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?

This is in part a question about the morality of suicide but we also enter here the murky country of rape, with its swirl of denials and suspicions and lies and accusations. For, as Donaldson reminds us, rape, where blatant violence does not leave incontrovertible marks, is an affair of the will, and if the will alters at any moment, the crime vanishes. It is a favourite male theory, much in vogue with policemen, judges and comedians, that the will always alters, the crime never occurs. All women like it, this theory insists, and those who say they don’t are hypocrites, or self-deceived, or so weird or old they don’t count. Sometimes this notion is accompanied by the belief that all women like to be roughed up.

There is a tiny kernel of truth in these monstrous falsifications. Women, like men, have been known to say ‘no’ when they meant ‘yes’. But that is all there is, and this is far from a licence for construing all noes as yeses. The rest is fear and wishing. Many men want to see rape as impossible or non-existent because for them it represents the unthinkable, since it would confront them with the violence of their terror and their need, and the violence those things may cause. ‘For you would hardly care,’ Larkin says to the raped girl in Mayhew,

That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.

This is a risky line of thought. The girl would hardly care, and why, we may ask, should we? Is Larkin asking us to spare a thought for the poor rapist? No. He is defining the sheer, multiple misery of rape, the girl ravished for nothing, for a pictured fulfilment that was only a realised desolation. ‘Lord! Lord!’ Richardson’s Lovelace says. ‘What a hand have I made of it! – And all for what?’

Donaldson has a splendid chapter on Richardson’s Clarissa, in which he shows how Clarissa escapes St Augustine’s strictures on suicide. She dies, but does not will her death:

  Clarissa dies of grief; a grief compounded of many factors. Grief at the stubbornness of her family, at the way in which her own best-intentioned actions have vexed them, and in which certain of their prophecies about her may seem, to a careless eye, to have been fulfilled; grief at the way in which they have given her no true freedom, shown her no trust, left her in an ultimate sense with nowhere to go. Grief at the way in which Lovelace, like many of her own family, has also tried to crush the freedom of her personality, resorting at the last – from vindictiveness, resentment, exasperation, megalomania, love, calculation, and panic – to an act that ignores her as a person, treating her contemptuously as an inert body upon a bed; grief at the way in which her guarded love for Lovelace and her hopes to redeem him were so disastrously misplaced.

But the argument doesn’t end here. Richardson, clearing Clarissa of the charge of suicide, accepts wholesale the need for her death. A virtuous woman cannot live after she has been raped. Terry Eagleton bravely suggests that ‘it is less Lovelace’s rape, than the melancholy into which she is plunged by her father’s curse, which causes her to die.’ It is true that her grief is complex, as Donaldson says; and her father’s curse distressed her greatly. It is also true that the rape brutally freezes and finalises a situation that was already intolerable, and whose terminal nature Clarissa had not until then fully faced. But the text makes perfectly clear that once she is raped Clarissa has no business doing anything except dying. And Donaldson quotes Robert Bage and Thomas Holcroft, lesser novelists than Richardson, but also less extreme in their dreams of women, willing to resist the notion of the fate worse than death. Hardy too, in Tess, offers a girl who is ruined and survives to die, Donaldson says, because of her love not because of her imputed sin. The difficulty, it seems, is to suggest that rape is not the end of the world without also suggesting that it is just one of those things: how to be, let’s say, more humane than Richardson without being as flippant as Fielding.

For Clarissa, rape was the end of the world, or at least the end of this world. ‘I could not think,’ Richardson wrote, ‘of leaving my Heroine short of Heaven.’ For Terry Eagleton, Clarissa is a martyr in a cause she could not know, her Christian hope really a proleptic figure for the consolations of feminism: ‘If for Richardson and his heroine that absent dimension has the name of God, we ourselves, reading the novel after the advent of the women’s movement, may perhaps give a more precise name to those sources of power and solace, with the historical emergence of which a modern Clarissa would not need to die.’ In part, this is to say what Donaldson (and Bage and Holcroft and Hardy) are also saying: Richardson was a representative of harsh old times. But I can’t believe that feminism, even in its wildest reaches, really aspires to the place of God. Surely the heroic ideal would be not to fill that space with modern comforts, but to leave it empty, or even close it, if we can. And I think Clarissa’s dilemma is more durable than Eagleton’s gleam of progress suggests. I don’t mean she embodies a timeless truth, impervious to context, merely that Richardson’s despair goes deeper than Eagleton’s power and solace. We don’t have to endorse the despair, but it seems likely that there will be Clarissas wherever what Eagleton calls the ‘still to be constructed’ project of humanism has any currency, since Clarissa cherishes a freedom she cannot have.

