Dishonoured

Michael Wood

  • The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformation by Ian Donaldson
    Oxford, 203 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 19 812638 7
  • The Rape of Clarissa by Terry Eagleton
    Blackwell, 109 pp, £10.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 631 13031 4
  • Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters by Carol Houlihan Flynn
    Princeton, 342 pp, £17.70, May 1982, ISBN 0 691 06506 3

‘All the unhurried day,’ Philip Larkin wrote, addressing a long-dead girl who had been drugged and raped in London, ‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.’ All that day, and many days more, no doubt. But then presumably, since the girl later talked calmly enough to Mayhew, the drawer gradually closed, the glint of the knives softened, and life continued.

Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could.

If the girl had been a heroine, of course, she would not have survived her disgrace. She would have committed suicide like Lucretia, or lapsed into slow dying like Clarissa. Or would she? Is that what heroines have to do? This is perhaps the most troubling of the questions canvassed in Ian Donaldson’s cool and lucid tracing of what his subtitle calls ‘a myth and its transformations’. The book, which looks at paintings and works of philosophy as well as works of literature, is interested in the relations between ‘art and argument’. At times, the argument bullies the art a bit, as in Donaldson’s discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘Rape of Lucrece’, but this is an absorbing and persuasive study, though it offers simply to tell ‘a story about a story’.

The Roman Lucretia was raped by Tarquin, the king’s son, or rather blackmailed into submission by Tarquin’s threat of killing her and his slave and leaving them in bed together. The following morning she called in her father and husband, told them what had happened, and stabbed herself to death. Lucius Junius Brutus, a relative of her husband’s, swore an oath on Lucretia’s spilt blood, raised an insurrection, tumbled the Tarquins and founded Republican Rome.

This, Donaldson says, is ‘a powerful aetiological myth’, ‘composite, coherent and consciously ordered’. It is composite all right, and I can see that it is a myth full of mirrors, where political and sexual values are reflected in each other, so that the raped Lucretia, as Donaldson puts it, stands for a Rome violated by tyranny. But I’m not sure all this adds up to more than a complicated play of hints and resemblances. The story really seems to be two stories: about rape, about revolution. It is true that a third story concerning ‘the paradoxical power and ultimate triumph of the apparent victim’ seems to bridge the gap, but you don’t need a bridge unless there is a gap. This sense of things is confirmed by Donaldson’s dividing his book into two parts – one devoted to Lucretia, one to Brutus – and by his glancing only occasionally at the story of ‘the power of the raped and dying woman’. So the work is not as tightly composed as Donaldson may wish it to be – although this is not the defect he may fear it is.

The parts of the book are unequal, since Lucretia has all the thunder (St Augustine, Cranach, Botticelli, Veronese, Titian, Tie-polo, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Richardson, Pushkin), and Brutus only the lighter cavalry (Mlle de Scudéry, Voltaire, Alfieri, Nathaniel Lee, Gavin Hamilton, J.-L. David). However, Donaldson sharply registers the enormous popularity of the myth across the centuries, and the ways in which controversy has enlivened and enlarged it rather than killing it off. Readings of a myth become part of the myth, as Lévi-Strauss said of Freud on Oedipus. Why did the myth fade, why don’t we hear of Brutus and Lucretia now? The answer, Donaldson says, is ‘not moral disapproval, but neglect: the explanation lies in the modern decline in classical knowledge and classical education.’ If we had not neglected the myth, what would we have made of it?

The most thoroughly argued sequence in Donaldson’s work – and, in the company he is keeping in this review, the most useful – questions the complex of ideas associated with rape and honour and suicide. Was Lucretia’s death heroic, as the Romans and many people since have felt? The first person to raise a doubt about this, as Donaldson shows, was St Augustine, in The City of God. If she was innocent, the argument goes, why should she kill herself, compounding another’s wrong with her own sin? Unless of course she was not entirely innocent. After all, she was not physically forced ... William Empson, Donaldson notes, found St Augustine’s insinuation ‘caddish’, which it probably is. But one can fail to be a gentleman and still make sense, and even get onto the church calendar. Why does Lucretia kill herself?

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