Changing attitudes to prostitution were only the tip of a much larger, growing concern about seduction. The basis for this was a newly dominant conception of men as inherently selfish and deceitful in love. Many of its most articulate exponents were themselves male – but the crucial reason for its increasing prominence was the rise of women as public writers, poets, actors, and philosophers, which introduced into the cultural mainstream powerful new female perspectives on courtship and lust.1
This was a completely unprecedented development, and one whose effects have thus far been remarkably under-appreciated. In all earlier times, women’s direct intervention in public discussion had always been very limited. Beyond ordinary speech, men monopolized every medium in which male and female qualities were prescribed and reinforced – fiction, drama, poetry, sermons, journalism, education, popular writing, moral polemic, theology, and philosophy. This was why femininity had tended to be so publicly undervalued. But from the later seventeenth century onwards this began to change, in several overlapping respects.
One novelty was the advent of professional actresses on the English stage after 1660. Until this point, women had been generally barred from public performance: for them to act was seen as grossly unfeminine, and female parts were played by boys. In Italy, Spain and France, however, women had begun appearing on stage from the later sixteenth century onwards, and this fashion greatly influenced Charles II. His French mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, promoted it privately at court in the 1620s and 1630s, and he got used to it during his many years in exile on the continent during the 1650s. When he returned to England as king in 1660 and reopened the public theatres (which had been closed by the Puritans since 1642), he immediately sanctioned the practice. This transformed the treatment of female character in drama, the most prominent medium of public entertainment. Henceforth, the dramatic exploitation of actresses’ sexuality tended above all to emphasize their submission to masculine conquest. Compared with Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, male lust and female helplessness were now far more sharply contrasted. Rape became a regular feature of tragic plots, even being added gratuitously to adaptations of older plays. This allowed for much titillating on-stage exploitation of sexual suffering, but also drove home the idea that even the most innocent women were defenceless in the face of male appetites. The class basis of women’s domination was highlighted too. The stage rapist was invariably a man of superior status, who entrapped his victim less by brute force than through the abuse of his sexual, social, and political power.2
In comedy, the appearance of real women on stage stimulated the cynical scrutiny of courtship, love, and marriage that is such a notable feature of Restoration drama. For the first time, prostitutes and mistresses came to be depicted as the unhappy victims of male seduction and social dysfunction. In tragedy there was a marked shift to domestic ‘she-tragedies’, centred on the male victimization of women. In Nahum Tate’s updating of King Lear (1681), Edmund kidnaps and intends to rape Cordelia. In John Banks’s Vertue Betray’d (1682), Anne Boleyn is tricked into marrying Henry VIII, though she loves another. In Thomas Otway’s endlessly read and performed The Orphan (1680), the evil libertine vows to treat the defenceless heroine just as ‘The lusty bull ranges through all the field, / And from the herd singling his female out, / Enjoys her, and abandons her at will’. No matter that she is on her guard against the whole of his sex, ‘for flattery and deceit renown’d! . . . T’undo poor maids and make our ruin easie’. No matter that other men warn her:
Trust not a man; we are by nature false,
Dissembling, subtle, cruel, and unconstant:
When a man talks of love, with caution trust him;
But if he swears, he’ll certainly deceive thee.
No matter that she loves and secretly marries another: it is all in vain.3
By the beginning of the eighteenth century these novel conceptions of feminine suffering had become staple themes of English theatre. Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, first acted in 1703 and incessantly revived, reprinted, and re-quoted, was based on an early seventeenth – century play about a ruthless adulteress who is killed by her outraged husband. Now, in keeping with the new sensibility, this figure was transformed into the tragic virgin Calista, who is seduced and abandoned by the heartless Lothario (such was the play’s popularity that his name became proverbial). From a story about a lustful villainess it had become a cautionary tale about the wiles of libertine men, the social constraints on women, and the terrible cost of unlawful love. ‘Perfidious man!’ exclaims Calista’s confidante, ‘Man! Who makes his mirth of our undoing! / The base, professed betrayer of our sex. . .
