Feminism in Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife

Feminism in Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife

A Story by Ashleigh

Examining the social critique of eighteenth century patriarchy in England present in Susanna Centlivre's play, A Bold Stroke for a Wife.


                The Restoration was a period of great change; both politically and socially. It was the restoration of the English monarchy through Charles II and with this came the restoration of the theatre. Theatre in itself was also drastically reformed during the Restoration. For the first time in history, England saw the birth of female actors onstage as well as female playwrights. With women taking a more active role in theatre, Restoration drama became a means for women to call attention to the injustice of their patriarchal society at the time (Blumberg). Susanna Centlivre was one such Restoration female playwright who used the power of the written word and drama to criticize the power men held over women during her life. Susanna Centlivre’s A Bold Stroke for a Wife is a social commentary and critique of the treatment of women during the Restoration period in which she lived, which can be seen through the repetitive references to women as possessions, the plot of the play itself and the heavy focus on money which ties to the prospect of marriage.
            Throughout the play, Miss Lovely is often spoken about by the men around her as if she were some sort of prize or possession. Although in itself demeaning to women; in the context of the play as a whole and taking into consideration that the playwright was a woman, it becomes less a patriarchal view and much more a satire of a patriarchal view. In fact, it is evident that the entire play is a satire of man’s rule over woman through the repetition of Anne Lovely being seen as a commodity. One such instance of this in the play is at the very beginning, when Freeman asks the Colonel what he is going to try and achieve by meeting with one of Anne’s guardians, Sir Philip, and the Colonel replies with “To address him in his own way, and find what he designs to do with the lady.” (I, I, 175-176) The Colonel speaks of Anne not as her own person, but rather as a piece of Sir Philip’s property with which he has the prerogative to do whatever he pleases. This was not uncommon during the seventeenth and eighteenth century and in fact was the accepted norm in that society. As one reads the play further, the notion of women being commodities and a means of gaining wealth and social status is repeated over and over again. This is done intentionally by Susanna Centlivre and is not representative of sloppy writing at all, but is rather a useful literary device to bring attention to this flaw in society and criticize it. Another instance where Anne is seen as a possession is when the Colonel speaks aside to the audience about his determination to “win” Anne; “I am likely to have a pretty task by that time I have gone through them all; but she’s a city worth taking and egad I’ll carry on the siege.” (II, II, 146-148) He describes Anne as being a city he is seizing and says with conviction that he will “take” her. This is also a direct critique of the commodification of women in eighteenth century England, and although this may not have seemed like a direct critique of the treatment of women at the time, it is clear that this was Susanna Centlivre’s intent in writing such a play. In many of her other works, she directly attacks the treatment of women, such as in her play she wrote in 1714 (“Susanna Centlivre”, par. 5) The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret; The Custom of our Country inslaves us from our / Very Cradles, first to our Parents, next to our / Husbands; and when Heaven is so kind to rid us / Of both these, our Brothers still usurp Authority, / And expect a blind Obedience from us; so that / Maids, Wives, or Widows, we are little better than / Slaves to the Tyrant Man.” (qtd. in “Susanna Centlivre”, par. 3) After taking note of the repetition of women being described as objects and looking at some of Susanna Centlivre’s other works, it is clear that she intended the objectification of women in her play to be seen as a satire and criticism of women being thought of as objects.
            This kind of criticism becomes clearer when one takes into consideration the plot of the play in its entirety. The play begins with the Colonel and Freeman discussing a woman the Colonel has fallen in love with and it is revealed that this woman is Anne Lovely, a thirty thousand pound heiress. It is also revealed that she has absolutely no control over this money. When her father died, he left his money to her but placed her under four guardians to watch over her fortune until they can all agree on a suitor to marry her, in which case the money will be transferred to him. These few facts about Anne already state that she is an imprisoned woman. Not only does she not have the freedom to access her own money, but she also does not have the freedom of marrying whoever she wishes to marry. It must be decided upon by all four of her guardians before