ENL 6236: Restoration and
Civility and the Public Sphere
Nov. 1: Proper Marriage and Divorce
Astell, from Some Reflections (2281-2284)
Defoe, from Roxana (2284-2291)
Wortley Montagu, "Epistle from Mrs. Yonge" (2582-3)
Sheridan, School for Scandal (in McMillin)
Also read Blackstone's Commentary on the laws of England:
Chapter 15, which
gives you a sense of how marriages were made and dissolved in the eighteenth century, as well
as some of the legal consequences of marriage. This is also excerpted below.
Report Topic: Adultery or Marriage Laws
Bibliography -- Maria
Due: Post #9
Marriage was the foundation of society and an expected event in the lives of women.
As put by The Lawes Resolution of Women’s Rights in 1632, all women were understood as married
or to be married and as such were subsumed into the political authority of their husbands.
Divorce of complete separation with the ability to remarry was virtually unheard of, although
some husbands could “put their wives away” for the crime of adultery (and this is suggested in
The Way of the World). To give you some background on the legal situation
facing men and women in marriage, I've asked you to read a chapter from
Blackstone's Commentaries. The readings for today give you a sense of some of the problems
in the institution of marriage as seen by eighteenth-century writers. The first three works (Astell,
Defoe and Wortley Montagu) are focused on the issues of marriage, money, divorce and adultery.
The last piece for today, Sheridan's famous comedy School for Scandal is taken from
a later part of the century (1780), and so it represents a bit of a different era. While still focused
on questions of marriage and adultery, the play represents the problems associated with scandal and
public reputation. It borrows much from the style of Restoration comedy, and so we will want to compare
this piece with the earlier works by Behn and Congreve.
Taken together, the excerpts and works for this week cover marriage and adultery in four different forms:
essay, novel, poem and play. As you read, consider the course theme on civility and the public sphere, and
consider the ways in which each work takes up these subjects and what, if anything, changes over the course
of time or in the different generic expressions.
1. Blackstone's Commentaries
Blackstone's Commentary on the laws of England:
This website version, provided by the Avalon project at Yale Law School, uses the following
source: Commentaries on the Laws of England by Blackstone, William, Sir, 1723-1780
4 v. : 2 geneal. tables ;27 cm. (4to); First Edition, Oxford : Printed at the
Clarendon Press, 1765-1769.
This popular work condenses the common law of England. It went through 13 editions by 1800.
These other editions, with further notations and commentary, are available in facsimile online
versions through the Eighteenth Century Collection Online available through
USF library from Gale.
Please note that the website version tries to replicate the eighteenth-century font of the "long
S" by using an "f". This leads to some confusion. Please try to substitue the "s" for "f" where
From Commentaries on the Laws of England, by William Blackstone (1765):
Book One, Chapter Fifteen: Of Husband and Wife
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman
is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under
whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-french a feme-covert;
is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her
condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of an union of person in husband and
wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage.
I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man
cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate
existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally
true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarrriage. A woman
indeed may be attorney for her husband; for that implies no separation from, but is rather a representation of,
her lord. And a husband may also bequeath any thing to his wife by will; for that cannot take effect till the
coverture is determined by his death. The husband is bound to provide his wife with necessaries by law, as much
as himself; and if she contracts debts for them, he is obliged to pay them: but for any thing besides necessaries,
he is not chargeable. Also if a wife elopes, and lives with another man, the husband is not chargeable even for
necessaries; at least if the person, who furnishes them, is sufficiently apprized of her elopement. If the wife be
indebted before marriage, the husband is bound afterwards to pay the debt; for he has adopted her and her
circumstances together. If the wife be injured in her person or her property, she can bring no action for
redress without her husband’s concurrence, and in his name, as well as her own: neither can she be sued,
without making the husband a defendant….
The husband also (by the old law) might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour,
the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement,
in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servants or children; for whom the master or
parent is also liable in some cases to answer. But this power of correction was confined within reasonable
bounds. . . . But, with us, in the politer reign of Charles the second, this power of correction began to
be doubted: and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband; or, in return, a husband
against his wife. Yet the lower rank of people, who were always fond of the old common law, still claim
and exert their ancient privilege: and the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain his wife
of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehaviour.
These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even
the disabilities, which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit.
So great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England.
William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 1756. 4 vols. Reprinted. London:
Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1966.
Blackstone comments on "this innovation upon our antient laws and constitution," (i.e. the 1753
Marriage act that requires the marriage banns to be announced, requires a license, and forbids
marriage under the age of 21 without consent of parents or guardians). One of the detriments of this
marriage is the voiding of marriages among the lower classes. Why would this be so? How do you
explain Blackstone's concern here?
Note finally that once the parties are willing and able to contract a marriage, they must do so
in the prescribed manner. What are the conditions necessary to make a valid marriage?
What are the terms of total divorce or "a vinculo matrimonii"?
What are the terms of partial divorce or "a mensa et thoro" or separation from bed and board?
Why is "incontinence" or adultery "the only cause, why a man may put away his wife and marry another?"
Pay particular attention to the section beginning "By marriage, the husband and wife are one
person in law," a concept know as femme couvert. What are the consequences of this law? What are
the legal rationales for this system?
In what sense is the wife inferior to the husband in law?
