Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Sentiment, Authority, and the Female Body in the Novels of Samuel Richardson

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Sentiment, Authority, and the Female Body in the Novels of Samuel Richardson

Article excerpt

There is a long tradition of reading the novels of Samuel Richardson as fictions illustrating and supporting the traditional distinction between the spirit and the body, with the spirit the site of value and the body that of degradation. As always, the significance for women of a mind/body split is particularly problematic. Some critics have suggested that Richardson's novels display a horrified repugnance at female sexuality, with the only "spiritual" (and therefore "good") women being those who are safely bodiless (i.e. dead).(1) Yet this interpretation depends on assuming not only Richardson's anti-sexual stance, but also that sexuality is the primary meaning of the body. Richardson, however, often uses the body to reify the soul: he "constructs a set of indubitable correspondences between internal and external" in which "the feminine body ... is given us in the representation of qesture, convulsion, irresolution, and involuntary movement; these are the signs of sentiment's purity" (Mullan 112-13). A woman's body "displays her virtue" through physiological manifestations, as when she "weep|s~, and |her~ bod|y~ pulsate|s~ involuntarily" (113).

Samuel Johnson praised Richardson for making the emotions move "at the command of virtue" (Hagstrum 198), and we can expand that tribute to say that in Richardson's virtuous characters, body and soul move together so that it is impossible to segregate the spiritual from the physiological response: both express inner goodness. Thus Richardson illustrates the distinction that one eighteenth-century writer drew between "physical crying" and "moral weeping": the former is merely "the mechanism of the body" while the latter is the body's involvement in and expression of "such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature" (quoted in Brissenden, Virtue 103).

This distinction explains how the "trembling body" of a Richardson heroine can be as important a part of her "stubbornly virtuous" personhood (Mullan 223) as the extended verbal commentaries through which she asserts her self-definition. Those characters, from Mr. B to the Harlowes to Lovelace, who would degrade Richardson's heroines invariably deny this unity of flesh and spirit; they refuse to read the body as a source of spiritual expressiveness. Their reductionist view of the female body dismisses the physical code for fine feeling,(2) denying seriousness, sincerity, and significance to bodily responses.

Such characters believe that a woman's body can give proof only of what is ignoble or "low" about the woman; since they assume that sexuality is "ignoble," a woman's body can "mean" only sexuality, and if female virtue can exist at all (which Lovelace, for instance, doubts), it can exist only in a mind disassociated from female flesh. Richardson demonstrates, however, that such a denial of the body inevitably diminishes female authority. Only respect for the body is inseparably connected with the soul preserves female dignity and integrity.

As an illustration of this, consider the climax of Pamela's first volume, when Pamela's faintings, fits, and cold sweats effectively subdue Mr. B's last serious attempt at rape. "|C~hanged" by having witnessed Pamela's "paroxysm," "B. will never again attempt the worst" (Erickson 97). Pamela's reactions are intensely physical; as she herself points out, it is not her eloquence in moral argument that saved her in this "most dreadful trial" (Pamela I, 183-84). It is, literally, her body that saves her, or, more precisely, the indivisibility of her body and spirit, as Mr. B is forced to acknowledge that her corpse-like condition shows even her physiology to be indicative of her moral attitudes.

Pamela's temporary unconsciousness, therefore, is actually the sign of the highest sensibility, in which even the body's involuntary responses (like sweat, fits, and fainting) are in tune with deeply held principles. It is on such ingrained principles that Pamela bases her resolute defiance to one who is both her economic "master" and "a powerfully seductive father figure" (Laurence-Anderson 452). …

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