- Violence, Female Friendship, and the Education of the Heroine in Mary Davys’s The Reform’d Coquet
Mary Davys’s 1724 novel, The Reform’d Coquet, depicts fifteen-year-old heroine Amoranda’s process of reformation as she learns to amend her promiscuous flirtations. By the novel’s conclusion, Amoranda commits to marriage to her stern yet protective guardian, a young man disguised as the elderly Formator, who has shed his disguise. If we focus exclusively on Amoranda’s relationship with Formator, then The Reform’d Coquet offers heterosexual romance ending in marriage as the heroine’s just reward for remedying her misconduct and embracing culturally acceptable feminine behavior. However, Davys’s novel is more complex than this. Amoranda’s perceptions of her experiences with predatory men and her understanding of the importance of female intimacy and friendship play crucial roles in her journey to reformation.
Critics often focus on Amoranda’s relationship with her guardian, Formator, and have concluded that The Reform’d Coquet is a story about male power and female powerlessness. Mary Anne Schofield, for example, explores the convention of disguise in Davys’s novel and argues that Formator masters this convention “to gain and control the woman” (86). Jane Spencer emphasizes The Reform’d Coquet as a novel describing “the relationship between a faulty heroine and her lover-mentor” (145). According to Spencer, Davys’s novel demonstrates that “the heroine must find an honest man, submit to his authority, and gain his protection” (147). Natasha Sajé shows how Formator watches Amoranda and manipulates his opportunities to reform her “into a good wife—a docile and quiet one” (167). Helen Thompson argues that The Reform’d Coquet plots the trajectory of a heroine “who must learn to love a manifestly arbitrary domestic law: Amoranda’s venerable, sympathetic, and fatherly guardian” (51). Thompson claims that Formator “effects his purpose so well” that [End Page 23] Amoranda internalizes his moral instruction and believes she is accepting his authority as a result of her personal inclination (52).
In her recent study, Our Coquettes: Capacious Desire in the Eighteenth Century, Theresa Braunschneider develops a provocative thesis about “two dynamics” that combine to facilitate Amoranda’s change from coquette to marriageable woman: her desire to engage in intimate and erotic friendships with women and her growing fear of physical endangerment from men (109–15). Braunschneider, however, focuses almost exclusively on Amoranda’s interaction with a cross-dressing man whom Amoranda mistakes for a female. My interest in this essay is in the ways that Amoranda grapples with the problem of coping with the sexual violence of men and how her friendships with two women, Altemira and Arentia, play important roles in her developing awareness of her need to find strategies to empower herself within a threatening male-dominated world.
While female friendship in The Reform’d Coquet has not been a focal point of critical attention, the topic of friendships and intimacy among women in eighteenth-century literature has become an important field of feminist literary criticism and gender studies in recent years, and has generated much fruitful scholarship. For example, studies by Emma Donoghue, Lillian Faderman, Janet Todd, Valerie Traub, and Elizabeth Wahl, to name a few, have shown that women in eighteenth-century fiction and in eighteenth-century society regarded their friendships with other women as a central element of their lives, and engaged in friendships ranging from emotionally supportive to romantically and erotically charged.1 By focusing first on Amoranda’s experiences with men, and then turning to her interaction with women, I will show how Amoranda learns to understand and to cope with violence, potential rapists, and cultural expectations of female behavior and sexuality. I aim to uncover questions that Davys evokes: Are female friendship and intimacy destined for failure in a heterosexual society that regards marriage as the most viable female destiny and husbands as the ultimate protectors of women? Or is Davys suggesting that strong and intimate bonds between women are essential for fostering the development of a strong female self and for coping with sexual violence? To answer these questions, I explore Davys’s representation of a supportive female...