Women in a Man's World in Eliza Fenwick's Secresy

Women in a Man's World in Eliza Fenwick's Secresy
In examining how women fit into the "men's world" of the late eighteenth century, I studied Eliza Fenwick's novel Secresy and its treatment of women, particularly in terms of education. What I found to be most striking in the novel is the clash between two very different approaches to the education of women. One of these, the traditional view, is amply expressed by works such as Jean-Jaques Rousseau's Emile, which states that women have a natural tendency toward obedience and therefore education should be geared to enhance these qualities (Rousseau, pp. 370, 382, 366). Dr. John Gregory's A Father's Legacy to His Daughters also belongs to this school of thought, stating that wit is a woman's "most dangerous talent" and is best kept a well-guarded secret so as not to excite the jealousy of others (Gregory, p. 15). This view, which sees women as morally and intellectually inferior, is expressed in the novel in the character of Mr. Valmont, who incarcerates his orphaned niece in a remote part of his castle. He asserts that he has determined her lot in life and that her only duty is to obey him "without reserve or discussion" (Fenwick, p.55). This oppressive view of education served to keep women subservient by keeping them in an ignorant, child-like state. By denying them access to true wisdom and the right to think, women were reduced to the position of "a timid, docile slave, whose thoughts, will, passions, wishes, should have no standard of their own, but rise, or change or die as the will of the master should require"
Opposing this view is the radical, or feminist, version of education, echoed in the works of such authors as Mary Wollstonecraft and Hester Chapone. Chapone, a member of the feminist bluestockings, writes in her Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady that young girls should "seize every opportunity of improvement" through the study of "those persons, and those books, from which you can learn true wisdom." In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft presents the idea that women could be on par with men if they were given an equal education. This idea is clearly expressed in the character of Sibella Valmont, Mr. Valmont's niece, who at one point tells her learned friend, Caroline Ashburn:

I feel within the vivifying principle of intellectual life. My expanding faculties are nurtured by the passing hours! and want but the beams of instruction, to ripen into power and energy that would steep my present inactive life in forgetfulness. (74)

Although Mr. Valmont denies Sibella the instruction she once received from his son's tutor, both her and Caroline realize the potential of her superior mind. This is quite a change from the traditional views on female education, which held that women did not have the mental capacity to learn mathematics, sciences, and all the other subjects presented to young men. In this way, the radical view of education attempts to liberate women by teaching them to think for themselves and better preparing them for life in the real world, thus breaking the bond of dependency that kept them fettered to a man's care.

While the clash of these two ideas seemed to me a paramount feature of the novel, I found it interesting that of the five contemporary reviews I read on the book, only one of them mentions a tyrannical system of education (Monthly Review, p. 110). One of the reviewers dismissed the book as trite and far fetched (British Critic, p. 545), while the rest perceived the novel as a moral tale warning about the danger of secrecy and deceit (English Review, p 473, Analytical Review, pp. 60-61; Critical Review, pp. 349-51). It seems that the one thing that did make an impression on these reviewers was Sibella's attempt to keep her pregnancy a secret, as their reviews gave the impression that her tragic end was a just reward for her deception. In this light, it appears that the traditional view of education was still widely accepted as the norm, since most of the reviewers did not seem offended by Mr. Valmont's treatment of Sibella while they seemed profoundly offended by Sibella as she steps out of line. Perhaps this is why Fenwick originally published the novel anonymously -- partly because it was considered inappropriate for women to write books and partly because she recognized the radical nature of the ideas she was presenting and feared persecution for them.

Women in a Man's World in Eliza Fenwick's Secresy 9.8 of 10 on the basis of 1620 Review.