August 22nd, 2009

Harriet Vane

Two proposals for conferences: back to Clarissa and Northanger Abbey

Dear Friends,

Today I was tempted and fell.  I had just sent out a proposal to the woman running the 2010 JASNA at Portland, and saw where on the small French academic 18th century list, Mary Trouille put a CFP where she asked for papers on

          "'He said, she said': Rape in 18th-Century Law, Fiction, and Moralist Writing

            Interdisciplinary session ideally consisting of four panelists working in one or more of the following areas: colonial literature (with a special focus on relations between masters and slaves or colonists and native peoples), legal and/or social history, continental  literature, and British literature.

I had been looking at a CFP for a Media Romance (film) conference where it was said that the conference would be on the uses of love in film and how the way love is depicted reflects its era.  I had just reread Clarissa this year and it had meant as much to me as ever, and studies not just the film adaptation of Clarissa, but La Religieuse (with the text) and some other analogous movies and texts.  When I saw this CFP I thought "Clarissa!", and then it just came as a flash. It's real origin is in myself:  when I was a girl I was taught that somehow having sex with a man bound you to him for life; now I knew that was nonsense, but found that I had to behave in ways that would make any such coupling absurd in order to throw off this taboo.

Strong Anna reading Clary's letter in the 1991 Clarissa film

I've also found so odd that Austen and others in the 18th century so persistently look at sexual relationships between men and women as a quest for triumph. I can see that as part of a sexual relationship, especially when one or both of the people is egoistic, competitive, aggressive, unloving in nature, but not everyone is like this. In Austen though those who do not seek sex for triumph, do not seek sex as such.

1983 Mansfield Park: Henry telling Mary that Fanny has resisted him so that he means to conquer her; Mary's response is more decent than we would have given her credit for, but she soon gives in

And Clarissa has meant so much to me and still does and I had just read it, just given a paper on the film adaptation where the rape scene itself is flaws.

So I sent some preliminary thoughts as a proposal and I was accepted for the panel.  Oh joy!  I can do this one.

So here is what I can now explore:  First Richardson's Clarissa has the advantage that there no doubt whatsoever Clary was raped. Lovelace drugged her, the women held her down, she did all she could to escape them, but could not.  Partly a result of film studies I've noticed the way sex and rape are presented in modern film adaptations differs from the way sex and rape are presented in 18th century novels, specifically it seems to me from all I've read there is in the pre-sensibility (or non-sensibility novels (in the UK novels written say from the 1670s to 1760 or so; in France the sensibility novels may have a slightly different time span) the attitude is the nature of your sexual experience (what it's like for you) is a function of your will to dominate or compete.  If you don't have this will or impulse, you are driven to submit, can be taken advantage of, and often preyed upon or become a victim.  When someone in a libertine novel gets someone else to have sex with them (crudely put but that's how it's regarded), he has triumphed.  The rake gets irritated and wants to seduce the chaste woman so he can triumph over her.  The aggressor can be a woman, and when this happens she is presented as a female rake or femme fatale: (say Madame de Merteuil or Austen's Lady Susan)   It's a power game.

Now it's this in part today but in the 18th century in the novels, particularly those which participate in libertine and rake ideas, it often feels as if that's everything. You don't feel the desire for sex as something sensual. It's not give and take. A good example of give-and-take with sensuality an important part of the sex act is the film adaptation of Une vieille maitresse (this reflects the year it was made, 2007 not the year of the novel, 1830s). So too Frears' and Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses; ditto Valmont. In modern films (such as Valmont and the Austen films from the 1990s on), the men are figures of sensibility as are the sympathetic victim heroines.

Colin Firth as a sensitive man of feeling as Valmont

Now the thing about Clarissa, our heroine, is unlike just about every heroine I (at any rate) can think of, she is not subdued. After Lovelace rapes her, he expects she will submit.  He expects she will think of herself as his.  She doesn't.  She says what business is it of yours where I go. Let me go, man. You are nothing to me.  Get out of my path.  What happened has not changed me at all where it counts.  This is a paradox because she dies later and indeed he did change her --  but it's the whole experience that changes her.  By contrast, la Presidente de Tourvel in LaClos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses goes into fits when Valmont has his joke and walks away. She's his.  You see this in the English plays too; the woman who has had sex with someone is helplessly bound to him.  It need not be rape.

In the film adaptation it's in an earlier scene (before the faked fire) that she demands to be allowed to leave, to go where she pleases, and says she has no desire whatsoever to be united with him from what she's seen of him thus far, and he becomes frantic

Even more interesting, the only women who resemble Clary are the rakes. Lady Susan is not the least bit bothered who she has sex with or if it's the same day. Ditto Merteuil.  This is true of the hypocrite (she pretends to be super-virtuous) Sophie de Vernon in Germaine de Stael's Delphine.

