Wives, Widows, and Writings in Restoration Comedy

by Jon Lance Bacon
Wives, Widows, and Writings in Restoration Comedy
Jon Lance Bacon
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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Wives, Widows, and Writings in Restoration Comedy


When Harcourt likens mistresses to books in The Country Wzfe (1675), William Wycherley employs a common motif of Restoration comedy: the motif of woman as text. The comparison here is fairly innocuous, suggesting an experience of potential benefit to the male "reader" who wants social polish. Harcourt tells Horner, "if you pore upon them too much, they doze you, and make you unfit for Company; but if us'd discreetly, you are the fitter for conver- sation by'em" (I.i.197-99).' Later in the play, however, the motif indicates a power struggle within marriage. Pinchwife expresses his belief that "our Wifes," like the "writings" drawn up by usurers, are "never safe, but in our Closets under Lock and Key" (11.ii.77-78). Pinchwife's statement is the more typical example of the motif, in that it links the issue of legal authority-the husband's theoretical control over his wife-with the question of authorship. The association of women with writings in Restoration comedy betrays a contemporary anxiety regarding feminine self-assertion. If women are books, that is, they are books which may write themselves. The form taken by male anxiety, in terms of dramatic action, depends on the legal status of the female characters. To the extent that they lack legal power, women exert personal power as texts which demand and often defeat male exegesi~.~

Those women who do possess legal power-embodied, in The Plazn-Dealer (1677), by the Widow Blackacre's written documents-have no identity imposed on them, so they need not resort to such a strategy of resistance. This inverse relation between the mystification practiced by wives and the self-determination enjoyed by widows figures in many plays of the genre but most prominently in Wycherley's two major works.

A century after The Plazn-Dealer appeared, the woman-as-text motif remained a component of English stage comedy. The

Jon I.ance Bacon, a graduate student at \'antier-bilt I-nive~sit) , ih completing :i dissel.tatiorl on Flannerv 0'C:onnor.

malapropisms of The Riuals (1775) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan testify to the persistence of the motif; these errors in diction frequently create associations between women and language and occasionally equate women with problematic texts. Mrs. Malaprop hopes that Sir Anthony Absolute will represent her niece to his son "as an object not altogether illegible," as something to be deciphered, in other words (I.ii.341-43).3 Mrs. Malaprop's errors turn women, including herself, into objects of interpretation: "I'm quite analysed, for my part!" (IV.ii.289-90). By calling her tongue "oracular" (III.iii.86), Mrs. Malaprop recalls the obscure messages of classical deities; her own messages to Sir Lucius O'Trigger, written under a pseudonym, constitute a "mystery" (V.iii.251). Her statement that Lydia is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile" (III.iii.238-39) connects the problem of interpretation with feminine self-assertion, considered a problem by Sir Anthony as well as Mrs. Malaprop. He calls Lydia's refusal to marry the man selected for her "the natural consequence of teaching girls to read" (I.ii.256-57). Literacy, Sir Anthony argues, puts an end to female submissiveness. Books proved to be "injury sufficient" to his late wife, and he intends that any successor of hers will be almost completely illiterate: "were I to choose another help-mate," he says, "the extent of her erudition should consist in her knowing her simple letters, without their mischievous combinations" (I.ii.276-80). With just enough knowledge to embroider her husband's initials (I.ii.282-83), such a wife would be merely an instrument for confirming her husband's identity.

Sir Anthony's view resembles that of Sparkish, the fop in The Country Wife who believes "a little reading, or learning" makes a woman "troublesome" (III.ii.230-31). But Sheridan's lighthearted treatment of female literacy and self-assertion in 1775 lacks the tension of the seventeenth-century debate over women's status-a debate which produced not only misogynistic lines of dialogue, spoken by foolish characters on stage, but also alarmist essays, written in earnest by Oxford dons. In "The Womans Right Proved False," part of a manuscript miscellany compiled sometime between 1674 and 1685, Robert Whitehall expresses fears about a continuum of personal and legal power where ambitious women are concerned. Responding to another writer's call for "a greater equality between Husbands and Wives then is allowed and practised in England,"4 Whitehall contends that the empowerment of women within marriage would lead them to arrogate political and even theological authority to themselves:

That many Women are more than ready to snatch at ye Reins of Government, and surrogate a Power allowed neither by ye Laws of God or Nature, is so certain, that to prove it would be to suspect the Sun shines at Noon day; to whome Should an Inch be//given they would presently take more than an Ell, whose Brains being intoxicated with proud desire and ambi- tion after Rule, were they admitted to co-equal sway in a Domestick Kingdome, would presently begin to aspire at Absolute monarchy, then to challenge an equal1 Autority in State, to make Laws, bear Offices, vote as Members in Parliament, and afterwards presume to sit in Moses his Chair pretending they have power to TEACH as well as RULE.

