Touch, Sexuality, and Hands in British Literature, 1740–1901
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Touch, Sexuality, and Hands in British Literature, 1740–1901

Kimberly Cox

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Touch, Sexuality, and Hands in British Literature, 1740–1901

Kimberly Cox

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About This Book

From Robert Lovelace's uninvited hand-grasps in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa to to Basil Hallward's first encounter with Dorian Gray, literary depictions of touching hands in British literature from the 1740s to the 1890s communicate emotional dimensions of sexual experience that reflect shifting cultural norms associated with gender roles, sexuality?, and sexual expression. But what is the relationship between hands, tactility, and sexuality in Victorian literature? And how do we best interpret ?what those touches communicate between characters? This volume addresses these questions by asserting a connection between the prevalence of violent, sexually charged touches in eighteenth-century novels such as those by Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, and Frances Burney and growing public concern over handshake etiquette in the nineteenth century evident in works by ?Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Flora Annie Steel. This book takes an interdisciplinary approach that combines literary analysis with close analyses of paintings, musical compositions, and nonfictional texts?, such as etiquette books and scientific treatises?, to make a case for the significance of tactility to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of selfhood and sexuality. In doing so, it draws attention to the communicative nature of skin-to-skin contact ?as represented in literature and traces a trajectory of meaning from the forceful grips that violate female characters in eighteenth-century novels to the consensual embraces common in Victorian ?and neo-Victorian literature.

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1 Rape

Handgrabbing in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa

DOI: 10.4324/9781003202455-2
“How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance ‘o learning in that way, and you did not help me!”
—Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature did not go into detail about female protagonists’ experience of rape. In fact, what constituted rape was as hotly debated in law and in literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it is today.1 Female characters were often ravished in the fiction of Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, Delarivier Manley, and Aphra Behn, but whether or not ravishment was the same as rape is a topic of much scholarship.2 As Jennie Mills explains in her study of rape in eighteenth-century London: “Violent defloration became paradigmatic, the epitome of seduction, representing a form of intercourse that was both typical and aspirational” (162). She continues, arguing that legal proceedings and literature “perpetrated the myth that allowed forced sex to be rewritten as seduction”—a normative form of heterosexual penetrative intercourse (163). “Virtue” appeared much more frequently in eighteenth-century novels than did the terms “rape” and “ravish,” according to a search of their frequency in English fiction and British literature broadly on Google Ngrams. Notice the difference between these terms’ appearance between 1700 and 1799 (see Figures 1.1 and 1.2).3 While Ngrams does have issues with accuracy,4 the chart is suggestive—“virtue” appears much more frequently than either of the other terms. Female characters might be raped, but that concern was rhetorically constructed as a “loss of virtue.” What was at stake for female characters in the popular imaginary of the period was not the physical violation, the violence of forced penetration, or the resulting trauma. It was virtue. Rape as discussed in eighteenth-century novels reflected wider social concern over female virginity, which determined women’s moral, spiritual, and thus economic value on the marriage market.
Figure 1.1 Ngram chart “rape, ravish, virtue,” English Fiction (2019), 1700–1799.
Source: Courtesy of Google Books Ngram Viewer.
Figure 1.2 Ngram chart “rape, ravish, virtue,” British English (2019), 1700–1799.
Source: Courtesy of Google Books Ngram Viewer.
When relating her experience of sexual assault to her mother, Tess Durbeyfield in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) suggests that novels—likely eighteenth-century and early-Victorian novels—contained lessons on sexual violation: “Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks” (99). Tess herself associates a woman’s control over her hands with control over her body and connects that association with literary history: she lacks a manual of instruction. Throughout this chapter, my discussion of “manual” intercourse in literature calls attention not just to tactile interactions between hands but also to the dearth of conduct manuals for guiding such interaction. Female characters’ hands are grabbed constantly in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novels. And such uninvited, nonconsensual manual intercourse is described, without exception, as painful and sexually threatening to the female characters who suffer it. In this chapter, I argue that scholars need to examine the sexual significance of the forceful, repeated, nonreciprocal handgrabbing characters such as Tess Durbeyfield, Clarissa Harlowe, Helen Huntingdon, and Viola Sedley experience. As Kathleen Lubey shows in her reading of rape in Clarissa (1748–1749), it “appears as an atomized, diffuse set of encounters that prefigure, echo, and recapitulate the genital assault” (163). I elaborate on Lubey’s claim by asserting that, in the novels that follow, it is not the moment of penetration but rather the handgrabbing, which precedes or facilitates that moment, that instantiates the violence and violation to follow for readers and characters alike. Since verbal consent is often ignored, silenced, or missing in accounts of literary rape, it is necessary to look at manual interactions to challenge the legacy contemporary scholarship faces in previous centuries’ emphasis on “virtue” and yielding as consent. Representation of haptic experiences—the meaning characters derive from tactile interactions—in literature provides a nonverbal register through which novels afford certain female characters the opportunity to relate their feelings of sexual attraction, desire, and pleasure as well as register their fear of the threat of violence or violation. Reading literary rape through manual intercourse registers female characters’ experiences of it for readers, shifting the critical focus on contemporary legal notions of verbal consent that have sometimes resulted in such experiences being debated or silenced within scholarship.