She wishes not to be forced by her family to marry a man she hates: not to be forced by society and respectability to marry the man who has tricked her into going off with him. She is caught, as she says, between the violence of her relatives and the violence of her would-be lover, harried by impossible alternatives. It is part of the book’s delicacy that Lovelace, her abductor, intermittently (and falsely) appears to be not altogether impossible. He is charming, inventive, handsome, funny, and right about everyone except Clarissa, and readers regularly like him more than Richardson allowed for. Eagleton doesn’t like him, and raps the knuckles of a critic who chooses to ‘sing the virtues’ of Clarissa’s rapist: William Beatty Warner, in Reading Clarissa (1979), is rather reckless, but in fact there is no reason why a rapist should not have virtues. Difficult as it may be, we ought to be able to see whatever virtues he has, and still hate his crime. Lovelace’s charm is not a veneer over evil: it is worse than that – it is one of evil’s most alluring instruments.

Clarissa herself likes him far more than she feels she should. ‘Am I not guilty of a punishable fault,’ she writes, ‘were I to love this man of errors?’ ‘Were I to love’: the doubt hanging round this conditional, the ways in which it may be the right or the wrong tense, right if loving him or not is still in her power, wrong if her heart is already gone, points us towards one of the book’s great triumphs, its unspoken portrayal of Clarissa’s uncertain feelings. It is not that she simply is in love with Lovelace and won’t admit it – as her friend Anna Howe suggests, and as critics more or less unanimously suppose. It is that she doesn’t know what she feels, and neither do we. We only know for sure, as she does, that she feels more than she can articulate, and possibly more than she can face. Not dark, repressed emotions necessarily, or ‘powerful, tangled passions’, as Carol Houlihan Flynn eagerly claims, but rather bewilderment at an erratic liking which keeps queering her judgments, and makes her seem the accomplice of everything she sincerely rejects.

The Rape of Clarissa is an attractive book, a genuine essay, full of sturdy polemic, and often wryly funny. ‘His mind is so very vile a mind,’ Coleridge said of Richardson, ‘so oozy, so hypocritical, praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent.’ ‘It would seem an unenviable task,’ Eagleton comments, ‘to try and redeem that.’ The book is patchy, though, and opens with a certain amount of fashion-conscious talk about Richardson’s becoming ‘readable’ again – those who have been reading him will wonder what they were doing until Eagleton came along. It exaggerates too. Richardson’s characters are ‘lynchpins of an entire ideological formation’, ‘coordinates of a mighty moral debate’, while Richardson himself, the complicated signifier, not the unprepossessing signified, is ‘a powerhouse of vital ideological interests’. Richardson is important, but the ideological show is not as thrilling as this. Eagleton’s excursions into French Freudianism (‘It is possible to argue that Clarissa represents the phallus for this anxiety-ridden rake’) are not persuasive. There are contradictions. The rising middle class is somehow able to indulge in ‘virulent aggression’ while it manages to ‘shelter peacefully behind the insignia of traditional society’; Clarissa colludes with Lovelace and does not collude; is and is not a commodity. And Eagleton gets into trouble by his insistence on fighting on two fronts, sneering at liberal humanists for their failure to see the Derridian textuality of things, and at fancy deconstructors for their refusal to believe in concepts like seriousness or sympathy or the real. Eagleton says in fact that neither of these options will do, but then I’m not sure where the sneers come from. He seems to be wearing two hats alternately rather than refusing both.

However, there are a number of good passages in this book, and they tend to cluster around two subjects: Richardson’s practice as a printer and a writer (‘Richardson’s life is his literary work, not his literary works’); and the peculiar unkindness critics have shown to Clarissa.

