'The Assurance to Write, the Vanity of Expecting to Be Read:' Deception and Reform in Mary Davy's 'The Reform'd Coquet.' (18Th Century English Woman Author)

Article excerpt

Since its coinage in mid seventeenth-century France, "coquette" labels a woman who gains power over others by manipulative verbal and body language, a skill referred to as her "art."(1) Etymologically, the word "coquette" comes from "cock," a male animal which controls its hens and is known for feisty aggression; the word, however, refers to a woman, whose passivity and subordination have long been assumed. The coquette figure appears in literature at the moment when the novel as we know it was being invented, also the moment when women started writing in greater numbers, first in France and then in Britain. The reification of "coquette" at this time reflects the anxiety caused by women writing; the coquette figure provides a site for the critique and regulation of women's self-expression and economic power.

Women novelists absorbed the regulatory strictures of conduct books which aimed to make women predictable, transparent, and readable, but chose the highly dialogic genre of the novel as the form for their response, enabling the alternative logic of narrative art to undermine the project of reforming women's coquetry. Mary Davys's 1724 novel The Reform'd Coquet (hereafter TRC) is the first of several novels, including Eliza Haywood's The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, Fanny Burney's Camilla, Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, and Jane Austen's Emma, in which the coquette heroine's "reform" is initiated and monitored by a male character who loves and subsequently marries her, which Jane Spencer calls the "reformed coquette" plot.(2) The "reformed coquette" plot addresses the decline of arranged marriage in Britain. Once a woman was married, of course, her property was legally her husband's and she no longer posed an economic threat. Consequently, in Anglo-American fiction, until the last half of the nineteenth century when divorce becomes an acceptable topic for fiction, the coquette is usually a young unmarried female. Mary Davys makes the male character in TRC a dual figure - virile lover disguised as aged guardian - and thus mediates marriage for love and marriage for money. Formator/Alanthus, the male character, ostensibly "reforms" the coquette heroine Amoranda into a happy bride-to-be. The novel's subtext, however, suggests that a reformed coquette is a woman whose will, voice, and financial power have been expunged.

Mary Davys (1674-1732) came to England from Ireland as a young widow, wrote six novels to earn a living, and ran a coffeehouse in Cambridge.(3) When TRC was published, subscribers included John Gay, Martha Blount, and Alexander Pope as well as many members of the nobility, no doubt because her husband had been a subordinate of Jonathan Swift's. The novel's dedication to the "Ladies of Great Britain" speaks of "expunging" the "Blots" of vanity and levity in young women: "If I have touch'd a young Lady's Vanity and Levity, it was to show her how amiable she is without those Blots, which certainly stain the Mind and stamp Deformity where the greatest Beauties would shine, were they banish'd" (v). In fact, the heroine loses her vanity and levity only at the cost of her will and self-expression. Consequently the novel reveals that when women marry, they lose their property, and so their ability to act independently, and that men require this loss as a condition of marriage.

Davys herself, however, is an unreformed coquette, one whose ink deceives the reader most pleasurably. In her preface, Davys admits the same vanity she expunges in her heroine: "She who has the assurance to write, certainly has the vanity of expecting to be read . . ." (iv). Davys's vanity and pride - "Only I am accountable for every Fault of my Book; and if it has any Beauties, I claim the Merit of them, too" (xi) - contrast not only with the modesty prescribed by conduct books, but with the modesty her own heroine must learn. The author, like the coquette, transgresses notions of the feminine by her will to power. …