Proposal for paper: “'What right have you to detain me here?': Rape in Richardson's Clarissa

Preliminary abstract for a presentation to be given at panel, “He said, she said: Rape in 18th Century Law, Fiction, and Moralistic Wrting,” in the March 2010 ASECS meeting at Albuquerque

From Thelma and Louise, directed and produced by Scott Ridley, screenplay Callie Kouri: the adventure begins when a man attempts to rape Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots and kills him

In Nancy Paxton’s Writing under the Raj: Rape, Race, and Gender in the Colonialist Imagination, 1837-1947, she argues that rape is “not the invariable consequence of biologically determined male aggression”, but rather “the consequence of a complex process in particular places which prompts individual men to act out their gender, sexuality, desire and bodily impulses in this violent way.” The general social environment, stories and understood norms and justifications of a given culture and place in that culture encourage or discourage rape between specific classes of individuals. Like numerous other books on rape, she presents data to show that the incident of rape goes up in environments when cultural configurations encourage interpersonal violence, male dominance and sexual separation.1 The purpose of my talk will be to explore the understood norms of heterosexual sexual experience as reflected in Richardson's Clarissa and a number of near-contemporary French and English fictions to demonstrate how radical and subversive of these norms Clarissa's reaction to Lovelace's rape of her was and (for some) still is. Her refusal to be coopted is still seen as socially unacceptable in many of the criticisms and complaints about her. Many many individuals not just comfortable with, but supportive of the violent aggressive culture she suffers under are still with us.

At the same time, as a result of studying film adaptations of eighteenth century novels in the last quarter century, I've also noticed the way sex and rape are presented in modern film adaptations differs from the way sex and rape are presented in 18th century novels, and that the way sexual experience itself is presented in these novels changes around the mid-century. I preliminarily suggest in the pre-sensibility and non-sensibility novels (in the UK novels written say from the 1670s to 1760 or so; in France the non-sensibility novels may have a different time span) the attitude is the nature of your sexual experience (what it's like for you) is a function of your will to dominate or compete.  If you don't have a strong will to dominate or impulse to be aggressive and triumph over someone, you are driven to submit, can be taken advantage of, and often preyed upon or become a victim.  When someone in a libertine novel gets someone else to have sex with them (crudely put but that's how it's regarded), he has triumphed.  The rake gets irritated by a refusal; the refusal prompts his desire to seduce and/or rape (or even marry!) the chaste woman so he can triumph over her.  The aggressor can be a woman, and when this happens she is presented as a female rake or femme fatale: (say Madame de Merteuil in LaClos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Austen's Lady Susan in the epistolary novel of that name)  It's a power game.

By contrast, in novels of sensibility and recent film adaptations of eighteenth century novels, the desire for sex is a desire for sensual experience, physical gratification, for affection, and it includes bonding, tenderness, and gratitude. Novels which show this include (the French) Rousseau's Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise, Riccoboni's Lettres de Milady Juliette Catesby a Milady Henriette Campley, son amie (where a young man rapes a teenager by mistake and feels intense remorse and is driven to make this up to her by marrying her), Isabelle de Montolieu's Caroline de Lichtfield, Sophie Cottin's Amelie Mansfield, and (the English), Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, Mary Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray, or, The Mother and Daughter. A good example of give-and-take, with sensuality an important part of the sex act, is the film adaptation of Une veille maitresse; this reflects the year it was made, 2007 not the year of Barbey d'Aurevilly's 1830s novel set in the later eighteenth-century. So too Miles Forman's Valmont. Though in costume drama this change is prevalent, not all show this change: Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract still insists on triumph and therefore some form of cruelty as part of the central sexual thrill and experience. Revealingly, other of his historical costume dramas and films do this and they have been categorized by some viewers as pornographic. In most recent film adaptations (for example, the Austen films from the mid-1990s on), the men are figures of sensibility as are the sympathetic victim and triumphant heroines.

However, in all of these sensibility and non-sensibility films and books, it is assumed that the sex act is transformative: the woman who has sex with a man with or without her consent, especially if it's the first time, feels she belongs to him, he has rights over her which override her obligations and responsibilities towards others. Not Richardson's Clarissa. Unlike most virtuous heroines I have come across thus far (another rare exception is Mary Hays's Mary Raymond in the startling The Victim of Prejudice), Clarissa is not subdued and denies she is at all accountable to Lovelace; from the first she insists her real or inward identity has not changed; later on she is driven to acknowledge she has changed and weakened, but that apparently seems more the effect of other people's response to the rape and demands made upon her, the lack of emotional support she gets, not the rape itself. In the 1991 film adaptation of Richardson's novel as well as the novel itself, in an earlier scene Clarissa demands to be allowed to leave, to go where she pleases even though she has lived under the same roof with him, and all around them think they are married. She asserts she has no desire whatsoever to be united with Lovelace from what she's seen of him thus far, and Lovelace becomes frantic. When Clarissa persists after the rape, Lovelace assumes the problem is she was unconscious and thinks to rape her again. By contrast, la Presidente de Tourvel in LaClos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses goes into fits when Valmont has his joke and walks away. She's his.  You see this in English plays too, Gothic novels, and recent films (not necessarily adaptations) based on earlier historical incidents: the woman who has had sex with someone is helplessly bound to him (or her). 

