THE RISE OF THE LIBERTINE
The first development was a growing presumption that men were inevitably rapacious. The idea that they might have strong sexual urges was, of course, not new. It was a commonplace of Christian doctrine that lust was an elemental drive, part of the fallen nature of both sexes. The rape and seduction of women had therefore always been an obvious danger. When men gave way to sinful passion, lamented the official Tudor homily, ‘how many maidens be deflowered, how many wives corrupted, how many widows defiled’. ‘We women’, warned Dorothy Leigh in 1616, know ‘that men lie in wait every where to deceive us, as the Elders did to deceive Susanna.’ Already in the middle ages, churchmen had lamented the tricking of women into bed under promise of marriage. Many serious discussions of adultery likewise stressed the greater culpability of the male, for corrupting other people’s wives and marriages. As one of the mid seventeenth – century leaders of the Church of Scotland acknowledged, ‘the man is ordinarily the temptor’. ‘If God had not restrained lust by laws’, noted another leading theologian in 1673, ‘it would have made the female sex most contemptible and miserable, and used worse by men than dogs are’ – men would have ravished at will, or used and discarded woman after woman.1
In reality, too, men were more sexually aggressive. Though their pursuit of women was underpinned by presumptions about female desire and moral frailty, it is male importunity and harassment that dominate the records of daily life amongst the mass of the population. In theory there was supposed to be a clear distinction between consensual and non-consensual sex. Rape was a capital offence: no man had the right to force a woman (though within marriage, because a wife belonged to her husband, the concept was held to be meaningless). Yet the stigma of unchastity that attached even to raped women, together with the impossibility of securing a conviction without evidence of serious injury or the presence of witnesses, meant that trials for the offence were rare. The common presumption that conception was impossible without orgasm added a further horrific twist to the fate of women who had been forcibly impregnated. In 1632 a young woman of Waltham Holy Cross explained to a court that her rapist had ‘used much violence to her by dragging her about the fields, and said he would kill her if she would not lie with him, and being much scared and in fear of her life she yielded unto him’. Yet as she was carrying his child it was she who was punished and made to perform
public penance in church. Meanwhile, the supposition that in all cases short of rape women shared responsibility, or had little basis for complaint, legitimized a wide range of behaviour that was in reality predatory rather than consensual. As one distinguished scholar of seventeenth-century English life has concluded, ‘sexual harassment, in some form, was experienced by very many women, possibly most’.2
Here, for example, is Samuel Pepys in February 1664, aged thirty, witnessing the abuse of a young woman and wishing himself a participant in it:
This night late, coming in my coach coming up Ludgate Hill, I saw two gallants and their footmen taking a pretty wench which I have much eyed lately. . . a seller of ribbons and gloves. They seemed to drag her by some force, but the wench went and I believe had her turn served; but God forgive me, what thoughts and wishes I had of being in their place.
Later that same year, his diary records some of his earliest encounters with the pretty wife of his subordinate, William Bagwell. For over twenty-five years, he was to promote Bagwell: ‘I am your friend and always have and will be so,’ he wrote to the man in 1687. We do not know his wife’s name: in all of Pepys’s diaries and correspondence it is never mentioned. Yet from the moment he met the couple, Pepys preyed on her ruthlessly – he was still sleeping with her when his first diary ended in 1669. This is how their sexual relationship began, after several preliminary meetings in which he had begun to force himself upon her with kisses and gropings, in spite of her obvious resistance:
15 Nov. 1664 [at a tavern]: and there I did caress her and eat and drank, and many hard looks and sighs the poor wretch did give me, and I think verily was troubled at what I did; but at last, after many protestings, by degrees I did arrive at what I would, with great pleasure.
20 Dec. 1664 [at the Bagwells’ house]: the poor people did get a dinner for me in their fashion – of which I also ate very well. After dinner I found occasion of sending him abroad [= away]; and then alone avec elle je tentais a faire ce que je voudrais, et contre sa force je le faisais, bien que passe a mon contentment [= alone with her I attempted to do that which I wanted, and against her resistance I achieved it: it went well, to my content].
