One of the most extraordinary literary judgments ever made is that Richardson was a moralist. Both “Clarissa Harlowe“, and the “Letters from Pamela“, are endlessly prolonged accounts, characteristically obsessive, of the seduction and degradation of girls, which could only have been written by a man for whom such events had a dreadful fascination. Not only is Clarissa, rejected by her family, placed in a brothel (the obvious fantasy for anyone who feels that women are whores— and we have seen the Oedipal origins of such a feeling) and eventually driven to her death, but, for good measure, we are shown Lovelace’s friend, Belmont, seducing a girl with the aid of drugs and abandoning her. The story almost exactly parallels that of a recent highly successful novel, except that in this case the seducer is not presented as being a gentleman, and the psychic impotence which motivates him is frankly stated.
The themes of violence and impotence run through the sexual life of the period in a horrid counterpoint, and ever more repellent steps are necessary to evoke some shadow of the vanished potency. Where the Restoration poet had hoped that Phyllis would be kind, the Georgian gallant ruthlessly seduced girls, if necessary using narcotics for the purpose, and left them to their fate. It was considered especially important that the girl should be a virgin. This is a demand which differs in an important respect from the demand of a man that his intended wife should be a virgin, and it occurred with such frequency that Bloch has spoken of the period as one of “defloration mania“. To deflower a woman is a method of expressing one’s resentment of her sex: and how important the sadistic element was is shown by a work like “The Battle of Venus” (1760) which dwells on the charm of the victims struggles and cries of pain.
But the ‘Schadenfreude‘ of the Age of Reason went even further: there were many who could only obtain the necessary frisson by seducing children far below the age of puberty. In Johnstone’s “Chrysal“, an elderly rake’s valet suggests:
“A very fine girl as your excellency could wish to see.”
“How old ?”
“Psha, mellow pears! I loathe such trash.”
“If your excellency pleases to wait but a little, I have one in my eye, that will suit your taste exactly; a sweeter child is not in all England.”
“. . . but how old ?”
“Just ten and finely grown.”
“Right, the right age….”