The result, Whitehall warns, will be "Confusion," a disruption of the natural order of things.5

His position was neither extraordinary nor unacceptable in the intellectual circles of the period, according to Margaret J.M. Ezell: his disapproval of a theoretical equality within marriage has its basis in perceived links "between arguments for greater personal freedom and those of the radical sects during the Civil War. Both are seen as anarchic forces."6 For many of those writing in the half century after the execution of Charles I, the traditional analogy between husband/wife and sovereign/subject relations had come to suggest the possibility of rebellion in the domestic as well as the political sphere.7 James Drake's commendatory verses to An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696)portray its feminist author as a political revolutionary:

Our Sex have long thro' Usurpation reign'd, and by their Tyranny their Rule maintain'd. Till wanton grown with Arbitrary Sway Depos'd by you They practice to obey, Proudly submitting, when such Graces meet, Beauty by Nature, and by Conquest Wit.s

Although political revolution furnishes the precedent for her challenge to male "Tyranny," the essayist herself reverses the gender roles assigned by Drake: comparing men, rather than women, to "the Rebels in our last Civil Wars," she points out "the weakness and illegallity of their Title to a Power they still exercise so arbitrarily, and are so fond of." The husband who governs his wife "as an absolute Lord and Master, with an Arbitrary and Tyrannical Sway," is the object of .criticism in Mary Astell's Reflections upon Marriage, first published in 1700. In the preface to the third edition (1706), Astell accuses men of hypocrisy for practicing "that Arbitrary Dominion in their Families, which they abhor and exclaim against in the State." lo

Despite her adoption of the analogy between the two spheres, domestic and political, Astell focuses exclusively on the former. Other writers, focusing instead on the traditional distinction between "female" and "male" activity, protest the confinement of women to the domestic sphere. The reason for such confinement, argues the anonymous woman who wrote commendatory verses to the posthumous Poems (1669) of Katherine Philips, is male anxiety over female abilities: "jealous men debar / Our sex from books in peace, from arms in war . . . because our parts will soon demand / Tribunals for our persons, and command."ll In The Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655), Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, objects to the fact that women "are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses" and "are never imployed either in civil nor marshal1 affaires." l2 Margery Pinch- wife's complaint in The Country Wife about being "a poor lonely, sullen Bird in a cage" (III.i.3-4) takes on a clearly political dimension when placed in the context of the debate over women's Status.

During the early modern period in England, a wife was both personally and legally subject to her husband. Any property the wife brought to the marriage became his.l3 The wife herself, in effect, became property-as Peachum remarks in The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay (I.iv.86-88).l4 Ezell, however, identifies a gap between the theory and practice of domestic patriarchalism. Directing attention to the forms of manuscript exchange through which seventeenth-century women participated in intellectual discussion, Ezell challenges the standard model of domestic patriarchalism-specifically, the idea that the husband's control over his wife's activities extended to her mind.l5 The Relapse (1696) by John Vanbrugh offers literary evidence of women's interest in contemporary intellectual issues: Berinthia, "tho' a Woman," reads works of modern philosophy (II.i.435-36).16 Berinthia, of course, is no longer a wife, but her married cousin shares her keenness for intellectual pursuits; Amanda thinks books "the best Entertainment in the World" (II.i.180-81). The essayist to whom Whitehall responds was a married woman-the artist Mary More-and the particular discussion she joins involves female roles which, contrary to the standard historical model, were not well-defined. While excluded from public institutions, Ezell con- cludes, the patriarch's wife could and did wield considerable power on a private level.17

Female characters in the comedies of the period are often outspoken with regard to the sources of personal power and the means by which women retain it. "One's Cruelty is one's Power," declares Millamant, the heroine of William Congreve's last play, The Way of the World (II.i.385-86), produced in 1700.18 Four years later, in a play which marks the transition to the sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, Colley Cibber would soften but still acknowledge the hard fact of a struggle for authority on the personal level. Lady Betty Modish of The Careless Husband says that "Beauty certainly is the Source of Power, as Power in all Creatures is the heighth of Happiness" (II.i.31-32).19 For Lady Betty, "the Thought of parting with one's Power is insupportable" (V.i.74-75); more than Millamant, however, she conceives of this power as the ability to manipulate her lover's emotions. Millamant wishes primarily to preserve her own liberty and an identity separate from her husband's. In 1700 it could not be a legal identity, affording her control of property; marriage took that possibility away from the single woman.Z0 Congreve, recognizing the extent to which Millamant's legal status will "dwindle" once she marries (IV.i.226-27), gives her courtship the form of a legal document. In the "proviso" scene from The Way of the World, Millamant requires a guarantee that Mirabell will not interfere with her written correspondence, her avenue of intellectual exchange: she demands liberty "to write and receive Letters, without Interrogatories or wry Faces on your part" (IV.i.212-14). She will, if Mirabell keeps his promise, maintain a separate identity through writing.Z1

