Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October 15th, 2020


A mid-18th century illustration of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison: Grandison rescues Jeronymo


Jamie as a young Scots farmer (a memory of himself from Outlander, Season 1, Episode 2, Castle Leoch)

I attended (went to?) a superb talk on Sir Charles Grandison sponsored by the Digital Seminar group at Eighteenth Century Studies, and found it so stimulating I managed to take good enough notes to at least give the gist of the talk, and then compare what was said to contemporary startling instances of male virginity (in Outlander, my current addiction). What was particularly valuable about Dr Rebecca Barr’s talk was how she related the misogynistic anger at the core of male virginity (weaponized, a way to control women) not only to characters in novels (St John Rivers in Jane Eyre), but also to what we saw in Brett Kavanaugh.

Gentle friends and readers,

Have you guessed what Grandison and Fraser have in common? both were virgins on their wedding nights. Yes.

I today attended a very interesting Open Digital Seminar (zoom lecture and meeting) today sponsored by Eighteenth Century Studies, a talk delivered by Dr Rebecca Anne Barr, Lecturer in Gender and Sexualities at the Faculty of English, at the University of Cambridge, “The Good Man on trial, or male virginity and the politics of misogyny.” It fascinates me because the pattern she uncovers is the same one found in Outlander for the two top heroes, Jamie Fraser and his eventual son-in-law, Roger Mackenzie Wakefield, and helps explain what I thought paradoxical oddities of attitudes in women readers especially (but also men) towards sexuality in other heroes of today’s historical romances. As usual this is by no means all Dr Barr said; it is only an outline with the particulars I could get down in my notes.

Rebecca Barr argued (and demonstrated from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison) that by a combination of mood techniques (including humor) that male virginity is used to create rhetorical and actual power for men to control female sexuality. Unexpectedly perhaps this characteristic usually demanded of women before marriage, and thus associated with women, when found in, indeed insisted upon by a man, enables him to persuade women to accept his power over them. “Male virginity becomes “a key constituent of an intrinsically reactionary arsenal of public virtue.” I think most people who have read Grandison remember that Sir Charles was a proud virgin and after marriage chaste man. What was startling was Ms Barr went on to display a photograph of Brett Kavanaugh a couple of days after Christine Blasey Ford, under oath, accused him of leading a group of male fraternity members at a party to strip and gang-rape, or (as the individual case might be) humiliate her. The photograph was said to have caught  Kavanaugh insisting he was a virgin until he married.


This is not the photograph Dr Barr showed, but another where we see how he yelled during the hearing, so fiercely angry did he let himself become (on whose advice I wonder? — click to enlarge)

I had been told but forgotten that with his wife to one side of him, and Kelly Conway on the other, he vehemently asserted that he could not have done such a deed because he was a virgin. His description of himself in high school and college as an intensely shy, sensitive, moral young man (=good) was a show-stopper. He was asserting an intense femininity of himself, aligning himself with a “feminine niceness” — at the same time as he spoke in an enraged, choleric voice, shouting his words, to make chastity the bedrock of (his and all) male goodness. A man who did lead a group of fraternity guys to rape women who were so foolish as to come to their parties.


Clarissa (Saskia Wickham), (1991 BBC Clarissa, scripted David Nokes)

Dr Barr asserted that in Richardson’s Clarissa, the rake is the worst sort of husband; in Grandison, chastity and virginity guarantee the best sort of husband. She went on to talk of how in Clarissa Charles Hickman, it is suggested, is a delicate chaste man, mocked and ridiculed by Anna, he is as part of his character a gentle, kind, loving and protective husband. (A little later she said that Mr B in Pamela II anticipates Sir Charles.) This derision of Hickman was (in effect) echoed by Terry Eagleton who in his famous book on The Rape of Clarissa wrote an acerbic dismissal of Sir Charles; bluntly he remarked that in a patriarchal society it does not matter if the man is chaste or not. There is no price, no value put on a man’s virginity, such a virtue would be a personal characteristic with no general inference; this critic was repulsed by this assertion of Sir Charles. Ms Barr disagreed and argued that Richardson’s ploy here is more relevant than ever even if such a virtue is kept silent. Hickman, yes, is made a joke out of, he is despised by Anne as meek; she does not know whether to pity or laugh at him; he looks guilty like someone who committed a fault.

