Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Five notable books on the 18th century sexual revolution

Faramerz Dabhoiwala is lecturer, tutor, and Senior Fellow in Modern History at Exeter College, University of Oxford, and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. His new book is The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, he discussed five top book on the 18th century sexual revolution, including:
by Samuel Richardson

Onto your third book, which is one of the longest novels ever written in English. Before we discuss the book’s importance, can you give us a brief outline of the plot?

The plot is essentially very simple. There’s a heroine called Clarissa Harlowe, the daughter of a gentleman. The anti-hero is a libertine called Lovelace. Lovelace is the archetypal rake, a man who lives primarily to seduce women. He seduces women, humiliates them sexually, takes his pleasure and then abandons them. He sets his sights on Clarissa, who is initially attracted to him because – like all rakes – he is attractive, dangerous, witty and seductive. But because she is a true Christian and a virtuous woman, she won’t have sex with him before marriage, which is really what he wants. So she gradually changes her view of him, pushes him away and tries to keep him at bay. But she’s no match for him ultimately. He tricks her and traps her in London, far away from all her friends and relations. He keeps her imprisoned in what is actually a brothel, although she doesn’t know it, and then ultimately when she refuses to give way, he drugs her, rapes her and takes her chastity.

That’s the climax of the book, although not the end. Because the author, Samuel Richardson, wants to show that even a woman who is raped in these horrible circumstances – and he portrays it in such a way that is heartbreaking – still transcends Lovelace by refusing to stoop to his level. She takes to her bed and basically dies in order to maintain her moral integrity. She dies a true Christian and the implication is that even though she’s been raped, she maintains her virtue. But she has to die, because it’s a terrible fact of the double standards of the times that she would have been deemed unchaste even after a rape. On her death bed she forgives him, but of course he comes to a horrible end in the final pages, and gets his comeuppance.

That’s a terrific overview. Now, why did you choose it?

It’s probably the most influential novel of the 18th century. The mid-18th century is when the novel was invented, so it’s possibly the most influential novel ever written in English, because it influences everyone who comes afterwards, from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen onwards. And it is particularly influential in cementing this new presumption that men are dangerous seducers and women are, at heart, morally superior and more chaste. That’s the message of Richardson’s fiction, and that’s why it’s an important book. Even though Richardson himself is a man, it’s one of the earliest works to show the female point of view in courtship, in love, in sex and indeed in rape. Richardson did this under the influence of previous female writers, and lots of female admirers and friends who helped him in the writing and talked to him about these things from a female perspective.

One of the themes of my book is that the 18th century was one of the first periods in which women’s voices were heard in the public sphere in a big way, and that influenced the more general outlook in the culture on courtship, love and sex. Before the 18th century, women didn’t really publish their ideas in any sphere easily, but this changed with the growing numbers of journals and newspapers in which women’s voices were heard.

The other reason why I chose Clarissa is that it’s a fantastic read. I say this with conviction because I never read it until I wrote my own book. I had known about it – it was a looming presence in the background – and I knew that if I was going to talk about courtship, seduction and sex, I would have to read it. I really wasn’t looking forward to it because, as you say, it’s so long. I bought it and I had it sitting on my desk. I didn’t want to read it from cover to cover as it would take me forever, I just wanted to get the gist of it. But, in a wonderful lesson of the power of great fiction, I started dipping into it and was just hooked. It’s such a powerful read. In what is a great innovation of 18th century literature, it gives you the same story from the point of view of lots of different actors, through a series of letters between the major characters. You see all the same episodes through the evil eyes of Lovelace but also through the eyes of his victim Clarissa Harlowe and all the ancillary characters. It’s a fantastic kaleidoscope and a real page-turner.
Read about the other books discussed at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue