What’s a Girl to Do?

The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson

by Terry Eagleton
University of Minnesota Press, 109 pp., $25.00; $9.95 (paper)

Samuel Richardson
Samuel Richardson; drawing by David Levine

In Livy and Ovid, Lucretia is a model and submissive wife. While other Roman matrons are idling away their evenings, she is to be found industriously spinning among her maids. The very exemplary quality of her life, not simply her beauty, inflames Tarquin. Only his threat to kill her, and then pretend he surprised her in bed with a slave, forces Lucretia to submit to rape. The next morning, she summons her husband, her father, and their friends, tells her story piteously to this all-male audience, and, despite their reassurance that she is in no way at fault, stabs herself in order to free her husband Collatine from shame—and also, as she insists, to prevent lewd women from using her as a precedent to escape punishment.

Her death sparks off a revolution. Brutus snatches the knife from her wound. Armed with this talismanic weapon, he persuades the populace to overthrow the whole house of the Tarquins, hereditary rulers of Rome, and drive them into exile. And so Lucretia becomes a heroine of chastity, is revenged on Tarquin and topples a monarchy, without ever encroaching on male prerogatives, or soiling her hands with any blood but her own.

With remarkable grace and economy, Ian Donaldson traces Lucretia (and her avenger Brutus) across two thousand years, in several literatures and through an impressive array of art forms. He assembles analogues to Lucretia’s story as diverse as Machiavelli’s Mandragola, Jonson’s Volpone, Richardson’s Clarissa, and Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Inevitably, he overlooks a few. Especially puzzling is his failure to notice The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Tourneur or Middleton, where the revenge action that overthrows an Italian dukedom is initiated by the suicide of Antonio’s chaste wife, after her rape by the duchess’s younger son. He also omits to mention Middleton’s very interesting early poem, The Ghost of Lucrece. For the most part, however, Donaldson handles his theme thoroughly. He is sensitively aware that one of the limitations of the Lucretia story is the fact that it has been created, sustained, and exploited largely by men. As he points out, “It is significant that the number of women who have chosen to treat this subject in literature and the visual arts is exceedingly small.” Lucretia is a heroine of the male, rather than the female, imagination.

Donaldson is also consistently interesting in his account of the changing (usually male) reaction to the story over time. At an early stage, a crucial and complex divergence declared itself. Although the exemplary Lucretia of the classical tradition continued to exist in men’s minds, she was soon dogged by a kind of dark familiar: the Lucretia whose suicide, as Saint Augustine feared, was really an act of spiritual pride, the product of her culpable failure to understand that worldly honor matters less than submission to divine will. Lucretia was not, of course, the only pagan to run foul of…

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