In the late 18th century, when The Rivals was written, there were firm notions for how women should behave. Prior to marriage, a girl of noble birth was supposed to be pure and simple in her understanding of the world and to place her trust in her elders, who would select a man from the same class for her to marry.
The rigidness of these expectations for young girls is parodied in the portrayal of Lydia Languish’s guardian Mrs. Malaprop, who objects to practically everything that Lydia says and does by declaring it not proper behavior for a young woman. Yet while Mrs. Malaprop’s objections are so repetitive and indiscriminate as to seem ridiculous, her basic contention – that Lydia’s duty is to do as she is told – would have been accepted by 18th century audiences. Once married, a lady was expected to carry out her wifely duties without complaining about hardship, and to comfort her husband when he was in low spirits. If her husband became angry, she was supposed to calm and soothe him. If he was sad, she was supposed to be bright and merry to cheer him up. Julia in many ways epitomizes the 18th century’s ideal woman, then: although she gets frustrated with Faulkland’s distrust of her, she always tries to show him that she loves him, accepts his faults and will remain loyal to him no matter what.
Much of 18th century society considered such “womanly” behavior as critical, and so anything that threatened that behavior was the subject of much debate. And just as “upholders of culture” today might criticize certain music or movies or other media, there was heated debate in British newspapers and across society in the late 18th century about whether the rather new invention of “sentimental novels” perverted young girls and made them unfit to be good wives and mothers.
The sentimental novels that were popular at the time did not stress duty to one’s elders or portray young women as happy to have their fates chosen for them. Instead, this literature showed women motivated by love and passion to choose dangerous paths and forbidden lovers. Often the plots of these novels involved love across class boundaries.
The parents and husbands who saw it as their responsibility to supervise the women in their families worried that these books put ideas into women’s heads that were potentially disastrous. Girls were supposed to be virgins when they married, so if a girl inspired by novel-reading were to sneak off in search of her own romantic adventures and get pregnant out of wedlock, she (and her family) would become social outcasts (this is exactly the fate that threatens the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice after Lydia runs off at the climax of that novel, for instance).
In keeping with the general light tone of the comedy, The Rivals makes fun of everyone on both sides of the debate.Lydia, for example, rather ridiculously applies the plots of sentimental novels to her own life. She hopes to be like a heroine in a book, who has such a great love that she is willing to make a sacrifice for it. For Lydia this specifically means marrying a poor man, defying her aunt, and losing two-thirds of the inheritance she would otherwise receive. Lydia’s novel-reading has made her an easy target for someone able to manipulate her romantic impulse.
Sir Antony, not incorrectly, blames Lydia’s novel-reading for her determination to marry the penniless Ensign Beverley. His resulting position, though, is extreme to the point of parody: he declares that girls should not be allowed to learn to read at all. And yet even as Sir Antony seems ridiculously strict, the play does not suggest that learning or reading has much use for women,as once again Sheridan doesn’t really question the status quo.
As it turns out, in an ironic twist, Lydia is not seduced by a poor schemer hoping to take advantage of her. Instead she is forced to sacrifice her fantasy of a star-crossed love affair when it turns out she loves the very rich, suitable man – Captain Absolute – her guardians would choose for her and who had only been pretending to be penniless. The play is a comedy: no one in The Rivals will lose their life or fortune, however foolishly they flirt with disaster.
This outcome for Lydia does not only reflect the light comedy of the play, however. It also shows the play’s ultimately conservative view of social norms. Rather than critique the way his society perceived women or class (unlike, say, Pride and Prejudice), Sheridan portrays Lydia’s rebellion as a foolish caprice drawn straight from the pages of a book. Meanwhile, the play’s least ridiculed character, Julia, conforms perfectly to society’s expectations for a young woman, while its charming protagonist, Captain Absolute, is able to take advantage of Lydia’s desire to rebel against those norms.
The Role of Women ThemeTracker
The Role of Women Quotes in The Rivals
Can our light scenes add strength to holy laws!
Such puny patronage but hurts the cause:
Fair virtue scorns our feeble aid to ask;
And moral truth disdains the trickster's mask
For here their favourite stands, whose brow severe
And sad, claims youth's respect, and pity's tear;
Who, when oppress'd by foes her worth creates,
Can point a poniard at the guilt she hates.
Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books. Quick, quick!—Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty of Man—thrust Lord Aimworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man of Feeling into your pocket—so, so—now lay Mrs. Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce's Sermons open on the table.
O burn it, ma'am! the hair-dresser has torn away as far as Proper Pride.
Never mind—open at Sobriety.—Fling me Lord Chesterfield’s Letters.—Now for 'em.
What business have you, miss, with preference and aversion? They don't become a young woman; and you ought to know, that as both always wear off, 'tis safest in matrimony to begin with a little aversion. I am sure I hated your poor dear uncle before marriage as if he'd been a blackamoor—and yet, miss, you are sensible what a wife I made!—and when it pleased Heaven to release me from him, 'tis unknown what tears I shed!—
I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know;—and I don't think there is a superstitious article in it.
Well, well, Mrs. Malaprop, I will dispute the point no further with you; though I must confess, that you are a truly moderate and polite arguer, for almost every third word you say is on my side of the question.
I do not mean to distress you. If I loved you less I should never give you an uneasy moment. But hear me. All my fretful doubts arise from this. Women are not used to weigh and separate the motives of their affections: the cold dictates of prudence, gratitude, or filial duty, may sometimes be mistaken for the pleadings of the heart. I would not boast—yet let me say, that I have neither age, person, nor character, to found dislike on; my fortune such as few ladies could be charged with indiscretion in the match. O Julia! when love receives such countenance from prudence, nice minds will be suspicious of its birth.
Ah! my soul, what a life will we then live! Love shall be our idol and support! we will worship him with a monastic strictness; abjuring all worldly toys, to centre every thought and action there. Proud of calamity, we will enjoy the wreck of wealth; while the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our pure love show doubly bright. By Heavens! I would fling all goods of fortune from me with a prodigal hand, to enjoy the scene where I might clasp my Lydia to my bosom, and say, the world affords no smile to me but here—[Embracing her.] [Aside.] If she holds out now, the devil is in it!
[Aside.] Now could I fly with him to the antipodes! but my persecution is not yet come to a crisis.
What can you mean?—Has Lydia changed her mind?—I should have thought her duty and inclination would now have pointed to the same object.
Ay, just as the eyes do of a person who squints: when her love-eye was fixed on me, t'other, her eye of duty, was finely obliqued: but when duty bid her point that the same way, off t'other turned on a swivel, and secured its retreat with a frown!
Why, is it not provoking? when I thought we were coming to the prettiest distress imaginable, to find myself made a mere Smithfield bargain of at last! There, had I projected one of the most sentimental elopements!—so becoming a disguise!—so amiable a ladder of ropes!—Conscious moon—four horses—Scotch parson—with such surprise to Mrs. Malaprop—and such paragraphs in the newspapers!—Oh, I shall die with disappointment!
I don't wonder at it!
Now—sad reverse!—what have I to expect, but, after a deal of flimsy preparation with a bishop's license, and my aunt's blessing, to go simpering up to the altar; or perhaps be cried three times in a country church, and have an unmannerly fat clerk ask the consent of every butcher in the parish to join John Absolute and Lydia Languish, spinster! Oh that I should live to hear myself called spinster!