Richardson's Anti-Feminism: The Portrait of Thomasine

This is to say, Yes, to Caroline Breashears, yes, when I described Belford's letter about Belton and Thomasine as anti-feminist I did mean to refer to Richardson's low view of women in the area of sexual experience. With regard to the physical side of the sexual relationship between men and women, in this letter Richardson has not moved one iota from the worst hater of women in medieval and Renaissance didactic literature. There you will find the idea; Awaken a woman sexually, and you awaken an uncontrollable animal appetite. The only strain moving against this notion is the (always quietedly hinted at) counter-idea that the sure-fire way to impregnate your wife is to give her an orgasm; so if you're having trouble in the area of heirs, young man .... But if there's no problem that way, why, why cause trouble, go elsewhere young man... , for here the author often (also in the subtle hint department) frames his comments with little reminders like: but, ahem, you must not awaken her too frequently, or get too interesting in your habits .... (It seems to have been believed that orgasm and conception were linked; this particular idea still surfaces in conversations with many people if you will listen carefully to them: "you should relax ..." and so on.)

When I read letters like this by Belford (Saturday, May 20, No 192, Ross Penguin pp 612-6) I am always puzzled as to why it is sometimes asserted that Clarissa is a feminist text; one man on our general list suggests the novel "was brought back" by feminists. (But maybe this was an antifeminist crack?) Here you have a book which asserts sex is sadomasochistic at its core, that women are ravenous if uncontrolled, and is axiomatically against true individual freedom; thus, to turn Clarissa into a book with "answers" for women, you must elaborate upon what is not conscious in Richardson, what is on the margins, what is inferred which can often be in direct contradiction to what is explicitly argued for. Of course, it has a female hero at its center, makes the woman's perspective the touchstone of value, and women in the 18th century revered Richardson partly because he invented a bold (it is a bold book no doubt) plausible narrative about sexual and familial life from the woman's point of view which many women thereafter imitated in writing novels & romances. But to be truthful I have always seen the book as at best ambivalent with respect to the specific question of female nature and roles.

On whether we believe Richardson's little tale of Thomasine and Belton would actually have some effect on a male reader's behavior or attitudes depends on whether we really believe people are changed by what they read. I am very pessimistic about this. I think a whole society determining to punish this kind of behavior and reward that, to support this in laws, in schools, and in the giving out of prizes (prestigious-jobs & money), can be aided and abetted by books which reinforce the same moral. But otherwise I am dubious. I think we take from books what we bring to them. I see this day after day in the classroom. I have argued against the whole business of role models on the larger list, not very well I'm afraid, as a base class & ambition-oriented manipulation with teacher having the whip of the grade; but my meaning more philosophically stated may be found very well done indeed by Thomas McFarland in his books on Wordsworth, Coleridge, and those on Shakespearean romance and tragedy, from that last ofwhich I take the following passage:

and nothing other than ourselves is there to be found. Tragic drama does not communicate. It teaches us no new truths. It has no message. The artifice of the irror is to reflect; what it reveals is only what we present to it (Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare, 1966 Random, p 7)

Talking of the unwillingness of Shakespearean scholars to talk about anything but stage conventions in Othello's and Leontes' jealousy, McFarland remarks of Leontes:

The reason for such molten torment may seem to an industrious and mechanical scholar, sitting comfortably in his study, to be only a matter of dramatic license or Jacobean convention; it will not seem so to those whose misfortune has been actually to experience such agony. For the probabilities in such situations [infidelity] all too often support the fact of guilt ... (Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy, 1972 Univ Of North Carolina, p 126)

Thus when Richardson is at his greatest and writing tragedy there is no message in any practical sense at all; when he writes the Belford letter he has dropped into the unfortunate silliness of too much in Sir Charles Grandison.

