William Wycherly's The Country Wife and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband” both open a discourse on female sexual desire and fidelity, representing similar ideas. Both works consider the constraints of honour and societal expectations upon women, and the double standard for fidelity between husbands and wives. Ultimately the works present a final statement through consequences for women affected by the issues, with different views about the future for oppressed women.
Montagu's “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband” opens the discourse upon repressed female sexuality with a very plain statement that “Too, too severely laws of honour bind / The weak submissive sex of womankind” (Montagu ll. 9-10). The speaker describes women as weak and submissive, using the very concepts society uses to maintain the binds upon women to reinforce the truth of the statement. The speaker is clear that honour is the tool used to maintain the oppression, as society self-monitors and moderates individuals. In Wycherly's The Country Wife honour is also to blame for controlling women's sexuality. Horner observes that women of honour “are only chary of their reputations, not their persons, and 'tis scandal they would avoid, not men” (Wycherly 183). This reinforces the representation of honour as binding and controlling women's behaviour. Further, it introduces the concept of female sexual desire, in suggesting that women ultimately avoid affairs due to the societal repercussions.
Montagu's “Epistle” also discusses female sexual desire, claiming that “Nature with equal fire our souls endued” (Montagu ll. 26). Female desire is constructed as natural and equivalent to male desire. This emphasizes the speaker's view of women as equals to men, with the same needs but not the same rights. Montagu's work builds on this view an argument for the illogical basis of societal expectations. Women have the same instincts as men and, according to societal belief, “Our sex's weakness” (Montagu ll. 32), or original sin and female susceptibility to passions. However, the speaker makes it clear that societal expectations of faithfulness do not allow for these aspects of womanhood. She claims that “Whatever motive binds the fatal tie, / The judging world expects our constancy” (Montagu ll. 13-14), making it clear that no exceptions or conditions are made for the laws of honour.
Wycherly's The Country Wife examines the issues of constancy and fidelity through Alithea, a character who exposes society's unrealistic expectations by meeting them and enduring more than is reasonable. She remains faithful to her fiancé when she falls in love with another man, despite her fiancé's foolishness. In the face of her adherence to the laws of honour Harcourt questions, “Have women only constancy when 'tis a vice?” (Wycherly 205). This demonstrates not only that Alithea is outside of the norm, in her ability to remain faithful, but that even while he acknowledges...