The Way of the World is all about the control of women. The plot of the play, first produced in 1700, is complex even by Restoration standards, but it can be understood by tracing the routes various characters take in disposing of the heroine, Millamant, in marriage—along with the bulk of her fortune. Millamant is a vastly wealthy heiress, possessed of a whopping £12,000 a year. She loves the rakish hero Mirabell, but she is prevented from marrying him by her sexually voracious but hypocritically virtuous older aunt, Lady Wishfort—whose “wish-for-it” name says it all! As the play opens, Lady Wishfort controls fully half of Millamant’s fortune, and if Lady Wishfort can bring about a marriage for her niece with the completely unsuitable Sir Willful Witwoud, Lady Wishfort will control all of Millamant’s fortune.
In the 16th century, young women of wealthy families had little say in their marriage arrangements. And if the marriage involved very, very wealthy families, the unions were more like mergers than sacraments. We might remember, for example, the contract between the monied family of Lady Viola de Lesseps and the bankrupt but aristocratic Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. During the course of the 17th century, women began to claim a “right of refusal,” the option to reject an arrangement undertaken by the family but deemed inappropriate or loathsome by the young woman herself. But it was not until the early 19th century that women presented their families with their own romantic choices: Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, actively rejects Mr. Collins as a suitor and conducts her deepening relationship with Mr. Darcy in the absence of parental interference. At the beginning of the 18th century, however, Millamant is still inextricably tied financially to her aunt, and thus vulnerable to the older woman’s marriage plans for her.
More importantly, Millamant is blocked from a final romantic arrangement with Mirabell by her own reluctance. She hesitates to surrender the single most intense moment of personal choice a Restoration heroine will ever have: as a desirable object in the marriage market, a single woman moves through that social world more freely than she will ever be allowed to roam again—flattered, courted and wooed by rich and handsome men, and envied by married women who have already surrendered their freedom. One of the most significant contributions The Way of the World makes to the genre of the comedy of manners is Congreve’s bringing about a harmonious intermingling of love and money through the staging of the highly self-conscious set of negotiations between Millamant and Mirabell.
In act 4, we finally see Millamant and Mirabell alone in Lady Wishfort’s house. There, they engage in a startlingly modern set of negotiations, even if they share a single object of mutual concern: control of Millamant’s body and her actions. In a scene that is simultaneously a playful, flirtatious form of love-making and a serious exchange about the limits each will accept on her behavior, Millamant opens by demanding that she control the ways she conducts herself in the social arena, including her behavior in her own intimate, personal spaces: she wants to lie in bed all morning if she chooses; pay and receive visits from people of her choice; write and receive letters without Mirabell’s interference; and be “sole empress” of her tea-table. Most surprising of all, she demands of Mirabell, “wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come in.” These are outrageous conditions for any 17th-century woman to propose, for they would produce an unheard-of degree of personal autonomy and social freedom for Millamant.
We also note that she never even attempts to seek similar control of him; the world of 1700 was not yet ready for that conversation. For his part, Mirabell wants to direct what she does with her body. He insists, for instance, that she not tinker with her natural beauty by using messy cosmetics or smelly night creams: “Item, I article, that you continue to like your own face as long as I shall, and while it passes current with me, that you endeavor not to new-coin it.” But he becomes much more insistent when he references the sexual nature of their relationship—specifically her behavior while pregnant. Mirabell says, “When you shall be breeding … I denounce against all strait lacing, squeezing for a shape, till you mould my boy’s head like a sugar loaf.” While there is a dash of humor in imagining their poor child’s head squeezed into a loaf shape by her too-tight corset, Mirabell is quite clear that he will not have the future of his family threatened by a wife’s vanity or selfish adherence to fashion. He will direct the actions of her pregnant body in order to control not only the health of their future child (not surprisingly, the child is a boy in Mirabell’s imagination) but also the health of their future estate.
Not one word about money is ever uttered in this dialogue, and yet an audience feels a certain sense of security and completion witnessing this exchange, as if the “real” elements of a successful marriage have been worked out. We ultimately discover that the marriage is truly secured only in the last act, and not through negotiation but through the time-honored (if morally suspect) back-stage machinations of the hero to undermine the villains: Mirabell successfully tricks Lady Wishfort and makes her beholden to him. He reveals that, through a legal fiction, he has kept the fortune of Lady Wishfort’s daughter out of the hands of her money-grubbing, blackmailing husband. Most importantly, Mirabell wins sufficient gratitude from Lady Wishfort so that she approves of his marriage to Millamant—accompanied by the full 12,000 pounds and his intended’s surrender to his ultimate authority.
We come to understand that Mirabell has worked all along to block the villains and to “protect” the bodies—and the fortunes—of vulnerable women, shielding them from others who would abuse them. The witty libertine of the early Restoration comedies is gone by 1700, replaced by this much more modern hero, a man who meets his match in the new heroine—a woman whose status as an object in the marriage market may not be overcome, but who can, through self-conscious negotiation, secure for herself a future that includes some measure of personal autonomy and happiness.
Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
College of Charleston