Promises

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • The Faber Book of Seductions edited by Jenny Newman
    Faber, 366 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 571 15110 8
  • Journeys to the Underworld by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
    Chatto, 226 pp, £10.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3223 X

Almost every woman I know has at one time or another been to bed with a man she shouldn’t have been to bed with – a married man, a friend’s man or, quite simply, a man who wasn’t her man. It may be that some of them allowed themselves to be talked into it and afterwards wished they hadn’t and it may be that someone (usually someone else) suffered for it, but to call these events ‘seductions’ would be to try to give them a status which they no longer enjoy. Seducers had victims, not partners in crime, and to seduce someone was to lead them astray, not merely to lead them to bed. ‘I like to think I’m a sort of gay bachelor, Don Juan or Casanova,’ Fiona Pitt-Kethley says at the beginning of her startling account of the sights she saw and the men she laid in the course of two journeys to Italy in search of the lairs of the sibyls and other poets and prophets of the Ancient world. She doesn’t, she adds, ‘give the men anything to complain of’, doesn’t ‘promise permanence’ or ‘leave them holding the baby’; and in that sense, however inviting or provocative her behaviour, whatever her state of dress or undress, what she describes isn’t seduction but casual sex.

And later he caught a bus and she a train
And all there was between them then
was rain.

Brian Patten’s perfunctory verse is included in Jenny Newman’s anthology in order to make the same sort of point: seductions, which begin with fine words and end with desperate recriminations, are a thing of the past.

‘You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value,’ Elizabeth Hardwick said in ‘Seduction and Betrayal’, with the clear implication that it is not a value now. In fact, the only innocence about which we still obviously care is the innocence of children: and there is no doubt that, unlike adults, children may be – and pace Freud often are – the victims of seduction. Hardwick’s essay was concerned with the fate of literary heroines like Clarissa and Tess and with the penalties they paid for their illicit engagements with men. It was written in 1972 and had first taken shape as a paper delivered to the students of Vassar when Vassar had just stopped being a women’s college and the Pill had just begun to change women’s lives. ‘Technology,’ Hardwick said, meaning contraception, ‘annihilates consequence.’ If women have nothing to lose and nothing to pay they can be loved and feted and courted and bedded but they can’t in the ordinary course of things be seduced. Not in life or in literature. ‘The old plot,’ as Hardwick put it, ‘is dead, fallen into obsolescence.’

It turns out, however, that technology has not annihilated consequence. Or, more precisely, that Aids has reinstated it. Suppose that a young man who knows he is carrying the HIV virus has some sinister reason for sweet-talking the object of his desire into going to bed with him while saying nothing about his medical condition. It would be quite appropriate to call a case of this sort a seduction. (In America it would also be a criminal offence.) It is an extreme case, however, and there will presumably always be sexual encounters which carry less fateful penalties: penalties which have to be paid by men or women who may find themselves innocently caught in a sexual snare without being in the least innocent by nature. Suppose this time that the woman whose company cost Gatting the captaincy of the English cricket team this summer was in the pay of Emburey, who succeeded him in the post. A novel which featured an innocent Gatting, a conniving Emburey and an unnamed temptress might be a pretty low-level novel but its plot would hinge, however unseductively, on a seduction. In Ms Newman’s anthology there is a scene from Rates of Exchange, Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical novel about a British academic on a visit to an imaginary Eastern European country. Set in the shower of a flat belonging to a woman who is both a witch and a Marxist, it describes her attempt to persuade the Englishman to engage with her in a ‘dialectical synthesis’. ‘Do you like me to soap you,’ she asks, ‘and we can talk also about your deviations?’ Synthesis takes place; and as she herself, unhelpfully, tells him, it could have serious consequences – of a kind that might, quite plausibly, involve one or other of them spending a year or two in prison. Before Wolfenden, there were plenty of seductions (or deviations) in this country which began in lavatories and finished up in prison.

We may talk about seducing as if it were the same thing as making a pass but it works towards a darker and more distant goal. Nor is it the same as wooing, though wooing of course comes into it. When the Vicomte de Valmont, the smooth seducer of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, sets out in pursuit of the Présidente de Tourvel it isn’t sex that he has in mind but the less acceptable pleasure of corrupting a good woman. ‘Let her believe in virtue,’ he writes to his fellow conspirator the Marquise de Merteuil at the start of the novel, ‘but let her sacrifice it for my sake; let her be afraid of her sins, but let them not check her; and, when she is shaken by a thousand terrors, may it only be in my arms that she is able to overcome them and forget them.’ There are pieces in Newman’s anthology which a more pedantic editor might not have allowed, on the grounds that they only have bed in view when ‘seduction’ understands bed as a means to another, more subversive end. Similarly, saying ‘No, I can’t’ is not the same thing as saying ‘No, I don’t want to’ (though there may of course be occasions when the former is merely a polite excuse for the latter). At the very least, ‘I can’t’ implies the existence of a larger issue than how to get through the next half-hour.

