Women’s Lib and the Chastity Police: Explorations of Female Friendship in The Platonic Wife (1765), by Elizabeth Griffith

Essay by Catherine Newcomb
Dr. Leuner
May 16, 2018

The Platonic Wife, a play written by British author Elizabeth Griffith in 1765, explores themes of female oppression and the patriarchal usage of women for economic advancement through the story of the separation of a man and woman, Lord and Lady Frankland (their first names are never used). The reason for Lord and Lady Frankland separation is different according to each spouse: Lady Frankland believes it is because she is so consumed with the sentimentalism of her romance novels that she holds her husband to a high romantic standard that he can never hope to achieve. On the other hand, Lord Frankland reveals through conversations with his servants that he has separated from his wife to test her virtue; in other words, to see if she will engage in romantic or sexual liaisons with other men whilst they are separated. Throughout the course of their separation, Lady Frankland associates mostly with her friends. She discovers that many of her male friends only desire her acquaintance for sexual, romantic, and economic reasons. Her female friends serve another purpose entirely. With these, she discusses female expectations of romantic love, the extent to which women can have freedom in an inherently patriarchal society, and the virtue that women are expected to exhibit. Especially in the eighteenth century, female friendships served to create communities of intellectual connection, as well as avenues for women to voice their frustrations with men and societal standards; however, female friendships often also served to regulate adherence to values of chastity and idealize the marriage union. In The Platonic Wife, female friendships serve these two opposing functions in different scenarios, depending on the friendship. In the present paper, I will discuss the ways in which this is exhibited by the friendships between and among Lady Frankland, Lady Fanshaw, Clarinda, and Emilia. I will argue that for a variety of reasons, for women during the eighteenth century and for Lady Frankland in The Platonic Wife, falling into expectations of marital harmony and extramarital chastity appeared much more secure and even appealing when women had friends who extolled these values.

The Platonic Wife was the first play from a very prolific writer. Elizabeth Griffith, a playwright, novelist, actress, and literary critic, was born in 1727 (Napier). While not a completely unknown entity, much of Elizabeth Griffith’s work remains unstudied among literary critics, especially her earlier plays. Griffith was born in Wales, and eventually settled in Dublin with her parents. Her father was the owner of a Dublin-based theater company, and from a young age, Griffith was enchanted by the theater and by acting. In 1751, she married Richard Griffith, and they had two children. Her husband, who was a multiple-time failed entrepreneur, was often in debt and travelled frequently to avoid prosecution from the debt courts. While her husband was gone, Elizabeth Griffith supported herself and her children with income from her writing (Napier).

During her lifetime, Griffith became famous for A Series of Genuine Letters Between Henry and Frances, a published and edited version of the letters she and her husband wrote each other over the course of their years of courtship. In the letters, “Frances” (Elizabeth’s pseudonym) came across as demure, polite, and virtuous. Griffith often used this reputation to her advantage by appearing demure and polite in public spheres, making sure to often hide her tenacity and ambition except for in her professional spheres (Napier). As Griffith became more successful, it was rumored that her husband was jealous of her and that their marriage was troubled. Richard spent a lot of time in Ireland, and it was reported by another eighteenth century woman writer, Anna Seward, that Richard Griffith had left Elizabeth for a young heiress.

Griffith wrote five comedies for the stage over the course of several years. Most of them were performed in London. However, her first few plays were not terribly successful once she relocated herself and her family to London and began attempting to market her plays to the city’s audiences and critics. Her first few comedies, especially The Platonic Wife and The Double Mistake, were incredibly critical of society’s treatment of women, and reviewers in London often found these themes inappropriate (Napier). Her first play, The Platonic Wife, has not been much studied by scholars, in the eighteenth century or since. Therefore, it is on this play which I have decided to focus my research.

Elizabeth Griffith’s play The Platonic Wife deals with questions of female purity, or “virtue,” and how both men and women understand this characteristic and embody it. The Platonic Wife tells the story of a married couple, Lord and Lady Frankland, who have fallen out, and the ensuing courtships that Lady Frankland receives, as well as their nephew’s plot to inherit his uncle’s fortune. Throughout the play, women are considered either as objects of sexual desire or as tools of economic advancement, or sometimes even as both. Lady Frankland’s suitors, such as Sir Harry and Sir William, seem interested in her from a purely sexual and romantic angle, whereas Mr Frankland, the nephew of Lord and Lady Frankland, is interested in Lady Frankland’s continued separation from her husband so that no heirs might be born from the two of them, and so that he might inherit the fortune. However, rather than exploring themes of the objectification of women during the eighteenth century, I hope to turn instead to the nature of female friendship, which is presented in varying ways throughout the course of the play. As the play is called The Platonic Wife, and the word “Platonics ” is mentioned quite often, I thought it would be useful to examine the role of friendships, particularly female friendships, through the lens of eighteenth century literature by female authors.