she has the option of accepting or denying the suitor. It is also revealed in the play that Anne’s father deliberately chose four suitors who are so impossibly different from each other that not many have much hope of Anne ever marrying, since the guardians can never agree on anything. This is shown when Freeman says “Know her! Aye – Faith, Colonel, your condition is more desperate than you imagine; why, she is the talk and pity of the whole town; and it is the opinion of the learned that she must die a maid.” (I, I, 15-18). Later on in the play, Anne herself laments her imprisonment; “Must I be condemned all my life to the preposterous humors of other people and pointed at by every boy in town? Oh! I could tear my flesh and curse the hour I was born. Is it not monstrously ridiculous that they should desire to impose their Quaking dress upon me at these years?” (I, II, 3-7) She also talks about her freedom and the desire to marry a man whom she loves in which case she would be content with sharing her money with him; “[die a maid] Or have it in my power to make the man I love master of my fortune.” (I, II, 33-34) The plot itself is about the oppression of women by men and this is all told to the audience in the very first scene to immediately put Anne’s situation at the forefront of the audience’s minds. This is deliberately pointing out the injustice of a patriarchal society.
            It is not only the dialogue itself and the play’s plot which criticizes women as objects, but the glaring connection between trade and marriage in the play as well. There is a scene in the play in which the Colonel pretends to be a Dutch tradesman in order to gain the favour of one of Anne’s guardians. In this scene, the tradesmen talk of their business and financial endeavours in the same way the Colonel and Anne’s guardians talk about Anne. This indirect comparison is seen throughout the entire play and is done intentionally to make a striking connection between financial wealth and marital gain. The tradesmen are deeply concerned with the monetary goods they are passing between each other. In the same way, Anne is being passed around between the men as a means of monetary exchange. The Colonel wants to marry Anne for her money. It is insinuated that he also genuinely loves her, but it also made clear that the Colonel wants to gain possession of her fortune since he is on reduced pay. He even barters with one of Anne’s guardians, Tradelove, for her with Freeman as the negotiator; “Well then, as I am a party concerned between you, Mynheer Jan van Timtamtirelireletta Heer van Fainwell [Colonel disguised as Dutch tradesman] shall give you a discharge of your wager under his own hand, and you shall give him your consent to marry Mrs. Lovely under yours; that is the way to avoid all manner of disputes hereafter.” (IV, IV, 35-39) Freeman is sealing the agreement between Tradelove and the Colonel that the Colonel will pardon Tradelove’s debt to him if Tradelove gives the Colonel his permission to marry Anne. This is a direct example and the most obvious example in the play where a woman is treated like a bartering tool. Centlivre’s choice to incorporate this scene gives a clear example of how women are passed around from man to man like objects and by giving such a specific and realistic example of a marriage agreement in the eighteenth century, criticizes the idea that women are bartering tools and a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.
            Through examining Susanna Centlivre’s A Bold Stroke for a Wife, it becomes apparent that the play not only served as a light-hearted comedy, but was also a social commentary and criticism of the commodification of women in the eighteenth century. Centlivre made very conscious choices in both the wording of her characters and events in the play which serve to make the audience aware of Anne’s lack of freedom and the men’s assumption that she is an object which can be traded around at their own pleasure and convenience. Susanna Centlivre was one of just a few female playwrights during the Restoration (Blumberg) and chose to use this new freedom of the pen she had to call attention to the mistreatment of women. Although she did not single-handedly change the way women were seen by men, her works certainly began a wave of new thought which slowly formulated and shaped itself to change many of the injustices done to women in history.
Works Cited
Blumberg, Marcia. “Aphra Behn, The Rover and Restoration Drama”. Lecture. York University,  Toronto, Ontario. 1 April, 2009.
Centlivre, Susanna. ed. Nancy Copeland. A Bold Stroke for a Wife. 1717. Peterborough:  Broadview Press, 2005.
Unknown Author. “Susannah Centlivre”. Infomine. Accessed April 2009.     <http://infomine.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/search?category=arts> Path: Search; Susanna           Centlivre; Women in Theatre; Susanna Centlivre: Playwright.

© 2009 Ashleigh

Author's Note

This was an assignment for my English Literary History course.

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Added on April 9, 2009



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