In the literature of seduction, it should be said, ‘I can’t’ usually carries the further meaning of ‘I would dearly love to.’ Women have to be virtuous and at the same time susceptible: without this ambiguity there would be no uncertainty and no plot. Even Clarissa, seemingly the least tempted, most steadfast of heroines, almost acknowledges something of the kind when she writes in her last letter to Lovelace, ‘To say I once respected you with a preference is what I ought to blush to own’; and this weakness must in part account for the difficulty she has in escaping his attentions.

Newman’s anthology is an anthology of English seduction scenes which makes an exception for the Biblical account of the tempting of Adam and Eve, the original seduction from which all others follow. But even there sex was only ambiguously the main issue. ‘The Garden of Eden was lost for partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,’ Nelson Goodman writes in Of Mind and Other Matters, ‘lost not for lust but for curiosity, lost not for sex but for science.’ Goodman’s view is the view that now prevails, among feminists especially; and Eve, traditionally seen in the way the Church has seen her, as ‘the weaker part of the human couple’, the first member of her sex to deflect man from his noble purpose – or, in Adam’s case, his noble lack of purpose – is now praised, as Gillian Beer has praised her, for being ‘the first scientist’. (Pitt-Kethley, who, unlike most of her sisters, is a feminist in practice as well as in her reading, makes the somewhat sophistical point that ‘it was only Adam who got kicked out of the Garden of Eden.’) The Christian idea that she was weak because her flesh was weak – weaker even than Adam’s – is something which, according to recent scholarship, we owe to the middle age of St Augustine, who was the first to promote the idea of Original Sin on which the Christian interpretation of the Fall is based, or so Elaine Pagels argues in her study of the ‘politics of paradise’, Adam, Eve and the Serpent. But even St Augustine took sexual desire to be the evidence for the Fall, not its cause or its chief consequence. One doesn’t have to be a Freudian or, for that matter, a Christian to think that sex played some part in what happened, but for the Biblical Serpent, as for Milton’s Satan, disobedience was the long-term objective. One way or another, a plot had to be devised to get Adam and Eve out of paradise, and in that sense the first agent of seduction was also the first agent of subversion.

Reading through this anthology in which every piece sings its subject’s good looks (‘fairer than the evening air/Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars’), I was reminded of Christopher Ricks saying twenty years ago, in an article about the sexual revolution of the Sixties, that he was against the whole thing on the grounds that the new free-for-all was unfair to plain women. (What about plain men? Are women pleased to get any old bugger? Not according to Pitt-Kethley, who complains so much – too big, too small, too fat – that you begin to wonder whether there are any good-looking men in Italy apart from Marcello Mastroianni.) If one were to judge English literature by this anthology one might wonder why plain women bothered to read books at all. That there can be no seduction without flattery is one thing (Moll Flanders speaks for all her ruined sisters when she says: ‘that which I was too vain of, was my ruin, or rather my vanity was the cause of it’): the power that is ascribed to good looks quite another. The trick is that in order to be noticed women have to be beautiful and that, once noticed, their beauty is seen as something to be guarded against: as a threat to what Jane Miller in Women writing about men calls ‘men’s lifetime objectives’, and beyond that, to the social order which is coincident with men’s lifetime objectives. Newman hasn’t arranged her anthology chronologically but if one takes the pieces in the order in which they were written, the Garden of Eden is followed by the Court of King Arthur, where Eve’s daughters prove no less dangerous than she herself had been. It’s touch and go, for example, in the scene from Sir Gawain where the knight is visited in his bed-chamber by Bertilak’s wife:

He sees her so glorious, so gaily attired.
So faultless her features, so fair and so bright.
His heart swelled swiftly with surging joys.

It turns out, as we know, to be a ploy: Gawain is being tested and it’s just as well that he is able to resist the lady’s bright features because the Court’s honour depends on it. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before, as Malory has it, Camelot was undone by Lancelot’s passion for Guinevere.