Lady Frankland has several female friends that support her throughout the course of the separation. Lady Fanshaw is ten years widowed–presumably quite older than Lady Frankland and her friend Emilia– and generally views her unmarried status as liberating. At the very beginning of the play, she refers to Lady Frankland’s separation as a “happy escape from the galling chain of matrimony” (Griffith 1). She, and her worldly friend Clarinda, often serve to convince Lady Frankland to embrace her freedom, to flirt with her gentlemen friends, and to enjoy her time apart from lord Frankland. Lady Frankland’s friend Emilia on the other hand expresses her sadness and disappointment that Lady Frankland and her husband have separated. She also is portrayed as incredibly proper and virtuous, and is quite scandalized when Mr Frankland–the nephew of Lord Frankland– kisses her and declares his love for her. She states, “Was there ever so rude a monster, as that Charles Frankland! I met him in the ante-chamber, and made him as civil a curtesy, as any third cousin could possibly do, and the bear came up to me, whipt me about the neck, and kissed me with the same rustic freedom he used to do at my father’s in Wales” (Griffith 15). Emilia responds to being kissed by labeling Mr Frankland as rude, and overstepping the societal values of chastity and reserve that she expects of men and of women. By reason of her virtue, Emilia is very well-respected and liked by Lord Frankland, and by many of the other “respectable” men in the play, and he approves of her as a friend for his wife.

Throughout literary history, and particularly throughout male literary history, female friendships are often portrayed as a lens through which romantic relationships are examined and disseminated. Female friends often become competitors for the attention and love of a man, such as in many Shakespeare plays, and in virtually every sappy romantic comedy and cheesy Bollywood movie today. Female friendships, and especially the purpose that female friendships serve when the women involved in them are not competing for the attention of a single man, has often been overlooked in fiction. However, female friendships clearly serve several functions. According to Stephen Curran, author of “Dynamics of female friendship in the later eighteenth century,” women’s friendships were characterized particularly in times of female oppression by “affection [that] fosters shared values and a collaborative ethos, creat[ing] women’s culture and women’s history” (Curran 233). Relationships between women, and discussion of expectations for women, allowed their sex to develop notions of resistance and free thought. In the play, Lady Fanshaw and Clarinda encourage Lady Frankland to flirt with men at a party, and to revel in the fact that she is young and desirable. This kind of female friendship celebrates the manifestations of female sexuality, thereby creating a women’s culture where female liberated sexuality is celebrated.

Lady Fanshaw and Clarinda also discuss the source of Lady Frankland’s romantic expectations, as well as her notions of Platonic friendships. These comments are interspersed with their musings about the gentlemen in their community and their intentions with Lady Frankland. These discussions are a reflection of what Megan Marie Inbody calls the “gossip community” (Inbody 9). These communities served in the eighteenth century as centers for intellectual development, interestingly enough, though we associate gossip today with idleness and vanity. As Inbody writes, in the eighteenth century, “women’s increased public and political presence is due in large part to the early modern gossip community” (Inbody 19). Throughout the play, the women have incredibly intelligent discussions with each other focusing on what friendship truly entails, and whether a woman can ever be truly free and find safety and security without a husband.

Griffith is primarily a moralistic play writer, and she was deeply critical of the way women were treated both as sex objects and as mechanisms for financial and personal advancement in her society. In her own life, she was essentially the primary breadwinner for her family, and through her career in writing she brought great wealth to both herself and to her children (Napier). She also likely was stuck in an unhappy marriage, and dealt with all the psychological stress that being in this situation entails without the prospect of divorce or freedom. In The Platonic Wife, she explores these themes deeply through her titular character, also known as Lady Frankland. From her own experience with expectations of virtue and demureness that others had for her, she is able to write a character who is faced with these similar expectations. Griffith analyzes the way in which social problems such as expectations of “virtue,” as well as human characteristics such as greed, play out in fictitious — mirroring the real– settings. She also addresses issues such as man’s desire to use women for financial gain within the time period.

