- Emotional Economies:Centlivre’s Comic Ends
Susanna Centlivre’s hilarious 1720 verse epistle to Charles Joye of the South Sea Company paints a picture of her own marriage to Joseph Centlivre, by all accounts a happy one. Her “dear-lov’d Muse,” she complains, has been frightened off by her nagging and quarrelsome husband. Inverting the standard eighteenth-century narrative of the money-hungry, socially ambitious wife, she tells Joye of her husband’s supposed “hector[ing]” (133).1 Ventriloquizing her long-suffering spouse, she writes:
You made me hope the Lord knows what,When Whigs shou’d Rule, of This, and That;But from your boasted Friends I seeSmall Benefit accrues to me:I hold my Place2 indeed, ‘tis true;But I well hop’d to Rise by you.What have I got by all your Sense?I’ad better had a Fool with Pence.Say! Can you now, in time of Need,On Epigrams, or Sonnets feed? [End Page 83] Go, read, admire your Ancient Sages,And turn o’er all their musty Pages,And see how fat you’ll grow from these (136)
These verses express a commitment to marriage as a blatantly, even entertainingly economic arrangement. Centlivre evokes the mutual satisfaction and a certain egalitarianism that might accompany overtly monetary exchanges, even in an affectionate context. Despite the joking complaints, this is a portrait of a marriage happy in its dependence on Whig economics and a depiction of what Misty Anderson calls “an alternative erotics of mutuality.”3 The fact that her husband berates her for her wit, which he names as the source of his hopes for preferment and explicitly as a marketable resource, suggests first, that the exchange of wit for cash is unproblematic, even a source of pride for Centlivre, and second, that marriage involves an exchange of the acknowledged labor of both parties. In contrast to her best-known heroine, Anne Lovely, who is the prize in her suitor’s contest of wits with each of her guardians in turn, Centlivre is the agent who ensures the economic success of this marriage. Centlivre represents herself as the harried “husband,” forced to provide a living—“Sugar, Chocolate, and Tea” (136)—for her high-maintenance “wife,” who has grown used to the luxuries provided by the new global trade.4 The implication, directed to Joye, is that he has created a taste for luxury that he is now obliged to satisfy. The Centlivres’ marriage is tangled up in a new political order and a new mercantile economy.
Centlivre’s verse brings together the characteristic modes and themes of her writing more generally. She calls attention to the affective elements of the new mercantilism, the ways in which they might redefine and equalize the contractual exchanges both of marriage and of the wider economy. She also calls attention to the vagaries of a new economy that seemed to be defined by uncertainty and the calculation of probabilities in a kind of national gamble. Centlivre strains to resolve these pervasive concerns by figuring a series of idealized affective economies. Her investment both in the new mercantilist economy and in new comic forms is clear throughout her oeuvre, but I examine them here in early gambling comedies, The Basset Table (1705) and The Gamester (1705), and in her late, now canonical comedy, A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718). For Centlivre, I argue, comedy is the formal fulfillment of the Whig social promise. [End Page 84]
All of Centlivre’s critics, without exception, discuss her commitment to Whig politics and her associated concern to champion a new economic system based on mobile property and money in trade. Her verse epistle above suggests that she understood even her own marriage as to some extent exemplary of a new Whig order. Centlivre’s comic style presupposes the unproblematic interlineation of the personal and the political, and she is not alone in this. She draws upon the odd similarity between seventeenth-century political theory and comedy: they both use the trope of marriage as an originary myth and a method of social containment. Locke’s first treatise of government emerges out of...