23 Jan. 1665: . . . finding Mrs Bagwell waiting at the office after dinner, away elle [= she] and I to a cabaret where elle and I have ete [= been] before; and there I had her company toute l’apres-dmer [= the whole time after dinner] and had mon plein plaisir of elle [= my full pleasure of her] – but strange, to see how a woman, notwithstanding her greatest pretences of love a son mari [= to her husband] and religion, may be vaincue [= vanquished].
20 Feb. 1665: . . . it being dark, did privately enter en la maison de la femme de Bagwell [= into the house of Bagwell’s wife], and there I had sa compagnie [= her company], though with a great deal of difficulty; neanmoins, enfins j’avais ma volonte d’elle [= nevertheless, in the end I had my will of her]. And being sated therewith, I walked home.
21 Feb. 1665: Up, and to the office (having a mighty pain in my forefinger of my left hand, from a strain that it received last night in struggling avec la femme que je [= with the woman whom I] mentioned yesterday).3
Cruder still were the importunities of countless men (Pepys himself again included) who took advantage of the vulnerability of their young, live-in servants. Only if the victimized woman became pregnant were such cases even likely to have been legally recorded; yet the resigned tone in which they were commonly recounted, and the contemporary response to them, evoke a much broader culture of sexual exploitation in the guise of patriarchal entitlement. Alice Ashmore’s master, a cook, ‘had the use and carnal knowledge of her’ for a year, ‘sometimes in his own chamber on his bed and diverse other places wheresoever he could find her alone’. When she said no, he would reply bluntly ‘thou art my servant and I may do with thee what I please’; but when she fell pregnant, he denied his paternity, and she was prosecuted for bastardy at Bridewell. Whenever she entered her master’s bedroom in the mornings, another servant told the Bridewell court in the same year, 1605, he ‘would pull her to his bed, and there abuse her body’. Most brutally exploitative of all were the secret rape and abuse of children, sometimes apparently informed by the tragic folk-belief that having sex with a virgin girl would cure a man of venereal disease. Everywhere, even between social equals, there was always an irreducible gap between most men’s sense of sexual entitlement and most women’s experience of vulnerability. That is why, even in Shakespeare, with his incomparable inventiveness, the language of
sex was always dominated by the basic themes of men hunting, possessing, besieging, and conquering women.4 By our own standards, the balance of power between men and women was grossly skewed, and female agency and consent in sexual affairs highly circumscribed.
The broader concepts that our ancestors used were just as historically specific. In the eighteenth century the basic definition of ‘seduction’ was to induce a woman to have illicit but consensual sex. Though both parties might be culpable for their intercourse, the seduction itself was not a crime – even if it came about through deception, such as a false promise of marriage. Yet because male sexual violence tended to be so trivialized, the contemporary meanings of seduction also overlapped with behaviour that we should nowadays view as sexual harassment, compulsion, abduction, or rape. Indeed, this was a culture in which even rape itself was commonly treated as a joke – on the grounds that all women secretly desired to be ravished, and that they could never be believed when they claimed to have been taken against their will. This was an age-old message, recycled for amusement by early female playwrights like Mary Pix and Charlotte Lennox, as well as in countless masculine fantasies. Like many men of his time, for example, Henry Fielding was fascinated by sexual violence. As we shall see later in this chapter, he grappled throughout his life with the complexities of male and female passion, seduction, and sexual injustice. For now, though, to attune ourselves to the mind-set that he and his contemporaries inherited, let us begin by listening to his anonymous rendition of the famous, endlessly read advice to lovers by the Roman poet Ovid, on what women are like, what they really want, and how to give it to them. We men, he instructs his readers,
are more able to command our affections, nor are our desires so furious, and exceeding all bounds, as theirs. . . Every new amour pleases them, and they all hanker after the lovers and husbands of other women.
Perhaps she will scratch, and say you are rude: nothwithstanding her scratches, she will be pleased with your getting the better. . . Now when you have proceeded to kisses [keep going] to your Journey’s End! . . . The girls may call this perhaps violence, but it is a violence agreeable to them. For they are often desirous of being pleased against their will. For a woman taken without her consent, notwithstanding her frowns, is often well satisfied in her heart, and your impudence is taken as a favour; whilst she who, when inclined to be ravished, hath retreated untouched, however she may affect to smile, is in reality out of humour.
