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Fragility and Femininity

This began as a response to Krystal’s post on Clarissa’s refusal of food, but it sort of morphed into  something else, I think.

 

Clarissa refuses to eat while surrounded by the impure actions and motivations of first her family and then Lovelace.  By refusing to consume, she seems to be maintaining a moral/spiritual purity, at the expense of physical/corporeal health.  I see this as an early instance of the dichotomy of spiritual health vs. physical/mental health that reached its peak during the Romantic Era, as well as the fetishization of feminine spirituality that seems to have begun around this time.  I first noticed this when, reading of Clarissa’s refusal to eat, I was reminded of “The Birth-mark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  
 
In “The Birth-mark,” a brilliant scientist marries an almost-perfect woman.  Her only flaw is an ugly birthmark on her cheek.  When her husband successfully removes it, she dies gracefully and happily… too perfect to live!  The message seems to be that a perfect woman is a dead woman.  I think that in the 18th and 19th centuries, there seems to be a sort of growing pathology on the part of men towards women.  Here’s the logical progression that I see, beginning from a biological perspective and progressing to something counter to both logic and biology:
 
1) A good woman is a modest woman.  
(This is a fairly universal value, as ensuring a mate’s sexual fidelity is of particular evolutionary importance to males)
 
2) A modest woman is passive, secluded, and submissive to her husband.  
(Again, seclusion from potential mates ensures the paternity of offspring and spousal passivity and submissivity could also contribute to the man’s reproductive success.)
 
3) A woman’s modesty, passivity, and submissivity are spiritual ideals.
(Associating social values with religion reinforces compliance, justifies their importance, and makes non-conformers into something immoral and “other.”)
 
4) The spiritual and the corporeal are opposites.
(This was a central idea of “cartesian dualism,” a philosophy which became popular at the end of the 17th century and would have been influential to Georgian era thought)
 
5) The greater a woman’s spiritual health (the more moral/submissive/feminine/desirable she is), the less “of the world” she is, and the less physically robust.  
 
This last point makes spiritual purity synonymous with sexual desirability and nearly incompatible with physical health. Ideal women in literature became beautiful, other-worldly, passive, and ultimately sickly creatures that bore little resemblance to actual humans. The fetishization of the female spirit at the expense of the body seems to have been slowly developing during the Georgian Era before becoming fully realized in Victorian times.  While I’ve noticed this as far back as Shakespeare (Ophelia is so pure, desirable, and loyal to Hamlet that she goes mad and kills herself), it seems a little more established in some of the books we’ve read for this class.  In Humphrey Clinker, for example, Lydia’s illnesses seem to be a way to establish her femininity and moral purity.  Her initial brief illness is described as a brush with death eliciting the affection of her uncle, and when she faints at the supposed sight of her lover, it illustrates her fidelity and purity.  In contrast, Lydia’s aunt is anti-thesis of femininity and accordingly has a good appetite and is not ill.  In Richardson’s novel, Clarissa stops eating, illustrating her triumph of moral/spiritual sensibility over physical desire. Of course, food is not the only physical desire that Clarissa eschews.  Her purity is further underscored by her lack of interest in men (as opposed to her unfeminine and villainous sister), her anorexia, and her frequent denial of sleep. Yet Clarissa stops short of explicitly embracing self-harm.  This is not true of typical heroines of the following Romantic Era, when the focus of fetishization progressed from feminine delicacy, through feminine illness, to actual death.  In Anne Mellor’s book, “Romanticism and Gender,” she mentions that “all of Wordsworth’s heroines are dead – either literally… for figuratively (they are mad, or allowed to live only vicariously through the words and experiences of male narrators).” Phrases such as “delicate sensibilities,” “the weaker sex,” and the old-fashioned idea of “consumptive beauty” typify this view of sickness as synonymous with purity and desirability.  In Jane Eyre, the dichotomy between spiritual and physical as sources of sexual attraction is explicitly described when Jane’s employer expresses his willingness to destroy her body, if it would allow him to possess her spirit (which he eventually gains through marriage):
 
“Never was anything at once so frail and so indominable!  A mere reed she feels in my hand!… Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it – the savage, beautiful creature!  If I tear, I rent the slight prison [Jane’s body], my outrage will only let the captive loose.  Conqueror I might be of the house; but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its clay dwelling-place.  And it is you, spirit – with will and energy, and virtue and purity – that I want.”
 
I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but beginning slowly in the 17th century and reaching a peak in the 19th century, I see not only an unhealthy fetishization of women… but rather a fetishization of feminine ill health.  I believe that Clarissa’s moral refusal of food fits right in the middle of this trend of equating a fetishized feminine spirituality with a rejection or undoing of physical health.
 Image
“The Artist’s Wife on Her Deathbed” by Louis Vernet, 1845
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2 thoughts on “Fragility and Femininity

  1. When you speak of Clarissa as almost ‘too perfect’ I wonder how we reconcile Richardson’s intentions as outlined in the preface: “The principle of these two young Ladies is proposed as an Exemplar to her sex. Nor is it any objection to her being so, that she is not in all respects a perfect character. It was not only natural, but it was necessary that she should have some faults, were it only to shew [sic] the Reader, how laudably she could mistrust and blame herself, and carry to her own heart, divested of self-partiality, the censure which arose from her convictions.” (29-30).
    Granted he goes on to write that as far as she could be perfect, she is perfect, yet still i’m wondering what you make of the necessity of showing “some faults”?

    GREAT post — I’m so excited to talk about all this!

    • Actually, I don’t think Clarissa is too perfect. I think that in the perfect>spiritual>rejection of body>sick>sexy trope, perfect equals dead. Clarissa isn’t dead, so she must be imperfect. 🙂

      However, I think that Richardson tried to write Clarissa as perfect while defending her validity as an imperfect character because he anticipated a negative backlash against her. I think that Richardson wrote Clarissa to expose the extent to which his culture permits and ignores rape, while demanding feminine submission and voicelessness. Yet Clarissa is raped, and she is vocal in her condemnation of the rape. She will not submit to Lovelace or her family. Richardson sets out to show how a woman can be undeniably virtuous, and still be ruined by rape and social subjugation. To be persuasive, Clarissa must be completely blameless, so that the blame falls solely on the aspects of society that Richardson wished to expose. To be completely blameless, Clarissa must be perfect.

      Yet as a transgressive character, Richardson must have known that many people would comb through the book in search of any fault, real or imagined, that shows that Clarissa (and not society) was to blame for her own demise. Inevitably, people would find faults with Clarissa. I think this is why Richardson tells the reader in the introduction that Clarissa is imperfect and frames this imperfection as supporting, rather than disproving, his point. If Clarissa blames herself for her situation, it is due to her imperfections, i.e. it is a mistake. The implication is that if the reader blames Clarissa for her situation (rather than blaming social norms), then he or she is also making a mistake.

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