NATURE AND NURTURE
Our focus thus far has been on the emergence of new ideas about masculinity and femininity in general. The second important theme in all thinking about male promiscuity and female chastity was that of social difference. We have seen already that this was integral to ideas about masculine behaviour. Libertines were always held to prey on women of inferior status, their sexual potency confirming, rather than transgressing, other hierarchies of power. The idea that manners were shaped by environmental and social influences was equally central to ideals of politeness. It also came to be increasingly prominent in attitudes to female morality, for even the most extravagant believers in the inherent virtue of women acknowledged that modesty also had to be learned and reinforced – ‘especially in this age’, as William Rame – sey had pointed out, ‘wherein they need to be furnished with abundance of virtue, to withstand the continual assaults men make on their chastity’.1
Everyone could agree that morality was the product of both nature and nurture. The real questions were more complicated. What exactly was the balance between the two? What kind of education best instilled virtue? How far could it ever overcome the constraints of birth and class? Were poor women not bound to be inevitably less chaste, less perfectly feminine? Such issues had been implicit in earlier thinking about immorality, but from around 1700 they took on much greater and more explicit importance in all discussions of sexual morality, social policy, and relations between the sexes. The outcome was a much firmer association between chastity and social class than had ever existed before.
Intertwined with the new obsession with male seduction were many older commonplaces about the weakness, vanity, and inferiority of women, their sexual culpability, and the essential vileness of unchaste females. Even the idea that all women were secretly lustful (as Alexander Pope notoriously put it, that ‘every woman is, at heart, a rake’)2 lived on, albeit in muted form, in facetious and erotic works. However, it now became much more common to stress that women only became sexually avaricious, if they ever did, through improper stimulation. Female lust was an essentially dormant passion. If aroused outside the proper outlet of marriage, it could range out of control, turning its possessor into an a-feminine monster: that is what happened to fallen women. Yet normally it did not motivate women as it did men. So the key question became: what made some women more vulnerable to male seduction than others?
The answer, it seemed, lay mainly in their education and environment. These were the forces that shaped every woman’s moral sense – which either accentuated her feminine weakness, making her more liable to fall, or were able to counter it and bolster her virtue. Before 1700, this hadn’t meant much more than imbibing religious instruction and avoiding bad company. Piety was supposed to breed modesty; whereas religious ignorance, and the wrong kinds of friends, pushed men and women down the slippery slope of vice. In the eighteenth century, however, the effects of environment came to be approached and described in much more wide-ranging terms.
The old fear that, deep down, women’s passions were as strong as those of men, was now translated into ever more detailed prescriptions for the repression of feminine sexuality. As Clarissa herself warned her friend Anna Howe, women had to be more self-disciplined, or they’d end up as bad as men:
Learn, my dear, I beseech you learn, to subdue your own passions. Be the motives what they will, excess is excess. Those passions in our sex, which we take no pains to subdue, may have one and the same source with those infinitely blacker passions which we used so often to condemn in the violent and headstrong of the other sex; and which may be heightened in them only by custom, and their freer education. Let us both, my dear, ponder well this thought; look into ourselves, and fear.3
Yet even in prescriptive literature this was never a straightforward ideal. In reality, moreover, as the novelists of the age explored with considerable sensitivity, the new stress on female asexuality and innocence created a profound ambiguity.4 If modesty was innate, how could it be cultivated? Was artlessness an admirable quality, the essence of modesty; or was it in fact a dangerous weakness, liable to leave girls defenceless against the wiles of the world? This was the great tension in all eighteenth-century novels about courtship, seduction, and the sexual predicament of women – the minefield through which all its heroines were compelled to tread.