Guard me from men, / From their deceitful tongues, their vows and flatteries’. ‘How hard is the condition of our sex,’ Calista herself bitterly observes, ‘Thro’ ev’ry state of life the slaves of man.’ She blames her own weakness (she fell, ‘because I lov’d, and was a woman’), but as the Epilogue pointed out, the real, underlying problem was male licentiousness – ‘if you wou’d e’er bring constancy in fashion, / you men must first begin the reformation’. The same transformation is visible in eighteenth-century treatments of the story of Jane Shore, the legendary mistress of Edward IV, who previously had always been portrayed as a scheming harlot. Henceforth, beginning with Rowe’s own Jane Shore (1714), she was reinvented as a beautiful, tragic exemplar of the sexual double standard:
Mark by what partial justice we are judged;
Such is the fate unhappy women find,
And such the curse entailed upon our kind,
That man, the lawless libertine, may rove Free and unquestioned through the wilds of love;
While woman, sense and nature’s easy fool,
If poor weak woman swerve from virtue’s rule,
If, strongly charmed, she leave the thorny way,
And in the softer paths of pleasure stray;
Ruin ensues, reproach and endless shame,
And one false step entirely damns her fame.
In vain with tears the loss she may deplore,
In vain look back to what she was before,
She sets, like stars that fall, to rise no more.4
As is well known, Restoration drama also included plenty of lusty female roles – adulterous wives, scheming mistresses, and mercenary whores did not suddenly vanish from the stage. Betty Frisque in John Crowne’s The Country Wit (1676), Mrs Tricksy in Dryden’s The Kind Keeper (1678), and Madam Tricklove in Thomas D’Urfey’s Squire Oldsapp (1678), for example, all lived up to their names. The new archetypes emerged gradually alongside such traditional figures, rather than supplanting them overnight. Yet by the turn of the century they had grown increasingly influential. It is notable that plays like The Orphan and The Fair Penitent increased their popularity
throughout the eighteenth century, whilst those that portrayed women as lustful manipulators largely fell out of fashion. Already in the 1670s and 1680s, a telling sign of shifting attitudes was the fact that libertines on stage were made to spout the traditional rhetoric of female inconstancy in ways that highlighted its artificiality. ‘Find out some song to please me,’ the villain Polydor orders his page in The Orphan, as he prepares to assault the virtue of an innocent maid,
. . . that describes,
Women’s hypocrisies, their subtle wiles,
Betraying smiles, feigned tears, inconstancies,
Their painted outsides, and corrupted minds,
The sum of all their follies, and their falsehoods.
When his prey resists, he flings the same misogynist slanders at her. But we, the audience, are meant to see that all this is but cynical, manipulative bluster. For we contrast it with what is really being shown. A weak and pitiful woman is under siege from a ruthless, powerful male. As in so many other Restoration analyses of morality, the overriding message is that social life is governed by irrational customs. In the light of empirical scrutiny, it proclaims, the age-old tropes about female lustfulness and duplicity are revealed to be merely conventional, customary, artificial ways of thinking.5
It was not just the advent of female performers that inspired these new attitudes, but a much more general emergence, for the first time, of women as a permanent part of the world of letters.6 As playwrights, poets, novelists, and writers of other kinds, women influenced male authors, looked to one another, and addressed themselves directly to the public. Though, to begin with, their conceptions of femininity often included conventional ideas about the fickleness of amorous women, female writers also tended, and increasingly so, to stress male rapaciousness and duplicity in love. Women dramatists, for example, were more likely to ridicule male pretension, and to explore female views at greater length. It is no accident that the first sympathetic, indepth depictions of unhappy fallen women ever written in English came from the pen of Aphra Behn, the great pioneer in the exploration of female sexual sensibility. Particularly telling was her revision (in The Revenge, 1680) of John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan
(1605). In the original the protagonist had been a devilish whore who gets her justified comeuppance; now this character was transformed into Corina, a tragic, innocent victim. Seduced and betrayed by the man she loves, she is treated as a whore but never acts like one. When his perfidy becomes clear, her heart erupts in pain and anger:
is it true, hast thou abandon’d me? Canst thou forget our numerous blisses past, the hours we’ve wasted out in tales of love, and curst all interruption but of kisses, which ’twixt thy charming words I ever gave thee; when the whole live-long day we thought too short, yet blest the coming night? Hast thou forgot, false are thy vows, all perjur’d, and thy faith broken as my poor lost forsaken heart? And wou’dst thou wish me live to see this change! Cou’dst thou believe, if thou hadst hid it from the talking world, my heart cou’d not have found it out by sympathy! A foolish, unconsidering, faithless man!
