believe that Fantomina has just found another way to pursue her sexual quest, one less confining than marriage:

The heroine’s relocation to a monastery might seem to signal the end of her sexual adventures, but another early modern literary mode—titillating stories about nuns—complicates this assumption. For example, Barrin’s(?) Venus in the Cloister offers a risqué account of life in a convent. Haywood, like Barrin(?), Behn, and other predecessors, was not slow to exploit the topos of the attractive nun. The durability of stories about nuns may help explain why the nun’s habit was one of the most popular costumes at masquerade assemblies.

I particularly enjoy the lover’s confusion. If man assert their manhood through their conquests, then what kind of a man gets out-raked by a woman:

[H]e took his leave, full of cogitations, more confused than ever he had known in his whole life.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu also finds a way to own her own sexual desiring. In “The Lover,” she mentions male seduction arguments and then turns them on their head. If she doesn’t give into men, she says, it’s not because she is prude or “a virgin in lead.” It’s just that she hasn’t found a man yet who is up to her standards. The men are the problem, not her.

Should she ever find a worthy man, she promises not to hold back. In fact, she’s very explicit about how far she will go:

But when the long hours of public are past,
And we meet with champagne and a chicken at last,
May ev’ry fond pleasure that moment endear;
Be banished afar both discretion and fear!
Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud.
Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive. 

Montagu herself had lovers, so she attempted to live what she described. She was well aware of society’s double standards on this score, however, and she also has a poem, “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” which lays out what could happen to a wife who honored her own desires. Mrs. Yonge’s husband was notoriously unfaithful, but when she herself took a lover, he successfully sued for divorce and ended up with her dowery and a fair portion of her fortune. No comic ending there.

So there you have the first half of my course. I’ll share next week what playwrights Susan Centlivre and Hannah Cowley add to the conversation. Neither is entirely able to escape the marriage plot but they dance around it in some very interesting ways.

Give women the pen and they start poking holes in male certainties.

This entry was posted in Behn (Aphra), Haywood (Eliza), Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley), Wilmot (John), Wycherley (William) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete