This is why the first great novelists of the English language were so obsessed with seduction. Foremost amongst them was Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1747-8), and Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4) were the most sensationally popular and influential fictions of the eighteenth century. His was a classic instance of the growing power of female viewpoints. For all its originality of treatment, the general approach and subject-matter of his fiction owes an obvious debt to the stream of earlier novels about heroines courted, seduced, raped, and oppressed which had flown from the pens of pioneering women writers such as Penelope Aubin, Jane Barker, Mary Davys, Eliza Haywood, and Elizabeth Rowe. A wide circle of women acquaintances, readers, and correspondents helped him; in turn, his work presented eyewitness perspectives of respectable women under threat from rapacious, superior men. These were, above all others, the books that helped establish the novel as the pre-eminent form of English literature, and the seduction narrative as its most fundamental plot. Right through the nineteenth century, it is hard to think of many serious novelists who did not pursue this theme.1
Richardson’s writing was the more powerful in its social impact because it self-consciously drew on real-life examples, presented itself as documentary history, and sought to instruct its readers in matters of love, courtship, and lust. Indeed, many of its themes are adumbrated in his earlier, overtly didactic publications. Already in his first book, the Familiar Letters, the danger of male sexual cupidity had been a prominent subject. The bottom line, as one father bluntly counselled his daughter, was that ‘men are deceitful’. ‘The profligateness of the generality of young fellows of the present age,’ cautioned another, brought frightening ‘risks which a virtuous young woman has to encounter with.’ Yet another girl was warned against the terrible danger of ‘keeping company with a gentleman of a bad character’, who had ‘already ruin’d two, if not three, worthy tradesmen’s daughters’ and would undo her too – ‘whatever he may promise you’ in way of marriage. For libertines were ubiquitous and incorrigible. Usually they sought only sexual conquest, insinuating themselves ‘by all the professions of an honourable love’, before having their wicked way. The greatest threat of all was posed by men of higher status: the rake ‘of superior fortune’ to his prey; the master who makes a ‘vile attempt’ upon his servant’s chastity.2
This last instance echoed actual cases that Richardson was familiar with. There was a particular story he had heard, of the beautiful young maidservant who ‘by the time she was fifteen, engaged the attention of her lady’s son, a young gentleman of free principles, who, on her lady’s death, attempted, by all manner of temptations and devices, to seduce her’.* Then there were the endless examples,
* For a similar, real-life, case from the mid-i74os with remarkable parallels to Pamela, see Giles Worsley, ‘The Seduction of Elizabeth Lister’, Women’s History Review 13 (2004) – it is very tempting to suppose that the protagonists must have read Richardson’s novel.
privately repeated and reported in the newspapers, of women like Isabella Cranston, who in the early 1720s had been ‘decoyed’ into the brothel of Sarah Jolly ‘under pretence of being hired into service’ and was there delivered up to the libertine Colonel Francis Charteris. Or like Anne Bond at the end of the decade, who ‘being out of service, and sitting at the door of the house where she lodged, a woman, who was a stranger to her, came to her, and asked her, if she wanted a place? And told her, she helped servants to places.’ This woman was Elizabeth Needham, sometime neighbour of Mrs Jolly and just as notorious a brothel-keeper and bawd; and Anne Bond, too, found herself in service to Colonel Charteris. For ten days he trapped her indoors, made her sleep in his bedroom, ‘offered her a purse of gold. . . several times, and told her, that he would give her fine clothes and money, and a house to live in, and would also get her a husband’. Then he gave up trying to persuade her, raped her, and threw her out.3
Like so many contemporary commentators, Richardson evidently came to be fascinated by women’s enforced seduction and entrapment into prostitution. In the Familiar Letters he included his own remarkable narrative of a young woman, new to London, who is tricked into a brothel under pretence of going into service with a lady. There she meets another young woman, who tearfully recounts her own entrapment, rape, and enforced prostitution:
In this dreadful situation, I have been perplexed with the hateful importunities of different men every day; and tho’ I long resisted to my utmost, yet downright force never failed to overcome. Thus in a shameful round of guilt and horror, have I lingered out ten months; subject to more miseries than tongue can express.  predatory, superior men. In Pamela, the lustful squire B preys on his fifteen-year-old servant: not because he is an especially bad man but because their entire culture acquiesces in the destruction of inferior girls by older, richer, more powerful men. Like a bawd, his housekeeper Mrs Jewkes, ‘a wicked procuress’, keeps Pamela imprisoned whilst alternately threatening and cajoling her to comply with her master. ‘Are not the two sexes made for one another? And is it not natural for a gentleman to love a pretty woman? And suppose he can obtain his desires, is that so bad?’ ‘Ruin’ was a ‘foolish word’, she wheedles, extolling the status of a kept mistress, ‘Why ne’er a lady in the land may live happier than you, if you will, or be more honourably used.’ When Pamela resists all the same, the older woman loses patience, beats and abuses her, encourages Mr B, and holds the girl down for him to rape (see plate 3). ‘Why, what is all this,’ drawls one of Mr B’s neighbours about the heroine’s predicament, ‘but that the squire our neighbour has a mind to his mother’s waiting-maid? And if he takes care she wants for nothing, I don’t see any great injury will be done her. He hurts no family by this.’ (By which he means: Mr B hurts no one who matters, no one of his own class). Even the parish priest is resigned to the ways of the world: ‘for, he said, it was too common and fashionable a case to be withstood by a private clergyman or two’. To be the kept mistress of a great man was perfectly honourable, ‘and ’tis what all young gentlemen will do’.5
Richardson’s masterpiece, Clarissa, further sharpens the archetypes of sexual vice and virtue. In Pamela, the heroine’s virtue and steadfastness eventually redeem Mr B, who is not yet ‘a very abandoned profligate’: he refrains from ravishing her, they marry, and live happily ever after. But Richardson was evidently stung by those readers who had found this reversal unbelievable, doubting especially that Pamela could be as innocent as she is made out. In Clarissa the narrative is accordingly more single-minded, the tone much darker, the analysis of social and sexual corruption far deeper. Robert Lovelace Esq., ‘a man of birth and fortune’, is a hardened and heartless rake. He falls in love with and wants to marry Clarissa Harlowe, who is rich, beautiful, and socially his inferior; but he also just loves the thrill of preying upon, entrapping, and conquering virgins. Already he has sacrificed dozens. For a woman to resist his immense will is unthinkable. And so he lies and schemes unceasingly, dupes Clarissa into eloping to London, and keeps her imprisoned and constantly under pressure. Finally, when she refuses to give way, he tricks her into a brothel, where he drugs and rapes her (see plate 5). Yet even after this ultimate blow she remains virtuous, dies like a true Christian, and so triumphs over her worldly enemies.6
The impact of Richardson’s portrayal of male rapacity and female seduction was enormous – not just on English attitudes in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but on literate culture across the whole of the western world. It can be seen in the first great novel in Dutch, De historie van Mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart (1782), and in countless other major writers: Rousseau, Diderot, Laclos, Goethe, Kleist, Pushkin, even the Marquis de Sade. Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791) reworked Richardson’s themes in a transatlantic setting and became a massive best-seller, by far the most popular fiction of early nineteenth-century America. Across the English-speaking world, his novels were endlessly praised, referred to, read, and imitated by other writers.7
Naturally, not everyone shared Richardson’s exact presumptions. Some high-spirited female novelists poked fun at the stereotype of the all-powerful rake – though their satire equally illustrates its pervasiveness. Thus Sir Edward Denham, the anti-hero of Jane Austen’s last, uncompleted, novel, Sanditon (1817),
had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s; and such authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character.
Sir Edward’s great object in life was to be seductive. – With such personal advantages as he knew himself to possess, and such talents as he did also give himself credit for, he regarded it as his duty. – He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous man – quite in the line of the Lovelaces. . . He was armed against the highest pitch of disdain or aversion. – If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his business.8
In real life, on the other hand, rapacious men often denigrated female modesty as no more than artificial repression. ‘I have my own private notions as to modesty’, recorded Boswell, ‘of which I would only value the appearance: for unless a woman has amorous heat she is a dull companion.’9 A similar ethos seemed to be revealed in Lord Chesterfield’s private advice to his son, which caused a scandal when it was published in 1774. (In Samuel Jackson Pratt’s The Pupil of Pleasure (1776), which satirizes Chesterfield’s morality, the anti-hero Philip Sedley scoffs that ‘Richardson’s a child. . . his Lovelace a bungler’.) When in 1813 Byron read his future wife’s views on relations between the sexes, he sneered that ‘she seems to have been spoiled – not as children usually are – but systematically Clarissa Harlowed into an awkward kind of correctness – with a dependence upon her own infallibility which will or may lead her into some egregious blunder’ (it did, of course: marriage to him).10
Other currents of thought therefore continued to flow alongside the mainstream obsession with male predation. It is nonetheless remarkable how far there had developed by the middle of the eighteenth century an underlying consensus about the essential nature of male and female sexuality. To illustrate this we have only to compare Richardson’s views with those of Henry Fielding, his foremost literary antagonist.
