Although the Enlightenment was the catalyst for much social and political change, it is clear amongst several texts studied that the authors are encouraging the view that women deserve a much more active role in society. This period introduces a variety of female authors producing essential scientific, historical, and philosophical works, as well as literature and art. Yet despite this the roles of women were cemented by not just societal expectations but blatant discriminative laws. Defoe expresses: “I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us, a civilised and Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women.” 1 It is during this period that we see the instilled traditional and stereotypical definitions of masculinity and femininity; where men should be intelligent, educated, and successful; women were expected to be passive and domestic, dedicated only to making a home. This is somewhat ironic given that English women were not legally allowed to own their own property during this period. It is from these claustrophobic gender roles that woman had little choice in who they may become; they really were reduced to five main life paths: a wife, a mistress, a servant, a criminal, or a prostitute. From this frankly the only respected position available is the role of the wife, and even this is not something the women of this time could control nor guarantee themselves.
Daniel Defoe’s novel, Moll Flanders, tells the story of women doing her best to support herself in this patriarchal society however Moll finds herself in all off the above classifications, and although there is a humorous reading of the many turns and scandals her life story includes, the book shows Moll really puts her own self-interest first and above that of her children and her partners, and the same can be said for other female characters in the novel. Their beauty and feminine traits are used as a device, a tool to manipulate in order to elevate their position. This portrayal of women is quite clearly a negative one, and presents women as the opposite of the previously stated feminine ideals – this can be interpreted as Defoe showing apprehension and discontent to idea of female independence, but given his previous statements on the subject I think it is safer to assume that he is showing resentment to the institutions that repress women and keep them from being liberated.
We see these same constraints throughout Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals and we see this most clearly demonstrated through heiress Lydia Languish, who is just seventeen years old. As she is of noble birth it was expected that she would be obedient and would place her trust in her elders, and they would make the decision of who she should marry. These expected events are parodied by Sheridan through Lydia’s character, and the character of her guardian Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Malaprop dismisses Lydia’s choice of husband as she believes she can find her a better option, the irony being that the ‘better option’ she finds was the man Lydia chose already, demonstrating that Lydia was actually perfectly capable of making her own choices for her future. However, a young girl’s obedience is seen as her duty and an eighteenth century audience would understand this. Thus Lydia’s cousin Julia really is the epitome if the ‘perfect women’ in these times. She is a dutiful wife who defends her husband’s jealousy and insecurity, despite her frustration that he is so distrustful of her. She accepts these faults as part of who is and remains loyal and devoted.
Lydia on the other hand shows no such submission and her defiance caused much concern for the characters in the novel. Her disobedience is credited to the novels she reads. From the first scene Lydia is introduced she demonstrates a clear love of books and in the context of the play, the introduction of “sentimental novels” was thought to be a real threat to ladylike behaviour during this period. There was a concern they would corrupt the ideals of womanhood an inspire girls to abandon the roles of being a wife and a mother, traits which they thought were inherent. Although this notion is somewhat ridiculous, we do see Lydia find liberation and inspiration from her book collection and the types of story inspired from this literature. Sentimental novels illustrated women who followed their hearts and crossed boundaries and took risks in the name of love. Lydia was very much taking a risk when pursuing a man she believed to be below her station.
As the play is a comedy, there is a satirical outlook on both sides of the discussion, and both arguments are made fun of. Lydia is mocked for applying the ideas behind the works of fiction that she reads to her own life. In the beginning of the play she pretends to be angry at her love just to cause an argument for the sake of narrative, when she thinks it has actually caused a fight she remarks “I intended only to have teased him three days and a half.”2 She also puts so much emphasis on loving a man who has less money on her, and what a love story she is in, that he grows concerned that by telling her he is actually wealthy she may lose interest. This is a fair assumption to make when she says thing like “How charming will poverty be with him!”3 A comment which really shows her naivety, and again emphasises just how young she is. From this Sir Antony claims it is her reading in its entirety that has caused her rebellion, and his perspective is extremely caricatured as well; he claims, “Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!” 4 He believes the key to an obedient woman is keeping her illiterate. Although Sheridan mocks and pokes fun of this opinion, he does little to highlight and analyse the status quo in this respect, and ultimately it is not encouraged that reading did much to change Lydia’s story. Had she been more obedient – as suggested she would be if she did not read- she would have been set up by her elders with the same man regardless. The only real change is that she went into the relationship on her terms, and in that respect gained her independence through demanding her free will. Yet although the message of the play is ambiguous on its opinion of female independence, the theatre itself was the “age of women in the theatre”5 and “especially the age of the actress. “6 Women had been permitted to perform onstage since early seventeenth century, and had become increasingly popular in the public eye. Although being an actress was still a position of some immodesty, it certainly began to gain respectability as the idea of ‘celebrity’ became more popular with actresses selling their memoirs as well as their portraiture to the media.