Similarly, Robert Whitehall makes the self-fulfillment of a wife conditional on the good nature of her husband. He closes his essay with advice for wives on the subject of personal power: instead of aspiring after "equal1 Autority with their Husbands," they should learn to win their husbands' affection, "which is easily engrossed by an oblidging carriage and unfeigned kindness (unless their Fate be to be wedded to churlish Nabals) and when once they have made themselves Empresses of their Husbands hearts, they may easily obtain what power, they can in reason desire, and may command as they plea~e."2~

In sentimentalizing the power struggle between spouses, Whitehall inadvertently endorses a strategy of dissimula- tion; kindness can hardly be "unfeigned" if its goal is power. Such is the mode of feminine self-assertion which predominates in Restoration comedy: a woman, especially a wife, will misrepresent herself or mystify her true character.

Eliza in The Plain-Dealer, like Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, turns women into objects of interpretation: "all wise observers understand us now adayes, as they do Dreams, Almanacks, and Dutch Gazets, by the contrary" (II.i.91-93).23 The key to under- standing a woman, Eliza tells Olivia, is to assume the opposite of

what her speech indicates. But interpretation may not always be so easy. In The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), George Etherege undercuts the confidence of Dorimant's statement, "I fathom all the depths of Womankind" (III.iii.362), with Harriet's humbling reminder, "Men are seldome in the right when they guess at a womans mind" (V.ii.53-54).z4 Dorimant postulates "an inbred falshood in Women" (V.i.145), a criticism which even a romantic heroine, such as Dorinda in The Beaux' Stratagem (1707), will accept: "I'm a woman; colors, concealments may hide a thousand faults in me," Dorinda tells Aimwell in George Farquhar's work (V.iv. 17- 19).25 In general, though, Restoration comedy presents womanly falsehood and concealment as a social response to domestic patriarchalism rather than as a natural inclination. In The Beggar's Opera, which revives the worldview of the genre, Peachum says that "a Husband hath the absolute Power over all a Wife's Secrets but her own" (I.iv.81-82). Peachum's observation about the wife's status as "property" occurs in the same speech, suggesting that her secrecy is her means of estab- lishing some measure of self-possession.

The man who would marry should be able to read-notwithstanding Petulant's speech to the contrary, in The Way of the World (III.i.428-33). In her conversation with Petulant and Witwoud, Millamant wonders "at the Impudence of any Illiterate Man, to offer to make Love" (III.i.422-24). In addition to basic literacy, the ability to discover hidden meanings is essential to the would-be husband of Restoration comedy: the figurative language which turns a female character into a text sometimes turns her into a sacred text, replete with mysteries. In The Relapse, Berinthia tells Amanda that Worthy, Amanda's admirer, "us'd you like a Text" and "took you all to pieces, but spoke so learnedly upon every Point, one might see the Spirit of the Church was in him" (IV.ii.48-50). Amanda here becomes Scripture; Worthy assumes the role of chaplain. Later in the play, Lord Foppington specifies one function of a chaplain as textual exegesis, or the "Unfolding of Mysteries" (IV.vi.79-80). When it acquires these religious connota- tions, the motif of woman-as-text transforms personal into divine power. Indeed, Loveless refers to woman as his "Deity" in The Relapse (III.ii.79). Dorimant, as the "Oracle" of this deity in The Man of Mode (V.ii.401-402), must deal with ambiguities; the psychological authority of a woman, like the omnipotence of God, is inseparable from mystery. As Scrub remarks in The Beaux' Stratagem, "where there's a priest and a woman, there's always a mystery and a riddle" (IV.i.415-17).

In The Country Wife, Margery poses riddles with her writing. Horner, who receives her first letter by way of Pinchwife, calls the

delivery "a riddle I have not yet solv'd" (V.ii.26). Pinchwife, having discovered her second letter, orders Margery to "unriddle" (V.i.12-13). Beyond the level of plot, the literal act of writing manifests her self-assertion. Denied a separate legal identity, Margery enters into a private contest to decide whether she or her husband will be the author of her personality. Pinchwife would define her character by using her as a writing surface. "Write as I bid you," he tells Margery, "or I will write Whore with this Penknife in your Face" (IV.ii.92-93). In The Beggar's Opera, Mrs. Peachum sings about a similar if less violent imposition of identity: "A Wife's like a Guinea in Gold, / Stampt with the Name of her Spouse; / Now here, now there; is bought, or is sold; / And is current in every House" (1.v. 11-14). The wife in the song becomes legal currency, but the joke is that "current" implies "unfaithful." Forced to take an identity from her husband, the wife rebels by subverting the meaning of that identity. Such is Margery's response to her situation. Her ability to compensate somewhat for a dwindled legal status derives from her willingness to rewrite the message which Pinchwife dictates to her, a message which attributes to Margery feelings she does not have.