In the midst of all these issues and obstacles women faced in the eighteenth century, it is clear that a community of women would have been essential for forming and refining a sense of gender identity and relation to the world. In The Platonic Wife, the female friendships serve two somewhat opposing functions: Lady Fanshaw and Clarinda serve to encourage a celebration of female sexuality and to foster an enjoyment of that, while Emilia’s friendship serves as a reminder that women can not hope to achieve much in a society that is oppressive and patriarchal, and that their greatest hope for security, success, and love is in the arms of a husband. As Emilia says to Lady Frankland,  “Nor can a wife e’er find a place of safety, but under the protection of that heaven-appointed guard, her husband” (Griffith 75). These two voices serve to shape Lady Frankland’s view of her own value as well as her understanding of her amount of power outside of her relationship with her husband. While Emilia is portrayed as a naive, carefree, and jovial character, her influence on Lady Frankland is ultimately to make her more pessimistic while estimating her own freedom. Emilia’s friendship serves to undermine the role of female agency, while also reasserting the value of sexual purity.

Emilia downplays Lady Frankland’s romantic notions, ultimately leading Lady Frankland to concede that she is better off with her husband, even though by his own admittance he cannot satisfy her romantic ideals. He states, rather melodramatically, “I found it impossible to act up to her romantic notions; and as I could not make her happy, I determined not to make her wretched, tho’ ’tis too sure that she has rendered me so” (Griffith 34). However, while the two of them are separated, Lord Frankland is testing her to ensure that she remains virtuous. In this way, he almost uses Emilia to his own end. He knows that Emilia is a naive and sexually inexperienced girl who believes in the values of chastity, while Lady Fanshaw (who is a widow) and Clarinda (who is implied to have been the cast aside mistress of an unknown nobleman) are neither. Thus, he encourages his wife’s friendship with Emilia. As Curran writes of eighteenth century female friendships, “the male members of a household actually encouraged…passionate friendships between women, especially in adolescence or early adulthood, as a safe surrogate to ward off the dangers of male seduction” (Curran 222). Emilia and Lady Frankland’s close friendship is seen by Lord Frankland as an assurance that Lady Frankland will not run off with another man. He trusts Emilia’s complete acceptance of the value of female chastity to regulate his wife’s behavior. In fact, he almosts trusts Emilia to influence his wife more than he trusts his own influence over his wife. This could be arguably one reason why Lord Frankland believed that the separation would be effectual in ensuring and reasserting Lady Frankland’s virtue. Ultimately, whether or not the audience interprets that Lord Frankland understands the regulatory power of female friendship, it is the value Emilia herself places on virtue and the way she holds up marriage as the greatest experience a woman can aspire to that influences Lady Frankland to realize that her only security is with her husband.
Female friendships in The Platonic Wife serve two opposing purposes: first, to discuss the problem of the patriarchal oppression of women and the inability for women to freely express their sexualities, and second, to police that sexuality and to reaffirm the influence of the institution of marriage. Ultimately, Lady Frankland is more influenced by her friendship with Emilia and the messages she receives through her conversations with her. And with Emilia’s persuasion and with her repeated assertions on the values of chastity and the security of marriage, Lady Frankland falls back into her husband arms. Meanwhile, Lord Frankland pens a rude letter to Lady Fanshaw and Clarinda stating that Lady Frankland never wishes to see them again. Lady Frankland, who is unaware of this transgression, vows to cut off contact with Clarinda and Lady Fanshaw when she receives a rude letter to her house in response. Thus, Lady Frankland ends contact with the women who had encouraged her sexual and romantic liberation, and re enters her life of married virtue and wifely responsibility.


Works Cited

Curran, Stuart. “Dynamics of Female Friendship in the Later Eighteenth Century.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 23, no. 2, 1 July 2001, pp. 221–239., doi:10.1080/08905490108583541.

Griffith, Elizabeth. The Platonic Wife, A Comedy. London: Printed for W. Johnston, J. Dodsley, and T. Davies, 1765. ECCO-TCP, quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004792760.0001.000?rgn=main;view=fulltext. Accessed 20 August 2018.

Inbody, Megan Marie. “Town/Gown Relations: the Forms and Functions of Female Gossip Communities and Networks in Early Modern Comedy.” Michigan State University, Dissertation Abstracts International, 2013. MLA International Bibliography [EBSCO], link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/N2812762003/MLA?u=sant38536&sid=MLA&xid=28851 2ea.

Napier, Elizabeth R. “Elizabeth Griffith.” British Novelists, 1660-1800, edited by Martin C. Battestin, Gale, 1985. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 39. Literature Resource Center, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1200002926/GLS?u=sant38536&sid=GLS&xid=76 2b5f4f. Accessed 30 Apr. 2018.

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