Fire and Seduction in Eliza Haywood’s “The City Jilt”

February 28, 2010 at 11:48 pm (Uncategorized)

Prior to the death of Glicera’s father and the revelation of his poverty in Eliza Haywood’s “The City Jilt,” Melladore respects the physical boundaries of his betrothed Glicera and upholds her virgin honor before marriage. However, Melladore’s virtuous restraint melts away at the precise moment Glicera shares the news of her father’s destitute estate. The setting of this conversation incorporates imagery to foreshadow the impending danger to Glicera’s virtue; “They were sitting in an Arbour at the end of the Garden, so shadow’d o’er with Trees, that scarce could the Sun’s Beams at the height of Noon penetrate the Gloom, much less those of the pale Moon, who then shone but with faint and sickly Fires…” (Haywood 67). To begin, the conversation takes place in “the garden.” The definitive article “the,” as opposed to “a” as an indefinite article, indicates a specific location that is either already established in the narrative or presumed within the context. At this moment in the plot, Glicera is in mourning over her father’s death, and eighteenth-century decorum necessitates that she to “keep to [her] house” for some time after his death (Wilputte 70). It stands to reason that the narrator indicates “the garden” at Glicera’s property, or rather, Glicera’s garden. Further, the term garden is often “[a]pplied to a region of remarkable fertility” (“Garden”). The narrator employs the common trope of the garden as female fertility or sexuality—in this instance, Glicera’s sexuality. By revealing her father’s destitute estate to Melladore in “the garden,” Glicera’s virginity becomes the figurative setting in which she reveals her poverty to Melladore.

In this figurative setting, the garden (e.g. Glicera’s virginity) is not a bright, openly visible space. Instead, the lovers converse in the “Arbour [which is] shadow’d o’er with Trees.” Visibility is reduced as even sunlight cannot break through “the Gloom,” which is a term that indicates a “dark and threatening” atmosphere (“Gloom”). The language here suggests that in the context of Glicera’s virginity something threatening is looming, and Glicera is unable to see it coming. Indeed, the narrator explicates that the “[Moon’s] faint and sickly fires” were so dim that Glicera “perceived not… [Melladore’s] alter’d Countenance…” when she related her impoverished state to him (Haywood 69). In this moment, the narrator delineates how, without Glicera’s awareness, a new desire is kindled in Melladore, one to surreptitiously plunder her garden.

Amidst the gloom in Glicera’s garden, Melladore’s lascivious plot is accompanied by the only thing able to penetrate the thick arbor— the “[Moon’s] faint and sickly fires” (69, emphasis added). Fire as a trope for wanton sexual conquest continues in the narration of their eventual sexual encounter. The narrator describes Glicera as being “melted by his Pressures” (70, emphasis added). It appears that Melladore turns up the heat, as it were, with “Vows, Sighs, Tears, and Implorations” until she finally succumbs to his endeavors and “[falls] Victim [to his] lawless Flame” (69-70, emphasis added). But how does this fire trope characterize Melladore’s seduction? Recall that the narrator illustrates the first instance of fire in the seduction narrative as “faint and sickly.” According to the OED, faint can indicate something “feigned, pretended, [and] simulated” or “wanting in courage, spiritless [and] cowardly” (“Faint” Def. 1. and 3.). Moreover, the word sickly signifies something that is “not robust or strong” (“Sickly”). The narrator seems to undermine Melladore’s character by depicting his seduction as fake, spineless, and weak. In this light, then, Melladore garners no glory by bedding the maiden, and the narrator, instead, attributes Glicera’s sexual downfall upon her own naivety (Haywood 69, 70, 71). Such a subtle undermining of Melladore’s seduction style serves the thematic dynamics of the story; that is, even as Melladore causes Glicera’s sexual downfall, he begins his narrative trajectory just as pathetic as he eventually becomes in the end.

Works Cited

“Faint, a.” Def. 1. and 3. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010.