In a century when few women were able to sign their own names,Z6 writing had an obvious relevance to feminine identity. A woman's signature carried considerable significance in terms of political self-assertion. Several times during the Interregnum, groups of women petitioned Parliament; one petition, submitted in 1653, bore as many as 6,000 signatures." In Restoration comedy, only fops are foolish enough to devalue writing. Sparkish scorns it in The Country Wife (III.ii.93), and Sir Fopling Flutter considers writing "a Mechanick part of Witt" (IV.i.245-46).

Margery Pinchwife admits that she cannot write well. Pinchwife, who would like to determine his wife's identity completely, wishes she "cou'd not at all" (IV.ii.63-64). The reason for his distrust becomes clear during the first letter-writing scene, in which dictatorship and resistance take the forms of dictation and revision. Pinchwife would like to think of Margery as a writing instrument, but she is more an editor-preferring "Dear Sir" to "Sir" (IV.ii.89- go), deleting "nauseous" and "loath'd" from the reference to Horner's kisses and embraces. As she tells Pinchwife, "I can't abide to write such filthy words" (IV.ii.105-106). By threatening her with his penknife, he stops her revision only temporarily. After Pinch- wife exits, Margery writes a different letter; after he re-enters, she substitutes this for the letter he has dictated. In effect, she replaces his meaning with hers. Wycherley emphasizes the subversiveness of her act of writing by having Margery apply her husband's seal-


the stamp of his identity-to a letter which expresses her true emotions and thus affirms her own identity.

Pinchwife holds that a wife is "the most dangerous" of "secret enemies" (IV.ii.200-201). The manner of his portrayal indicates Wycherley's approval of Margery's subversiveness.28 Wycherley makes a fool out of Pinchwife by having Pinchwife unwittingly confirm the meaning which has displaced his own. Pinchwife informs Horner that he is delivering a love letter from Margery: "Now I think I have deserv'd your infinite friendship, and kindness, and have shewed my self sufficiently an obliging kind friend and husband, am I not so, to bring a Letter from my Wife to her Gallant?" (IV.iii.283-86). Moreover, Pinchwife confirms Margery's independence as a writer: "I'le assure you 'twas volun- tarily writ, I had no hand in't you may believe me" (IV.iii.325-26).

In the second letter-writing scene, Pinchwife assumes the role of editor. He forces Margery to finish her letter and thereby compels her to deny her identity. Threatened again with physical injury, Margery signs Alithea's name rather than her own. Nevertheless, Margery's second letter verifies her success as an author of riddles.z9 Assisted by Lucy, another such "Author" (V.iv.244-45), Margery learns how to effect mystification. In mistaking the significance of the letter he delivers to Horner, Pinchwife fails at interpretation. After he reads Margery's second letter, he fails once more; he believes Margery when she assigns authorship to Alithea. At the conclusion of the play, Margery's unequivocal confession of her love for Horner requires no interpretation, yet Pinchwife chooses to accept the bogus explanation offered by Lucy, who calls the confession "the usual innocent revenge on a Husbands jealousie" (V.iv.403-405). Pinchwife makes a conscious decision to participate in the mystification of his wife's behavior. He does not really believe Alithea when she defends Margery's innocence, but he knows he must in order to maintain his own self-conception; he does not want to think of himself as a cuckold. "For my own sake fain I wou'd all believe," Pinchwife says. "Cuckolds like Lovers shou'd themselves deceive" (V.iv.410-11). Ultimately, it is Margery's writing-or rewriting-which enables her to put him in this position. Although he retains legal authority, she gains psycho- logical power.

The inverse relation posited by Restoration comedy, between mystification and self-determination, is evident in a work of Restoration tragedy, John Dryden's All for Loue (1678). Here, instead of a wife who deceives in order to compensate for her lack of legal identity, Dryden presents Cleopatra, a woman accustomed to political power who cannot long sustain an act of personal deception. Because her love is true, Cleopatra says, she "can neither hide it where it is, / Nor show it where it is not" (IV.89- 91).30 For the ten years of their union, Cleopatra has been Antony's equal; she owes her psychological power over him to the free expression of her emotions, to self-expression without regard for the consequences. In Restoration comedy, the type of female character whose position in society allows for a comparable independence, if not Cleopatra's public authority, is the widow. Berinthia of The Relapse exults in her status as a young widow, calling it "a delicious thing," because of the freedom it permits: "I care not what any body thinks" (II.i.530-31). But the independence of the widow extended beyond the realm of social mores. Feminist historians have pointed out the legal advantages of what Peachum terms the "comfortable Estate of Widow-hood" in The Beggar's Opera (I.x.23-25). Under English common law, the widow could own property, make contracts, and therefore engage in trade; as femme sole, the widow had a legal identity which was not merged with that of a man.3' "Even if she was poor," writes Barbara J. Todd, "she was her own woman and could run her life as she saw

fit." 32

The Widow Blackacre of The Plain-Dealer surpasses Berinthia in understanding the advantages gained from their widowed status. Furthermore, as Todd observes, the Widow Blackacre actively protects her legal independence and property rights; her resistance to remarriage distinguishes Wycherley's character from the theatrical stereotype of the early modern widow who "sought a husband at any cost."33 Wycherley's Widow is the reverse of his Country Wife: the Widow's privileged position frees her from the necessity of misrepresenting herself. Only when she is robbed of the writings which certify her position does she resort to deception.

