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  • Dueling Discourses:The Erotics of Female Friendship in Mary Pix's Queen Catharine
  • Dawn M. Goode

To be free, I have no taste of those insipid dry discourses, with which our sex of force must entertain themselves, apart from men. We may affect endearments to each other, profess eternal friendships, and seem to dote like lovers; but 'tis not in our natures long to persevere. Love will resume his empire in our breasts, and every heart, or soon or late, receive and readmit him as its lawful tyrant.

(Congreve, The Way of the World, II, 23-30)1

The above excerpt from William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700) reveals several of the ideologies surrounding female romantic friendship in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In an effort to persuade the wife of her lover that she is a true and loyal friend, Mrs. Marwood freely (if oxymoronically) assesses women's friendships as affected, temporary, and doomed for sacrifice upon the altar of hetero-romantic love. Admitting that she has "no taste" for conversations between women that are not male-centered, Mrs. Marwood voices the belief that women, restricted from an active participation in the affairs of the greater world, have nothing to offer each other beyond "insipid dry discourses" that hold little importance or interest for anyone. Mrs. Marwood's rejection of female intimacy's inherent value, along with the noted hypocrisy of her own behavior, reminds Congreve's audience of the long-held cultural belief that women were incapable of the sacrifice, loyalty, and passion necessary for real amitie, and as a consequence could never achieve the ideal of male heroic friendship. The fact that this assessment comes from the disingenuous and morally bereft Mrs. Marwood, however, testifies to the [End Page 37] presence of a counter-rhetoric that identified such relationships as emotionally and spiritually equal, if not superior, to heterosexual relationships.

The cultural cachet achieved by female romantic friendships by the time of The Way of the World is most commonly linked to the mid-seventeenth-century poetics of Katherine Philips. Known by her contemporaries as "the Matchless Orinda," Philips claimed for women the classical and Renaissance model of male friendship in which same-sex friendship was believed to offer emotional and spiritual intimacy superior to heterosexual love. In such poems as "To my dearest Lucasia" and "Orinda to Lucasia," Philips valorized female friendship as a platonic ideal, a "meeting of the souls." Building on Philips' language of intense sentiment and passion, later seventeenth and early eighteenth-century poets such as Lady Mary Chudleigh, Aphra Behn, Anne Killigrew, Jane Barker, and Anne Finch continued celebrating female friendship, a celebration that became a staple of the eighteenth century novel.2 Prior to its much-documented place in the novel and its satirized turn in Congreve's comedy, however, female romantic friendship made its most notable appearance on the stage in the tragedies of Catharine Trotter and Mary Pix.

The concurrent rise of the she-tragedy genre and the influx of female playwrights in the late seventeenth-century theater ensured a greater emphasis on female characters that revealed "a much richer conception of the character of woman" than had previously existed (Kendall, Love and Thunder 11). Pix's tragedies, Queen Catharine (1698) and The Double Distress (1701), and two of Catharine Trotter's tragedies, Agnes de Castro (1696) and The Unhappy Penitent (1701) all highlight the female romantic friendship as part of this "richer" conceptualization of the character and lives of women.3 Of these plays, it is Trotter's Agnes de Castro that provides the most idealized rendering of female romantic friendship.4 It is Pix's Queen Catharine, however, that corresponds more closely to the attitudes and values of the late Restoration theater audience. In fact, Queen Catharine, Or, The Ruines of Love can be read as the blueprint for Mrs. Marwood's pointed critique of female friendships.5 Effectively, Mrs. Marwood's speech (and Congreve's overall commentary on female friendship) is little more than a succinct rendering of Pix's more sustained assessment in the earlier Queen Catharine. For while Anne Kelley correctly states that the play is "about male power...


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