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How different was it to be raped by a suitor in 1747 than today?

By **Anne Fernald**

Fernald%20headshot.jpgSpring was cold, wet, and cruel in New York this year. Rape was in the air. While recent headlines have been dominated by Schwarzenegger and Weiner’s scandals, let’s not forget the more urgent issue of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s actual crime. Before his indictment on charges of assaulting a housekeeper in his hotel suite, New Yorkers had been following the sorry tale of a young fashion executive’s rape by the two policemen who escorted her home after she spent a night out. Finding her too drunk to resist, the cops were accused of having concocted false 911 calls as a pretext to return and assault the woman. Later, they were acquitted of the rape charges and the public disappointment was swift and intense. In both cases, especially that of Strauss-Kahn, the American public has sided with the victim against her powerful attacker. In my more hopeful moments, I permit myself to wonder if we may be witnessing the beginning of a welcome and long-overdue cultural shift in our understanding of rape.

These news stories have occupied me more than they ordinarily might have because, this spring, I have also been re-reading Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s great (and massive) 1747-48 novel of the rape and eventual death of Clarissa Harlowe at the hands of the rake Robert Lovelace.

Clarissa tells the story of a priggishly virtuous girl (she turns 19 a few weeks after the rape), who, when pressured to marry a nasty, ugly (but rich) suitor, flees instead into the arms of a handsome, titled (but perhaps not as rich) rake. He takes her to live in a fancy London brothel, where two of the prostitutes were “ruined” by Lovelace himself. With the help of the prostitutes and the madam, Lovelace drugs and rapes Clarissa. Richardson seems to have recognized that rape is never about sex, but about power. His characters’ reactions to the shift in power after the rape make the third quarter of the novel particularly compelling.

It is an epistolary novel, comprised of dozens and dozens of long letters, mostly between Clarissa and her best friend, Anna Howe, on the one hand, and Lovelace and his friend Belford, on the other. For that reason, perhaps, the most famous letter in the book is the shortest one, the one in which Lovelace announced that he has raped Clarissa. As announcements go—for it’s an announcement and by no means a confession—it’s a good one. Lovelace writes: “And now, Belford, I can go no farther. The affair is over. Clarissa lives. And I am Your humble servant, R. LOVELACE.”

Even with all the letter’s brevity, the rape is unnamed, so I understand why some of my friends have teased me not to “miss” it. I think I probably did miss it when I read the book first, decades ago. There is a lot to say about this remarkable short letter—the sense of an affair or seduction as a kind of journey, with penetration as its end; the threat of violence implicit in “Clarissa lives,” as if he already knows that she will, indeed, decline and die—for all that is remarkable in this brief letter, I have been more interested in Clarissa’s account. Clarissa uses her reason to shame Lovelace, to refuse marriage to him, and to restore her sense of her own honorability on terms that are both distressingly familiar and strange, in ways that offer us new perspectives on rape.

Violent partners still depend on the silence of their victims and the complicity of the society around them.

The drugs and the trauma of the rape itself leave Clarissa senseless, nearly mad with grief and rage, for a week. When she recovers, she writes her own account to her best friend, Anna Howe that Lovelace “betrayed me back again to the vile house: where, again made a prisoner, I was first robbed of my senses; and then of my honor. Why should I seek to conceal that disgrace from others which I cannot hide from myself?” The elegant parallelism made me regret all my earlier impatience with Clarissa’s sense of moral superiority. The euphemism of honor for virginity reveals as much as it conceals. When we define a woman’s honor as her virginity, then her only chance of preserving honor lies in passivity, since any action in the world—talking to a man in public, walking down a street, expressing an opinion—might seem to call her honor into doubt. However, enforced passivity leaves even the most virtuous of women extremely vulnerable. Unconscious, how can she resist? No longer a virgin, how can she claim honor? Clarissa regains her footing, emphasizing not what was done to her—she was drugged, she was raped—but what was taken from her—her senses, her honor. And, in emphasizing her very vulnerability she begins to redefine the meaning of sense and honor.