From the beginning of his career, Fielding wrote his novels in conscious opposition to those of Richardson, explicitly repudiating his style, tone, and plots. In real life, too, the two authors belonged to markedly different sexual milieux. Richardson, the buttoned-up, barely educated, middle-class tradesman, surrounded himself with adoring, virtuous women, was proud of never even having met an unchaste one, and addressed himself at least as much to a female as a male audience. Fielding, by contrast, was an Etonian gentleman and lawyer, the son of a libertine, the near relation of powerful aristocrats and courtiers. As a young man, he lived the rakish, promiscuous existence of a West End playwright; in middle age, he impregnated (and ended up marrying) his maid; towards the end of his life, as a magistrate, he immersed himself daily in the sordid circumstances of bawdry and sexual trade. His was an upper-class, libertine, masculine world – reflected, his contemporary critics thought, in the character of his writing. Richardson himself, Samuel Johnson, and Charles Burney all deplored Fielding’s ‘loose life, and the profligacy of almost all his male characters. Who would venture to read one of his novels aloud to modest women? His novels are male amusements.’11
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the two writers have long been held up as moral opposites. At first sight, Fielding’s ethics do look quite different. On the surface, his work conveyed a worldly acceptance of male sexual freedom that enraged pious readers. It also featured sexually experienced women who were ardent, seductive, and dangerous to men. In his hilarious spoof, Shamela (1741), Pamela is revealed to be a shameless hussy, a whore and bastard-bearer, who, in league with his equally knowing servants, entraps the clueless Mr ‘Booby’ into matrimony. In Joseph Andrews (1742), Pamela’s innocent brother is pursued by a lascivious widow, Lady Booby. The heroes of Tom Jones (1749) and of Amelia (1751) both succumb to the wiles of experienced women.
Yet, for all his levity and bawdy banter, Fielding’s underlying attitudes towards lust and seduction were remarkably close to those of his great rival. He shared their culture’s basic presumptions that, in general, men pursued women; that female innocence was constantly under threat from masculine wiles; and that fallen women were the victims of libertine seducers. As we have already seen, these were the attitudes he expressed in his journalism, and they equally pervaded his fiction. The lasciviousness of Shamela, Lady Booby, and
Lady Bellaston (in Tom Jones) is an inversion, for comic effect, of the natural order – women were not naturally wanton. Moreover, though Fielding believed it was unavoidable that men should fornicate, he also made it clear that it was contemptible for them to seduce virgins, and admirable if they remained chaste or monogamous. Even in Tom Jones, with its rambunctious pleasure in human folly and imperfection, these rules are observed – indeed, the plot’s twists and happy surprises often turn on their seeming to be flouted, before being triumphantly re-established. The flawed but humane morality that Fielding celebrates is that of Jones himself:
I am no canting hypocrite, nor do I pretend to the gift of chastity, more than my neighbours. I have been guilty with women, I own it; but am not conscious that I have ever injured any – nor would I, to procure pleasure to myself, be knowingly the cause of misery to any human being.
