Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Manly Lessons: Sir Charles Grandison, the Rake, and the Man of Sentiment

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Manly Lessons: Sir Charles Grandison, the Rake, and the Man of Sentiment

Article excerpt

Some of us are to be set up for warnings, some for examples: And the first are generally of greater use to the world than the other.

--Sir Charles Grandison, 4:246

Such is the wisdom of Samuel Richardson's ultimate heroine, Harriet Byron. Harriet's metatextual address reminds us that she and her interlocutors are characters in a didactic novel, that they are "set up" to instruct and delight the young men and women reading her history. Richardson's paragon of female virtue also reminds us that the warnings, the wicked characters, serve the moralist's purpose better than exemplars like herself, for it is more important to mark out the shoals to avoid than to point toward open sea. Warnings are more visceral, more shocking than exemplars and thus imprint themselves more strongly upon the reader's mind, and none are more visceral than the parade of bad and inadequate men who populate the mid-eighteenth-century novel. Furthermore, the warning was easier to draw. In order to be effective, the didactic character had to be recognizable, his qualities exaggerated sometimes to the point of caricature, yet he also needed to be believable. While exaggerated wickedness can retain its believability and fascination, exaggerated goodness is far more difficult to convey. Earlier exemplars, like Steele's Bevil Jr., the wholesome hero of Conscious Lovers (1722), were rejected as lacking "flesh and blood" (Dennis 38) and considered boring (see Dennis and Victor, who responds to widespread criticism).

Female characters were set up for warnings as often as their male counterparts, but the rules of delicacy and politeness tended to screen them from explicit depictions of their sufferings and punishments. (1) Readers are told about the unsavory fates of female warnings, who are summarily dispatched, whereas they watch the wreck of the male, whose downfall is described in lurid detail. Thus Richardson deals with Clarissa's whores Polly Horton and Sally Martin in a single epigraphic paragraph, but the bad end of their counterpart, the rake Belton, takes several letters and accompanying commentary to describe. In an important respect, the relationship between warnings and exemplars can be expressed as the difference between objective and subjective masculinity. Warnings are objects for the reader's censoring or pitying eye whereas exemplars are the admirable agents through whose eyes and actions readers learn the novel's plot and lessons. The educative aspect of the eighteenth-century novel taught readers to correctly value these different masculinities and to prefer a Sir Charles Grandison to his showier but passive rivals.

Yet the violence reserved for male bodies in mid-century novels is not exclusively attributable to the etiquette that comparatively protected the female body from such scenes. In the eighteenth century, as many critics and historians have noted, masculinity was in crisis: traditional and defining masculine characteristics like strength, power, and roughness were at odds with the social ideals of polite society - the virtues of delicacy, conversation, and grace traditionally coded as feminine (see Mangan, Carter, Mackie, and Shoemaker). As one mid-century writer worried, "The Question is, Whether we shall become more than Men, that is, The Pretty Gentleman; or worse than Brutes; i.e., Masculine, Robust Creatures with unsoftened Manners?" (The Pretty Gentleman 34). In order to succeed in polite society, men were taught to curb their natures and acquire social polish, to put away their swords and pick up forks.

Yet as Paul Langford explains, "politeness" was at best "an ambiguous term [that] included the intellectual and aesthetic tastes which displayed the continuing advance of fashion in its broadest sense.... The essence of politeness was often said to be that je ne sais quoi which distinguished the innate gentleman's understanding of what made for civilized conduct" (71). While the reader may thus distinguish the exemplar from the warning by the exemplar's engagement in the public sphere, by his acts of civic virtue and benevolence, Langford's definition highlights the difficulty of distinguishing true politeness from feigned civility: je ne sais quoi and innate gentility are notoriously difficult to discern. …

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