Nonconsensual Touch in Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Even in the era of #MeToo, it is rare that the popular press discusses female erotic desire, sexual pleasure, or haptic reciprocity.5 Sex educator Jaclyn Friedman identifies sexual pleasure as a gap in U.S. sex education that contributes to a culture “that positions men as sexual actors, [and] women as the (un)lucky recipients of men’s desire.”6 In other words, Friedman suggests that teaching only about consent—and not mutual pleasure—leaves the structures that undergird social acceptance of sexual violence intact. Readers of early literature are familiar with Friedman’s construction.7
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels commonly narrated heterosexual sexual encounters, which often began with a forceful hand-grasps, as events that happened to female characters. Such characters could reject the contact, but the notion of their active participation and enjoyment was not represented and rarely discussed. In Fanny Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina; Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), Evelina explains her encounter with Sir Clement Willoughby, a man she barely knows but who feels entitled to her body, this way: “I would fain have withdrawn my hand, and made almost continual attempts; but in vain, for he actually grasped it between both his, without any regard to my resistance” (98, italics mine). Significantly, Evelina makes clear in subsequent letters that she feels no attraction to or desire for Clement. Similarly, Helen Huntington in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) also experiences such violent manual contact: “seizing both my hands, he [Walter] held them very tight” (361, italics mine). In both instances, a woman’s hand is grabbed without her male counterpart either recognizing or acknowledging her level of (dis)pleasure with the uninvited manual intimacy that she repeatedly rejects.
What I am suggesting is that attention to handgrabbing in literature makes sexual violence not only visible but palpable in a new way. Grabbing is a unilateral act. To grab does not require that the gesture be reciprocated. For readers of British novels, unreciprocated touches raise concerns about sexual violence by highlighting the frequency with which such touches are associated with sexual violation. In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess is raped, though readers are never privy to the particulars. The closest the narrator gets to an outright statement is the observation that “[d]oubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time” (Hardy, Tess 88). The use of the term “ruthlessly” and the image of men in armor returning from war suggest a level of violence connected to the lack of concern for female enjoyment or pleasure in such an encounter. Additionally, the predicate “had dealt”—like “grabbed”—is decidedly unilateral. This statement clarifies that the sexual event that Tess experiences was not reciprocal. Describing Tess’s encounter with Alec as less brutal than what her ancestors’ victims experienced as the exploits of war does not make it less of a violation.
Scholars have long debated whether Tess was raped or seduced, arguing particularly about her level of consent and voluntary participation in the encounter.8 While Tess’s rape is not explicitly rendered in the text, the narrator does describe the event as nonreciprocal. The narrator characterizes it in terms of surface and sensation, lamenting “[w]hy it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive” (88). Hardy’s narrator articulates Tess’s experience of rape in terms of tactile sensation, juxtaposing “coarse” with “gossamer” to emphasize that Tess’s skin—standing in for her hymen—is violently, permanently marred. As in the previous passage, Tess is described as a passive recipient “doomed to receive” what “had been traced”—a haptic encounter devoid of reciprocity.
Nineteenth-century definitions of rape revised certain legal precedents introduced in the eighteenth century, but they still silenced and blamed women for their own victimization, shaping literature of the period.9 Such legal definitions have influenced both how authors of these periods depicted female rape and how scholars analyze such narrative events. Toni Bowers shows that there was little difference in female experience of rape or seduction in eighteenth-century narratives, noting whether or not the female character physically yields or submits to her male counterpart as the distinction between the two (8). Addressing legal views of rape during the period, Clayton Carlyle Tarr identifies the 1828 Offenses against th...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. Contents
  8. List of Figures
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. Introduction: Touching the Past: A Theory of Hearts and Hands
  11. 1 Rape: Handgrabbing in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa
  12. 2 Attraction: Reciprocal Touch in the Conduct Fiction of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen
  13. 3 Desire: Transgressing Handshake Etiquette in Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  14. 4 Sexuality: The Tactile Erotics of Gloved and Ungloved Touch
  15. 5 Orientation: Queer Touch, Proximity, and Erotic Potential
  16. Epilogue: Touching the Present: A Neo-Victorian Case Study
  17. Works Cited
  18. Index