Though Fielding immediately cautions his modern readers that this is Ovid’s view, not his (for ‘ravishing is indeed out of fashion in this age’), there are many other passages in his own work, as in the whole of the western canon of literature before and beyond the eighteenth century, that illustrate a similar outlook.5 The line between coercion and consent is not always easy to discern. In all that follows, and especially in considering contemporary attitudes to seduction, we need to bear in mind these basic differences between our own presumptions about gender relations and those of men and women (especially men) in the past.
It will be clear that, even before the eighteenth century, the endless public repetition of platitudes about female lechery was to some extent balanced by an appreciation of male rapaciousness. Nonetheless, it was precisely because lust was acknowledged to be such a dangerous force that great value had traditionally been placed on its mastery. Because men were both intellectually and bodily superior to women, it followed that they should be better able to exercise such self-control. This strong equation of chastity with rational selfdiscipline was another reason why classical, medieval, and Renaissance discussions of male immorality often portrayed it as more wilful and reprehensible than the sexual lapses of women and youths, who were weaker and less mature creatures.6 In the decades leading up to 1700, however, the age-old framework of sexual discipline began to unravel. As we have seen, its intellectual basis was increasingly eroded by arguments in favour of greater sexual liberty for men, whilst its practical force was seriously undermined by the growing complexity of urban life, the fatal weakening of the church courts, and the decline of communal moral regulation. In short, some of the most important pressures towards male sexual continence suddenly started to fall away.
The effect of these changing circumstances can be seen in the rise of libertine attitudes at the court of Charles II. As part of their selfconscious inversion of conventional values, libertines cultivated an
ethos in which unbridled lechery was seen as enhancing rather than diminishing masculine distinction. The immediate reaction to this was strongly hostile, even amongst the king’s most loyal supporters. Most early observers saw it in conventional terms, as the personal failing of men who lacked self-discipline and had come to be governed by their basest appetites. This perception was strengthened by fears of God’s wrath, as well as by the traditional connection between debauchery and political tyranny. Even libertines themselves shared these associations between lust and degeneracy. For all its bravado about male sexual conquest, libertine writing about sex is notably obsessed with the insatiability of women and the emasculating effects of sexual excess. Here is the Earl of Rochester, imagining a dialogue between two of Charles Il’s mistresses (‘Sodom’ was a shady London neighbourhood; the last line refers to two more of the Duchess of Cleveland’s many lovers):
Quoth the Duchess of Cleveland to counselor Knight,
‘I’d fain have a prick, knew I how to come by ’t.
I desire you’ll be secret and give your advice:
Though cunt be not coy, reputation is nice.’
‘To some cellar in Sodom Your Grace must retire Where porters with black-pots sit round a coal-fire;
There open your case, and Your Grace cannot fail Of a dozen of pricks for a dozen of ale.’
‘Is ’t so?’ quoth the Duchess. ‘Aye, by God!’ quoth the whore.
‘Then give me the key that unlocks the back door,
For I’d rather be fucked by porters and carmen [i. e. carters]
Than thus be abused by Churchill and Jermyn.’
Just as ruthlessly he described the king himself and another mistress, Nell Gwyn:
His sceptre and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th’ other. . .
Poor prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport. . .
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor. . .
This you’d believe, had I but time to tell ye The pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly,
Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth, and thighs,
Ere she can raise the member she enjoys.
The effects of such corruption, it was widely feared, would infect the whole of society. As another poet criticized Charles II,
Thy base example ruins the whole town,
For all keep whores, from gentleman to clown.
The issue of a wife is unlawful seed;
And none’s legitimate, but mongrel breed.
