Criminal Acts Against Women in the Eighteenth Century

The Rape of the Lock (1712) by
Alexander Pope is a satire whose
focus is the capture (cutting)
of a woman's lock of hair;
this, naturally, represents
an ambush of the woman's virtue.
In the ninth installment of Mr. B Speaks! Mr. B must address the notorious bedroom scene at the center of Pamela, namely the scene where he attempts--or tries to attempt--to rape Pamela.

Rape in the eighteenth century was, from a criminalistic viewpoint, practically non-existent.* For instance, there was no such thing, legalistically-speaking, as rape within marriage. Popular crimes of the era included everything from murder to theft, including sheep-stealing, to  failure to support one's family. But not rape.

This does not mean rape didn't occur. And there were multiple social practices aimed at protecting women, specifically young, unmarried women, from the possibility (though until the end of the eighteenth century, female servants were usually left off the list of protectees). In Pride & Prejudice, Darcy shows a remarkable lack of responsibility when he fails to inform his neighbors of Wickham's true character. From a modern point of view, Darcy just seems to be exercising his privacy. From an eighteenth/nineteenth century point-of-view, word-of-mouth warnings were the best defense parents had against untrustworthy/dangerous men. In general, young women were warned to stay away from cads and bounders, and some social pressure would be exerted to prevent compromised young women from being abandoned.

Ostensibly, these defenses were to prevent young women being seduced (and once seduced, from further social stigma). However, the correlation of seduction with rape was much closer in Richardson's world than in contemporary culture (in which rape is correctly perceived more as an exercise of power than of charm). "Seduction" had a far more rapacious, negative connotation. And the word "rape" carried far less political baggage. (When I was an undergrad, our English Department put on a spoof of the spoof The Rape of the Lock. An on-campus women's group complained about the use of the word "rape" in our posters. Hey, it's Alexander Pope--take it up with him!)

Without justifying Mr. B, it is useful to remember that he would have no training in the concept that one stops seducing when a woman balks, not even one just going on sixteen. It is also useful to remember that Mr. B, in keeping with every other male of his class, would consider female servants willing sexual partners ipso facto they were servants; Pamela's objections in Bedfordshire would appear like empty protestations, attempts to "increase the price" (as double proof, this is exactly how writers like Fielding interpreted Pamela's actions). With Pamela's forced remove to Lincolnshire, Richardson created the equivalent of a locked-door mystery for his characters since they are both locked into social roles that seem completely incompatible.

Before I analyze Richardson's solution to this "locked door mystery," I should note that despite the lack of legal protections for woman, the eighteenth century produced good marriages with as much variety as any you will find today. Marriages of affection, marriages between friends, marriages where the wife calls the shots are not exclusive to the twentieth/twenty-first centuries! Check out Antonia Fraser's excellent The Weaker Vessel for an exploration of the variety and strength of many seventeenth-century English marriages. (Among other claims, Fraser maintains that people of the past loved their children as much as we do now, despite the number of infant mortalities.)
Pamela Fainting by Joseph Highmore, 1743

As to Richardson's solution:

From a literary point of view, the near-rape scene is enormously important in re-establishing Pamela and Mr. B's relationship. It is not until this crisis has been passed that Mr. B begins to believe Pamela's words, culminating in his reading--and appreciating--her letters. At the risk of overreaching, Pamela's death-swoon is also necessary to her advancement as a heroine: all good mythic heroes and heroines must descend into death/hell/cross-the-threshold before their lives can truly change.

And yes, Richardson's probably intended the symbolism, but it is unlikely he intended much more than that, so that's as far as I'm going to take that literary analysis! (Except to say that I prefer Richardson giving his heroine a death-swoon BEFORE she is raped--and subsequently keeping her alive--than killing off his heroine AFTER she is raped, i.e. Clarissa. Working through the problem is so much more interesting than collapsing beneath it!)

*London saw six rape trials in 1730 (one guilty verdict). This is in a city whose population had reached 630,000 with a high-risk female population (poor women and prostitutes unprotected by family and social standing) in the area of 50,000 (see Dan Cruickshank's London's Sinful Secret: The Bawdy Histoy and Very Public Passions of London's Georgian Age).

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Looks like you didn't quite finish editing the 4th paragraph...

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  2. Thanks! I'd pulled over a sentence from the picture caption.

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  3. Austin1:07 AM

    Thank you so much for analyzing this. I am very obsessed with this obscure novel.

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  4. The latest installment of my adaptation just went up with accompanying commentary/analysis!

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