Born in 1675, Elizabeth Thomas was the only child of Elizabeth Osborne and Emmanuel Thomas. Despite her gender, she was very well educated and by her mid-twenties, she was a part of a literary circle and had shown her works to various distinguished writers such as John Dryden. Throughout her life, she published many works such as her Miscellany Poetry, which included her poem ‘The Forsaken Wife’. Written in 1722, ‘The Forsaken Wife’ is the poem that I’ll be focusing upon and the contextual influences shown throughout the poem.
Firstly, the political influences. At this current time, the monarch was George the 1st and the Whig party was in parliament. The Whig party believed in the power of the public’s consent and that non-conformity should be tolerated, leading to more public opinions being voiced and an increase in social politics. Now, one could make the point that due to the Wigs promotion of acceptance, more women felt at ease to write but in contrast to their ideals of acceptance, the Wig part still classed women to be 2nd class citizens within society. However, I would like to focus on the politics that concerned the action of marriage and how they influenced Thomas. Within ‘The Forsaken Wife’, there is one line which I believe to have particular political connotations within the time period and this is ‘I yet superior am to you’ .At the time period, married women were not only seen as lower-class citizens by society but they were also classified by law as such. The Coverture doctrine at this time stripped a married woman of her own legal rights, placing her powerless within the relationship and yet unable to leave it due to societal expectations. The unnamed woman within the poem who laments of her husband’s infidelity and her inability to leave it show this. Due to her loyalty to her husband and to the restrictions of the time, she cannot leave him but in contrast to the roles provided by society and the Coverture doctrine, she sees herself as the more powerful of the two.
Secondly, we must also look at the cultural state in which Thomas was writing. Towards the beginning of the 18th century, much cultural work e.g. art, music, was centred around the aristocracy, gentry and life at court, with more exotic and gothic influences coming in later. However I would like to pay particular attention to the culture of literature at this point.
Much of the literature within this time period was created with the aim of expanding the reading public and as such literature became less reliant on patronage. Also, this time period signified the Enlightenment within culture, with more literature being published which questioned some of the institutionalised ideals e.g. religion, marriage. However women’s view and opinions are still oppressed to an extent within this cultural period. Within ‘The Forsaken Wife’, we can see some cultural influences such as its lack of complex language as to appeal to a larger reading public. However, the main cultural point of relevance concerning this poem is its publication. Thomas’ anthology ‘Miscellany Poems’ in which this poem was published was self-published. Whilst this could be Thomas trying to appeal to a wider public but it could also be to do with the other cultural point. Thomas is a woman writing about a social taboo of the time: infidelity within a marriage and as a result, a power reversal within the couple where the woman views herself as above the husband. As such, I doubt that this poem would have been published by anyone else as it’s quite controversial and at this time, despite the enlightenment, women’s views were still being oppressed.
Lastly, there are the social implications, with particular reference to marriage in society. Within this time period, there was the introduction of certain marriage laws e.g. the requirement of certain marriage rituals and there was much emphasis put upon marriage, particularly in the upper classes, as “The marriage system was essentially the property system”. As such, marriages were of convenience rather than of affection and much of the time, extramarital affairs were common as shown when John. R. Gillis writes, “They were shamed by neither their concubines nor their bastards”. This quote links very nicely to the second stanza in ‘The Forsaken Wife’. We can interpret from how broken the wife sounds in the second stanza, that her husband has made a lack of effort to hide his infidelities from his wife.
Also I believe the last stanza to be important in terms of society’s predetermined roles within marriage. Within the first stanza, the lexical choices of ‘one pitying look, one parting word’ gives the impression that the wife views herself as subservient, she knows that her husband wont stop, but she at least wants him to give her a degree of sympathy. In the second stanza, she seems more passionate, as if the betrayal of her husband has finally dawned upon her. She starts to place herself in a higher regard than her husband, thus going against social norms. By the last stanza, she is openly protesting against the double standards within society, noting that if there was a man who could put up with the injustices and remain silent, she will go back to her original roles and view her husband as her superior, but until then she will continue to see herself as above her husband, and to an extent men in general.
Amber is an eighteen-year-old student, who is currently studying English Literature and Media at Bath Spa University. This blog post was written after studying eighteenth century women poets as part of her course, a topic that sparked much interest in her. She is very interested in pursuing a career in writing and hopes to one day write professionally.
Briggs, Asa, How They Lived: Volume III. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1969.
Gillis, John R. For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the present [Online]. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985. Available from: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=t3kiLAQxrnMC&source=gbs_navlinks_s [Accessed on 7th November 2014]