Conversely, what kind of education and environment would make a woman more susceptible to immorality? In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the answer had always been a general one: people fell because they failed to control their own corrupt inclinations. In the eighteenth century this stress on personal responsibility was increasingly overlaid by an appreciation of the social forces that affected different groups in society. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) is an early example of this new approach. In most respects the description of Moll’s sexual career follows an old-fashioned, universal narrative of personal sin and redemption. It is ‘the devil’ who tempts her ever further into wickedness, and her own weakness that makes her give way. Throughout the book, though, as elsewhere in Defoe’s writing of the 1720s, there are also clear glimpses of more modern ways of thinking about the particular, structural vulnerability of poor, ill – educated women. Especially telling is the description of how Moll first loses her virginity, and sets off down the slippery slope to perdition. As in all sin, her own passions are partly to blame. She has ‘the common vanity of my sex’ and ‘my head full of pride’, which make her an easy prey. But the real forces of evil are twofold. The first is the sexual guile of upper-class men. Like Pamela after her, like countless other young, unsuspecting maidservants, she is ensnared by a wicked, experienced bachelor who knows exactly ‘how to catch a woman in his net as a partridge’, whilst for her part ‘knowing nothing of the wickedness of the times, I had not one thought of my own safety or of my virtue about me’.5
The second root cause is Moll’s inappropriate education, which has left her with ‘a most unbounded stock of vanity and pride, and but a very little stock of virtue’. Like every orthodox author before and after him, Defoe took for granted that only a thoroughly religious upbringing and environment could safely guide men and women through life. Without such ‘divine assistance’, even well-intentioned persons could never ‘preserve the most solemn resolutions of virtue’. Instead, Moll, who starts off as an honest, industrious orphan girl, is left deficient in virtue by being educated and habituated to a way of living above her real station in life.6 Within a few decades, as the balance swung firmly towards structural explanations of female seduction and degradation, this had become an endlessly elaborated commonplace – one that seemed to capture the ways in which nature and nurture conspired to render some women much more vulnerable (and some men more rapacious) than others.
The increasing conviction that upbringing was more important than innate sinfulness was based on new ideas about the malleability of human nature. In particular, the immense, ever-growing authority of John Locke’s theories of selfhood and custom, set out in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), had by the middle decades of the eighteenth century helped overturn the established Christian convention that all mortals were born intrinsically corrupted by original sin. Instead, it became conventional to observe, as Locke had, ‘that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education’.7 Differences of character were not innate, but largely learned.
This principle came to dominate the explanation of sexual mores. A prime cause of adultery, noted a critic in 1739, was obviously ‘the wrong, I may say, wretched way of educating our youth: particularly our young ladies’ – ‘I beg you, sir, to reflect a little, how our young misses of rank and quality, and even some shopkeepers’ daughters are educated’. Exposing them to frivolity, luxury, and constant social intercourse with men, as the modern fashion did, was the surest way to disaster. By the 1740s, Richardson’s characters are all to be understood in similar terms. How do we explain libertinism? Like this: Mr B is so ungoverned because
his poor dear mother spoiled him at first. Nobody must speak to him or contradict him, as I have heard, when he was a child, and so he has not been used to be controlled and cannot bear the least thing that crosses his violent will.
Why are some women more easily corrupted than others? Well, Lovelace explains, Sally Martin and Polly Horton, the archetypal fallen women in Clarissa, were ‘creatures who, brought up too high for their fortunes, and to a taste of pleasure and the public diversions, had fallen an easy prey to his seducing arts’. It was not they personally, but their parents
who were in a great measure answerable for their miscarriages, by indulging them in the fashionable follies and luxury of an age given up to those amusements and pleasures which are so apt to set people of but middle fortunes above all the useful employments of life; and to make young women an easy prey to rakes and libertines.8
This was to become a major theme in all analyses of seduction and prostitution. Education or aspiration above their station was the fatal weakness that made some women more susceptible to sexual danger. Sometimes, it is true, this was conceived of simply as an intrinsic female tendency. ‘Was it vanity, the childish vanity of dress that so beguiled you?’ a Hackney clergyman chided the fallen women of his parish in 1791,
