Archive for ‘What We’re Reading/Watching’

February 26, 2014

Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History

English majors often look at literature through theoretical lenses.  Each theory is equally unique and thought-provoking but often times English majors favor a certain theory just a little bit over the rest (kind of like parents do with their children).  We never really admit it, but the favoritism is printed in black and white.  I will admit that I often take a psychoanalytical approach to most of what I read and write, but this semester that seems to be changing.

At the beginning of the semester, I walked into Dr. Woodcox’s Restoration and 18th Century British Literature class not knowing what to expect.  Originally, when I thought of literature from this era, scientific documents and dry diaries came to mind.  This class has proven me wrong on so many levels and it all has to do with the women from the 18th century.

The women of the Restoration and 18th century era were revolutionary bad asses, not only fictionally but literally as well.  Women like Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wortley Montagu, and Eliza Haywood publically voiced their opinions through essays, short stories, and plays.  They faced ridicule from both men and women during their lifetimes but are now well-known and respected authors of their time.  I have been blown away by the amount of girl power that can be found in the literature from the 18th century.

A fantastic example of “girl power” in the 18th century is Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina”.  For those of you that have not read this particular short story, I strongly suggest it.  It is a saucy tale about a young woman who becomes enamored with a fellow courtier while disguised as a prostitute.  The two become lovers, but the man in question quickly becomes disinterested.  Our main character, Fantomina, continues to pursue the same man through different disguises until she becomes pregnant and is sent to a French monastery.  Essentially, the story is an earlier and more risqué version of the chick flick John Tucker Must Die.

Although this particular short story seems to follow the typical layout of a novel during the 18th century on the surface, it really has more feminist undertones than many of the works before its time.  Not only is this piece written by a woman, but the main character—also a woman—has full control over her lover.  She has her lover hoodwinked throughout the entire story, up until the very moment she confesses her scheme during childbirth.  This level of female power was never depicted in everyday life in the 18th century.  Haywood is bold in suggesting that women could actually be the seducer in a romantic relationship or ever have the upper hand.  These revolutionary ideas were taken with much criticism by the public, but they were still widely read during the era.

Female authors were not the only ones with powerful female characters.  In Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders, main character Moll has complete and utter control over her life.  She calls the shots and does not let her husbands or children hold her back from what she wants.  Many dislike Moll Flanders and her self-absorbed approach to life, but I think she is a ballsy woman that doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves.

All of these real and fictional women from the 18th century have shown me that a feminist outlook on life has existed for an extremely long time.  As I said before, I often prefer to look at literature through a psychoanalytical lens.  This course has made feminism so much more intriguing for me than it ever was in the past.  Thanks to the women of the 18th century, my favorite theoretical approach to literature may have some competition.