The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys is definitely my second favourite in this anthology. It’s another wonderfully over the top story that used elements from theatre but also elements which may look absurd in theatre and are, if anything, cartoon gags brought to the page.
Our latest woman with an improbable and unmemorable name is Amoranda and I hope it’s no surprise that she is exceedingly attractive and witty. From a very early age she is told of her beauty and she quickly believes it. She spurns her dollies and all childish amusements and works on practicing her languid looks and seductive poses. The mother and father, having her late in their lives, and she be the only surviving child, encourage this behaviour and very quickly snuff it, leaving her with everything and only a distant uncle as protector.
We know where this book is going, there’s a man called Lord Lofty who has nice legs and a winning way but it’s not as straightforward as that. Amoranda is not a pure innocent who shall be won over by the first tight-bunned bowing gentleman because she was a “Heart like a Great Inn, which finds room for all that come” and there are more people with designs on her.
There are two other men, Froth and Callid - one being all affectation and the other dourness (guess which is which) and they are fed up of being played around by Amoranda, for there’s another thing about her, she may be a little too open and a little too keen on flattery but she’s no idiot. She also has a sense of humour. Amoranda enjoys playing them off with each other and the two of them off of Lord Lofty.
She’s also one of the very few women characters I’ve read in eighteenth century literature who are described as witty and actually gets a chance to show it. When walking with Lord Lofty, she sees the other two men fishing and says to him, “Let’s go fish.” He, not happy with being blown off again declares, “hang the fish,” to which she replies, “I suppose we should, for they’ll not drown.” It’s not a great joke - but it is an actual joke and a far cry from Charlotte Lennox’s Sophia where we were told again and again of her wit and never saw it.
Back to Froth and Callid though, who plan to abduct Amoranda, one to rape her and the two to share their fortune. Luckily she find out about this plan but doesn’t know what to do about it. Again she’s in luck though as an agéd and bearded representative of her uncle turns up with a plan. He and a young manservant plan to dress as Amoranda and her maid, wait to be abducted and then beat the rapscallions up with cudgels.
This plan works better than expected, the two cads hurt everywhere but their tongues and are quickly sent packing. They also blame each other for the plan going wrong and run each other through in a duel. This leaves only Lofty to dispatch of.
Again, just by chance, a young woman called Altimira passes by. She has a sob-story about the Lord Lofty. He was playing the typical rake game like Lysander before and had his wicked way with her, winning her over with a promise to marry which suspiciously disappeared - and which he’d accidentally dropped in Amoranda’s garden, getting ready to play the same trick again. This mean Amoranda (with the help of her uncle’s agéd friend) can force Lofty to marry Altimira, which is apparently a happy result.
And this should be where the book ends but it isn’t. It’s where things get truly weird.
On her way back from celebrating Lord Lofty and Altimira’s wedding, her coach is overtaken and overturned as armed men try and steal her away but are driven off by a group of men led by her uncle’s agéd friend.
A little later a friend of Amoranda’s turns up with a friend of her own. Uncle’s agéd F is sure that the second woman is a man in disguise, but Amoranda thinks that a ridiculous premise. She admits, she finds it strange that the new woman doesn’t want to share a bed with her, but she must only be shy. It’s on a lovely boating trip for the three women into the impenetrable woods that Amoranda discovers it’s not so ridiculous after all. The enfrocked man and his evil, female accomplice drag her off, luckily she is rescued by a mysterious hot man she sort of recognises. There’s a fight and man-in-dress dies quite horribly, it also turns out he was the coach attacker earlier.
Now is the mystery, who was hot man and does it matter because uncle’s choice of husband is coming soon. Well, it’s all fine as uncle’s agéd bearded friend was none other than hot man, who is also uncle’s choice of husband. Amoranda did wonder why his beard never seemed to grow and was always so neat.
They marry, happy endings all round - and it’s pretty obvious what a peculiarly cartoony piece of work it is, with it’s tidy sticky-on beard and men dressed as women who are mostly convincing. Not to mention people doing away with each other in duels and toffs leaving important secret boxes about. It’s not quite a parody of the genre, but it has enormous fun with the ridiculous nature of this kind of novel and I had fun with it.