Carnivorous Marriage in Restoration London
Astell's essay on marriage should help prepare you for The Way of the World's social customs and morals, except that the she may have understated the case somewhat with respect to the carnivorous sport they call courtship and marriage. In Jonson's Volpone, Mosca praises his master for being unlike other frauds because he will not "devour / Soft prodigals. You shal ha' some will swallow / A melting heir as glibly as your Dutch / Will pills of butter..." (I.140-43). In a metaphor that almost seems literal, a young person with an inheritance is a consumable commodity in London's "world." Mirabell and Fainall, the "rakes," are the top of the play's food chain. They must spend so much to support their lifestyles that they have to devour more than one woman's dowry to support their leisured lives of gambling, drinking, and fashionable dress. Millamant is the main prize because she is a young widow whose fortune lies in the control of her guardian, the vain and easily manipulated Lady Wishfort. Nearly as valuable, Mrs. Fainall (Lady W's daughter) was Mirabell's first "score." Because he is the "reformed rake," he takes care to see her properly married when their affair is no longer convenient, for the usual reasons when people are having unmarried sex without birth control (see Act II, Scene IV where Mirabell somewhat indelicately reminds her why she is married to the beast, Fainall). Mrs. Marwood is at the bottom of the food chain. She is so dependent upon her affair with Fainall for survival as they spend Mrs. Fainall's money that she will scheme to help him divorce her and marry Millamant to replenish their fortunes.
But although, as Astell told us, everyone asks of a woman "what will she bring" to the marriage, in terms of money or land, in this "World" nobody talks so openly about money unless they are mad, like Lady Wishfort when she is insane with jealousy. The only other character who talks openly about money is the lone outsider, Sir Wilful Witwoud, half-brother of the fop, Tony, from way up-country in Shropshire (viz., West Virginia to inhabitants of D.C., or Ohio for New Yorkers). Until the final act, the play reveals its most important socio-economic motives in whispers and guarded euphemisms, beneath the frothing seas of stylish banter that the characters call "wit." Now you know why Astell and Behn thought "wit" was so important. Wit is the universal language of Restoration England's high society, the armor of impudence and immorality, the revenge of wounded vanity, the deflating sting of just indignation. To navigate 1700 London without wit would be as unthinkable for the men in this play as to travel without their rapiers, the dueling swords with which they are supposed to be ready, at a moment's notice, to challenge any insult to their "honor." Because "honor" in men and women has become purely dependent upon what other people say about them, this play illustrates almost a pure "shame" culture, one in which almost anything can be done as long as people do not talk openly about it. No internal sense of "blame" is sufficient to stop vice or folly. One word said in public, however, can destroy one's social standing in an instant. Hence the swords, and the wit, and the secrecy and schemes.