Righting the Wrongs of Women

Published by arron89 in the blog See Arron Read. Views: 298

Just for general interest, critique/argue if you like...it's quite long, ~1800 words.

Righting the Wrongs of Woman: Feminist attitudes in Eighteenth century literature

For all the advances in understanding offered by the Enlightenment, the Eighteenth century remained, for women, strictly patriarchal and phallocentric. A position of submission was less encouraged than enforced: even the word of the law seems to encourage the superiority of men and their dominion over women, with a judge in 1782 ruling that it was "perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb" (Jarret 125). Despite this prevalence of misogyny in English society, a small though vocal group of women authors did contend with their masculine counterparts, producing works of political discourse, poetry, satire and novels that expressed the fury and frustration of the subjugated female. In this context, this essay will closely analyse and compare Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, the novelistic successor to Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with a collection of poems by and about women written during the Eighteenth century.

The satire on women is a literary tradition dating back millennia, characterised by the misogynistic and often patronising attitudes of their male progenitors. Such works call attention to what are perceived to be the faults of women, often enumerating and exaggerating them ad absurdum. Swift's well known excremental poem The Lady's Dressing Room (1732), for instance, takes as its object the romantic illusion of woman's innate beauty and cleanliness, conjuring a grotesque version of Celia's private chamber with now-infamous vulgarity:

Thus finishing his grand survey,
The swain disgusted slunk away,
Repeating in his amorous fits,
"Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia ****s!" (115-118)

As with more contemporary Feminist thought, the body, and in particular the 'sexed' body is located as a site of difference (Butler, 2490-91), and the anxiety suffered by Strephon, Swift's protagonist, seems to call specific attention to this site of gender/gendered conflict.

Swift's satire did not go unanswered, however, and the response by Lady Mary Montagu is in many ways typical of the attitude taken by women writers to satire of this kind. The Reasons That Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady's Dressing Room, as the response in question is so cumbersomely titled, mimics the form of Swift's poem, replicating its rhyme scheme and metre, and uses this as a basis to upset what may be seen as an overtly male form, given the utter dearth of female satirists and the absence of female/Feminist subject matter.

Further, where Swift produces Celia as an absent object, focussing his satire on her reconstruction through Strephon's account, Montagu's Betty possesses agency enough to subvert "the staticity of the masculinised gaze . . . [and represent] woman as bearer of the look" (Weise 720). The assignment of agency to female characters in this context remains one of the cornerstones of Feminist writing, and is an important aspect of the writing of other women poets as well as female novelists including Mary Wollstonecraft.

Unlike Swift, Montagu targets the moral and psychological deficiencies of men, rather than their physical shortcomings, coyly concealing the physical climax, as it were, of the poem:

But now this is the proper place
Where morals stare me in the face
And for the sake of fine expression
I'm forced to make a small digression. (31-34)

This character appears common to a great deal of women's writing of the time--a preoccupation with manners seems at times to stifle expression, whilst simultaneously calling attention to the necessity of such acts of censorship by women. In this poem, the effect is pronounced, and when read alongside Swift's poem, Montagu's seems all the more refined and elegant as a result.

The double-edged sword of feminine manners is also of interest to Mary Leapor, who finds that any trait possessed by a woman can be turned against her (Abrams 2603). Despite her youth, Leapor is sensitive to the traps constructed by a patriarchal society into which women inevitably fall. Again appropriating the familiar Heroic couplet with its Masculine rhyme, Leapor's poem An Essay on Woman expounds on men's duplicitous treatment of women. By contrasting the ostensibly virtuous and fair qualities of women with the resultant mistreatments by society, Leapor deconstructs the romantic myths of woman, albeit while stressing a womanly softness or, perhaps, weakness:

Woman--a pleasing but a short-lived flower,
Too soft for business and too weak for power (1-2).

The emphasis on softness pervades the text more deeply still; throughout, there is a sense of restraint, even confinement, conferred by the rigidity of the structure, a structure inherited from male writers. In this way, the poem itself comes to represent the repression and circumscription of female identity according to the privileged patriarchy. The mode of expression allowed to women is itself a masculine product, meaning that female poets are forced into a contested intermediate position where they are allowed to participate in writing and discourse only by adopting the voice of a man (Mermin 341). Of course, this was not necessarily an act of reluctant submission: Leopar, for instance, willingly modelled herself on Alexander Pope, whose themes as well as structures she borrowed in her Essay (Abrams 2603).

The problem of operating in male-dominated forms informs Mary Wollstonecraft's more political works. Political discourse arguably represents the most masculine form of writing in the Eighteenth century, connotating as it does that most ostensibly male trait, reason. Nonetheless, Wollstonecraft's Vindications form the backbone of Western Feminism, and show that such gendered distinctions are readily thrown off by the greatest writers. This claim holds true, too, of her forays into the novel. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, published posthumously in 1798, harshly criticises the patriarchal systems of marriage and manners, which she considers akin to slavery.

As a heroic protagonist, Maria occupies an unusual position. In the early chapters of the novel, she is presented quite consistently as well educated, reasonable, though overtaken by grief to the extent that she has lost her reasoning faculties. She realises that by being (and appearing) sympathetic to her keeper that she may gain preferential treatment, and uses this relationship to acquire literature and political writings in French and English. In this way, Wollstonecraft establishes her heroine as a woman who possesses the finest virtues of both the sexes: the compassion, empathy and emotional sensibility of a woman along with the reasoning and education of a man. Upon her meeting of Darnford, Maria’s character is made clear through a comparison of the two:

Maria impatiently wished to see her fellow-sufferer; but Darnford was still more earnest to obtain an interview. Accustomed to submit to every impulse of passion, and never taught, like women, to restrain the most natural, and acquire, instead of the bewitching frankness of nature, a factitious propriety of behaviour, every desire became a torrent that bore down all opposition. (25)

Wollstonecraft’s subtle critique of societal norms that restrict women is made all the more potent by the fact that it is used to expose the inferiorities of a man; the fact of Maria’s life of submission becomes a celebrated trait.

However, as the relationship with Darnford continues to develop, the nature of Maria seems to change quite considerably. Prior to this point, Maria seems to yield to her passions when her thoughts turn to her past, and to events that had transpired to bring her to the asylum, however such moments are tempered by her displays of restraint and good manners. Thus, her sudden infatuation with Darnford comes as somewhat of a surprise. Even before she has met him, his books take on a sacred importance to her, foreshadowing what is to come (Todd 18). The author herself suggests the progression that will unfold: “Fancy, treacherous fancy, began to sketch a character, congenial with her own” (Wollstonecraft 18). Maria obsesses over her new love interest, watching for him from her window, perusing his handwritten marginalia and notes, desperately begging her minder to arrange meetings. Here, Wollstonecraft’s heroine reverts to what may have passed as a stereotypical love-struck woman, driven to distraction by an apparently insurmountable passion. As Patricia Howell Michaelson notes, there is no overt indication in the text that Maria should be understood as an ironic character, which makes this sudden vicissitude all the more problematic (250).
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