Did you yield to the solicitation of someone superior to yourself to gratify the pride of being better dressed, supplied with money, and living at your ease? And did you expect that the same profusion which supplied you then would continue to support you in the way that your foolish heart might wish? Your own experience has shown you your mistake. . . Root out therefore from your heart the very wish of dressing or aspiring beyond the state in which the providence of God hath placed you. Whenever you are enticed by those above you, whether they be your masters, your master’s sons or friends, or whoever else, ruin must ensue if you have not the resolution to withstand the bribes with which your virtue is assailed.9
From this perspective, with its orthodox Christian emphasis on personal discipline in the face of temptation, foolish women were at least partly culpable for their own ruin. More commonly, however, the blame for faulty principles was laid at the door of parents who gave their daughters an over-refined education. That this created exactly the kind of frivolous, pleasure-loving victims most at risk of sexual danger was the standard argument in most fictional accounts – even the ultra-condensed Innocence Betrayed noted in passing that the father of poor, guiltless Sarah Martin had ‘educated his daughter in a style rather above their situation’. The proper ideal, accordingly, was for poor girls at risk of seduction to ‘be instructed, not in ornamental learning, above their stations, but in the menial offices of domestic servitude’.10
The idea that women were conditioned into vice, rather than personally to blame, was extended still further by more systematic thinkers. Henry Fielding’s reading of history persuaded him that even the most depraved harlots of the past ‘derived their iniquity rather from the general corruption which then prevailed, than from any extraordinary disparity in their own nature; and that a Livilla, a Mes – salina, an Agrippina or a Poppsa, might in better times have made chaste and virtuous matrons’. It was clear, he concluded, ‘That if weak women go astray, / The Age is more at fault than they.’11
This line of thinking became especially popular with feminists, who developed it into a penetrating critique of female indoctrination. More women were led into unchastity, wrote Catharine Macaulay in 1790, ‘by the ignorance, the prejudices, and the false craft of those by whom they are educated, than from any other cause founded either in nature or in chance’. It was perverse to educate women to be innocent and unworldly. At best this left them helpless and enervated; at worst, it distorted them into mindless, unnatural coquettes. Either way, such cultivated weakness actually increased the risks of seduction, unchastity, and prostitution. The real solution to these evils was not to lay ever-greater restraints on women, but to stop treating them as brainless sex-objects. Only when men and women were equally free to develop their natural reason would real chastity flourish, in both sexes. This was one of the principal themes of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), as of many earlier and later attacks on the artificiality and iniquity of modern sexual roles.12
By the second half of the eighteenth century explanations of female sexual susceptibility thus ranged widely – but what they shared was a tendency to blame undesirable social trends, rather than innate female lust. Yet the practical effect of this new way of thinking was highly ambiguous.
At one level, it contributed to the growing perception that even fallen women retained some innocence, that their further ruin was not inevitable, and that they might rejoin society. This idea had obvious roots in orthodox Christian teaching about personal sin and redemption. It also extended St Augustine’s famous argument that chastity was ‘not a treasure which can be stolen without the mind’s consent’. As one public writer put it in 1757, ‘incontinence is not always a proof of unchastity. Many unhappy fair ones, won by soothing solicitations, have confided in false promises, and devoted their persons to an indiscreet affection, who have nevertheless retained their chastity, and been unpolluted in their minds.’ ‘I never was vicious so much from a depravity of nature as from a kind of habitual infamy,’ argued an imprisoned prostitute in 1773. She retained the seeds of a virtuous education; she was not yet despoiled ‘of every tender sensation, of every delicacy of thought, of every desirable quality necessary to render our sex amiable. And though I have suffered them to sleep, or permitted them to mix with the grosser passions, I have not totally discarded them.’13
This notion that, just as sexual vice was learned, it could also be unlearned, was increasingly popular with late eighteenth and nineteenth-century philanthropists (as we shall see in the next chapter). It also appealed to feminists and others who noted that the moral and worldly ruin of seduced women was essentially a matter of custom. Females were not driven to prostitution because one slip irrevocably degraded their morals, but because the world (and other women in particular) so cruelly ostracized them. No one shunned libertine men, exclaimed Mary Robinson, who had had many lovers herself – yet how unfair was the fate of most fallen women:
custom, that pliant and convenient friend to man, declares her infamous.