To drop down into my more usual talk, I also can't figure out why he cares so intensely about men having sex with women they're not married to; curiouser and curiouser. Why is he so bothered about sex as to have written 2 volumes of Pamela in which he doesn't forget to canvass the subject of breast-feeding, 8 of Clarissa and then not content with this yet another 8 in Sir Charles Grandison which he is concerned to redefine male sexuality? Here is a thought thrown out wholly speculative but which I have wondered about: in Lovelace's letter of Sunday May 21 (today's) (No 198, Ross Penguin, pp 632-8) Lovelace works himself up into a terrific passion because he is denied Clarissa's presence. He lathers himself into vowing revenge on her, on Anna Howe, on his whores, on the whole sex. I have always wondered about Richardson's own relationship with his wives. Was he forced into playing these kinds of games because he was shy and married up? Was he as easy to manipulate as a Hickman?


To all this and more on Sunday Caroline Breashears faithfully replied:


Ellen Moody has raised several questions about Letter 192, Belford's story of Belton and Thomasine. I'll begin with the first: "Does [Richardson] really think this sort of contrived tripe will affect any male's behavior?" I suspect he does. He targets not only men's fears for their estates, but their anxieties about sexual performance, a theme recurrent in more salacious works of the period (The London-Bawd, for instance). "Poor" Belton, having kept his Thomasine for years, discovers that he failed to satisfy her. For her pleasure, she turned to her father's hostler--the association with stallions can't be coincidence--and has paid him just as Belton has paid her. The sickly Belton may hope the children are his; the more objective Belford suspects otherwise. "I think the strong health of the chubby-faced, muscular whelps confirms the too great possibility." How humiliating to discover that his pleasure was only her interest, that the rake was out-raked--out Thomased--by his own victim, his Thomasine.

Thomasine's behavior confirms the notion Richardson has all along implied: a fallen woman cannot be contained. When, Belford says, "you yourself have broken through, and overthrown in her, all the fences and boundaries of moral honesty, and the modesty and reserves of her sex. . . . what tie shall hold her against inclination or interest?" What, indeed? A woman's "fall" strips her not only of every tie, but supposedly of every virtue, too. Why may not she rove as well? Why may not she publish his insufficiency? Why, in the end, may not she master her master, as Thomasine has "poor Belton"?

Belton, his friend's letter implies, has been unmanned. Economically, emotionally, sexually: in all these ways, Belton has been Thomasine's dupe. And is not that the rake's greatest fear? He proves his manhood by daring, by skimming his hat after poor running dogs. Again and again, Lovelace acts to avoid looking a fool. If Richardson strikes anywhere--and some of his comments do, as Ellen notes, sound "naive"--surely he strikes here.


Today's letters show Lovelace working himself into a proper passion. His faithful assistants, the whores, urge him to revenge his wrongs, to humble Clarissa as he did them, to violate her at midday if possible. "As the nymphs below say, why is _night_ necessary?--And Sally and Polly upbraidingly remind me of my first attempts upon themselves--" They desire Clarissa's humiliation even more than Lovelace. They "more than ever make a point of conquering her," having read Anna's letters to Clarissa. The whores keep him up to it, explaining how a man, even a rake, could be so cruel to a Clarissa: in Richardson's world, only the whores have no limits. As the virtuous woman, Clarissa thus battles not only the other sex, but the devilish of her own.

It's here that I see what Ellen calls Richardson's "anti-feminism" (she was referring to Belford's letter on Belton). Richardson writes stereotypes, writes myths: the angelic Clarissa, the devilish whores; the woman who inspires Lovelace with awe, the fallen who drag him lower than alone he dared go. Lovelace is horrible because he delights in "breaking" women, but they're terrible because they destroy each other. In their collective hands, Anna would be ruined: "What a gantlope would she run, when I had done with her, among a dozen of her own pitiless sex, whom my charmer shall never see!" (Letter 198) At such points, I cannot forget the author in the book.


Like Ellen, I find reading Clarissa day-by-day an experience different from racing through it, as I did last year. At this point, the slower pace impresses me with a sense of the frustration Clarissa feels at the delays, her own ignorance, and the inconsistencies of Lovelace. No wonder she tears her answer to Lovelace's settlements. He won't play the part she expects (and has been trained to expect); she has no one to guide her; every moment her reputation diminishes. Then, Lovelace wavers and exasperates her, her exasperation again hardening him. Tempers must be short. Reading Clarissa day-by-day makes me realize that more than ever.


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