Lovelace thinks that Clarissa will marry him once she’s no longer a virgin. His giggling female cousins share his easy sense that many women overlook a zealous lover—as if drugging and raping someone were the same as a stolen kiss in the lime-tree bower. In 1747 as today, Lovelace depends on silence and the complicity of polite society, especially women: the prostitutes assist in the crime; the cousins giggle over Clarissa’s excessive delicacy; Lovelace’s aunts urge the match; even Clarissa’s best friend thinks the only possible return to modest womanhood is through marriage.

However, Clarissa is more interested in being good than in being modest. Her notions of wifely duty, though exasperatingly focused on obedience, emphasize a powerful logical schism at the heart of all strong hierarchies: demanding one person’s obedience to another depends on an assumption of the other, more powerful person’s greater worth, whether it be a parent’s authority over a child, a priest’s over a parishioner, a master’s over a worker, or a husband’s over his wife. When that worth is revealed to be without basis, the obedience can no longer be justified.

Sadly, although we are right to resist the powerful and corrupt, that point holds more sway in the public square than in the private room. Insisting that the man overstepped his rights—and getting public support for that accusation-—happens, all too often, only after the rape. In the private moment, the rakish suitor, the police officer, the guest in the hotel’s luxury suite who happens to be an influential French politician (or Egyptian banker) just assaults the woman. And, in fact, in 1747, as today, the virtue of the victim remains a troubling spot. It’s important for Richardson to create a heroine who can only be seen as virtuous so that we are not confused about his didactic aims. The operatic outlines of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story surely made it easier for the newspapers to take the side of the woman just as Clarissa’s extreme virtue makes the tragedy of the novel at once sillier in a quick retelling and more tragic in the reading. For that reason, I was heartened to find that the New York tabloid press, usually so proud of the NYPD, has waxed more offended by gross, overreaching cops than by the fact of a fashion executive who had too much to drink. Even after the acquittal, it’s the cop pretending to be a good Samaritan who is portrayed as an animal. However, unlike both the cleaning woman and the fashion executive, Clarissa is not the victim of a stranger rape. After all, Lovelace’s courtship of her was publicly known; he had applied for a marriage license and drawn up settlement contracts; they were, in fact, living under the same roof. When Lovelace rapes Clarissa, his actions resemble those more common assaults of date rape and partner violence.

How different, then, was it to be raped by a suitor in 1747 than today? Violent partners still depend on the silence of their victims and the complicity of the society around them. We certainly do not want to fade into some anorexic Christian martyrdom, as Clarissa does. Yet I have nothing but admiration for the way Richardson depicts her efforts at recovery: centuries before talk therapy and trauma theory, Clarissa goes over the event again and again, in letters and in reported conversations, remembering, meditating, and praying over it, accounting for what she might blame herself for (very little) and what she suffered undeservingly. She refuses the silence on which reconciliation with her rapist depends. She refuses reconciliation. She tries to forgive her rapist but she is angry and terrified enough to refuse, in the strongest possible terms, to see him again. If we no longer understand ourselves as bound to our partners by obedience, we can still understand these voluntary bonds as ones we dispense according to the worth of our partner. When he or she proves violently unworthy, we should release ourselves from any false sense of obligation. The 1500 pages of Clarissa remind us how painful such extrications can be. Again and again, in 800 odd pages of letters before the rape, Clarissa hopes for one more chance at reconciliation with her family, hopes for one more sign that Lovelace’s intentions are worthy of her. It is not easy to leave an unworthy partner, but leave we may and leave we must. As to our own virtue in the case, let us not endeavor to be Clarissas, even as we refuse silence and rise to moral magnificence in the face of violence.

Copyright 2011 Anne Fernald


Anne Fernald is an associate professor of English at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. She is the author of Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader (Palgrave 2006) and is currently at work on the Cambridge University Press edition of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. She has published scholarly articles on Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and modernism and essays in Open Letters Monthly, H.O.W., and The Harvard Review. Her personal blog is Fernham.

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