In much female writing about sexual relations, the bottom line was, as the teenage poet Sarah Fyge explained in 1686, that men were always trying ‘to make a prey’ of chaste women. All their bluster about female lust and inconstancy was but to make women ‘the scapegoat’ – it was actually men who constantly pressured and ensnared women, who were insatiable in their thirst for new conquests, and shameless in their commission:
Instead of hiding their prodigious Acts,
They do reveal, brag of their horrid Facts;
you’d persuade us, that ’tis we alone Are guilty of all crimes and you have none,
And ’cause you have made whores of all you could,
So if you dared, you’d say all women would.7
Even more influential in the long term was the role of women in creating the new genre of the novel, which by the middle of the eighteenth century had exploded into the most influential fictional form of all, and become a central conduit of moral and social education. (As its pre-eminent exponent explained in 1747, the ‘story or amusement should be considered as little more than the vehicle to the more necessary instruction’.) Though the novel was never a stable or uniform category, more a constantly evolving hybrid of forms, the impact of this newly fashionable kind of narrative was unmistakable. Its authors made increasing claims to realism – to be portraying the lives of actual men and women, rather than of fictional characters. The genre also allowed for much more insight into the minds and feelings of its protagonists than the theatre, with its constraints of plot, time, and speech, had ever managed. Now, there was unlimited scope for the dissection of changing emotional states, internal thoughts, and subjective perceptions, which could be privately pondered by each individual reader. For all these reasons, courtship and seduction were prime novelistic subjects. From the outset, women were prominent as novelists, as readers of novels, and as their heroines. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jane Austen could confidently assert that, despite being denigrated as trivial, women novelists’ exploration of female lives had in fact ‘afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world’: these were the literary productions ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language’.8
The heroines of Austen’s early predecessors, such as Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood, had by no means all been innocent of lust. All the same, as in the case of early female dramatists, this theme was increasingly supplanted by a stress on masculine seduction, betrayal, and inconstancy, and the in-depth presentation of victimized feminine points of view. In the first episode of Manley’s New Atalantis (1709), we see a lascivious woman sexually deceived and punished by two scheming men. The second, even more starkly, shows us a powerful aristocrat who ruthlessly plots the seduction and rape of his innocent virgin ward, and then abandons her to ruin:
the remainder of her life was one continued scene of horror, sorrow and repentance. She died a true landmark to warn all believing virgins from shipwrecking their honour upon that dangerous coast of rocks, the vows and pretended passion of mankind.9
Ideas about the essential callousness and iniquity of male attitudes to sex also began to be expounded in depth by female thinkers and philosophers. As Mary Astell put it in 1700, with brilliant bitterness, ‘’tis no great matter to them if women, who were born to be their slaves, be now and then ruined for their entertainment. . . It were endless to reckon up the diverse stratagems men use to catch their prey.’ No woman could ever ‘be too much upon her guard’. Similar views were expressed by Margaret Cavendish, Damaris Masham, and other early feminists. It was not that the arguments they put forward had been unthinkable before. We catch a glimpse of them in 1640, for example, when the popular poet John Taylor imagined women’s feelings on the subject. Whores were not born but made by the treachery of men: ‘who vitiated them, but you that would seem the virtuous? Or who corrupted them, but you the male crocodiles? . . . It is not possible, that the world could yield any one branded with the name of a whore, but there must be a whoremaster to make her so.’ It was men who were ‘addicted to incontinency’, women who were naturally chaste.10 Analogous points had been developed by some medieval critics of misogyny.11 Yet it was only from the later seventeenth century onwards that they came to be put forward publicly, at length, and in quantity, in a way that discernibly changed the broader culture of the age.
