The Fergusonia File

Friday, September 22, 2006

Margaret Cavendish (1624?-1674)

Cavendish was a pioneering female dramatist and the author of Bell in Campo (published 1662) and The Sociable Companions (published 1668). A dynamic, prolific and eccentric writer, Cavendish achieved great popular success for her work, but often met with severe censures from other intellectuals and writers. Neither of the plays mentioned were staged in her lifetime--indeed, she claims to have had no desire to have them performed--and there are some good reasons why a staging might present problems for the company that should attempt them (the unison talking of the heroickesses in Bell in Campo, for instance).

Bell in Campo dramatizes the fanciful tale of a group of war wives who cast off their traditional submissive marital roles to form a formidable army that ends up rescuing the husbands from the Kingdom of Faction's forces.

I enjoyed the energy and fast pace of this play, and I was surprised at the progressiveness of its gender politics. I didn't expect Lady Victoria and her Heroickesses to so bluntly appraise and cast off their traditional roles as wives and mistresses. Like the mythic Amazons, they succeed at beating male soldiers at war, and yet they often pull back from interfering with the masculine army's dealings (though they do steal 6,000 pieces of weaponry, which would not help the male army, to say the least).

What was doubly unexpected and appreciated by me was that the status quo was not re-established toward the play's close. The women end up with the domestic power after the war is won; they realize the Wife of Bath's wish for sovereignty in the home.

One key question raised by Bell in Campo is whether Cavendish was really vindicating female nature as it was and is typically presented, or whether she was modifying it and celebrating the refined product? On several occasions, Lady Victoria steels her troops to leave aside their effeminacy (Act III.ii), as though she were asking them to cast off the baggage that female education leaves them. If this is the case, then in what does "real" or "essential" femininity reside? If the women become men, then is the feminist project of this text bettered or hindered?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Female Wits

The Female Wits: Or, the Triumvirate of Poets at Rehearsal (1704) is a satirical play that lampooned three notable women playwrights: Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter, and (most scathingly) Delariviere Manley.

The fact that I read this play in a roughly-edited pdf. version, devoid of footnotes, likely didn't improve my experience of it. The Prologue especially could use some scholarly explication, as it's replete with now-obscure references (at least they seemed so to me). The play itself is challenging not because of archaic diction or obscure allusions to mythology or other literary works, but because the convoluted plot of Marsilia's play is exactly the point. The presumably male author(s) of this play succeeds in confusing his audience by means of Marsilia's ridiculous plot and hyperbolic language, which, he hopes, will be construed as quintessentially female.

Where the play falls short of its satirical mark is in failing to sufficiently link Marsilia's ineptitude to her gender. Clearly, some of her faults are what might have then be termed feminine (her vanity, for instance), but great pride and self-justification are (as far as I know) genderless.

Moreover, the jokes employed in the play become grating as they are used again and again. Marsilia's rudeness to Patience and her other acquaintances becomes less and less funny as the play drags on. Likewise, Mr. Praiseall's incessant interruptions are more often silly than witty. We expect him to say clever things without knowing it, but he rarely does so. All in all, I'm inclined to agree with Robert Adams Day when he writes that The Female Wits is worth reading for its stance toward late seventeenth-century women writers, rather than for its literary merit.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Welcome to The Fergusonia File

Greetings, fellow literati,

and welcome to The Fergusonia File, the only digital ephemeron you need to satisfy your insatiable thirst for half-digested literary observations. Over the coming term, I, J. Ferguson, English grad. student, will be posting my thoughts on whatever I happen to be reading, notably 18th-century women's drama, early modern English lit., and Canadian campus fiction. I may also post my thoughts on any literary happenings in the Fredericton area that I have time to attend.

Stay tuned . . .