Politeness and sensibility
The first theme underlying all discussions of sexuality after 1688 was the corruption and reformation of male manners. Given that men behaved so badly, and external regulation had largely fallen away, how to tame their apparently natural recklessness and promiscuity became a matter of urgent concern.
Earlier models of male honour and civility had largely ignored the other sex, and focused on interactions between men. Women, it was generally presumed, were inferior in virtue and self-control: it was not from them that men should learn how to conduct themselves. In the eighteenth century, however, this idea was increasingly turned on its head: now it gradually became axiomatic that, in fact, women possessed a superior morality. Social intercourse with them was hence a prime means of polishing male manners, of inculcating new ideals of ‘politeness’, ‘sensibility’, and general refinement.1
Most contemporary commentators traced the history of this outlook back to medieval times, asserting that the birth of chivalry had been a key advance of western civilization. Its ‘great respect and veneration for the ladies’, explained John Millar’s immensely popular Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1779), ‘has still a considerable influence upon our behaviour towards them, and has occasioned their being treated with a degree of politeness, delicacy, and attention, that was unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and perhaps to all the nations of antiquity.’ But Mary Wollstonecraft was closer to the truth when she blamed ‘Lewis the XIVth in particular’ for the stylized conventions of male ‘attention and respect’ to which women in her day were subjected.2 The immediate antecedents of this new attitude had indeed evolved in seventeenth-century France.
From the early seventeenth century onwards, several leading French thinkers had advanced the novel idea that women, far from being morally inferior, embodied all that was good and beautiful. It was also in France that arguments for the rational equality of the sexes were first widely taken up and developed, partly under the influence of Descartes’s revolutionary ideas about the separation of mind and body. At the French court, in its salons, and more generally in the upper echelons of French culture, the status of cultivated women as patrons, intellectuals, and arbiters of male manners came to be considerable. As Christopher Wren noted on a visit in 1665, ‘the women. . . make here the language and fashions, and meddle with politics and philosophy.’3
Yet the translation of such ideals to England was slow and complicated. They obviously influenced the cult of platonic love at the court of Charles I; but then the Civil War intervened. In the later seventeenth century, a few English writers espoused comparable views. One of Charles II’s physicians, William Ramesey, who had been educated at Montpellier, asserted that women ‘differ nothing from us but in the odd instruments of generation. They are generally more witty, and quicker of spirit than men. . . they are for the most part, more pitiful, more pious, faithful, merciful, chaste, beautiful, than men.’ Their very beings were made of ‘a more noble matter, and refined’.4 But this was not a conventional view at the Restoration court, and in England there was no alternative culture of mixed intellectual and social salons in which such ideas could flourish.
After 1688, by contrast, the notion of female influence was taken up with enthusiasm. This was part of a general movement to replace libertine norms with better standards of behaviour in public and private life, which grew out of the campaign for reformation of manners. Just as the Glorious Revolution was supposed to have ushered in a fresh age of prosperity and political stability, so the ideal of politeness, as promoted by Addison, Steele, and other early eighteenth-century writers, epitomized a new model of refined but virtuous urban masculinity fit for the modern, commercial world. The presumption of female refinement was central to this (its French and aristocratic origins conveniently forgotten). As ‘women were formed to temper mankind, and soothe them into tenderness and compassion’, regular conversation with them, treating their opinions with respect, and learning from their virtues, was now promoted as a pre-eminent means of imbibing civility and becoming a true gentleman. Men’s ‘endeavours to please the opposite sex, polishes and refines them out of those manners which are most natural to them’; without this spur ‘man would not only be an unhappy, but a rude unfinished creature’.5
How far men should go in pleasing and imitating women was obviously a crucial question. Some early advocates of politeness believed that male manners were better improved by sticking altogether to masculine company, but that was a minority position. ‘Gallantry and ladies must have a part in everything that passes for polite in our age,’ the third Earl of Shaftesbury grumbled in 1705, ‘worse luck for us.’ By the 1730s this had become a commonplace. ‘Politeness can be no other way attained’, a best-selling conduct-book book stated bluntly:
Books may furnish us with right ideas, experience may improve our judgements, but it is the acquaintance of the ladies only, which can bestow that easiness of address, whereby the fine gentleman is distinguished from the scholar, and the man of business.