Richardson’s novels, Eagleton says, may be ‘thought of as kits, great unwieldy containers crammed with spare parts and agreeable extras’. Or they are analogous to newspapers, representing a stage in the development of fiction where ‘certain richly effective forms of writing – moral homily, meditation, polemic, propaganda, exemplary tale – have not yet been relegated by a narrowing “formal realism” to the scrapheap of literary subcultures.’ The intense and intricate illusions fostered by this capacious mode make up a paradigm for substantive realism. Richardson himself, urging the writer of a preface to Clarissa not to let on that it is a novel, spoke of ‘that kind of Historical Faith, which Fiction itself is generally read [with], even tho’ we know, it to be Fiction’. Flynn regards this as ‘hedging’, but Eagleton sees, more shrewdly, that it is a form of seriousness: to call the novel a novel would be ‘to devalue the reality of the issues at stake’. ‘Clarissa,’ Eagleton nicely says, ‘is ... real enough to be going on with.’

Why have critics been so unkind to her? Sometimes they don’t mean to be. Flynn, who has a perfectly clear sense of Clarissa’s stature and dignity, suddenly writes of her ‘complicity in her own rape’. This is so close to Lovelace’s theories about women in general, and indeed to the male theory about rape which I invoked earlier, that it deserves some thought. What Flynn, and dozens of other critics along with her, cannot seem to picture, and what Richardson seems to me anxious to portray, is a genuine desire to refuse a person genuinely liked. Does no one except Clarissa see that love without respect is a form of turbulent slavery? Clarissa will not have Lovelace until she can respect him. His game, on the other hand, is to ruin the very notion of respect and replace it by domination. They both lose. Eagleton is eloquent, if a little rough-handed, on this subject: ‘Some of the charges against Clarissa – that she is prudish, dull, naive, chronically idealising or tediously meek – seem to me merely false. Other accusations – that she is responsible for her own rape, or that she is fit meat for voyeurs – are not only false but, so to speak, slanderous.’ I would add only one qualification. It is certainly wrong to see Clarissa as posing for the rapist in what Dorothy van Ghent calls her ‘miraculously dirt-resistant white garments’ – she has been raped by this time anyway. But she is being posed by Richardson in a passage like the following, and someone’s fantasies are being indulged. The marquis is not far away.

   Her dress was white lustring, exceeding neat; but her stays seemed not tight-laced. I was told afterwards, that her laces had been cut, when she fainted away at her entrance into this cursed place; and she had not been solicitous enough about her dress, to send for others. Her headdress was a little discomposed; her charming hair in natural ringlets, as you have heretofore described it, but a little tangled, as if not lately combed, irregularly shading one side of the loveliest neck in the world; as her disordered handkerchief did the other. Her face (O how altered from what I had seen it! Yet lovely in spite of all her griefs and sufferings!) was reclined, when we entered, upon her crossed arms; but so, as not more than one side of it to be hid.

Carol Houlihan Flynn’s Samuel Richardson is alert and sensible, and diligent in its rounding-up of backgrounds – rape cases, sentimental fiction, rake-literature – but is fairly predictable in its judgments. Pamela is awkward but interesting, Clarissa a brooding masterpiece and Sir Charles Grandison a sententious flop. I’ve no serious quarrel with these views, but the repeated return of the verdicts is rather wearying. The ‘complexity of Clarissa’ has vanished in Grandison; ‘the world of Grandison signals a paralysis of Richardson’s power,’ Gong. Every time Grandison comes up, it is knocked over. More seriously, having promised not to offer us a ‘divided’ Richardson, Flynn seems to give us little else. Her Richardson damns Lovelace so he can freely enjoy Lovelace’s ‘rich fantasy-world’; provides himself with a moral which his novels can overturn; is regularly seen to be composed of ‘the artist’ and ‘the moralist’. Morals, in fact, are consistently set against art, as an instance of the doggedly simple against the complex and ambiguous. ‘Richardson’s imagination subverted and transcended his moral intentions.’ ‘The moralist ends up creating a world in which moral maxims no longer apply.’ Now it is true that Richardson often has rather simple moral recommendations in mind, but they are altered and deepened not merely by his art, but by the more complicated, subterranean morals which make his art worth attending to. Johnson said of Clarissa that ‘there is always something which she prefers to truth,’ which strikes me as wrong anyway, but Flynn wants to apply it to Richardson as well. This is to get things nearly perfectly upside down.