What does Blackstone mean when he says the law allows the husband to give his wife moderate
2. Mary Astell
Astell’s prose is a refreshing change from the dominant male-authored views of marriage in the
Restoration, and it compares well with other satires of the period. While Dryden, Rochester,
and Congreve represent women and marriage as burdens to male freedom, Astell provides the view
of marriage from the perspective of women. It was, in fact, women who literally gave up their
liberty (and rights) upon marriage, and no amount of flattery in courtship changed that fact.
Astell’s underlying message to women in the essay is to wake up and see marriage for what it
really is before they decide to accept a “monarch for life.” The excerpts here demonstrate her
range of argument, addressing the reasons for male choice in marriage partner through the
requirements of a proper wife. They also reveal her command of different styles and tones,
from logical argument to devastating sarcasm to aphoristic wit.
At what point is it appropriate, according to Astell, to consider money in marriage decisions? Why?
Why is marrying for love as doomed to failure as marrying for money?
If wit is so fashionable (cf. The Way of the World), why does Astell criticize it?
Why don’t women “choose” a spouse? How is it different today?
What do you suppose would be Astell’s argument for a good choice in marriage partner?
Examine the tone of Astell’s comments on flattery. What does her sarcasm suggest about the routine modes of courtship?
Why should women be educated to something other than finding a husband?
In her final paragraph, how does Astell describe the purely good wife? What compensation does such behavior merit?
3. Defoe's Roxana excerpted
In many ways, Roxana’s arguments against marriage sound a modern note, and you may find them appealing.
The expression of sexual liberation and independence of fortune have decidedly feminist themes.
However, readers ought not to be misled by Roxana’s rhetoric, which even she admits runs away from her.
Her motivations for not marrying are, first, financial pragmatism in the face of property laws in
marriage and, second, when the Dutch merchant obviates the first, saving face. The eloquent defense of
women’s independence is feigned.
What is Roxana’s principal objection to marrying the Dutch Merchant? Why doesn’t she acknowledge this?
What arguments does she make against marriage in general?
What arguments does the Dutch Merchant offer to counter these?
What role does procreation play in their respective arguments?
Where Roxana has law on her side of the argument (the laws are against women), the Dutch Merchant offers
affection, religion and custom as inducements to marry. What does this alignment of reasons suggest
about relative motivations for marriage?
How accurate is the Dutch Merchant’s picture of the wife of leisure? How persuasive is his enticement?
Why does Roxana imagine such extremes of poverty in marriage? How persuasive is her fear?
As the headnote to Astell suggests, “to question the customs and laws of marriage is to question society itself,
its distribution of money and power and love” (236). What is Defoe’s point in this fictional representation?
If this is social criticism, what is being criticized?
4. Wortley Montagu
“Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband”
The strong passions expressed in this poem immediately engage the reader and parallel other imitations of
Ovid’s Heroides, like Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, but because this is based on a true story, the historical
and biographical interest is also high. Divorce was extremely rare in England, and this poem fictionalizes
the response of a real woman who went through the public humiliation of a divorce trial. The poem allows
readers to glimpse what was at stake for an unhappily married woman and how the reality of divorce in the
eighteenth century differs from now. It also demonstrates the permissive sexual ideology of the upper classes,
which students schooled in post-Victorian literature tend not to expect.
What is the subject of the speaker’s complaint?
How does the poem represent the unequal treatment of male and female infidelity? Why?
According to the poem, how are the laws of marriage unfavorable to women?
How does the speaker represent her own “tender crime”?
In what sense is the speaker “abandoned” (59)? How does this compare with other speakers in the Heroides
or its imitators?
What does the speaker hope for her husband in the end? In what sense is this poetic justice?
What objectives are met by writing this poem?
How do you account for its not being published until 1972?
Sheridan’s School for Scandal
In order to facilitate your understanding of the play, create a chart of characters and love interests.
Also create a list of the news of love interests that circulates in the characters' gossip. What, if
any, connections can be made between the two?
What is the subject of "scandal" in the play? How is it "used" by some characters (i.e. Lady Sneerwell and
Joseph Surface)? What attracts some characters to it (i.e. Lady Teazle and Mrs. Candour)? what repels other
characters from it (i.e. Maria and Sir Peter Teazle)?
What role does print culture play in the circulation of scandal?
In what sense is scandal "gendered" in the play? In what sense is scandal an equal opportunity sport?
Discuss the representation of wit, malice and good nature in the play. Do you agree more with Sneerwell that all wit has
some malice or with Sir Peter that true wit is allied with good nature? Why?
The subjects of marriage, adultery and divorce are raised specifically in relation to Lady and Sir Peter Teazle.
What is their situation at the beginning of the play? Why is Sir Peter ineffectual in exerting the "authority
of a husband" (Act II, scene 1)? What precipitates the first discussion of divorce (Act III)? In what sense
would they be divorced?
The "screen scene" is famous. With what intention do each of the characters come to visit Joseph Surface (Lady Teazle,
Sir Peter Teazle, Charles Surface). What happens in the course of each visit? Imagine that you are the director and
must stage the scene -- how would you do it? What makes the scene funny?
What "revelations" are made by the conclusion of the scene? What happens to Lady Teazle as a result? Why does she
The other plot involves Charles Surface and his profligacy. The portrait sale in Act. IV is pivotal. What happens during
the sale? In what sense is he selling his ancestors? What saves him from being the scapegrace that he appears to be?
Evaluate the marriages proposed and existing at the end of the play. What, if anything, do these marriages suggest
about the society that enjoyed this comedy?
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