Finally, my last essay for the semester. This is on the status of women in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Wycherley’s The Country Wife and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina.
Women in Restoration Literature
The development of women-kind in English literature progresses from the Renaissance period into the Restoration era and there are changes in the way women are portrayed by the earlier parts of the 18th century. The evolution of the human quality within women develops the female in literature as a competent, yet contrived, sexually aggressive yet societally repressed contradiction of most times epic and outrageous proportions, the likes of which still compare to Aristotle’s “Historia Animalium” and “Phyllis et Arisotole” despite the progress women kind makes.
First off, the character of Eve within John Milton’s Paradise Lost and how responsibility for the fall of mankind is placed on her shoulders shall be addressed. After that, the competing women (or sex-crazed nymphs) of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife will be analyzed. Lastly, Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, and the heroine’s need to switch identities to be with the man of her desire, will be brought into discussion in an effort to round out the subject.
Paradise Lost details the history recorded within the Bible and particularly focuses in on the fall of man and how Adam and Eve contributed to that. When comparing the text of the Bible and Paradise Lost one of the things that jumps out is the amount of text devoted to the character of Eve and how she thinks, feels and acts in the moments leading to the perceived downfall of Man. Milton gives much more time to Eve in his adaptation of the messages within the Bible, which is a comment in and of itself before he even delves into any context. Women are taking a bigger role in the society Milton is living in and the character of Eve really contributes to that thought.
But even though Milton gives Eve a much bigger part within the context of the epic, there are still parts of the work that adhere to Aristotle’s Ideology. Take this passage from Eve:
To whom sad eve with shame nigh overwhelmed,
Confessing soon, yet not before her judge
Bold or loquacious, thus abashed replied:
“The Serpent me beguiled and I did eat.” (Milton Book 10 159-163).
The last line of this section is the one line Eve had in the Bible and is often the most direct association with women being the perpetrators for the fall of man. The ability of Eve to be deceived is directly relatable to Aristotle’s “Historia Animalium” which describes the female’s ability to be the less reliable of the sexes.
There are contextual differences from the two Aristotle pieces that make Eve a stronger, albeit intertwining female character than societal perceptions would typically expect. Their equality, even in the most difficult of situations, is highlighted in the following passage:
She ended weeping; and her lowly plight,
Immoveable, till peace obtained from fault
Acknowledged and deplored, in Adam wrought
Commiseration: Soon his heart relented
Towards her, his life so late, and sole delight,
Now at his feet submissive in distress;
Creature so fair his reconcilement seeking,
His counsel, whom she had displeased, his aid:
As one disarmed, his anger all he lost,
And thus with peaceful words upraised her soon. (Milton, Book 10 937-947)
The first thing that jumps out in this passage is the commiseration of Adam in the plight of Eve. There is equality to the two of them in the situation that suggests more of an equality in culture than the society of the time – and Milton’s area – typically had. But even with that equality Milton has Eve ending this section submissive at Adam’s feet. The message he seems to be continually getting at this intellectual equality yet natural inclination of the sexes that really complexes the entire theory of progress in gender relations.
That complexity is also present in Wycherley’s The Country Wife although it is between an assortment of characters, mainly Margery and Alithea. Margery represents more of an Aristotle mindset a female character who is actively trying to be with another man, a sexually charged woman from the country. The opposite is Alithea, a woman from within the city limits who wants to be an equal in a relationship, and, contrary to Margery, seems quite educated.
In having these two women at the forefront of the story, Wycherley is highlighting a disconnect between the perceived notions of women. There is the classic, Aristotle-type, theory of women are the creature who will continue to lie and deceive to get what they want so you should lock them up in their rooms so they will remain subservient and faithful as seen in the following passage involving Lady Fidget:
Lady Fidget: “Ha Ha Ha! Faith, I can’t but laugh,
However. Why d’ye think, she unmannerly toad would
Not come down to me to the coach. I was fain to come
Up to fetch him or go without him, which I was resolved
Not to do, for he knows china very well and has himself
Very good, but will not let me see it, lest I should beg
Some. But I will find it out and have what I came for yet. (Wycherley, 4.3, 112-119)
This passage is just after Sir Fidget found the lady and Horner in the throes of passion and the Lady is conning the Sir in an effort to take Horner into the other room and have their ways with each other. The passage plays to the line of thought Pinchewife displayed throughout the entirety of the novel, keep your women hidden from society so they don’t screw society and end up pulling something like this.
Then there is the illustration of what can happen to a woman who has open access to culture and life – she eventually becomes an equal to man. Her equality really is highlighted in her first encounter with Harcourt:
Harcourt: “No, if you do marry him, with your
pardon, madam, your reputation suffers in this world,
and you would be thought in necessity for a cloak.”
Alithea: “Nay, now you are rude, sir. – Mr. Sparkish,
Pray come hither; your friend here is very troublesome
And very loving.” (Wycherley, 2.1 269-274).
The real context within The Country Wife is not the sexually sociopathic Horner’s story, it is about the disconnect between Margerys (and women of the like) and Alitheas of society. Even more so it highlights the growing trend of women in society. They are leaving their houses and becoming more relevant in the world outside of the home. The Country Wife shows a want to leave the Aristotle-type qualities, but an inability to fully get there with each member of the story.
Haywood’s Fantomina is the last of the Restoration Era stories where the changing qualities of women are being examined. The titular character in the story is a study in how women are becoming independent yet still vastly weighed upon by the rationale of a prior era.
The first thing to point out in Fantomina is this is the first story we have written by a woman. This story, and the gender politics connected to it, does not have the bias it could be seen to have had a man published the story.
Because the writer is a female it really effects how the actions of Fantomina (and her various incarnations) should be viewed. Had it been written by a male, the Aristotle assumptions would have more resonance. Instead of a sex crazed nymph, Haywood tells the story of a woman who knows what she wants and reinvents herself time after time to have men recognize that in her. Her banishment into a nunnery really isn’t a sentence into religious devotion because of her infatuation, it is a condition pressed upon her by a society unwilling to relent on their own views – kind of like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath within The Canterbury Tales, an educated woman with resources who can take care of herself until society shuns her out of their existence. This feeling can be found in the following passage from Fantomina:
“Pardon, Sir,” said she, “the trouble I have given you. I must confess it was with a design to oblige you to repair the supposed injury you had done this unfortunate girl by marrying her, but now I know not what to say. The blame is wholly hers, And I have nothing to request further of you than that you will not divulge the distracted folly she has been guilty of.” (Haywood, 1446).
While in the first essay the human quality of women was introduced in the renaissance period, the restoration era loses the quasi-religious reverence for women and the characters of the three pieces display how those women fit into society:
When looking at the three as a whole they form an interesting timeline. In Milton, the fall of man has occurred and god has lost his reverence for humans. In Wycherley there is a progression of thought where men are not locking up their women because of a mother-Mary complex but a need to procure their social requirements for a domicile. And then, as Haywood was discussed, the titular character sees her downfall at the hands of an elder generation of society. If you follow that timeline you can see the almost inverse effect it has on the Aristotle pieces. Women, while they maintain some of the specific qualities in the Aristotle pieces, are only in those situations because of the constructs placed upon them within society.