With the exception of Todd, those who have written on The Plain-Dealer have judged the Widow Blackacre harshly. For many, the character described as a "petulant, litigious widow" in the list of "The Persons" (lines 26-27) is merely the vehicle for Wycherley's attack on the legal profession.34 From this perspective, which links the satire on law with the criticism of Restoration society as a whole, the gender of the Widow is irrelevant, and her motives prove wholly indefensible. Katharine M. Rogers, who suggests that Wycherley modeled the female character on his father, speaks of her "misdirected energy."35 According to Derek Hughes, "the Widow typifies a society in which the forms of social existence are cultivated for the most anarchic motives."36 Robert Markley reaches a similar conclusion regarding the Widow, whose language "reveals that the law inevitably corrupts language to ignoble and mercenary ends."37 What these critics overlook are the reasons for her legal maneuvering that derive from her status as a woman.38 Her "energy" is directed toward self-preservation; her motives are "anarchic," her ends "ignoble," only from the viewpoint of someone like Robert Whitehall, writing in defense of domestic patriarchalism. The Widow is not a figure representative of Restoration society, but a figure at odds with that society, whose patriarchal conventions were designed to deny her autonomy.

In a legal as well as a personal sense, the Widow enjoys self- possession. She combines self-knowledge with practical knowledge: she calls herself "a Relict and Executrix of known plentiful Assits and Parts, who understand my self and the Law" (II.i.922-24). Despite objections, she instructs her male lawyers: "I am no common Woman," she tells one of them, "but a Woman conversant in the Laws of the Land, as well as your self, tho' I have no Bar-gown" (III.i.206-208). Her legal knowledge is s0und,3~ and her pride in such knowledge demonstrates an awareness of its social value. Women without legal expertise, "your lazy, good-for- nothing Flirts, who cannot read Law-French" (I.i.429-30), earn her contempt because they cannot protect their rights.

From the Widow's initial entrance with her writings in hand to her fury over the theft of "my Child and my Writings" (IV.i.293- 94), Wycherley stresses the importance of these documents to her identity. Figuratively, they become her offspring; after the theft, Jerry Blackacre jokes that his mother is "as furious, now she has lost her Writings, as a Bitch when she has lost her Puppies" (III.i.468-70). In ridiculing his mother's attachment to these writings, Jerry joins Freeman and Manly in their condemnation of the Widow-whom Manly calls a "Volume of shrivel'd blur'd Parchments and Law" (III.i.445). Her judges, however, are un- reliable: Freeman covets her estate, and Manly is a misogynist for the most part. Both Freeman and Manly are prejudiced against the feminine self-assertion which the playwright approves in The Country Wife.

Before she first appears, Freeman characterizes the Widow Blackacre as "that Litigious She-Pettyfogger, who is at Law and difference with all the World." But, he adds, "I wish I cou'd make her agree with me in the Church: they say she has Fifteen hundred pounds a Year Jointure, and the care of her Son, that is, the destruction of his Estate" (I.i.393-97). Jerry later complains that his mother denies him the "wherewithal1 to be a Man of my self with" (III.i.344-46). Still, the assistance Freeman gives Jerry is ambiguous. Freeman's statement, "I'll not see any hopeful young Gentleman abus'd," prompts a cynical aside from the bookseller's apprentice: "By any but your self" (III.i.368-70). The Widow displays a more genuine concern for her son's inheritance. Accusing her would-be husband of financial irresponsibility, she says "my Minor's Case, more than my own," leads her to refuse Freeman: "I must do him justice now on you" (II.i.878-79). She has just rejected Major Oldfox, in even harsher terms, for his mercenary interest- while Jerry has urged her on, saying, "Hey, brave Mother! use all Suitors thus, for my sake" (II.i.845). Jerry suggests that Oldfox would "have taken care of my Estate, that half of't shou'd never come to me" (11.1.861-63). Although the Widow withholds spending money from her son, she does so to preserve his inheritance; and Jerry recognizes this fact before Freeman encourages him to rebel.