Against it he contrasts the vicious amorality of libertine men, who, as in Richardson, are a ubiquitous danger. They treat women as ‘enemies’, and have ‘a regular, premeditated scheme’ for their conquest. Their promises of marriage are worthless. They are guilty of ‘indefensible treachery’. Like Lord Fellamar, who tries to rape Sophia Western in order to force her to marry him, they are all shadows of Lovelace.12
This picture is drawn most sharply in Fielding’s last and darkest novel, Amelia. First we meet Miss Mathews, an apparently amoral femme fatale, who temporarily leads the hero astray. But then we are given her history, the explanation for her character. She herself was first undone by a handsome, villainous officer, who cynically seduced her, kept her as his mistress, and repeatedly abandoned her for other women – until, driven to rage and despair by his callousness, she finally stabs him through the heart. ‘O may my fate be a warning to every woman,’ she exclaims,
to keep her innocence, to resist every temptation, since she is certain to repent of the foolish bargain. May it be a warning to her to deal with mankind with care and caution; to shun the least approaches of dishonour, and never to confide too much in the honesty of a man, nor in her own strength, where she has so much at stake; let her remember she walks on a precipice, and the bottomless pit is to receive her, if she slips; nay, if she makes but one false step.13
Another central character, the virtuous wife of an impoverished clergyman, falls prey to a coldly calculating aristocrat, one of those serial debauchers of women who regards them as ‘enemies’, to be pursued and destroyed: he sleeps with them only once, for ‘novelty and resistance’ are what arouse him. Using his established network of pimps and ‘a long, regular, premeditated design’, he lures her to a masquerade, drugs, and rapes her. In doing so he infects her with venereal disease. Then her husband, the clergyman, catches it from her and realizes the truth. Insane with grief, he tries to kill himself and his wife, and expires shortly afterwards. The book’s heroine herself is repeatedly pursued by insidious and experienced rakes. Her resistance proves her virtue; but also her luck in the face of overwhelming odds. Such dangers lurk everywhere, and superior men in pursuit of vice will use every means at their disposal: insinuation, flattery, wealth, bribery, their power over husbands and fathers, patronage, alcohol, drugs, masquerades, bawds, pimps, lies, and brute force.14 Ultimately, beneath the comedy, Fielding is fundamentally preoccupied with male rapacity and female victimization.
Just as striking is the extent to which Richardson and his admirers accepted the basic premise that men were bound to take sexual liberties – the real division was that between ‘moderate rakes’ and incorrigible libertines. To Richardson’s frustration, even his most virtuous female readers palliated the vices of men like Lovelace and Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, the libertine would-be rapist in Grandison. Yet he too observed this distinction. In the first draft of Sir Charles Grandison, the heroine is perfectly willing to marry a sexually experienced man, so long as he would give up his libertine ways – for, as she puts it, ‘it may not be thought absolutely necessary perhaps to make very nice scrutinies into the past life and actions of the man to whom we have no very material objections’.15 The same pre-marital indulgence was allowed to Mr B in Pamela, and to Belford, Lovelace’s fellow rake in Clarissa. Even in Richardson, male fornication, and even seduction, were always potentially forgivable.
When, in his final novel, he tried instead to portray an entirely chaste hero, he was therefore intensely conscious of advocating an extreme view. Surely, asked one of his admirers, ‘none but divines and prudes’ could object to ‘a moderate rake’? When consulted on how to show ‘the character of a good man’, Richardson’s elderly friend Colley Cibber advised that a such a paragon would always be sure to cast off his mistress before proposing marriage to an honourable woman. ‘When I made my objections to the mistress,’ the novelist recounted, Cibber was astonished: ‘A male-virgin, said he – ha, ha, ha, hah! . . . and he laughed me quite out of countenance!’ It was a mistake to have implied that Sir Charles Grandison ‘still kept his maidenhead’, agreed another otherwise sympathetic critic, ‘I find it has hurt his character a good deal with the ladies’. To Richardson’s dismay, even his closest confidante, Lady Bradshaigh, the novel’s original promoter, took a similar view of the necessity of female complaisance with male unchastity. Surely, she argued, a man could be sexually active without becoming an irredeemably ‘abandoned profligate’, just ‘as a man may sometimes drink a little too much without being a sot’. ‘As, then, there are so few good men’, she concluded, ‘the girls will find it necessary to marry rakes, rather than not marry at all.’16
By the middle of the eighteenth century there had become firmly established a new balance of presumptions about sex, seduction, and the natural, inevitable unchastity of men. This set of ideas was shared by men and women of widely differing backgrounds. It was especially flaunted by advocates of sexual freedom. Everywhere one looks, especially in the private writings and conversations of the period, there can be found the chillingly ruthless, misogynist celebration of gentlemanly sexual conquest – not merely for sensual enjoyment, but as the exercise of power over one’s inferiors. As the fashionable radical John Gawler, publicly renowned for his wit and charm, explained privately to William Godwin, he did not sleep with women because he enjoyed sex, but simply to humiliate them: ‘there is more pleasure in frigging one’s self, considered merely in a sensual view. . . the superior pleasure in the other case consists in outwitting a woman, taking from her what she does not like to part with.’17 Yet the basic principles of male rapacity and female passivity were equally accepted by those who deplored male licentiousness. They saturated the literature of the period. This new way of thinking about lust and gender was to dominate nineteenth – and twentieth-century views of sexuality.