Honorable Disobedience

Toni Bowers follows historical literary heroines’ battles with seduction.
June 30, 2011

Often when we think of classic stories involving a heroine dealing with issues of courtship and seduction, characters like the beloved Elizabeth Bennet come to mind—a woman who learns to appreciate a worthy man and ultimately marries for love. But the authors Professor of English Toni Bowers focuses on in her new book, Force or Fraud: British Seduction Stories and the Problem of Resistance, 1660-1760, did not depict female protagonists with the same luxuries.

“I noticed that there was an upsurge in stories about seduction in the last few decades of the 17th century up until about 1760,” says Bowers. “At the center of almost all of these stories were women in positions of dependence on an older, wiser, more experienced, wealthy man who had authority over her, including employers, male relatives, or aristocrats—figures to whom common people were expected to submit. The way the stories tended to develop was very formulaic, and so by looking at the structure, I was able to gain insight into some troubling issues at large at the time.”

Bowers zeroes in on four different authors: Aphra Behn, who wrote Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister during the 1680s; Delarivier Manley, who wrote a series of seduction stories from the 1690s to 1720; Eliza Haywood, who authored Love in Excess, her first novel and an enormous bestseller, in 1719; and Samuel Richardson, one of the most influential and revered novelists of the eighteenth century, who owed a great deal to these comparatively neglected female predecessors. Despite social norms at the time, each of the women, remarkably, penned their controversial, sometimes sexually explicit, novels under their real names.

“Through seduction stories, these writers are trying to mark out ways in which a conscientious Christian subordinate person can still claim to be virtuous even while resisting authority.”
– Toni Bowers

Being a literary historian, Bowers stresses that to fully understand the rich dynamic of 18th-century seduction stories, one must have a firm grasp on their historical context. Aphra Behn, whose Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister is widely considered to be the first novel written in English, lived through the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of the 1680s, when Parliament finally drew the line with the activist Roman Catholic King James II, who was perceived by many as attempting to impose his religion on Britain. The crisis was resolved with James’s exile to France and the installation of a Protestant king.

The authors Bowers examined were all, in various ways, uncomfortable with the overthrow of James II. Like many others, they felt God couldn’t bless the people if they were so rebellious. But to argue that the installation of the new king was illegal would have been treason. Thus, seduction stories with similar configurations started to emerge—stories in which the person at fault was an evil, wily man attempting to lead a less powerful person astray, but ultimately, someone to whom obedience was owed.

“That’s the central question: What do you do when the person to whom you owe your obedience is asking you to do something sinful? And that was the predicament many people thought they were in with King James II,” says Bowers. “But was his overthrow the right response? Through seduction stories, these writers are trying to mark out ways in which a conscientious Christian subordinate person can still claim to be virtuous even while resisting authority.”

The goal in the stories, Bowers says, was for the subordinate woman to impress upon the powerful man that his ways were evil and to somehow better him. In this role, fictional heroines sometimes became pop culture icons, even—in the case of Richardson’s heroine Pamela Andrews—informing the fashion and art of the time. The stories functioned less often as direct allegories than as formulaic escape literature that taught readers to think in certain ways about pressing current problems. The stories also allowed for reconsideration of sexual politics on other levels, such as courtship and marriage and presented the question: Should ingénues reject suitors unilaterally? Could wives virtuously resist oppressive husbands?

Whatever political implications these stories had, they also had a crucial role in depicting available responses to sexual violence. During this time, lower-class women who were the victims of rape rarely brought up charges against their assailants because they knew they would most likely be blamed. Worst-case scenarios like this one were often the basis for tragic seduction stories.

Clarissa, for instance, follows a well-to-do commoner, a “perfect woman” whose very virtues attract a rakish nobleman named Lovelace. When Clarissa secretly meets Lovelace to refuse to run away with him, he kidnaps her and convinces her parents that she has actually eloped with him, thereby securing his ability to have his way with her without consequences. He houses her in a brothel, and after repeated failed attempts to woo her, drugs and rapes her.

“It’s essentially a psychological thriller—I’ve had students say they had trouble sleeping while reading it,” Bowers says. “The absence of consent, affirmed by Clarissa’s unconsciousness during the rape, is at the root of the story. After the rape, however, which happens when the novel is only two-thirds complete, we are allowed to bear witness to various commentaries made by the other characters, who are attempting to understand the circumstances surrounding what we know as the rape. The tragedy is that Clarissa is really never reconciled to her parents before her premature and somewhat mysterious death. These types of ambiguities—in the beginning, she was even attracted to Lovelace—complicate the novel and get the audience thinking.”

Not all of the stories were tragedies—important to note, Bowers says, because often the comedies held just as much weight in regards to social commentary. In Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, for instance, which acted as a model for the later Clarissa, the subordinate woman also runs away with the man—in this case consensually. Unlike Clarissa, both parties are constantly aware that they are playing roles, and in fact, enjoy it. In regards to Pamela, a comic novel, Bowers says the servant-heroine implausibly reforms her predatory master, and so is saved not only from rape, but also from the necessity for resistance.

“Behn was suggesting that relationships based on force and coercion were really the only option, and that the subordinate’s reaction was indeed her only weapon. In essence: It’s not how you might avoid these power struggles, but how you can direct them in your own favor.”