The psychological explanation for the common response is often Freudian as in Freud's paper on the Virginity taboo. Freud says this taboo is there (or enforced) so that a man can hope to marry a woman who has never had sex with anyone before; if she now has sex with him, she must stay with him. He is assured his children will be his; his pride is safe and he's in control of her. No matter what he does she's wedded psychologically in some inescapable way.2 As if coming out of Freud's script, the women who resemble Clarissa in becoming freed of men they have had sex with, are themselves rakes or amoral and masculinized women, e.g., Madame de Merteuil. Sometimes they are presented as inexplicable, strange, somehow deeply neurotic (e.g., Sophie de Vernon in Germaine de Stael's Delphine (who I think lies behind Austen's Lady Susan Vernon). Yet even these women eventually show love or intense jealousy for a given man (we are not usually told who was this woman's first, and sometimes it does seem to be a perverse relationship in the sense that she was sold to a man she had no feeling for, as in forced aggrandizing marriages). We are invited to look at such women as partly hypocrites or deluded or having had an extremely unusual experience or response to ordinary experience. They are not "one of us."

I will show the fourth volume of Clarissa has been misunderstood; when read in the light of Clarissa's refusal to see her identity as not changed it is not just about her choice for death. There is much much else in it which is ignored -- it's there she fights terrifically to escape Lovelace, that she flees him repeatedly. She struggles against the prostitutes who come to the spunging house and assume she is now one of them, and try to treat her as one of them.  Lovelace tries to rape her again, but this time she's prepared, and he doesn't manage it. She refuses to recognize her family's demand (and her friend Anna's advice) that she marry or litigate (go to court to accuse Lovelace of raping her). All this is to her irrelevant and would change her in ways she refuses to countenance. Postrape Clarissa, the aftermath of the heroine's ordeal, her response to trauma and her recovery are as central and important to Richardson's goal as the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the novel.

I am not sure which of the other texts or films of those I've cited above I will explore as yet. I want to look at the nature of sexual abuse, why some women can be persuaded they have not been raped or abused when by definitions I will set up they have been, e.g., violence and physical harm, strong psychological violation and damage to the point the woman loses her self-possession and agency. So I may choose some different ones not cited or more recent texts (e.g., Alice Sebold's recent Lucky. The topic may also be linked to pornography and I will probably touch upon the ambiguities of what is pornography and how far what is described as natural or usual sex can be seen as for women inherently a physical violation. Some writers seem to recognize pornography when they see in the presentation of sex acts the man or actor is triumphing over the woman or submitting obedient person, and when the reader is (I think) invited to enjoy a malicious triumph and vicarious power to inflict hurt.  The origin of the idea that the person who submits to sex (the catamite) is to be scorned is made visible here.

I want to explore this important terrain as a result of my own experience and memories. When I was girl growing up in the US in the 1950s and 60s, I was taught that having sex with a man bound you to him for life; that was why it was necessary to remain a virgin. You would not find a man willing to marry you as easily were you not a virgin. I didn't know if this was true, but witnessed and myself enacted and experienced perverse and destructive behaviors coming out of this assumption. Since then over my years of study and reading to me it's been disturbing and even odd (calling for some explanation) that so many eighteenth century and non-sensibility films (beyond the explicitly pornographic) persistently look at sexual relationships between men and women as a quest for triumph or conquest. Feelings of aggression, the will to dominate and compete and revenge oneself are part of human nature, but not everyone has these impulses as their dominant ones, perhaps a large proportion of people don't. Psychological studies of women persistently argue that women's natures are more like or drawn to engagement with deeply caring and supportive relationships, and long-time sensual ones, and sensibility in the age of reason has long been regarded as fundamental to the progressive revolutionary elements of the later enlightenment.

I may end by defending modern film adaptations as inherently strongly women's films which can or do function to change or alter as much as mirror the public's attitude towards sexual experience.


1 Nancy L. Paxton, Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999):15-32. See also Peggy Reeve Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape, Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus (NY: New York University, 1990). A recent useful and brief exploration of sexual attitudes leading to rape in Clarissa is Isobel Grundy's “Seduction Pursued by Other Means: The Rape in Clarissa,” Clarissa and her Readers: New Essays for the Clarissa Project, edd. Carol Houlihan Flynn and Edward Copeland (NY: AMS Press, 1999):255-68.

2 Freud, “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life,” “The Taboo of Virginity” and “Female Sexuality,” translated by Joan Riviere, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (NY: Collier, 1963):58-86, 194-211.

3 I cite a more recent and a well-known older study: Karen Horney, Feminine Psychology (NY: Norton, 1967), famously regards this disposition in women as a sickness (which she calls masochism); by contrast, Lyn Mikel Brown with Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) and Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982) argue this female model is superior to the male. On the centrality of sensibility to the progressive moments of the eighteenth century see Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987). For a humane perceptive adjudication of these competing norms, see D. W. Harding, Social Psychology and Individual Values (London: Hutchinson, 1966); I cite Harding because his 1940s article, “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen,” found in Regulated Hatred and Other Essays by Jane Austen, ed. Monica Lewis (London: Athlone Press, 1998), is a key document in modern politicized Austen studies.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University