She has no remedy. She appeals to the feeling and reflecting part of mankind; they pity, but they do not seek to redress her; she flies to her own sex, they not only condemn, but they avoid her.
It was a ‘trite and foolish observation’, argued Catharine Macaulay,
that the first fault against chastity in woman has a radical power to deprave the character. But no such frail beings come out of the hands of Nature. The human mind is built of nobler materials than to be easily corrupted; and with all their disadvantages of situation and education, women seldom become entirely abandoned till they are thrown into a state of desperation, by the venomous rancour of their own sex.
However natural it might be for virtuous women to feel ‘hatred, contempt, and terror’ for prostitutes, agreed Mary Hays, it was wrong. Even the worst whores were ultimately the victims of ‘profligate men’ and ‘unfortunate circumstances’. So every woman should instead ‘look inward upon herself and say – If I have more purity of heart and conduct, than these unfortunate sisters, have I not more cause for thankfulness than triumph?’14
Yet, on the other hand, even the most sympathetic reformers tended to concede that continued promiscuity did render women ‘a disgrace to their sex and to human nature’. And the more common presumption remained that a single slip irreparably polluted a woman and destroyed her virtue. William Paley, one of the most influential moralists of the later eighteenth century, was typical in his view that even a woman who had been deceitfully seduced was nonetheless turned immediately into a whore: ‘As a woman collects her virtue into this point, the loss of her chastity is generally the destruction of her moral principle; and this consequence is to be apprehended, whether the criminal intercourse be discovered or not.’ Even Bentham thought it illogical to speak of the seduction of a ‘concubine’ or ‘common harlot’. Such women had no virtue to lose: even to rape one would not necessarily be a crime. 1 5 In short, alongside the elevation of female innocence, and a new sympathy for the prostitute as victim, the eighteenth century also saw a continued, and in some respects increased, contempt for immodest women.
It is easy to see why this should have been so. The falling away of judicial punishment, combined with increasing freedom for men, placed ever heavier demands on respectable women. Their selfdiscipline was now the key to all sexual propriety. For a woman to fail in this duty, when her entire culture depended on it, was therefore unforgivable. This was a point on which even libertines and churchmen agreed. As Lovelace scoffed, ‘because we men cannot resist temptation, is that a reason that women ought not, when the whole of their education is caution and warning against our attempts?’ It was not. At best a woman’s unchastity showed fatal weakness, at worst it raised suspicions of lecherous complicity. Either way, her fall transformed the female into a sexual and social enemy. Fallen women stole away men; they degenerated into repulsive, unfeminine harpies; and they threatened to corrupt other women into the same way of life. For all these reasons they had to be shunned – especially by their own sex.16
This attitude was further sharpened by the new association between education and chastity. The fact that the working classes were especially in danger of seduction garnered them some pity and understanding. (Women ‘in low life’, noted Paley, were ‘most exposed to solicitations of this sort’.) But in many observers their susceptibility provoked disdain rather than sympathy, as it seemed to confirm the basic point that poorer women were less refined – and hence more likely to be, or become, immoral. Women below ‘the middle rank’, wrote Mandeville in 1724, were not as well-instructed in modesty, and if they had but the least ‘degree of beauty. . . to provoke young men. . . their chastity can never hold out long, but must infallibly surrender’. All women were to some extent ‘guarded and defended’ from lust, concurred Defoe, when he read this passage, but such ‘innate modesty. . . among people of condition, is always improved by education’.17
By 1740, this fusion of social condescension with the sexual double standard was central to the plot of Pamela, in which the heroine is oppressed not just by the conventions of feminine subordination, but by her immense social inferiority. The difficulty of defending chastity without offending social propriety is one of the book’s chief themes. All her superiors presume that, given her twin handicaps, she must succumb to the inevitable. Yet if she does they will doubly condemn her – for her weakness and her immodesty. She was but ‘painted dirt’, sneers Mr B’s sister, thinking Pamela has given way. ‘I did indeed pity you while I thought you innocent’, but now she despises her: ‘Oh Pamela, Pamela, I am sorry for thy thus aping thy betters, and giving thyself such airs; I see thou art quite spoiled! Of a modest, innocent girl, that thou was, and humble too, thou now art fit for nothing in the world, but what I fear thou art.’ Similar presumptions fuelled the many hostile reactions of ‘anti-Pamela’ readers like Henry Fielding, who objected to the story as inherently implausible, even subversive. From their perspective, it seemed that in any such a situation either the lower-class woman would certainly give in, or she was secretly complicit herself – either way, she was bound to be wanting in virtue and chastity. As one gentlemanly critic remarked contemptuously, Pamela was nothing more than ‘a little pert minx, whom any man of common sense or address might have had on his own terms in a week or a fortnight’.18
It has long been appreciated that the decades around 1800 were the period in which the English middling and working classes first became visible as coherent and self-conscious groups, and in which class became the predominant way of dividing up society. It has also been shown, more recently, that ideologies of gender were central to the formation of class identity.19 What we see in debates about morality
and social structure is the reverse of this: how the growing importance of ideas about class influenced ideas about masculinity and femininity.