‘Without the company of women’, agreed Swift, politeness was unsustainable: they ‘never fail to lead us into the right way, and there to keep us’. There was no ‘better school for manners, than the company of virtuous women’, wrote Hume, ‘where the mutual endeavour to please must insensibly polish the mind, where the example of the female softness and modesty must communicate itself to their admirers, and where the delicacy of that sex puts every one on his guard’.6
The effects of this idea were extremely wide-ranging. It was on this basis that scholars came to theorize that the whole of human civilization had developed through men’s growing attention and regard for the opposite sex – if women had such an effect on modern men, then surely they must have done so in the past, too. The progressive refinement of successive ages thus came to be linked to the rising status of women through history. Just so, the relative backwardness of other cultures could be judged by their males’ lack of respect for females. This analogy was already implicit in some of Addison’s writings in the 1710s. It became particularly influential after 1740, as part of the general Enlightenment interest in charting the progress of human society. In the writings of many of the age’s pioneering anthropologists and historians, it was axiomatic that, as William Alexander put it in 1779,
we shall almost constantly find women among savages condemned to every species of servile, or rather, of slavish drudgery; and shall as constantly find them emerging from this state, in the same proportion as we find the men emerging from ignorance and brutality, and approaching to knowledge and refinement; the rank, therefore, and condition, in which we find women in any country, mark out to us with the greatest precision, the exact point in the scale of civil society, to which the people of such country have arrived; and were their history entirely silent on every other subject, and only mentioned the manner in which they treated their women, we would, from thence, be enabled to form a tolerable judgement of the barbarity, or culture of their manners.7
The consequences for sexual norms were equally profound. The basic presumption that women were somehow morally superior to men was to become one of the cornerstones of late eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century gender relations. As Byron wrote to Annabella Milbanke in September 1813, recycling the platitude as countless other suitors must have done, ‘I think the worst woman that ever existed would have made a man of very passable reputation – they are all better than us – and their faults such as they are must originate with ourselves’. In public, too, this notion came to be endlessly celebrated, by men and women alike. Already by the middle of the eighteenth century its growing power was clearly visible. The stereotype of the libertine reformed by the love of a good woman epitomized the presumption that promiscuity was natural, even attractive, in men, but could be cured by exposure to superior female morality. No writer grappled with this theme as persistently as Richardson. How infuriating it was, he mused privately, ‘that many, very many young women. . . will admire a good man; but they will marry a bad one. – Are not rakes pretty fellows?’ ‘All women flatter themselves, that even the man whom they know to have been base to others, will not, cannot, be so to them.’ His Familiar Letters accordingly warned that ‘the wild assertion of a rake making a good husband, was the most dangerous opinion a young woman could imbibe’; and Clarissa itself was expressly written to combat ‘that dangerous but too commonly received notion, that a reformed rake makes the best husband,’8
Yet paradoxically there was scarcely another author who promoted a more exalted view of the transformative power of female chastity over male rapacity. In his first novel, constant exposure to Pamela’s virtue brings the libertine Mr B to feel that ‘I shall not think I deserve her, till I can bring my manners, my sentiments, and my actions, to a conformity with her own’. As the novel’s introduction shows, she was intended to have the same effect on her readers: ‘May every headstrong libertine whose hands you reach, be reclaimed’, it urged, ‘and every tempted virgin who reads you, imitate the virtue, and meet the reward’ of the heroine. The superior morality of Clarissa likewise transforms Lovelace’s closest friend, John Belford, so that he repents, reforms, resolves to seek out and rescue all his former victims, and ends up a happy husband and father. Even the worst rakes, after exposure to the sensibility of a chaste virgin, die remorseful for their past actions. That is the fate of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, the evil libertine in Sir Charles Grandison, and of Lovelace himself. In fiction, as in real life, the idea of women’s moral superiority was tremendously strong.9
Beyond this obvious, superficial inference lay a deeper truth. In fact, the presumption that women should tame male sexuality by exhibiting their supposedly innate modesty reflected, and perpetuated, female inferiority. Most writers took this for granted, and applauded it. ‘As nature has given man the superiority above woman, by endowing him with greater strength both of mind and body,’ wrote Hume, ‘it is his part to alleviate that superiority, as much as possible, by the generosity of his behaviour, and by a studied deference and complaisance for all her inclinations and opinions.’ Do not ‘let it be thought hard, that a character so amiable and exalted should be allotted to a state of honoured subordination,’ commented one of George III’s chaplains, for