But Richardson is careful to align and attribute to Sir Charles all other usual male characteristics: physical bravery, virility when tested, wealth, intelligence, the prestige of rank, socially able. His kin all around him adore and value him, and call him “a good man;” this “womanly private virtue” becomes a sort of weapon in his repertoire to assert his superiority to other men and to the women involved with him. They have to come up to his chastity, themselves be just as “good.” This is not a form of feminism, or femininity but “triumph of discipline,” all the more because it is asserted he has a hot temper, is proud, not naturally timid at all. In this way the male is exalted, and the women all around him made to dwindle into fallible people.

Philip Skelton, one of Richardson’s correspondents, responded to this portrait by demanding that Grandison “be persecuted” and be paired with a “bad woman” (of course the worst trait given a woman is drunkard so she should be a drunkard, slattern), and if Sir Charles is able to cope with such women, it will make him a favorite among female readers. (Whether Skelton was alive to the irony of this I couldn’t tell.) Ms Barr pointed to passages in Grandison where we are told Sir Charles would have agreed with God to annihilate the first Eve and produce a second one, and she suggested that Harriet is the second best in the novel. Sir Charles loved Clementina first. Richardson’s correspondents, Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Carter (two friends) also voiced that less than moral attitudes would characterize women’s responses to Sir Charles’s women — they saw other women as wanting to possess Sir Charles themselves. Ms Barr reminded us that in Jane Eyre, St John Rivers is a austerely chaste man who appeals intensely to Jane, but who would suffocate her with his intensity and offer her a torturing kind of love; he could become an unnatural tyrant over her. Bronte is showing us how such a good man oppresses a heroine. Male virtue here is weaponized when virtue (self-control) extends to virginity; it can be an excuse for male virulence, male rage, his frustration is implicitly sympathized with.

Dr Barr ended her talk around this point; she has written a paper on this topic, which will appear in the next issue of Eighteenth Century Studies; the paper is part of a book project.

****************************


Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), “The Wedding Night” (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 7)

There was time for a question and answer period through chat or through making yourself un-muted and visible. I just found it irresistible to tell of how Jamie Fraser turns out to be unexpectedly a virgin when it is time for him to marry Claire — in order to rescue her from the probable beating, torture, imprisonment and rape by the evil villain of the first books and seasons of Outlander, Black Jack Randall. By contrast, Claire has been married and at first she is supposed to be teaching him. He does not need much instruction: it turns out he has kissed and “made out” many a girl; they just didn’t consummate. Why not, we are not told. Ms Barr was right because this state of gentle purity does give Jamie a special status — especially because he has all other male traits, and he says and makes good his promise to keep Claire safe as long as she stays by him.


Brianna (Sophie Skelton) beginning to understand that Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) wants an engagement and marriage as the price of a relationship with him (Outlander, Season 3, Episode 4, Of Lost Things)

I also realized that the second generation hero of the romances, Roger Wakefield, exhibits a similar superiority and gets to control Brianna, Jamie’s daughter by Claire, because he will not have sex with her unless they become engaged and are about to be married or married. She wants to be free and have sex with him as she pleases and then return to university to finish her degree. If they feel later they want to continue the relationship, fine. If not, fine. She has committed to nothing, with no promise of fidelity either. Well, he’s not having that, and they quarrel fiercely over this. Needless to say, Roger wins — after all Brianna will and cannot force Roger to fuck her. Slowly and surely, Roger comes to dominate Brianna (mainly because she wants a relationship with Roger and can only have it on his terms) though she struggles against his asserting her right after they are “handfast” (have a private ceremony between themselves with God presumably looking on). And then she is punished because now alone she is quickly raped when she attempts to go into a tavern and be accepted as an equal human being to the men there.

Roger does suffer terribly. Later in the evening, Brianna is raped by Stephen Bonnet, and when, having discovered Brianna has returned to her parents, Roger seeks her there, Jamie and Brianna’s cousin, Ian, think he is the rapist, beat him ferociously, and sell him to the Indians. So Roger is enslaved and humiliated and treated horribly for a long time. But when the ordeal is over, he has won.