It is an Augustinian view of the world that represents men as unable to turn a blind eye to women and women, because they are the object and the embodiment of male desire, as instruments of disorder. Guinevere, unlike Eve, had no intention of causing trouble but Lancelot’s infatuation was so powerful that it was rumoured she had cast a spell on him. The capacity to exercise magic, to bewitch, enchant, fascinate or, literally, charm: this was something that only women possessed and it might or might not have a supernatural component according to the demands of the plot and the need to exonerate the men whose heads it turned and whose strength it sapped. It isn’t the kind of power women approve of now (though it isn’t very different from flirtation and everyone likes that). Nor did the writers approve of it then, however much they enjoyed writing about it: at a time when desire had to be seen to be out of order bewitchment might be the only cover a writer had for speaking of sexual feeling.

Men endow women with the capacity to bewitch as a way of talking about themselves. Seduction, being largely a male prerogative, is largely a male subject. Of the eighty writers whom Newman anthologises seventy are men; and of the ten women only three – Angela Carter and two of her contemporaries – describe a woman attempting to get her way with a man. In the literature of seduction men have been allocated the words with which to propose –

And now she lets him whisper in her ear,
Flatter, entreat, promise, protest, and swear –

while women, if they want to be thought well of, are obliged to hold their tongues and find other ways of bringing themselves to a man’s attention. They can put on their finery or they can take it off; they can, in the words of the incomparable Lady Wishfort in Congreve’s Way of the World, affect a becoming ‘sort of a dyingness’ and ‘a swimmingness in the eyes’; they can calculate their moves and decide whether they will appear to their best advantage in this chair or that. (‘Nothing,’ Lady Wishfort resolves, ‘is more alluring than a levee from a couch in some confusion – it shews the foot to advantage, and furnishes with blushes, and re-composing airs beyond comparison.’) They may in addition be winsome or witty, but their vocabulary is a vocabulary of looks and signs. They can’t say what they want and they can’t move directly to get it. Wilde’s Salome is a repellent figure; and even in these more egalitarian times, there is something grim – as well as ideologically heartening – about Pitt-Kethley’s pursuit of sexual pleasure. (It might have been different if she liked men, say, half as much as she likes sex.)

The first piece in Newman’s anthology, a scene this time from Congreve’s Love for Love, lays down the rules:

Tattle: De’e you think you can love me?

Miss Prue: Yes.

Tattle: Pooh, pox, you must not say yes already ...

Miss Prue: What must I say then?

Tattle: Why you must say no, or you believe me not, or you can’t tell.

It isn’t that the women in Newman’s anthology don’t speak (far from it) but that with a few striking exceptions the only thing they are allowed to say is no. Men have one sort of story to tell, or line to spin, and it consists largely of promises, most of which turn out to be either empty (not meant) or out of order (unfulfillable). ‘You shall to me at once/Be dukedom, health, wife, children, friends, and all,’ Brachiano says to Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil, and they both die as a result. The story which women tell has to do with virtue and the impossibility of relinquishing it – and that, too, is a line, spun with varying degrees of eloquence and conviction. A few – the obvious case is the rebarbative Isabella in Measure for Measure – mean what they say but the majority don’t. ‘You are a woman.’ Tattle tells Miss Prue, ‘you must never speak what you think. Your words must contradict your thoughts, but your actions may contradict your words.’ That’s what makes it all such fun – for the men and for the writers, who are also men.

It is usually said that what counts for the seducer is the joy of the chase and in that sense he is dependent on the woman’s resistance. It is an activity less suited to life, where men at any rate have other things to get on with, than to literature, where completion can be almost indefinitely delayed. There are other ways of looking at it, however. One might, for instance, think in terms both of the satisfaction men derive from getting their own way and of the satisfaction women are said to derive from letting men think they are getting their own way. (I’m not saying that women wouldn’t like to get their own way, but they don’t, or they haven’t, or not in this context.) Angelo isn’t unusual in wanting Isabella because she is virtuous, and although he differs from, say, Lovelace or the Vicomte de Valmont in thinking badly of himself –

Dost though desire her foully for those things
That make her good –

it doesn’t hold him back. The lesson of the Garden of Eden was that women must be kept in line and the seducer’s pleasure is the subversive one of getting them to step out of line – the pleasure, at its crudest, of committing an aggression on a prig. Maybe that’s why the naughtiest items in Newman’s anthology are two pieces by Rochester which feature a more amiable, less insistent version of Fiona Pitt-Kethley making sure that she gets what she wants:

Pricket: Now I am in, and ’t is as soft as wool.

Swivia: Then move it up and down, you little fool.