The Squandering of Wit College

The Squandering of Wit

Women living in the long eighteenth century in England found themselves snagged in a male-spun web of expectations and exclusions. Despite wit being considered a desirable quality in a woman, the expression of wit was only acknowledged favorably when it was perceived as being beneficial to men. Daniel Defoe writes that the compliment of wit was only paid to a woman who could stay within her feminine role, and use her intellect to enhance that role with an acute attention and awareness of social graces. In Jane Austen’s Emma, for instance, the heroine is drawn to taking on additional roles in order to elevate herself into a position of augmented power. Taking on the role of a matchmaker, queen of her social circle, and Lord of Hartfield, allow her to extend her reach of influence and control beyond that of her given role as a single woman. The unnamed Lady of Haywood’s Fantomina discards her well-bred role in exchange for the power of freedom in pursuing her desires and designs, free of the consequences of a tarnished reputation. Consequently, the literature of the long eighteenth century suggests that wit was a double-edged sword for these women, as it allowed them to gain social influence, but also made...

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