“Garden, n.” Def. 1.c. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010

< http://dictionary.oed.com.dax.lib.unf.edu/&gt;.

“Gloom, v.” Def. 2.a. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010

< http://dictionary.oed.com.dax.lib.unf.edu/&gt;.

Haywood, Eliza. “The City Jilt.” Early English Women Writers 1660-1800: Three Novellas. No. 5. Ed. Earla A.

Wilputte. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 1995. 65-103.

“Sickly, a.” Def. 1.a. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010

< http://dictionary.oed.com.dax.lib.unf.edu/&gt;.

Wilputte, Earla A. Notes. Early English Women Writers 1660-1800: Three Novellas. No. 5. Ed. Wilputte. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 1995. 65-103.

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Gender Ambiguity in Aphra Behn’s “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman”

February 10, 2010 at 10:19 pm (Uncategorized)

The narrator in Aphra Behn’s “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman” begins the poem with a consideration of which “title” is most appropriate for addressing Clarinda (line 1). She deliberates, “Fair lovely maid, or if that title be / Too weak, too feminine for nobler thee, / Permit a name that more approaches truth: / And let me call thee, lovely charming youth” (1-6, emphasis added). In this excerpt, the narrator employs language that is subtly gendered, fostering a sense of ambiguity regarding Clarinda’s anatomy that subsequently opens the poem to differing empirical interpretations. To begin, the narrator opens with “[f]air lovely maid” but immediately challenges the language as insufficient to describe someone as “noble” as Clarinda. If the initial address, specifically “maid,” differs from Clarinda’s subjectivity because she is “nobler” than “maid,” what does the narrator mean by the word noble? Although this adjective commonly denotes its primary definition of “distinguished,” the narrator specifies that Clarinda’s nobleness varies from the idea of “maid” because a maid is “too feminine” in comparison; additionally, this primary definition of noble is gender neutral (“Noble” I). Therefore, the narrator must be engaging a less obvious interpretation of the word.

As early as 1398 AD, noble as an adjective also described something that was “of a part of the body; important; spec. essential to life” (“Noble” II.7.c). If one applies this “bodily” definition, then Clarinda cannot be called a maid because some crucial, life-sustaining “part of [her] body” is not as female as that corresponding part in a maid. Does this mean that Clarinda’s feminine exterior conceals some hidden masculine anatomy?

Before drawing any conclusions regarding Clarinda’s anatomy, one might look more closely at all factors in the equation. If “maid” is “too feminine” in relation to “noble,” where noble indicates something that is bodily and life-sustaining, is there enough evidence to conclude that the “something” is necessarily a body part and not, instead, a bodily act? Looking more narrowly at the word maid, contemporary society commonly attributes this title to a “young (unmarried) woman” (“Maid” I.2.a). While this definition was certainly valid at the time the poem was composed, another definition also existed. A more primary definition of maid in the OED indicates that the noun also refers to “[a] man without experience of sexual intercourse,” and this male definition was employed as early as 1300 AD (“Maid” I.1.b). This alternate reading of the term maid consequently proposes an alternate interpretation of the essential bodily element that makes Clarinda “too feminine” in relation to the “maid” (now, male virgin).

Perhaps, rather than possessing a male body part, Clarinda actually partakes in the conceptually masculine act of sexual promiscuity. Such an interpretation would corroborate with the other differentiator between “maid” and “noble”—that is—the narrator’s observation that “maid” is also “too weak” in comparison to Clarinda. This sort of subtle implication would position Clarinda, the woman, as stronger than a male virgin because of her sexuality. In so doing, the narrator might undermine the concept that sexual agency lies exclusively within (without and through) the phallus. The “nobler,” bodily, and life-sustaining part of Clarinda could alternatively be read as her possession of not a phallus but a libido.

Works Cited
“Maid.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 3 Nov. 2008
.

