Coquettes in Literature: When Women Play the Game

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[ This particular post has been sitting on my computer unfinished since April. It took a while to sit down and write it all out. I’m hoping to post more than just once a month. I’m crossing my finger. ]

Upon reading the last sentence from Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, I found myself thinking back to Turgenev’s First Love. These two short novels have at its center a woman endowed not just with beauty but with charm that could not only turn heads, but make fools out of the most respectable of men.

There is skill in being a coquette and in grabbing a wealthy husband and while it baffles the reader as to how these men could not see past the coquette, one can only surmise the skill behind it. Yet, I ponder over the the motives behind the coquette? Is she a problem society must address or is she a creation of society?

As a reader, I despised the coquette. I judge her for her shamelessness and her uninhibited flirtation. I dislike her. In the process, however, I question my own bias against these sirens. I accept a rake easily. I do not like rakes and hold no soft spot for them in my heart, but I have no strong feelings towards their behavior. I take it at face value. Easily subscribing the behavior to the gender. For someone with strong opinions against gender bias and stereotype, it seems I hold some implicit ones when reading.

In reading Lady Susan and First Love, I was given the opportunity to look at the coquettes in context. A woman’s survival, then, was highly dependent on a man. A husband’s livelihood determined the level of comfort a woman could have. However, a woman’s ability to live comfortably depended on her value prior to marriage. Marriage was after all an economic partnership. While we may have our Darcys and Elizabeths, the reality was society, then, didn’t give much opportunity to women. In this context, the skills of the coquette was valuable to an impoverished widow or princess for both offered no economic advantage to a man of means.

Some women may choose to continue on their path as fate would have it. Others would be lucky enough to find prince charming, while others may take fate in their hands by using every ounce of their beauty and charm to move ahead in life. In a society such as that of Lady Susan and Zinaida where opportunities for women are few if not non-existent being a coquette might have its advantages. While it carries the stigma, and at time lead to bitter endings, I cannot help but think to be one requires more than just charm and beauty, but a level of intelligence and courage.

Proprieties, manners, and etiquette looks at the coquette with disdain, but society, in some ways, especially within the context of the two novellas I mentioned, played its hand in the creation of the coquette. It might take a nymph-like woman to embrace such behavior to get a man and become wealthy, but it also takes a society that refuses opportunities to women to make them desperate enough to become a coquette. Unfortunately, as the novels would tell you, the coquette, even in her skill, fail and lead a miserable life.

It is a sad life, I suppose, but sadder that women must resort to that in order to get ahead in life. There is a chicken-and-egg argument in this, yet, all I’m trying to present is that without a closer inspection of the coquette’s context within literature, I have unjustly judged the character.

This is why I read, that I may challenge my own beliefs and widen my own perspective of the world and the characters/people that live within it.

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