George Justice, Editor
Before Austen

The Reform’d Coquet, Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady, and The Accomplish’d Rake

By Mary Davys, ed. Martha F. Bowden.
The University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
xlvi + 253 pages.
Paperback. $16.95.

Reviewed by Priscilla Gilman.

Renewed attention to the work of Restoration and 18th Century women writers over the past decade has resulted in a major revision to our sense of the history and development of the novel. Until fairly recently, courses on and histories of the novel began with Defoe or Richardson, and criticism of the 18th Century novel focused on the work of the canonical male novelists. With their series “Eighteenth-Century Novels by Women,” the University Press of Kentucky has been instrumental in the processes both of recovering female voices and of re-opening the question “Where and how does the novel rise?” A recent publication in the series, three short novels—The Reform’d Coquet, Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady, and The Accomplish’d Rake—by the Anglo-Irish author Mary Davys (1674–1732), allows us access to another interesting and important female novelist of the early 18th Century.

The novels are prefaced by Martha Bowden’s astute and informative editorial introduction, which posits Davys as simultaneously unusual and representative. In contrast to some of her better-known contemporaries, such as Eliza Haywood or Aphra Behn, Davys was held in high esteem by male authors of the period, and she made deliberate attempts to associate herself, despite her gender, with the Augustan wits. Moreover, her work differs from that of other women writers of her period and anticipates Austen in its subtlety and discretion: there is no overt eroticism, transparent autobiography, or polemical argument in her works. At the same time, however, Davys is typical of early 18th Century authors, especially female ones, in her intense concern for her reputation and her self-consciousness about the dangers of venturing into print.

The novels themselves are both amusing and provocative. The first text in the volume, and my favorite, is The Reform’d Coquet (1724), which recounts the tale of Amoranda, a fundamentally good but frivolous young lady, and the taming of her careless ways by Alanthus, a wise and handsome man who loves her. Dedicated “To the Ladies of Great Britain,” the novel “contains words of admonishment and advice” for young women of marriageable age. The following excerpt from the dedication is representative of both the author’s moral agenda and her lighthearted approach: “When you grow weary of Flattery, and begin to listen to matrimonial Addresses, chuse a Man with fine sense, as well as a fine Wigg, and let him have some Merit, as well as much Embroidery.” The agent of morality within the text is Alanthus, who disguises himself as an old man, “Formator,” and takes up residence in Amoranda’s house to insinuate himself into her good graces and dispense his words of guidance and advice. “Open to all the Temptations that Youth, Beauty, Fortune, and flashy Wit could expose her to” and pursued by a host of unscrupulous and unsavory admirers, Amoranda is ultimately reformed as a result of the moralizing Formator’s wise maxims and “wholesome lectures.” The text champions the value of what it calls “unfashionable qualities” like “virtue, Modesty, and an innate Love to Honour” over the “greedy Desire of Flattery” which infects the female sex. But it’s no conduct-book; filled with episodes of cross-dressing and masquerade, mysterious plots, and wild adventures, The Reform’d Coquet is a fun, light read.

Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady presents a series of letters between Berina, a Whig and a progressive when it comes to gender relations, and Artander, a Tory and somewhat of a misogynist. The two carry on a sophisticated flirtation under the guise of a platonic friendship and discuss topics ranging from politics to gender identity to desire, courtship, and marriage to religion, with humor and charm. Their spirited debates and friendly arguments provide a revealing, at times satiric, window onto early 18th Century society, and their relationship is depicted with psychological nuance and subtlety.

The third and final work in the volume is The Accomplish’d Rake or Modern Fine Gentleman: Being An Exact Description of the Conduct and Behavior of A Person of Distinction. Dedicated “to the Beaus of Great-Britain,” it presents itself as a kind of cautionary tale for lascivious young men. Davys provides an interesting psychological basis for the development of rakishness; the titular rake, Sir John Galliard, turns to a life of sensual indulgence only after being devastated by the sexual improprieties of his mother.  In its account of a “virtuous woman betrayed, raped while drugged, her life apparently ruined, and her family distraught” (the editor’s words), the text importantly prefigures Richardson’s Clarissa, but unlike Clarissa, Davys’ heroine, Belinda, is not destroyed by the violation; she lives to bear a son, and when confronted with his son, Sir John reforms. Bowden points out the obvious “reference to, and…reversal of, Pope’s character in ‘The Rape of the Lock’” and provides an illuminating discussion of the relationships between Clarissa and Belinda and the two Belindas.

I had only vague knowledge of Davys’ life and work before reading this volume. The novels were a delightful surprise. Not merely of scholarly, historical, or contextual interest, they were entertaining and engaging—in short, good reads! This new edition is attractively packaged: easy to read, well laid-out, and judiciously annotated. I am delighted to be able to enthusiastically recommend this volume not only to scholars of the 18th-Century novel but also to all engaged readers of 18th-Century fiction.

Priscilla Gilman is an assistant professor of English at Vassar College. Her article on Pride and Prejudice appeared in Persuasions 22 (2000).

JASNA News v.19, no. 3, Winter 2003, p. 24

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