a mind thus gentle and thus adorned exalts subordination itself into the power of superiority and command. It carries with it the influence and irresistible force of virtue; which is of weight to control the most boisterous passions, and by a steady perseverance in goodness, to subdue and to win the most obdurate heart.10
Worse still, the new conventions of politeness exposed women to constant sexual interest and engagement, whilst tending to absolve men of responsibility for their supposedly natural rapacity. As novelists and commentators loved to point out, dangerous men were often polished and attractive company: the most ‘irresistible gentlemen among us’ were in fact ‘your ruiners of ladies’, the ones addicted to ‘woman-slaughter’. Even ‘delicate women’, lamented Hannah More, too often competed for ‘the attentions of a popular libertine, whose voluble small talk they admire, and whose sprightly nothings they quote, and whom perhaps their very favour tends to prevent from becoming a better character, because he finds himself more acceptable as he is’. Because there was no equivalent loosening of strictures against female unchastity, the net effect was to place most of the psychological and practical burden for correct behaviour on women. The unchaste man, observed the actress Mary Robinson acidly,
pleads the frailty of human nature. . . he urges the sovereignty of the passions, the dominion of the senses, the sanction of long established custom. He is a man of universal gallantry; he is consequently courted and idolized by the generality of women, though all his days and all his actions prove, that woman is the victim of his falsehood.
Courtship between men and women, wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to a suitor in 1710, was nothing but a cruel bloodsport: ‘’tis play to you, but ’tis death to us’. The way things were, agreed Steele, ‘females adventure all against those who have nothing to lose’; and afterwards ‘they have nothing but empty sighs, tears and reproaches against those who reduced them to real sorrow and infamy’.* In
* Cf. Disraeli’s Reminiscences, ed. Helen M. Swartz and Marvin Swartz (1975), 120: ‘Lady Tankerville asked Lord Lyndhurst, whether he believed in Platonic Friendship? “After, but not before” was the reply.’ short, for all the rhetoric about superior female manners disciplining male sexuality, the main consequence of new doctrines of politeness and civility was to constrain female behaviour.11
Of course, the expression of male lust was in fact no more ‘natural’ than the conventions of female restraint: men could simply adopt or reject libertine attitudes, consciously or unconsciously, to a greater or lesser degree. Yet over time, the presumption that women were naturally chaste, and men not, was given increasingly elaborate scientific foundations. In the early eighteenth century, theories of politeness laid particular stress, for both sexes, on the learning of correct manners. From the middle of the century onwards, however, it became more common to emphasize the expression of supposedly natural sensibilities. Building on the intellectual advances of Locke and Newton, the leading scientists and physicians of the day developed a new, dominant paradigm about the nature of human psychology, sensory perception, and the nervous system. Amongst the many media through which it was popularized, novels, with their obsessive attention to emotional states, played a leading part – Richardson, for example, drew on the expertise of his friend and doctor George Cheyne in order to describe exactly how human beings experienced feelings and events. This way of thinking now became the basis for the conviction that women inherently, bodily, ought to have more ‘delicacy’, ‘tenderness’, ‘softness’, ‘imagination’, ‘sensibility’, and sexual purity. It followed that the physical and psychological causes and effects of unchastity differed profoundly in the two sexes:
The consequences resulting from the infidelity of a husband and wife are very different. It is the nature of man that he may have a connexion with other women, beside his wife, and yet have a sincere affection for her; but a married woman never yet made a sacrifice of virtue without, at the same time, making a sacrifice of every sentiment of honour, decency and decorum, which are guardians of connubial felicity and domestic happiness.12
This growing stress on the ‘naturalness’ of female chastity was one crucial way in which the intellectual foundations of patriarchy were gradually reshaped. By 1700, many of the age-old justifications for female subordination had been called into question by broader political and philosophical developments. The status of biblical and patristic writings was challenged by the rise of ‘reasoned’ understandings of truth. The presumption of an unchanging, divinely ordained, paternal order was fatally undermined by the deposition of James II and the rise of contract theories of politics and social relations. Finally, existing social theories were challenged by novel economic and social developments: the decline of courtly influence, the increasing preeminence of urban life, and the expansion of new kinds of commerce, communication, and social organization.
