Sexual Whiggery

Blair Worden

  • The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in 17th-Century England by Antonia Fraser
    Weidenfeld, 544 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 297 78381 5
  • Family Life in the 17th Century: The Verneys of Claydon House by Miriam Slater
    Routledge, 209 pp, £10.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9477 9

The history of women has become a lucrative subject. No historical topic offers a better hope of publishers’ contracts, or even, in the United States at least, of academic appointments. Yet if the market is wide, the pitfalls are deep. Some of them have been created by the very forces which have made women’s history fashionable. Just when other forms of Whig history have become discredited, sexual Whiggism has become almost compulsory. Women’s history easily becomes sectarian history: an enterprise in which the past is studied with the purpose less of enlarging present horizons than of fortifying present prejudices.

Certainly there are historians of women who have resisted that temptation and who have brought distinction to their subject, although more of them are at work in Continental than in English archives. But even the best women’s history confronts grave problems of evidence, at least in a century like the 17th, which both these books address, and which regarded sexual matters – like so many aspects of private life and feeling which our intrusive age longs to recover from the past – as too intimate or too trivial or too complicated a subject for written commentary. The evidence we do have is much more revealing about society’s top women than about its bottom women; and the varieties of social opportunity and experience in the Stuart age indicate the difficulties posed by Antonia Fraser’s subtitle, ‘Woman’s Lot in 17th-Century England’. A better choice might have been ‘Meetings with Remarkable Women’, for her book has little place for the ordinary or for the silent. In some ways, it is true, 17th-century women did have a common lot. Whatever their class, they were held to be inferior to men, intellectually, morally and spiritually. Institutions and the law, as we would say, discriminated against them. Yet in society they shared little beyond their formal disadvantages. Historical inquiry which treats people as members of a class – a class, moreover, which constitutes a rather sizable proportion of the population – does not always make them more interesting.

We need a more elastic and less anachronistic vocabulary. We talk of ‘attitudes to women’ – and invite the phrase to cover not only abstract statements about female characteristics but the full range of unfathomable personal feeling. The ‘attitudes’ we identify prove often to belong to a broader mental context from which they cannot be separated without distortion. Thus Fraser says that the 17th century had ‘a distinct feeling of guilt’ about ‘romantic love’. Women and men alike ‘shuddered away from the concept of love’; ‘ever with love came guilt.’ But her examples are of people feeling guilty not about loving each other but about disobeying their fathers, to whose acknowledged authority over female and male alike there were few bounds. Fraser’s evidence cannot tell us anything about attitudes to affection until we have established what it tells us about attitudes to patriarchalism. There is a confusion, too, in Fraser’s identification of ‘love’ with ‘romantic love’ (compounded when she muddles ‘romantic love’ with the cult of ‘platonic love’). What the 17th century ‘shuddered away from’ was not love, on which it set a high value, but the human inclination to mistake emotional intensity for depth. Fraser’s examples are helpful only when we set them in the context of the period’s mistrust of ‘the passions’, of which sexual passion was only one.

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