“Our wives, like their writings, [are] never safe but in our closets under lock and key,” claims Pinchwife, my favourite source of quotes when it comes to William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy, The Country Wife. The association of women and writing, which is a recurring motif in this comedy, casts light upon a serious contemporary issue of the Restoration period, which is the male anxiety over female self-assertion. Since women became the legal properties of their husbands, they had practically no chance of establishing a separate self-identity – however, as Wycherley points out, they could find ways of claiming some authority over their own lives through the cunning manipulation of their husbands, even “under lock and key.”
Margery Pinchwife is one of the key figures in resisting the male oppression, although with a limited number of weapons in her reach. It is in the letter-writing scene where writing becomes her very own personal weapon in the domestic battle with her husband over the definition of her self-identity. Jon Lance Bacon, author of a noteworthy article on the play, interprets the letter-writing scene as a “contest” over who should have the authority to define Margery’s identity. Nonetheless, I am beginning to realize that this contest is not just about the tyrannical dictation and the rebellious revision any more: it is also about the symbolic importance of every single act. Bacon seems to conclude the same idea when he observes, “Wycherley emphasizes the subversiveness of [Margery’s] act of writing by having Margery apply her husband’s seal – the stamp of his identity – to a letter which expresses her true emotions and thus affirms her own identity.”
What really strikes me in this latter observation is the fact that, besides the physical act of writing, the symbolic acts constitute an equally valid and important factor in the battle against the patriarchal authority. Indeed, Margery’s subversiveness hits the target, and gains its final approval from Wycherley when, according to Bacon, he [Wycherley] “makes a fool out of Pinchwife by having Pinchwife unwittingly confirm the meaning which has displaced his own” and “Pinchwife informs Horner that he is delivering a love letter from Margery.” While believing himself a cunning folk, Pinchwife fails to realise that, in fact, he was the one to be outwitted by his wife – and that he has lost the domestic battle.