“Nobel.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 3 Nov. 2008
< http://dictionary.oed.com.dax.lib.unf.edu/&gt;.

“To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman.” Aphra Behn: Oroonoko and Other Writings. Ed. Paul Salzman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. 262.

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Female Sexual Agency in William Wycherley’s THE COUNTRY WIFE

January 20, 2010 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

Consensus among the male characters in William Wycherley’s THE COUNTRY WIFE presumes the certainty of infidelity among smart women, or women of “wit.” Indeed, the paranoid cuckold Mr. Pinchwife even marries a country wife because he believes her ignorance disinclines her from straying. Pinchwife asserts that “[g]ood wives and private soldiers should be ignorant . . . What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?” (1.1.427-428, 459-260). Pinchwife parallels the noun modifier “good” with its structural corollary “private,” thereby evoking the standard to which society holds female sexual agency. If a wife is “good” in the same way that a soldier is “owned by an individual…”, then feminine value is measured by the exclusivity of a woman’s sexual utility to a man, in this case Pinchwife (“Private”). Furthermore, he asserts that “ignorance” is the key to preserving her utility and that the “cuckolding” of a man proceeds directly from “wit” itself. In this exchange, the same value of exclusive sexual utility is preserved. If she is ignorant, she brings value to her husband through fidelity, but if she has wit, she devalues her husband by making him a cuckold, or philandering.

The either/or flow of intelligence to sexual agency in COUNTRY functions a textual binary that contrasts ignorance and fidelity with wit and infidelity. Although the jealous husband certain has his suspicions, it appears this binary pervades the gallant’s perspective, as well. Mr. Horner, the scheming libertine of the text, actually prefers wit in his women; “methinks wit is more necessary than beauty, and I think no young woman ugly that has it, and no handsome woman agreeable without it” (Wycherley 1.1.455-457). In the value exchange of a woman’s sexual utility, she brings value to Mr. Horner, the would-be lover, by her sexual exclusivity to him (if only for a time). Independent of moral “goodness,” women in the text are only “as good as” the sexual usefulness they provide to the man in question, and whether husbands or lovers, the men in COUNTRY seem to presuppose the manifestation of female sexual agency along the ignorance/fidelity and wit/infidelity binary.

Contrarily, while the male characters of the text affirm the intelligence/sexual agency binary, the actions of the female characters reveal a more subjective sexual agency. Rather than dependent upon the sheer fact of her cleverness or naivety, the causes for each woman’s action are varied, robust, and often complex. Mrs. Margery Pinchwife, for example, repeatedly demonstrates her ignorance. In fact, her affair with Mr. Horner is ultimately facilitated by Lucy’s wit, not her own. Here the ignorant woman is unfaithful, while the cunning Lucy is never characterized in sexual terms at all. Her only desire is to join her mistress Alithea with Mr. Harcourt, and much like her clever servant Lucy, Alithea shrewdly detects Mr. Harcourt’s masked insults toward her fiancé Mr. Sparkish. However, Alithea’s intelligence does not sentence her to Mr. Harcourt’s bedchamber; rather, she remains faithful to her fiancé throughout the play. Finally, Lady Fidget, Mrs. Dainty Fidget, and Mrs. Squeamish maintain a calculated, intellectually-rigorous façade of propriety to mask their ulterior extramarital motives. Yet, during their masquerade at Mr. Horner’s home, they complain that most refined and shrewd women, such as they are, have much trouble bedding a lover, as men prefer more “common women” (5.4.80-83). Despite their willingness and wit, these three women find it difficult to cuckold their husbands.

Question: Male consensus in THE COUNTRY WIFE dichotomizes women along the ignorant/faithful and wit/unfaithful binary. Is it possible to reconcile this with the above-cited manifestations of female sexual agency that circumvent and contradict the binary?

Works Cited
“Private.” Def. 3. Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. 11th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
Wycherley, William. The Country Wife. Ed. Ken Bush. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

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