Thou, and thy branches, have quite cross’d the strain,
We ne’er shall see a true-bred whelp again.7
Yet despite such unease, because it was the ethos of such a prestigious group of men, and because it went unpunished, the visibility of Restoration libertinism also greatly strengthened the association between sexual licence and social eminence. Far beyond the court and capital, rakish ideals came to be defended as fashionable. As a Leicestershire man justified himself with chilling insouciance in the 1660s, after having raped and impregnated his maid, ‘it was the fashion nowadays. . . the best sort of gentlemen now in the country keep a whore in their houses’.8
This was the kind of increasing laxity that the movement for reformation of manners was aimed at after 1688.9 Yet the campaign’s de facto concentration on lower-class vice, together with the rise of arguments for sexual liberty, led to a significant change in attitudes towards male licence. By the early eighteenth century, as we saw in the previous chapter, it had come to be widely believed that the corruption of sexual manners was so pervasive that it could not be eradicated by trying to reform individuals one at a time, still less by force. The punishment of sexual offenders was, it now seemed, but a superficial palliative. The real problem was not that some individuals chose, or fell into, vice: it was that men in general, especially those in higher circles, lacked morality. They thought so little of it, remarked Jonathan Swift in 1709, that ‘any man. . . will let you know he is going to a whore, or that he has got a clap, with as much indifference as he would a piece of public news’. For a man in fashionable life to aspire to chastity, noted the Guardian a few years later, had ‘become ridiculous’. Though fornicators and seducers still felt pangs of guilt, these had become easy to overcome. Nowadays, amongst ‘men of mode’, ‘the restraints of shame and ignominy are broken down by the prevalence of custom’.10
Such pessimism can be found in the sentiments of many earlier moralists. Yet in the early eighteenth century it gained new force. The context had changed radically: both the theory and practice of sexual discipline were now, for the first time ever, seriously impaired. In addition, new ways of explaining sexual immorality were gaining ground, which undermined the basic Christian presumption that, ultimately, men and women bore personal responsibility for their moral behaviour. As part of attempts to understand the world in more empirically sophisticated ways, the balance began to shift away from its traditional focus on free will, towards modes of thinking that laid greater emphasis on the impersonal, structural forces in nature and society that appeared to compel different sexes and classes of people to behave in particular ways.
These developments, together with the rise of libertine attitudes, gradually created an immensely powerful commonplace of male entrapment and female victimization. For many centuries there had been an indestructible association between female lust and the original sin of Eve, the devil’s accomplice, whose weakness and temptation of Adam into carnality had, it was said, prefigured the duplicitous wiles of women down the ages. Now, all these negative attributes came to be transposed to the sexual character of men. ‘In our general pursuit of the sex,’ observed Daniel Defoe as early as 1706, ‘the devil generally acts the man, not the woman.’ ‘Every art that can be practised, every snare that can be laid for beauty and virtue’, agreed Henry Fielding, was by men ‘practised and laid at this day’ – ‘is not the basest fraud and treachery constantly used on this occasion?’ Women, by contrast, ‘seldom stray but when they are misled by men; by whom they are deceived, corrupted, betrayed, and often brought to destruction, both of body and soul’. ‘The man,’ concluded a critic flatly in 1754, ‘is always the tempter and seducer.’11
Eve herself was no longer seen as Satan’s tool but as the first seduced woman. Her fall presaged ‘a general seduction of her sex; for every woman in a state of innocence at this day, is besieged with a tempter of equal craft. . . if women inherit the credulity and weakness of Eve, men are well supplied with the art and subtlety of the Devil’. Like a snake, warned a preacher, ‘the seducer. . . strives to fascinate, and then destroy!’ The lustful man, concurred the author of Advice to Unmarried Women (1791), was a ubiquitous, insidious danger, to be shunned ‘as the serpent that beguiled the first of your sex’. In fact, it was generally agreed, men had not only the devil’s inspiration but all his unfair advantages over their weaker, unwary prey. Like him, they were masters of insinuation and deception, intent on corrupting the guiltless virgin: ‘the seducer spreads his toils, against artless unsuspecting innocence. Golden dreams, and gay delights lull her fancy and her conscience: and she thinks of nothing else, till she awakens from her sleep – and finds herself undone.’ Through his male accomplices, Satan was now continually inflicting on women ‘the same fatal catastrophe, that happened in Eden so many thousand years ago’.12