Coquettes, Wives, and Widows

Marcie Ray’s new book Coquettes, Wives, and Widows: Gender Politics in French Baroque Opera and Theater is a timely and significant study of how composers and dramatists of early modern France criticized and trivialized independent women in their portrayals of them in works of theater and opera. Has so much changed for single women since that time? Professor Ray explores this topic in today’s blogpost. 

Can women have it all, should they settle for less, or is marriage even worth it?[1] These queries conceal as much as they reveal since they take marriage to be the normative destiny for women even today. Yet, we have been asking such questions for hundreds of years. Early modern French culture bears witness to these preoccupations.

Women in mid-seventeenth century aristocratic Parisian salons and literature dreamed up surprising answers. One delicious example is the epistolary dialogue between King Louis XIV’s cousin Anne-Marie Louise d’Orléans, the duchesse de Montpensier, and Françoise Bertaut de Motteville, a lady-in-waiting to the king’s mother. In May 1660, at the young king’s wedding festivities, Montpensier invents a utopia with no married people. She condemns matrimony’s effect upon women in particular:

marriage is that which has given men the upper hand, … this dependence to which custom subjects us, often against our will and because of family obligations of which we have been the victims, is what has caused us to be named the weaker sex. Let us at last deliver ourselves from this slavery (47 and 49).

Seventeenth-century women’s resistance to marriage provided fertile material for playwrights and librettists well into the next century. These (male) writers puzzled over the unmarried woman, largely concluding that marriage plotted the safest path for women because it curbed their natural vices. Even the operas and comedies that allowed female characters choice in marriage reinscribe traditional feminine faults including irrationality, deception, vanity, and concupiscence. Indeed, operatic heroines wield such enormous sexual influence that it aspires to destroy families, class boundaries, the monarchy, and general social order. Importantly, librettists and playwrights also portrayed marriage as their heroines’ ultimate goal even when (and perhaps because) women were imagining other possibilities.

In spite of their warnings about licentious unmarried women, however, these operas and comedies also point to the fragility and even irony of the “happy ending,” a denouement becoming more popular in contemporaneous stage works. The title character in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Platée, for example, gets all the way to the altar before the wedding is revealed to be an elaborate hoax. Humiliated, she is left to despair her unmarriageability. Other operas allow rich widows to make disastrous matches, which audiences know cannot last far beyond the vows.

What I appreciate about these works is their relevance for today. When watching The Bachelor series, for instance, spectators may imagine that engagement offers a felicitous conclusion to the season, even though we know that only a scant few relationships lasted even until the wedding. More insidious is the way such shows winnow down the contestants, separating marriageable people from the unmarriageable. In its own way, French comic opera and theater charted this terrain, inviting audience members to laugh at female characters who were too loud, too opinionated, too subversive. As a result, we can develop a critical consciousness around the cultural desire historically and today to position marriage as women’s preferred destination and the conclusion that a stable marriage rests on the ideal woman.

[1] See Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” The Atlantic, (2012):; Lorri Gottlieb, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (Dutton, 2010); Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (New York: Broadway Books, 2015); Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

This guest post was written by Marcie Ray, Associate Professor of Musicology at Michigan State University.

Coquettes, Wives, and Widows
By Marcie Ray
9781580469883, Hardback, £42.25 or $55.25

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