The psychological explanation is often Freudian as in Freud's paper on the Virginity taboo. Freud (as everyone will instantly recall) says the taboo is there so that the man can hope to marry a woman who has never had sex with anyone before; if she now has sex with him, she must stay with him. She's wedded psychologically in some inescapable way.

Not Clarissa. I would argue the fourth volume of Clarissa is not just about her dying; there is much much else in it and it's ignored -- it's there she fights terrifically to escape Lovelace.  She flees him repeatedly; she struggles against the prostitutes who come to the spunging house and assume she is now one of them, and try to treat her as one of them.  Lovelace finds he must rape her again, but this time she's prepared :), and he doesn't manage it.

Another aspect of this is sensibility novels (Montolieu's Caroline de Lichtfield is one I know well) slide away from this. Suddenly sex is a twosome, about affection, tenderness, and not triumph. Austen is not a sensibility novelist because in her novels despite all the claptrap about companionate love when it comes to sex it's about triumph.  Henry Crawford wants to triumph over Fanny Price, drive a hole in her heart.

The topic may also be linked to pornography and I could explore that a little.  One define pornography as where the man or doer is triumphing and the reader is (I think) invited to enjoy a malicious cruel triumph, usually over a woman as part of the sexual experience.

It all just came to me in the sense of what I want to explore.   I'm not sure what I will present so to give myself ample room I'll just have a general title where the phrase epitomizes the thesis:  "What right have you to detain me here?":   Rape in Clarissa.  The line is one of the first Clarissa says to Lovelace after she recovers from her madness and meets him for the first time after the rape. She has others to the same effect (Richardson repeats ideas), which are more demotic (one of which Nokes and Barron used for their script in the film), but they are not as concise.


The other proposal I sent to the JASNA people has the title:  "People that marry can never part:" real and romantic gothicism in Northanger Abbey. 

Northanger Abbey as we first see it up close in the 2007 NA; Henry and Catherine appear very small against it

Here my proposal and letter was acknowledged and now I wait until November.  Basically what I offered to do is expand the sources of the incident Catherine Morland begins to believe in

"the probability that Mrs Tilney yet lied, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed ... it suddenly struck her as not unlikely that she might that morning have passed near the very spot of this unfortunate woman's confinement--might have been within a few paces of the cell in which she languished out her days; for what part of the abbey could be more fitted for the purpose than that which yet bore the traces of monastic division? In the high-arched passage, paved with stone, which already she had trodden with peculiar awe, she well remembered the doors of which the general had given no account.  To what might not those doors lead? In support of the plausibility of this conjecture, it further occurred to her that the forbidden gallery, in which lay the apartments of the unfortunate Mrs. Tilney, must be, as certainly as her memory could guide her, exactly over this suspected range of cells, and the staircase by the side of those apartments of which she had caught a transient glimpse, communicating by some secret means with those cells, might well have favoured the barbarous proceedings of her husband.  Down that staircase she had perhaps been conveyed in a state of well-prepared insensibility! ...   The side of the quadrangle, in which she supposed the guilty scene to be acting, being, according to her belief, just opposite her own, it struck her that, if judiciously watched, some rays of light from the general's lamp might glimmer through the lower windows, as he passed to the prison of his wife; and, twice before she stepped into bed, she stole gently from her room to the corresponding window in the gallery, to see if it appeared; but all abroad was dark ..." (NA, Chapter 23)..

Not just Radcliffe's The Sicilian Romance, Lewis's The Monk. Beyond these, and Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho,

     "but also Stephanie-Felicity de Genlis's Histoire de la Duchesse de C*** (found in Adele et Theodore, alluded to in Emma), Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake and Celestina, and as Austen read French, equally popular autobiographical and judicial memoirs and only somewhat fictionalized novels of wife abuse and marital misery in French, e.g., the Memoires d'Hortense et de Marie Mancini, Marquise de Sade's sentimental La Marquise de Ganges, and shorter tales based ultimately on court cases of the type Charlotte Smith gathered and translated in her The Romance of Real Life."

My idea is all these sources, romance and real, reflect realities of the time which women were aware of, and which Mrs Tilney more realistically suffered from and suffered badly, and Henry knows this. That's why he gets so upset and (by extension self-reflexively in the novel) the heroine too:

Henry upset as much from memory as Catherine's imaginings; Catherine distressed by his anger and

I love in the film adaptation how Davies had Henry resent how well the General had treated Catherine when he first realized her conjectures and has this twisted angry response, and much later after Catherine has suffered ejection and her risky journey home and he defied his father, how his father had "drained the life out of her," had been vampirish -- also a modern filmic attitude not found in Austen or 18th century texts.

So I shall have to wait and see if this second idea is acceptable, and then if so, I can go to my first JASNAAll this will get in the way of my Austen book, but I get so restless just doing the one things so slowly and carefully. Months it's taken me for 2/3s of a chapter.  I will finish and do it, but it will be good to take time off now and again. And I've discovered I do so enjoy these conferences. They are better for my mental health than any medication or psychiatrist.