The real concern for both Moll Flanders and Lydia Languish is what would become of their reputation. For Lydia it was of real urgency that she was not caught having sex before marriage as the results of this becoming public knowledge could be disastrous, not only for her prospects, but for her family as well. However historians have argued that, “sexual restraint was “normal practice” in the 18th-century, and had concluded that “most premarital sex was between people intending to marry.”7 So although Lydia was starting a relationship ahead of marriage, the way she talks about the relationship shows she does in fact take it seriously and want a future from it. Sheridan represents Lydia’s rebellion as a foolish fancy done in order to replicate a chapter from a book. Meanwhile, the characters least poked at character is Julia, who obeys societal expectations perfectly, all the while Lydia’s adamance to rebel is what makes her so easily mislead by her love interest, Captain Jack Absolute. As the play was meant to be light hearted we see no such scandal, and Lydia happily marries. Where for Lydia, her virginity is what ensures her future, for Moll, sex is currency. In a society where women can do very little without the financial support of a man, she uses her body (or the hope of her body) as her trade- given that she lost her virginity as a teenager, and that she is of a very different social class to women like Lydia- means she was not in the same position. The full title of the novel suggests the type of reputation Moll gained from not just the other characters in the book, but presumably also from the initial audience:
‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums ‘
It is her blatant disregard of these social values that allows her to persevere through every turn and downfall she faces. It is the belief at this time that “a respectable woman was nothing but a potential mother of children.” 8 However Moll does not follow any maternal route, she had many children to a variety of men and she either gave the children to her in-laws, or in one case sold the child, two children are born and unaccounted for, and the only child she reunites with is the son she had with her half-brother. Although this does not shine Moll in a positive light, and especially would not have to an eighteenth century audience, it should be argued that it she was not in the position that modern women would be in, contraception was nowhere near as developed as it is today so methods would have been far more unreliable, additionally abortions although existed at the time were both illegal and extremely dangerous, and abstinence was not an option because as previously stated it is her sexuality that has ensured her survival. However it does show a clear message due to the fact that as an audience we do sympathise with Moll and recognise how many obstacles she faces, had she chose the more domestic life she would have been still in a financially unstable position but would also have another mouth to feed. It is a clear demonstration of how a lack of female equality, and forced gender roles not only effects the woman it traps but also anyone dependent on them. How could Moll provide a loving home and a bright future for her children if she is not legally permitted to own accommodation, has little to no employment opportunities, and is shunned from society for being a single mother? It is with this defiance of what is expected of her that Moll to some degree finds her independence, as the novel goes on and she is widowed once more she becomes a thief in order to get by. Yet she turns out to be rather good at it and earns quite the name for her before her arrest. It is the first time she able to be financially liberated and not reliant on the men in her life, it is in her defiance of the law and the conventional that she appears to thrive. For Moll the societal standard of what it is to be a woman is what limits her, and it is her turning her back on this that she is able to find her freedom. It is stated that “The heroine, it is true is a criminal; but the high incidence of crime in our civilisation is itself mainly due to the wide diffusion of an individualist ideology in a society where success is not easily or equally attainable to all its members”9
So although women were seeking new channels of education, and accessing a wider selection of reading materials, there was still a situation of independence being compromised as soon as they marry; as they are not only expected – but are cornered into doing for to achieve a respected lifestyle. After marriage women very much lose identity to their husbands. Beyond a change in surname, women had no individual legal identity, everything they owned and everything they were became their husbands, including a lack of legal rights over their own children. It is with these constraints that we see the Georgian era encourage dangerous and intolerant views on the role of women in society, and from that allow little independence at best and even that is neither encouraged and rarely socially acceptable.