Wollstonecraft on Purity (with a dash of Fielding)

My friend India Valentín has a great discussion of “the fallen woman” in the Victorian years. Something I found interesting, if horrible, is how similar it is to the mores and tropes around the issue in the eighteenth century, which had very different conceptions of women in many ways.

Of course, the ultimate discussion of this in England is Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She discusses multiple scenarios for how women could become unwed mothers—teenage ignorance, seduction, exploitation by predators—and then moves onto the shaming of rape victims:

When Richardson makes Clarissa tell Lovelace that he had robbed her of her honour, he must have had strange notions of honour and virtue. For, miserable beyond all names of misery is the condition of a being, who could be degraded without its own consent!

I particularly admire her pre-emptive refusal to allow the “but there’s an in-story explanation, she herself says” defense. We are not recorders of accounts handed to us by our characters, however much authors may fancifully say so. Clarissa does not speak of her own volition, because she is not real. It is Richardson’s mind behind the assumptions Clarissa makes, and Richardson’s assumptions about a woman’s virtue. As authors, we all need to bear that in mind.

As a side-note: a rival novelist, Henry Fielding, loathed Richardson and loathed the conclusion to Clarissa, and deliberately wrote about “impure” people as interesting and at least slightly sympathetic. In Jonathan Wild, he specifically writes about a girl named Theodosia who gets pregnant out of wedlock and bears a son:

She [Laetitia, Theodosia’s sister]  concluded with desiring her father to make an example of the slut, and turn her out of doors; for that she would not otherwise enter his house, being resolved never to set her foot within the same threshold with the trollop, whom she detested so much the more, because (which was perhaps true) she was her own sister.

So violent, and indeed so outrageous was this chaste lady’s love of virtue, that she could not forgive a single slip (indeed the only one Theodosia had ever made) in her own sister, in a sister who loved her, and to whom she owed a thousand obligations.

…[S]he was sufficiently punished for a fault, which, with submission to the chaste Laetitia, and all other strictly virtuous ladies, it should be either less criminal in a woman to commit, or more so in a man to solicit her to it.

But the fact that saying this was unusual and shocking (in a very unusual and shocking age) says more about the standards of the time than Fielding.

The full quote from Wollstonecraft expresses the whole issue better than I could, in the context of the 1790s:

I cannot avoid feeling the most lively compassion for those unfortunate females who are broken off from society, and by one error torn from all those affections and relationships that improve the heart and mind. It does not frequently even deserve the name of error; for many innocent girls become the dupes of a sincere affectionate heart, and still more are, as it may emphatically be termed, ruined before they know the difference between virtue and vice:—and thus prepared by their education for infamy, they become infamous. Asylums and Magdalens are not the proper remedies for these abuses. It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world! 

A woman who has lost her honour imagines that she cannot fall lower, and as for recovering her former station, it is impossible; no exertion can wash this stain away. Losing thus every spur, and having no other means of support, prostitution becomes her only refuge, and the character is quickly depraved by circumstances over which the poor wretch has little power, unless she possesses an uncommon portion of sense and loftiness of spirit. Necessity never makes prostitution the business of men’s lives; though numberless are the women who are thus rendered systematically vicious. This, however, arises, in a great degree, from the state of idleness in which women are educated, who are always taught to look up to man for a maintenance, and to consider their persons as the proper return for his exertions to support them. Meretricious airs, and the whole science of wantonness, has then a more powerful stimulus than either appetite or vanity; and this remark gives force to the prevailing opinion, that with chastity all is lost that is respectable in woman. Her character depends on the observance of one virtue, though the only passion fostered in her heart—is love. Nay, the honour of a woman is not made even to depend on her will. 

When Richardson makes Clarissa tell Lovelace that he had robbed her of her honour, he must have had strange notions of honour and virtue. For, miserable beyond all names of misery is the condition of a being, who could be degraded without its own consent! This excess of strictness I have heard vindicated as a salutary error. I shall answer in the words of Leibnitz—’Errors are often useful; but it is commonly to remedy other errors.’ 

Most of the evils of life arise from a desire of present enjoyment that outruns itself. The obedience required of women in the marriage state comes under this description; the mind naturally weakened by depending on authority, never exerts its own powers, and the obedient wife is thus rendered a weak indolent mother. Or, supposing that this is not always the consequence, a future state of existence is scarcely taken into the reckoning when only negative virtues are cultivated. For, in treating of morals, particularly when women are alluded to, writers have too often considered virtue in a very limited sense, and made the foundation of it solely worldly utility; nay, a still more fragile base has been given to this stupendous fabric, and the wayward fluctuating feelings of men have been made the standard of virtue.


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