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  • “Deadly Snares”:Female Rivalry, Gender Ideology, and Eighteenth-Century Women Writers
  • Elizabeth Johnston (bio)

Oh the deadly snaresThat women set for women—without pityEither to soul or honour! Learn by meTo know your foes. In this belief I die:Like our own sex, we have no enemy, no enemy!—Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women 5.2.209–13

Dear sisters, we have met the enemy and she is us.

—Marianne M. Jennings A14

The first quotation above is from Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, a bloody seventeenth-century tragedy that focuses on a wealthy widow who routinely betrays the women who trust her. The second excerpt can be found in the essay, “Who’s Harassing Whom?,” in which Marianne M. Jennings argues that twentieth-century women have exacerbated the issue of sexual harassment, muddying the court system with unwarranted complaints. Both quotations represent a significant rhetorical tradition by which social and political conflicts are displaced onto the narrative of female rivalry. The prevalence of this tradition raises pertinent questions: What motivates this long-existing cultural preoccupation with pitting women against women? Moreover, what can we say about the historical specificity of the trope of female rivalry—or of its narrative’s ability to trespass historical, cultural, and ideological boundaries?

This essay begins with a discussion of the dissemination of eighteenth-century gender ideology in British literature, in particular the construction of the domestic ideal in conduct book literature. I argue that the success of domestic ideology in the cultural imagination depends on exorcising from “ideal” femininity any desire not consistent with patriarchy. In conduct book fiction, this means that the positive female exemplar is necessarily [End Page 1] contrasted with a negative female exemplar; the hero’s choice of the positive female exemplar thus represents society’s corresponding rejection of the traits embodied by her rival. I then consider how negative representations of groups of women might also represent anxieties about the threat posed by increasing female authorship to male authority. Finally, given that so many of the authors of eighteenth-century courtship novels are women, my essay then considers how two particular women writers—Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth—redeploy the trope of female rivalry to interrogate the factors underlying women’s vexed relationships with each other.

Disseminating Domestic Ideology and Exorcising the “Whore

The Christian New Testament tells the story of Jesus meeting and healing a man possessed by demons; Jesus does so by casting the demons into a herd of pigs who then throw themselves from a cliff. The eighteenth-century construction of ideal femininity might best be understood as a similar sort of exorcism insofar as, prior to the eighteenth century, it was commonly suspected that all women might contain both sides of the virgin/whore binary.

In pre-eighteenth-century literature, female characters tend to take one of two forms: the chaste virgin, existing only as a muse or object of male worship (think Shakespeare’s Juliet or Sidney’s Stella), or the temptress responsible for men’s demise (think Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth or Spenser’s Duessa). Rarely do these figures possess any interiority; they are either flatly good or flatly bad.1 In fact, many early modern texts demonstrate the belief that all women embody both sides of the virgin/ whore binary, their chaste beauty masking a monstrous underbelly. Jacques Olivier’s popular 1617 tract, An Alphabet of Women’s Imperfections, is particularly vitriolic. He scolds women: “You live here on earth as the world’s most imperfect creature: the scum of nature, the cause of misfortune, the source of quarrels, the toy of the foolish, the plague of the wise, the stirrer of hell, the tinder of vice, the guardian of excrement, a monster in nature, an evil necessity, a multiple chimera, a sorry pleasure, Devil’s bait, the enemy of angels” (qtd. in Aughterson 41). Similarly, the fifteenth-century German text The Malleus Mallificarum (The Witch Hammer) argues that women are directly to blame for the preponderance of witches plaguing Europe because they have inherited their mother Eve’s moral weaknesses. The suspicion that all women are bent on destroying men is...


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