Jerry warns his mother against men like Freeman and Oldfox, "the unconscionable Woers of Widows, who undertake briskly their Matrimonial business for their money" (III.i.257-59). The Widow correctly interprets Freeman's motive. "I know your love to a Widow, is covetousness of her Jointure," she tells him, then foretells his neglect of her should he take "possession" of her (II.i.928-33). The libertine of Restoration comedy-the "Complyer with the Age," as Freeman is described in "The Persons" (line 8)-usually cheats someone. The libertine does so, however, in the cause of freedom.40 In helping Margery to achieve some degree of personal freedom, Horner cuckolds Pinchwife; but he does not take Pinchwife's freedom away. Freeman, on the other hand, would imprison one person-the Widow-to free another-Jerry Blackacre. After he has her arrested, Freeman gives the Widow a choice between jail and "the Bonds of Matrimony" (V.ii.452-53). For her, marriage amounts to nothing more than "a removal from one Prison to another" (V.ii.454-55). To a woman, she declares, matrimony is "worse than Excommunication, in depriving her of the benefit of the Law: and I wou'd rather be depriv'd of life" (V.ii.459-61). If Freeman is devoted to the freedom of men, the Widow Blackacre is equally committed to the freedom of women.

Manly objects to her because "she has no pleasure, but in vexing others," because she carries self-assertion to an extreme (I.i.405). "Dam these impertinent, vexatious people of Business, of all Sexes; they are still troubling the World with the tedious recitals of their Law-Suits," Manly exclaims (I.i.432-34). The Widow, a self- proclaimed "Woman of Business" (I.i.427), is a match for him verbally; structuring her reply so that it parallels Manly's denunci- ation, she says, "And a pox of all vexatious, impertinent Lovers; they are still perplexing the World with the tedious Narrations of their Love-Suits, and Discourses of their Mistresses" (I.i.437-39). What Manly ignores are the threats against which the Widow Blackacre and other widows must protect themselves by legal means. Before marrying Fainall, her second husband, Arabella of The Way of the World deeded her "whole Estate real" in trust to Mirabell (V.i.550-52); had she not done so, she would now have to depend entirely on Fainall's discretion for her maintenance. In The Plain-Dealer, the Widow Blackacre is pursued by "lovers" whose discretion is no less doubtful. Freeman would marry the Widow to give "my Creditors, not her, due Benevolence" (III.i.447- 48). To her suitors, the Widow Blackacre says, "a Widow is a meer gap," the gap in a hedge "where another has gone over before" (V.ii.414-16); they have no regard for her as a person.

Worse still, her suitors force the widow to adopt illegal methods of preserving her independence. Critics who have judged the Widow harshly have failed to mention that she breaks the law only after Freeman instigates the theft of her writinqs-everything, she says, which concerns "my Estate, my Jointure, my Husband's Deed of Gift, my Evidences for all my Suits now depending!" (III.i.434-36). When she commissions forgeries of the stolen docu- ments, the Widow excuses her action by explaining her situation: "Well, these, and many other shifts, poor Widows are put to sometimes; for every body wou'd be riding a Widow, as they say, and breaking into her Jointure" (V.ii.412-14). Her situation resembles that of Lady Cheatly, the title character in A True Widow (1679) by Thomas Shadwell. Lady Cheatly claims to have started her career as a criminal, an embezzler who issues bonds written with disappearing ink, after "my Husband was cheated of his Estate by my Brother, and other Rascals." For this reason, she tells her steward, "'tis fit I should take Letters of Reprisal" (III.289-90).41 Though her fortune is gone, she convinces her victims that she is "a rare Woman at Business" (11.178). She pretends to be what the Widow Blackacre is, a woman who enjoys financial independence as certified by legal documents, "the Writings, that concern my Estate" (V.350-5 1).

However extreme it may be, the Widow's intention to "be in Law as long as I live" (III.i.242-43) is part of her character, and she has to go against it. She must, in effect, deny her identity. In addition to breaking the law, she sacrifices her reputation by claiming that her son is illegitimate. She observes, "'tis often the poor prest Widows case, to give up her Honour to save her Jointure; and seem to be a light Woman, rather than marry" (IV.i.358-60). Just before her arrest, the Widow experiences her ultimate humiliation, a bitterly ironic peripeteia. The woman whose writings certified her legal independence cannot save herself now from a recital of works written by one of her male pursuers: Oldfox orders her bound and gagged, then threatens to "ravish" her with his "well-pen'd Acrostics" (V.ii.426-27). Only the arrival of another pursuer, Freeman, saves the Widow from verbal "Rape" (V.ii.424).

An irony greater than that of her peripeteia informs the same scene: Wycherley diminishes sympathy for his female character, whose bondage is as literal as Margery Pinchwife's confinement in a locked room. Several aspects of the Widow's characterization bring about this diminution: she deals with unscrupulous lawyers; the merits of her lawsuits are unclear; she can be abrasive and domineering, like the typical barrier figure of Restoration comedy. The complexity of her portrait-a barrier figure committed to personal and legal independence-points to an ambivalence on the part of the dramatist. Whereas he sanctions women's resistance to "their Politick Lords and Rulers" in The Country Wife (IV.iv.38), Wycherley in The Plain-Dealer shares Whitehall's misgivings about women with legal power. The extremism of Pinchwife's rule justifies Margery's resistance, and a general aversion to all forms of extreme behavior partly accounts for Wycherley's ambiguous treatment of the Widow-but only partly. Despite his awareness of the practical realities of marriage and widowhood, Wycherley does not break completely with patriarchal values.

