'She may be with child!': Pregnancy A Sign of Orgasm

I would like to begin my commentary on Mrs Harlowe's full-throated expression of dread: "She may--How can I speak it, and my once darling daughter unmarried!--She may be with child!" (Ross Penguin, Let 376, Sunday July 30, p 1156) by saying immediately I don't believe for a moment we are to believe that Clary is pregnant. While it is true that some women look wretched in the early months, Clarissa is clearly presented as a woman pining away, wasting, moving into death. I only read Pamela II (so to speak) once--once was indeed enough--but I wonder if anyone who has read it more often can say whether Pamela does not flourish (as I recall) during her pregnancies. A rosy blooming mother. The shock Mr Hickman expresses denotes a woman who is haggard, and all the descriptions suggest someone who was once lovely and fine, and beautifully plump, now white, thin, shattered in some way from grief, fear, pain, remorse, regret, and loneliness too. The doctors treat her as someone who needs nourishment to build her up; there is not the slightest hint from the doctor or apothecary or nurse that Clary is pregnant She is not unable to eat because she's got morning- sickness--or whatever euphemism is preferred--she can't eat because she's has no heart for it.

The problem in discussing this question are, of course, euphemisms which are still very much with us. We are not so liberated as we would like to imagine. For example, it still is part of folk-talk that the sign of an unhappy marriage is a lack of children or one child; people feel uncomfortable voicing this idea because it's so unscientific, and after all there's contraception, but children denote sexual satisfaction of at least a minimal sort. I went back to a few books on the kind of advice books men and women read in the Renaissance, and it was very interesting to me to see that the modern feminist ones (Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance; Hull,Chaste, Silent and Obedient; and some books of essays, including Prior's Women in English Society, 1570-1800, which includes "Marital fertility and lactation 1570- 1720" by Dorothy McLaren, very interesting) do not approach the subject of sexual pleasure for women. They are no more interested in women's dreams of romance than the older writers of treatises.

For some understanding of the complexity of female desires, an acknowledgement that not only do these exist and motivate women, but they have value, can make an otherwise personally unprofitable, wretched, or lonely life worth living, we must go back to Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance, and all she can talk about because she sticks close to her text are the reverse images, i.e., the continual explicit kinds of warnings that "the girl who came to the marriage bed a virgin in body and mind might become debauched by the excesses and lack of modesty of her own husband." (Very bad, and one might suggest the repeated warnings imply conduct quite to the contrary.) Some writers (Vives) who are more enlightened or bolder talk of (in Kelso's concise summing up) "unhampered, mutual pleasure as one of the great arguments for married life," but except through insinuation these treatises do not articule the folk-idea very common that to give a woman an orgasm is to increase enormously the likelihood she will get pregnant.

One must always remember such books are ideals, and often about ideals no-one really follows (there was quite a discussion on the Victoria list about the ideals women voiced in Victorian times but did not follow). In the period just before Richardson Kelso says book after book insists upper-class women should breastfeed (as Richardson does in Pamela; well, read Elizabeth Badminter's Mother Love. Forget it. Young infants were seen as a "nuisance," according to Badminter; society placed the great value on the man, according to Badminter, and her statistical tables support her contention that breast-feeding was seen as getting in the way of new pregnancies (the family wanted heirs). I know I have come across the insinuation that the way to overcome infertility in a wife is to arouse he in the earlier literature, but it's an inference, never explicit, a kind of hidden idea, & I couldn't find it among my notes today, and most treatises as very fairly described and quoted by Kelso sound the bell against debauchery; they recall in fact the words of Cousin Morden when he warns to Clarissa that if she marries Lovelace he will debauch her (Letter 173.1, especially the paragraphs at the top & bottom of p 562 in Ross's edition); her letter after this one is deeply distressed; and this is part of what Clarissa hints at when she refuses to marry Lovelace after the rape. She will be drawn in. Of course, we might now say, well, how does she know? But I think this is a wholly modern amused gloss and not at all in her very carefully studied words by Richardson which hint not the least carnal knowledge. Richardson's Mordren is in fact in the central tradition of the older advice book on marriage.