The ways in which male superiority was justified evolved accordingly. Earlier understandings of patriarchy and sexuality had been based on an essentially theological view of the imperfection of all human beings. For all their misogynistic tendencies, they had always implied that, though women were weaker than men, they shared a basic commonality of psychology and biology. Yet by 1800, scriptural precedents for female subordination were no longer a conventional starting-point; nor the theology of original sin and female weakness; nor even classical medical theories, which had stressed that male and female bodies, though similar, tended to differ in their balance of ‘humours’. None of these ideas completely disappeared, but the ultimate foundations of gender difference were now more commonly sought in anthropological and historical theories about the evolution and purpose of sexual and social relations, and in supposedly unassailable biological facts about mental and bodily differences between the sexes.
In some areas, the new kinds of reasoning allowed for greater equality – an obvious example is the increasing (albeit piecemeal) acceptance of women writing for the public, which in previous ages had been treated as a fundamentally unfeminine act. In the sphere of sexual relations, however, the opposite occurred: the division between the supposed sexual character of men and women was sharpened. It was still almost universally taken for granted that allowing women greater sexual autonomy would create anarchy. In consequence, new descriptions of human nature tended to defend this basic principle. Often they stressed that chastity was desirable in both sexes, the route to greatest happiness for men as well as women. On the other hand, they also often accepted that men tended to be more promiscuous. And almost always they found that the natural state of women was to be chaste. As the influential moralist John Brown explained in 1765, it was ultimately from women’s obvious ‘delicacy of body’ and ‘delicate timidity of mind’ that ‘the great female virtue of chastity ariseth on its strongest and most impregnable foundations’. The same basic presumption that women were inherently modest was central to the massively influential doctrines of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great late eighteenth-century theorist of nature and custom.13
This increasing naturalization of ideas about female chastity powerfully shaped subsequent models of appropriate feminine behaviour. At the same time as conversation between the sexes was increasingly held up as an essential part of civilized life, and new demands were made of women to engage socially with men, they were simultaneously constrained to show ever more elaborate outward manifestations of their supposedly superior, asexual morality. By the end of the century, feminists decried with increasing resentment what they saw as the mindless, artificial code of femininity that was created by these twin pressures. It was perverse, exclaimed Mary Hays, how men ‘talk indeed of female virtue, and seem even by their laws, to consider it as the chief bond of society; yet never scruple to break this bond’ with base deceit. Women were ‘much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence’, complained Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘woman, weak woman! Made by her education the slave of sensibility, is required, on the most trying occasions, to resist that sensibility’. As the witty (and unmarried) historian Lucy Aikin put it:
Ah! feigned humility to scorn allied,
That stoops to conquer, flatters to deride!
Learn, thoughtless woman, learn his arts to scan,
And dread that fearful portent. . . kneeling man!14
So deeply ingrained had the underlying presumptions become by 1800, however, that even Wollstonecraft herself took for granted that women were naturally more modest; that ‘all the causes of female weakness. . . branch out of one grand cause – want of chastity in men’; and that the primary need was for men to ‘become more chaste and modest’. Most other feminists presumed the same. Her friend Hays, though an equally bold thinker, writer, and life-long enemy of sexual convention, thought it obvious that
modesty is innate in a greater degree in women than in men. The history of all nations, – of the human race, wild and tame, social and savage, – all, all agree in this great truth; and would delicacy permit, a thousand and a thousand arguments might be adduced to support a fact, so undeniably, so sacredly true; – so dear to the happiness of individuals and society; – so essential to domestic bliss. And, at the same time a truth, the most honorable, and flattering for the female sex; enslaved and mortified as they are, in so many other cases.15
That females in general were chaster than males, and that it was important they should remain so, was for her a law of reason and nature alike. Throughout the nineteenth century, and up to the very end of the twentieth century, this idea only gained in strength, until it had become almost universally accepted as a completely self-evident fact. Indeed, it was to be one of the central premises of nineteenth – and twentieth-century feminism, and a source of great moral authority for women in their claims for social and political rights. In historical terms this was ironic. The idea of women’s moral superiority was originally promoted as a means of improving male manners – yet in practice it ended up strengthening the sexual double standard.