This conventionalism is clear from his judgment of the dramatist Aphra Behn, herself a widow, whose contemporary reputation exemplified the problem Anne Finch laments in "The Introduc- tion" (c. 1689):

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteem'd,
The fault, can by no vertue be redeem'd.42

In a poem addressed to Behn as "the Sappho of the Age," Wycherley gives voice to the widespread resentment occasioned by her successful intrusion in the 1670s, by her growing popularity as a playwright.43 Wycherley identifies her literary output, "a Play," with venereal disease, "a Love-Distemper." When the conventional "Subject" of literary "Wit" becomes its "Cause," she becomes a competitor and a source of ill will: "Barren Wits," Wycherley sneers, "envy your Head's Off-springs.' ' 44

Like her male rivals, Behn employs the woman-as-text motif. But the text in question, in her prologue to The Lucky Chance (1686), is the kind produced by the woman herself: a play. The first two lines compare the boredom elicited by "old Plays" to that caused by "a Mistress many years enjoy'd."45 The following lines extend the analogy, relating it explicitly to the issue of feminine liberty. The male desire for "Variety" (line 3), in mistresses as in plays, has benefited widows; having learned to take advantage of the "freedoms" afforded them by the infidelity of their late husbands (lines 5-14), these "old and tough" women now enjoy a limitless supply of "dull Fools," men they can dominate easily (lines 22-26). According to the prologue, power over foolish men belongs not only to widows, but also to the female playwright. In fact, only the higher standards of dramatic art distinguish the playwright from the widows:

Vain amorous Coxcombs every where are found,
Fops for all uses, but the Stage abound.
Though you shou'd change them oftener than your Fashions,
There still wou'd be enough for your Occasions:
But ours are not so easily supplied,
All that cou'd e'er quit cost, we haue already tried.

(lines 15-20)

In her adaptation of the motif, Behn simultaneously affirms her social power as a widow and her imaginative power as a writer.

Denouncing an earlier comedy by Behn in his verse satire, The Play -House (1685), the future playwright Robert Gould singles out a widowed character, Lady Galliard, for special criticism: in The City-Heiress (16821, "the Lewd Widow comes, with brazen Face, 1 Just reeking from a Stallion's rank Embrace1 T'acquaint the Audience with her Filthy Case."46 Sexual promiscuity, Gould implies, is not Lady Galliard's only sin. She also transgresses by making herself a public figure-by doing what her creator had done.47 It has long been a critical truism that the male playwrights of the Restoration formed the vanguard of enlightened thought on the issue of women's social status, using the stage to valorize the feminist desire for self-assertion.48 Their sympathy for independent women had a limit, however, and this limit coincided with the traditional boundary between domestic and public activity. The tyrannized wife who seeks personal independence gains general approval in Restoration comedy. The widow who enters the public realm, by bringing legal actions or by writing and publishing plays, becomes an object of ridicule. The widow, more than the wife, threatens to usurp the power that men, in the words of the 1696 Defence, "are so fond of."


'All quotations from The Country Wife are from The Plays of William Wycherley, ed. Arthur Friedman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 245-354.

2Two recent essays have examined the issues of signification and interpreta- tion raised by Wycherley's play. See Deborah C. Payne, "Reading the Signs in The Country Wife," SEL 26, 3 (Summer 1986): 403-19; and Michael Neill, "Horned Beasts and China Oranges: Reading the Signs in The Country Wife," ECLife n.s. 12 (May 1988): 3-17. In discussing the topos of textuality

(p. 405), Payne makes no specific reference to gender. Neill discusses the idea of the female body as a blank slate "awaiting masculine inscription" (p. lo), but he relates this idea to the matter of sexual fulfillment (p. 1 I), rather than the legal and social question of feminine identity.

SAll quotations from The Riuals are from British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan, ed. George H. Nettleton, Arthur E. Case, and George Winchester Stone, Jr., 2nd edn. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 791 -830.

4Mary More, "The Womans Right," in Margaret J.M. Ezell, The Patriarch's Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family (Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 193.

5Robert Whitehall, "The Womans Right Proved False," in The Patriarch's

Wife,p. 208. 6Ezell, pp. 128-29, 160. 'Susan Staves, Players' Scepters: Fictions of Authority in the Restoration

(Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1979), pp. 11 1-18. See also the introduction to The First English Feminist: Reflections Upon Marriage and Other Writings by Mary Astell, ed. Bridget Hill (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), pp. 41-43.

8James Drake, "To the Most Ingenious Mrs.--- or [sic] her Admirable Defence of Her Sex," in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (London: Source Book Press, 1970), p. 21.

9An Essay in Defence, pp. 39, 40. loMary Astell, Reflections upon Marriage, 3rd edn., The First English Feminist, pp. 76, 132. Staves (p. 113) quotes the passage from the preface.

