Politics: The Business of a Woman

Susan Carlile
California State University

Many critical assessments of Delarivier Manley’s work have lingered too extensively on her personal life. Indeed she is commonly characterized as a writer of scandal fiction, such as The Secret History of Queen Zarah (1705) and The New Atalantis (1709). However, as Rachel Carnell’s A Political Biography of Delarivier Manley (Pickering & Chatto, 2008) argues, Manley (c. 1670–1724) deserves to be recognized for her pamphlets and journalistic endeavours, and she has more recently received attention for her drama and commentary on the theatre. Ros Ballaster notes the tension between these two positions by explaining that Manley’s “clear-sighted exposure of sexual double standards, if leavened with sexual voyeurism and a taste for the scandalous and perverse, reveals her to be an early exponent of Enlightenment feminism.”[1]

In fact, much of Manley’s life provided fodder for titillation. Her first publication—though not with her permission—Letters written by Mrs. Manley (1696), included her letters to a lover, and many of her works relate contemporary scandals. Her life was often shrouded in sexual controversy, which hurt not just her reputation as a woman, but also her reputation as an author. She married her cousin, John Manley, who—it turned out—was already married. It is not clear whether or not she was aware of this fact. She also enjoyed flirtations and perhaps affairs with John Tilly, Governor of Fleet Prison; John Barber, Jacobite printer and Governor of the City of London; Charles Fitzroy, the Duchess of Cleveland’s son; and the satirist Richard Steele; as well as perhaps John Hervey, subsequently first Earl of Bristol, and Thomas Skipworth, manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. In fact, one scholar called her “an eighteenth-century Wife of Bath.”[2]

Manley herself was also responsible for drawing attention to sexuality. In The New Atalantis Manley writes “lengthy, often salacious, anecdotes” (175) and promotes herself not just as witty, but also as a sensual, conversationalist. In The Adventures of Rivella (1714) she has also been thought to brand herself as a courtesan (228). At the hands of later eighteenth-century historians, her liaisons, both validated and rumoured, overshadowed her literary skill. Yet despite her dubious character, during her lifetime she was still sought out for her ability to craft effective texts.

Much like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Manley was attuned to the larger prejudice that was inflicted on women in her society, declaring in The Adventures of Rivella, “if she had been a man, she had been without fault” (quoted in Carnell, 71). In this third-person (auto)biography she rebukes her judges for bringing “a Woman to her Trial for writing a few amorous Trifles” (quoted in Carnell, 189). Although at first glance it may appear that she simply savored scandal, Manley’s life was quite intimately controlled by politics, and thus she must have been keenly aware of the workings of public life and the power of one’s voice. Her opportunity for a place as maid of honour to Queen Mary of Modena was squelched with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and her father’s career was clearly dictated by the political climate.

Very charming, but not beautiful, Manley won the admiration of those around her. Carnell points out that the prolific author valued learning, speaking French fluently and describing men as attractive because of their “liberal education” (110), while she counted those with little education among the unworthy. Manley saw herself as an engaged observer of the political events of her day and proved herself to be an agile writer, able to adjust her arguments to favor those with current political caché. She wrote boldly about politics and sought patronage from a Whig for The Nine Muses (1700) and her tragedy Almyna (1707), which Carnell calls “politically pragmatic, rather than rigidly partisan” (152). One phrase seems to have stuck to Manley, keeping her tethered to this moniker of “scandalous writer.” In The Adventures of Rivella Manley claims that the trial against her in 1710 led her to conclude that “Politicks is not the Business of a Woman,” and that from then on she exclusively wrote stories of love.3 Yet the truth is that she could not be kept away from politics for long. In 1711 Jonathan Swift invited her to write pamphlets for the Oxford ministry and then to take over the Tory periodical the Examiner, of which she wrote seven issues (159). Manley’s “position at the margins of the ministry’s propaganda machine” worried those in power. Even at her death on July 11, 1724, the government expressed anxiety at her unpublished political writing for its “potential satirical power” (237).

Carnell sheds light on this author’s development as an intellectually engaged political writer and on Manley’s awareness of the biased party fluctuations in the publishing world. Broken into nine chronological chapters, the biography begins with the similarities between her father’s shifting Tory and Whig allegiances and her own. From this starting point, it carries on with a detailed study of her writing life, highlights her political thinking, and concludes with Manley’s later, more overtly politically active years.