Similarly Jamie is persecuted because Black Jack Randall is homosexual and deeply attracted to Jamie and captures him, and beats, tortures him, threatening to rape and kill Claire; he shatters Jamie (this is what torturers do) and rapes him to the point that Jamie loses his sense of an identity, and agrees to accept Randall. So Skelton’s demand that the male paragon be persecuted as part of the complex icon here is repeated in the 21st century.


Jamie’s Agon (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 16: To Ransom a Man’s Soul)

It may be that Hickman is made fun of, is “a comic figure” with little power over Anna Howe, whom he is pathetically grateful to marry. But it was noted that “if Lord G, Charlotte Grandison’s husband, is similarly ridiculed” for not being able to control his wife or stop her from domineering over him; nonetheless. “the marriage disciplines her.” She must accept pregnancy and breast-feeding his child. He is “second best to Charles, whom Charlotte would have married if Charles has not been her brother.”

Several other people offered ideas and parallels to Sir Charles in eighteenth century characters and twentieth. Richardson is “re-fashioning the rake,” and making a “new culturally attractive” moralized “Christian” icon. Carol Stewart offered the idea that by presenting a male this way you detach heterosexuality from agency. A character can be forceful and active and not heterosexually involved with anyone.

Dr Barr responded that there is a “heterosexual pessimism” at the core of this kind of icon; heterosexuality is not presented as good for people; sex is distrusted; we are committed to love and to sex, but it is not necessarily in our best interests to be sexually active; it can be against our interests; the best thing you can do is resign yourself. You end up with a resigned or deflated happiness. Harriet is a second best choice. The sexual life of Sir Charles and Clementina is deeply troubled.

This reminded me of the attitude towards sexuality in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country where sex causes anguish and grief, especially to homosexual or emotionally vulnerable and tender men. It can lead to heroines marrying someone who is non-congenial and with whom life is a form of deprivation.


The self-tortured James Moon (Kenneth Branagh) (1987 A Month in the Country, scripted Simon Gray)

There was talk of the second Eve or Lilith as an icon in 19th century fiction. That these underlying complexes of feelin suggest why Sir Charles is attractive to women readers — or was. George Eliot is said to have loved the novel. There is an eroticism in this femininity, or feminine aspect of a man. I know this to be true of Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser.

I also know in the case of Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the readership is ferocious in denying that he raped Elizabeth Poldark — they dislike intensely any reference to any liaisons he may have had before he marries Demelza, and in the book any hints that he has affairs while an M.P in London are kept very discreet. It should be said that most of males in the Poldark series show no trace of homosexuality; they and the women characters, though, have strong same-sex friendships.

****************************


St John Rivers (Andrew Bicknell, very handsome, brooding, absolutely chaste (1983 Jane Eyre, scripted Alexander Baron, probably the best of the 20th century adaptations)

The meeting concluded with bringing up a global dimension. We were reminded by one of the people who introduced the session that St John Rivers is a missionary going to Africa to convert African people to Christianity. He wanted Jane to be disciplined to be part of his imperial project. Jane, though, says the demands of such a role would have killed her and much prefers to return to Rochester to make a home for herself and him. That missionaries are aggressively destroying the identities of “other” people, and St John would have regarded Jane’s death as “collateral damage” in the way the US regards all the native peoples we destroy. In some post-colonial formulations, these “other” people become “spectral bodies” who will then be dominated.

This made me remember the fate of some of the Native Americans or Indians that the Frasers interact with in Drums of Autumn, and that the woods of North Carolina are haunted by the revenant of Otter-Tooth, a young man once called Roger Springer, who came from the 20th century back to the 18th and was assimilated into an Indian tribe, was killed “as a troublemaker” and now is an apparently grieving ghost haunting both present and past.

I may be overdoing these parallels, for, as we move away from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, Bronte’s St John Rivers, and the hypocritical thug-rapist, now Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, we lose sight of Dr Barr’s central core point: literature’s male virgins have a peculiarly misogynist anger at their core. Perhaps one of the differences in more humane 20th and 21st century literature is that homoeroticism and homosexuality form part of the complex of sexuality openly shown to be part of male iconic characters.


Jane Eyre (Ruth Wilson) (2006 TV JE, scripted Sandy Welch)

Ellen

Read Full Post »