I1''To the Excellent Orinda," quoted in Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), p. 157.

12Quoted in Patricia Crawford, "Women's Published Writings 1600-1700," in Women in English Society 1500-1800,ed. Mary Prior (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 228.

IsBarbara J. Todd, "The Remarrying Widow: A Stereotype Reconsidered," in Women in English Society, p. 55; and Ezell, p. 2. See also Staves, p. 112. 14All quotations from The Beggar's Opera are from John Gay, Dramatic Works,ed. John Fuller, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 2: 1-65.

ISEzell, pp. 4, 100, 162.

I6All quotations from The Relapse or Virtue in Danger are from The

Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh, ed. Bonamy Dobrke and Geoffrey

Webb, 4 vols. (Bloomsbury: Nonesuch, 1927), 1: 9-101. 'TEzell, pp. 127, 161, 163. '*All quotations from The Way of the World are from The Complete Plays

of William Congreve, ed. Herbert Davis (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 389-478.

19All quotations from The Careless Husband are from Colley Cibber: Three Sentimental Comedies, ed. Maureen Sullivan (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 85-173.

20Mary Prior, "Women and the Urban Economy: Oxford 1500-1800," in Women in English Society, pp. 102-103. See also Goreau, pp. 82-83. Z1For a different interpretation of their agreement, see Robert Markley,

Two-Edg'd Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege,

Wycherley, and Congreue (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 244-47.

ZZWhitehall, p. 225.

23All quotations from The Plain-Dealer are from The Plays of William Wycherley,pp. 365-509.

Z4All quotations from The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter are from The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, ed. H.F.B. Brett-Smith, 2 vols. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1927 ), 2: 181-288.

z5All quotations from The Beaux' Stratagem are from British Dramatists, pp. 35 1-86. 26David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in

Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), p. 145.

27Crawford, pp. 223-24.

28Focusing on Horner's role in The Country Wife, Helen M. Burke also concludes that Wycherley endorses Margery's subversiveness. See "Wycherley's 'Tendentious Joke': The Discourse of Alterity in The Country Wife," ECent 29, 3 (Fall 1988): 227-41.

29Payne discusses Margery less as a writer than as a reader of "cultural codes" (p. 407).

SOQuotations from All for Love; or, the World well Lost are from John Dryden: Four Tragedies, ed. L.A. Beaurline and Fredson Bowers (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 190-280.

SiPrior, pp. 102-103.

32Todd, p. 55.

SSTodd, pp. 54-55.

34See Rose A. Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama: A Link in the Development of

English Satire (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1965), p. 135; Katharine M. Rogers, William Wycherley (New York: Twayne, 1972), pp. 90-91, 97; and B. Eugene McCarthy, William Wycherley: A Biography (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1979), p. 84.

s5Rogers,William Wycherley, p. 91.

36Derek Hughes, "The Plain-Dealer: A Reappraisal," MLQ 43,4 (December 1982): 335-36. S7Markley, pp. 190-91. S8Hughes notes that "one of the Widow's ruling ambitions is to remain out

of 'Covert Baron1-the 'dominion' of a husband (V.ii.457-58, 464)," but he does not develop the point (p. 325).

59The editors of British Dramatists (p. 210) corroborate the Widow's boasts.

'OFor an extended discussion of the values espoused by the libertine, see Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press; London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 10-40.

"All quotations from A True Widow are from The Complete Works of Thomas Shadwell, ed. Montague Summers, 5 vols. (London: Fortune Press, 1927), 3: 283-363.

42Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, "The Introduction," in The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea, ed. Myra Reynolds (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1903), pp. 4-5.

43For details of Behn's reception by her male contemporaries, see Goreau, pp. 135-42, 209-10, 230-34.

44Wycherley,"To the Sappho of the Age, Suppos'd to Ly-In of a Love-Distemper, or a Play," in The Complete Works of William Wycherley, ed. Montague Summers, 4 vols. (Soho: Nonesuch, 1924), 3: 155.

45All quotations from The Lucky Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain are from The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Montague Summers, 6 vols. (1915; rpt. New York: Blom, 1967), 3: 183-279.

46Robert Gould, The Play-House, A Satyr, in Montague Summers, The Restoration Theater (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1934), p. 305.

47According to Goreau, "everyone knew that the 'lewd widow' was also Aphra, Mrs. Behn" (p. 251).

48See C.V. Wedgwood, Seventeenth-Century English Literature (London and New York: Cumberlege-Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), p. 153; Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1966), p. 160; Virginia Ogden Birdsall, Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage (Bloomington and London: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 95-104; Margaret Lamb McDonald, The Independent Woman in the Restoration Comedy of Manners (Salzburg: Univ. Salzburg, 1976); and Sarup Singh, Family Relationships in Shakespeare and the Restoration Comedy of Manners (New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 146, 156-62.

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