By Victorian times, extraordinarily elaborate hypotheses about the connection were routinely put forward. For reasons of physiology and culture alike, noted the Christian physician and feminist Elizabeth Blackwell in the 1880s, the working classes were sexually unrestrained in the same way as primitive peoples and animals: ‘in the savage state, existing in wild regions of country, and in the slums of all great towns, both men and women are grossly unchaste’. To countless educated observers, the immodesty and lasciviousness of plebeian women was axiomatic.20
The origin of such attitudes can already be glimpsed a century earlier. ‘The lower class of women’, sniffed one educated writer in 1772, had no sexual inhibitions at all. They were attracted to black men, ‘for reasons too brutal to mention; they would connect themselves with horses and asses, if the law permitted them’. This was an extreme view, but from the perspective of many later eighteenth-century commentators it seemed obvious that, on the whole, working women were less educated, and so less civilized, less feminine, and less virtuous. This was not their personal failing but a systematic social problem. ‘London is so much the sink of vice, that the lower class of people are very much corrupted,’ observed a clergyman in 1786. In consequence, ‘there are few servant maids in London, or indeed in the country, but what are whores; it is perhaps an uncharitable supposition, but it is nevertheless true.’ Unchastity meant nothing to common women, agreed a lawyer: ‘in the lower order of the people, the force of transactions of this nature is lost, through want of possessing the nicer feelings’. Female chastity was manifestly the product of ‘custom, habit, and education’, rather than ‘natural and inherent’, noted another critic, and for that reason ‘there are fewer unchaste women, even in proportion to their numbers, among those of rank and condition, than there are chaste among these of an inferior order, though the lives of the first are generally lazy and luxurious’. Dr Johnson likewise took for granted that ‘the more people are taught, the more modest they are’, and that therefore ‘so far as I have observed, the higher the rank, the richer ladies are, they are the better instructed and more virtuous’.21
This was hardly an uncontested view. Boswell, for one, disagreed. ‘The notion of the world, Sir’, he countered, ‘is, that the morals of women of quality are worse than those in lower stations.’ Indeed it is obvious that the later eighteenth century also saw increasing public criticism of the supposed immorality of upper class men and women. But this was part of the same intellectual development. The main point is simply that, by the later eighteenth century, it had become conventional to think about morality in class terms, and to take for granted that different social groups had different sexual mores.22
The ultimate outcome of these various ways of considering nature and nurture was a profound double consciousness, which was to reach its apogee under the Victorians, and persist into the twentieth century. At one level there was established a powerful presumption of female sexual innocence and victimhood, which for many observers extended even to prostitutes. Yet at the same time the sexuality of uneducated women was often viewed with suspicion, and, even in philanthropic thought, whores were also routinely abhorred as disgusting and depraved. Thus male rapacity could be deplored, yet fallen women ostracized, and working women treated as imperfectly feminine. The balance between sympathy and disgust obviously differed from observer to observer; but few commentators escaped this kind of double-think altogether. It was the Enlightenment development of new associations between morality, education, and class that allowed it to flourish.