Now while Victorian books show the same reverse image of something no-one really does, but everyone pays lip-service to, and on the Victoria list there was a thread about the non-existence of the very word "pregnant" throughout Victorian literature, still there the idea I expressed above does surface clearly. Perhaps some people on our CLARY-L list will see this as progress and a kind of liberation; I do. So unlike Kelso, Michael Mason in his _Making of Victorian Sexuality_ can talk of "Women's Sexuality," and he covers a number of early Victorian treatises (some published less than 100 years after _Clarissa_), in which female orgasm is openly discussed. Mason says that in some of these "the doctrine of the reproductive orgasm in women (the belief that a woman must experience orgasm in order to conceive..." is the focus of the discussion; he writes: "According to this doctrine it is the sheer pleasurable intensity of the woman's orgasm which is functional reproductively: on the man's side reproductive ability is only hanced by the 'vigour' with which he has intercourse, and by moderation in its frequency" (p199). He goes on to argue that this was the prevailing view in the period under his consideration (which begins around the time of Jane Austen). An interesting sidelight for those who think Victorians were utterly repressed sexually is that some of the writers worried about women who had no orgasm (I suppose the modern word would be "dysfunction"), and according to Mason, "quite a number of of writers recognized (and a few lamented)" that "social convention" was responsible for the idea that women "are less urgent in their sexuality than men," and--this does have relevance to Lovelace's and the Harlowe's suspicion (I'm getting there!)--in some Victorian treatises "so strong was a woman's response supposed to be that a powerful distaste for intercourse--as in a brutal seduction or a rape--was commonly said to be no bar to sexual arousal once contact with the genitilia had occurred" (p197).

Now I think the point Richardson is consciously making to his astute reader (like the Victorian novelist he speaks to two audiences, the naive who he doesn't want to wake up or distress, and the sophisticated who will "get it"), the point is that the Harlowes don't believe Clary was raped, and if she was, she was perhaps aroused. It is interesting that it is Mrs Harlowe who voices this belief, and Mrs Harlowe who is clearly ready to forgive Clary anyway. So there's lots of undercurrents here. Now Lovelace kids himself in some moods, but, alas, as Caroline says, he can't fool himself altogether, he's been beaten by the very game he chose, and while sometimes he wishes she were pregnant for then she might indeed marry him, he knows it's only a slight chance. It is he who repeatedly says (astonished at this vestal aspect) she never wilted, not once, and was in effect not there, drugged into near unconsciousness. Richardson expects us to remember this, even if the Harlowes refuse to believe it. I will add here here on his other fancies of twins, one at each breast, Badminter does find in the earlier literature the idea made explicit by among others Vives (p33) that breast-feeding may become a voluptuous activity (in this passage he is therefore against the mother nursing her own child, though in others he favors the practice.)

Still the subject hovers ever so nicely, and I suppose no-one can disprove the commonly held idea (also a contradiction to the above doctrine Mason says the late 18th - 19th century held) that women sometimes get pregnant the first time, orgasm or no. Thus the baby born nine months to the day of the marriage. Of course here the going idea people agreed to believe out loud not so many decades ago was that such a woman could be a virgin.

Finally (sorry to go on for so long) it is very hard to get "at" these things. The modern much-loved sexual survey measures posturing rather than any reality, the subject still being surrounded by lies, hypocrisy, self-defense, self-delusion, posing, and whatever other screens are deemed necessary by the individual answering the inquirer's questions. The older moral or medical treatise (like the modern ones by Masters and Johnson or whoever is "in" nowadays) present what the writer thinks society wants printed and what in any era it is in that writer's advantage to be seen saying.

I could probably never have at least some of the above aloud.

Ellen must expe w' w h%`7e4*$`Meo4*  R% 8` (0gpgڑ``3jH4 'N j q` '   `o J   2 l    3 `    + Y      7 _     N      D s    7 n     1 j    ! X % ' W  < t " O 7 e  1 f h     < l     P     D t    8 e      L {    P     G Z \    , , ^     L |   % ^    6 g    2 2 R {  / _    : o    4 k      " P     7 c    Q %! I! o! o! ! ! ! " U" " " " " " %# Q# # # # $ 6$ c$ $ $ $ $ $ % -% O% % % % % /& Z& & & & ' !' #' Q' f' h' h' u' w' y' -% O% % % % % /& Z& & & & ' !' #' Q' f' h'  Univers es this belief, and Mrs Harlowe who is clearly ready to forgive Clary anyway. So there's lots of undercurrents

Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Marking Time: Lovelace a Truer Aeneas, but Clarissa no Dido

Home Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 10 January 2003