The Fergusonia File

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Wife to Be Lett

Eliza Haywood’s 1724 comedy, A Wife to be Lett [sic], follows three interrelated romance plots: both Marilla and Celemena are young women betrothed to undesirable men, and Susanna Graspall, though married to an old miser (Mr. Graspall), is wooed by Sir Harry Beaumont, a charming gentleman. The unusual twist in the plot (indeed, the author mentions just how original in her epilogue) is that Mr. Graspall pimps his wife for a large sum of money, letting Beaumont have free run of his home (and wife, presumably). This recalls the film Indecent Proposal, yet in Haywood’s play the husband is all too willing to barter his wife’s honour and the wife never becomes physically tainted.

One scene particularly interested me: in I.i., Beaumont’s past lover, Amadea, (who is disguised as a man) accosts Mrs. Graspall about her visits with and general encouragement of Beaumont’s wooing. Amadea, we learn later, has good reason to be prying into the Beaumont-Graspall affair—she wants her man back—so she harangues Mrs. Graspall heatedly. Amadea draws the line, however, at squealing to the larger community. She is not so malicious as to defame her rival for Beaumont, a fact that contributes to the overall mood of female sisterhood in the play.

What is interesting, from a gender-politics point of view, is that Amadea claims that she is the mouthpiece of Susanna’s conscience: “think, ‘tis your good Genius warns through my lips.” The fact that Susanna accepts this reprimand from what she thinks are male lips is significant. As we’ve discussed in class, one of the ways that patriarchy has/does keep control is by defining the terms of morality. Such texts as conduct books are a good example of how men have imposed the “patriarchal conscience” upon female subjects (Freud, I think had a theory about this—“the father’s NO”?).

The fact that Amadea is in drag makes the situation more complicated. Would Susanna have heeded the warnings if the censurer appeared in her “true” gender? Does the fact that no male is actually present suggest that there is room for exclusive female community even within patriarchy?

This is a hard crux to crack, and it’s only one of many interesting questions raised by this play. I’m also anxious to discuss the way that the play questions the limits of patriarchal authority in marriage. Are the limits of a husband’s power (i.e. commanding a wife to immoral/illegal behaviour) completely at his discretion? The tyranny of husbands is clearly devalued in the play, but where are we left at the end?


Blogger Brenna said...

I'm troubled by the way patriarchy reigns at the end, too -- particularly with regard to the poor widow, who seems to be completely hung out to dry by the men (though this may be the youth/age paradigm once again?).

Interesting to your commentary about there being no possibility for true "sisterhood" where patriarchal overtones reign -- what of the women allowing Beaumont to help them in their plotting? I originally thought of him as a bit of an honourary sister, but your reading troubles that idea for me. Thanks for that. ;-)

Good luck at your reading tomorrow! Or should I say, break a leg!

6:32 PM  
Blogger Susie said...

I'm really glad you brought up conduct books, because I will be talking about conduct books on Monday!

5:54 AM  
Blogger Miriam Jones said...

This play is a tough nut; it does indeed question the absolute authority of the husband within marriage, and yet it seems to push women into the normative patterns of female behaviour.

3:42 AM  

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