Even very ordinary women were now newly able to access and publicize similar views, as consumers and correspondents of the burgeoning periodical press. From the 1690s onwards, newspapers commonly encouraged their readers to send in questions, observations, essays, and poems for publication. Many periodicals addressed themselves specifically to women; many more presumed a mixed readership. Female attitudes, love, and courtship accordingly became massively popular journalistic themes. For a woman to venture into print had previously tended to be a controversial action. Now, as part of the broader explosion and democratization of printed media, literacy, and correspondence, female voices and concerns became a permanent, daily part of public discussion, continually and confidently speaking to a huge and growing reading public.12
All these social and intellectual developments (which we shall
explore further in Chapter 6) are epitomized in an extraordinary letter written on 20 May 1726 by a young, heartbroken woman from London. During her husband’s absence at sea, she had been seduced (perhaps raped) by an acquaintance, inveigled into an affair with him, impregnated, and finally abandoned. Desperate and heavily pregnant, she travelled a hundred miles to Kent to track him down, and sent word to him on board his ship, off the coast at Deal. When he ignored her letters, rejecting her callously as nothing but ‘a common whore’, she drowned herself. Within days of her suicide, her farewell letter to a friend, found in her lodgings, had been printed on the front page of the London Journal, to be read by thousands of men and women across the land. These were her final recorded words:
I wish I could cease thinking. To suffer shame, I cannot; and to face my friends, or indeed the world, is to me more terrible than death. I freely forgive all the world, and even Mr L. the greatest enemy I ever met with in it. . . I own my self to blame for reposing so much confidence in him: I wish my unhappy state may be a warning to others, not to put too much trust in faithless Man.
Mr L. should not read Mr Locke’s books so much and practise them so little; he inculcates the necessity of doing as we would be done by, and of shunning a lie, though to the saving a man’s life. Let him think of this when he thinks of me. He cannot forget the confusion I was in when he first took the advantage of my weakness, not having strength enough to resist him: he continued on his knees, begging me to forgive him; promising all that man could say; calling God to damn him if ever he proved base to me. . . He declared he would no longer esteem me his friend but wife, though not in his power to make me so, but should own the same love and duty. O that he had always kept his word! Then I should have still been happy; but not being used to men’s company, was unacquainted with such treachery. . . But I can still forgive him, and own my fault. Let no one judge too rash, that does not know the cause I had for it.
Your humble servant,
This was a completely private tragedy, amongst people so utterly obscure that not even their full names are now known to us. In no previous age would it have been conceivable for such a woman to set down a narrative of her ruin, blaming it naturally on the libidinous treachery of men, and for this intimate account of a common sexual victim to be immediately publicized to a national audience of sympathetic readers. By the early eighteenth century, however, all this was possible.
Over the course of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a new view of relations between the sexes thus became increasingly dominant. Its presumption of male lustfulness owed much to the growing cultural prominence of female performers, writers, viewers, and readers. In past ages, noted Samuel Johnson in 1750, ‘as the faculty of writing has been chiefly a masculine endowment, the reproach of making the world miserable has been always thrown upon the women’: but now their breaking of the male monopoly on writing, and their ‘stronger arguments’, had overturned the ancient masculine falsehood that women were the more fickle and lecherous sex.14 Ironically enough, the new attitude was shared by defenders as well as critics of male liberty. As a consequence it became ever more influential. Already by the 1730s it had become a commonplace that men, especially gentlemen, were constantly and cold-bloodedly out to use women – that they employed all their superior knowledge and power to outwit innocent females, whilst upholding an iniquitous double standard of morality that damned the victim rather than the seducer.