This biography not only chronicles Manley’s life, but it also addresses some of the recurring mistakes in editions and biographical entries of Manley. One of these assumptions is that Manley was political all of her life. In contrast, this biography argues that her early works would not necessarily have been read as political. In addition to not tackling politics early on, Carnell points out that Manley was not the author of a work that is commonly attributed to her. One of Carnell’s important assertions is that because The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians (1705), a defamatory account of Whig political intrigues, was not written by Manley, the traditional life trajectory that is regularly cited about her is called into question. Scholars have presumed that she was already a Tory propaganda writer in 1705 and an acquaintance of John Barber. Carnell’s de-attribution suggests that Manley didn’t recommence her writing career, after breaking it off in 1696, until 1706 with the tragedy Almyna.

Along with clarifying Manley’s career, Carnell also challenges the assumption that Manley was never personally invested in politics. Previous critics have speculated that she simply enjoyed her role as a scandal writer and wrote primarily for money. “Politicks is not the Business of a Woman” is often trotted out to support this assertion. Manley made this flippant statement at a particularly depressed moment in her life, and it is not the full sum of her opinion about women in the public sphere. In fact, as Carnell shows, Manley’s life and work present a woman who certainly did care about politics. The New Atalantis, as Carnell notes, is in fact Manley’s strongest political commentary. Thus, her political nature does not become apparent until its publication in 1709.

Intellect and its expression as literary skill get much greater play in Carnell’s assessment of Manley. She cites the author’s use of Varronian satire, which was perhaps less understood, as one reason why her writing has not been appreciated more fully. Manley’s references to contemporary and classical authors demonstrate her own desire to be “taken seriously as a liberally educated writer and conversationalist” (181). And in most of her later works, she frequently references her earlier writing to display her cultivated mind. In fact, Carnell demonstrates both that Manley saw herself as an engaged observer of the political events of her day and that she was also considered an important wit of her time. The final chapter, “A Celebrated ‘Muse,’” analyzes some of the ways that Manley’s reputation was in fact very much intact.

A Political Biography of Delarivier Manley performs several other important services for our understanding of Manley’s writing career and life story, providing a clearer view the value of her writing. Without the screen of future events, the Whig regime of the rest of the eighteenth century, “the blinders of Victorian morality” (139), and the imposition of later standards associated with the novel, Manley’s value as an author becomes far more apparent. In terms of her reputation within her own society, this biography gives evidence that she had more advocates than has been previously understood. Regarding her subject’s personal life, Carnell reveals that Manley might have had at least one child with Tilly.

There are some aspects of this book that warranted greater care. For those who are getting to know Manley’s wide-ranging work, a chronological list of her publications would have been helpful in understanding the trajectory of her career as it related to Carnell’s argument. To her credit, Carnell is not afraid to invoke the unsatisfying “might” when trying to piece together details of Manley’s life. However, in some cases personal letters are too confidently relied on as fact. Also, Carnell missed a crucial detail about how Manley frames her perhaps faltering Tory party loyalty in The Adventures of Rivella, which Dolores Duff calls “a masterpiece of flattery”: John Tidcombe, the Whig whose voice Manley is thought to have used as the narrator in this novel and whose character she most certainly flattered, was in fact still alive at its publication.[3] Carnell works on the assumption that he was deceased. In addition, Manley’s political interest is evident in her elegy “Melpomene: The Tragick Muse,” as it is the only poem in The Nine Muses, or, Poems written by Nine several Ladies Upon the death of the late Famous John Dryden (1700) that commented on Dryden’s political commitment.[4] Given the objective of this biography, this poem deserves more attention for its political nature at a time when Carnell argues Manley was not as political. Also, it is difficult to track down references in this edition. Pickering and Chatto should have taken more care in editing, as this book suffers from misspellings, repetitions, and typographical errors; for instance, the notes include titles of books, but the “Works  Cited” is arranged by author.

Aside from these superficial concerns, A Political Biography of Delarivier Manley does what it claims in analyzing Manley’s life and works through a political lens. It is particularly useful for readers who already have a working knowledge of Manley as a writer and a relatively thorough understanding of Restoration and early eighteenth-century politics. This critical biography does valuable work in shaping a more accurate understanding of the life and career of such a significant literary and public figure as Delarivier Manley.


[1]  Ros Ballaster, “Manley, Delarivier (c.1670–1724),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (2009).

[2]  G. B. Needham, “Mrs. Manley: An Eighteenth-Century Wife of Bath,” Huntington Library Quarterly 14 (1950–51): 259–84.

[3]  Delarivier Manley, The Adventures of Rivella (London, 1714), IV:56.

[4]  See Dolores Diane Clarke Duff, Materials Toward a Biography of Mary Delariviere Manley (Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1965; Ann Arbor, 1974), 288–90. My thanks to Laura Fauteaux for this source.