About two thirds of the way through Pride and Prejudice, just as Elizabeth Bennet has begun to conquer her bias against the arrogant Mr. Darcy, and even to like him rather a lot, disaster strikes. A letter from her sister Jane informs Elizabeth of their foolish sister Lydia’s ruin. She has run off with the rotter Wickham, trusting that he will marry her. All the realists in the novel know there is no chance of that. Lydia has no money and no connections, nothing to tempt Wickham into behaving honorably. Darcy enters to find Elizabeth in despair: “How is such a man to be worked on?…I have not the smallest hope.” She knows that Lydia is “lost forever.” But so, Lizzie realizes, is she:
Darcy made no answer. He seemed scarcely to hear her, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation, his brow contracted, his air gloomy. Elizabeth soon observed, and instantly understood it. Her power was sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She could neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress. It was, on the contrary, exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.
Jennifer Ehle in the BBC adaptation puts it more succinctly: “I shall never see him again,” she says as Colin Firth turns on his heel and heads out the door.
A woman’s honor—most clearly signaled by her virginity—was not her own. It was crucial to middle-class marriageability, and the taint of “family weakness” was enough to wipe out all chance of matrimony for Lydia’s sisters. (For the same reason—to protect the family from shame—Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park banishes his married daughter Maria from the family estate to a “remote and private” part of England after she runs off with Henry Crawford.) As it turns out, however, Lydia’s indiscretion can be hushed up. Darcy has the resources to compensate for her loss of character. He pays off Wickham’s debts in exchange for his marriage to Lydia, and so clears the way for himself to marry Lizzie. In effect he buys two women, or a whole family of sisters, by paying for their reputation.
Austen’s novel is a brilliantly ironic take on what Lisabeth During calls “the chastity plot.” The course of true love never does run smooth, at any rate not in the English social novel of the nineteenth century, in which misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and plain missteps ensure that it doesn’t all end too soon—that there is, in fact, a plot. For your longed-for love match to get fouled up by someone else’s indiscretion (with a third party) seems particularly harsh. It is, however, the inevitable consequence of a system in which women’s sexual virtue acts as a guarantee of the legitimacy of social reproduction.
Absolute chastity before marriage, and relative chastity within it, are supposed to ensure that the body of a woman belongs to one man only, and that his children are really his. As During, a professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the Pratt Institute in New York, explains:
Without chastity, middle-class domestic ideology falls into incoherence; without the sexual double standard, the sanctity of the home is unprotected, the status of children uncertain, the transmission of inheritance unsecured.
Or (again rather more succinctly) here is Samuel Johnson on female chastity: “Upon that all property in the world depends.”
This is chastity in the service of reproduction. What During calls “the maiden plot” is really a delayed marriage plot, a story in which a virgin is assailed but protects her intact body in order—eventually—to give it up in favor of union with the right man. The archetypal heroine of the maiden plot is the star of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). Pamela is a fifteen-year-old servant girl who, During explains, has
studied carefully in the eighteenth-century school of virtue. Assaulted by her aristocratic master, subjected again and again to harassment, confinement, and a number of attempted rapes, Pamela saved herself by the force of her integrity, her cunning, and her ability to faint at the right moment.
(Despite his reputation as a heartless rake, Mr. B, Pamela’s employer, balks at having sex with her while she is unconscious.) Pamela’s struggle against violation is “a marvel of heroic prudery and an early triumph for the middle-class sexual morality Richardson advocated.” It’s also a way of reaping rewards by making chastity sexy: Pamela gets the guy with the big house and the fortune in the end, and Richardson got a huge readership.
Pamela’s maidenhood was a great fixation for readers in a society that was, as During puts it,
struggling to develop a moral code applicable to all classes and backgrounds…. Losing its traditional faith in sacred and aristocratic hierarchies, Britain in the eighteenth century chose to identify moral discrimination with a strangely passive and gendered image of sexual character.
The kind of purity that Pamela possessed—her propriety, respectability, modesty, self-respect: the sheer force of her innate chastity—was supposed to enable women to reform aristocratic libertines and teach them middle-class morality.
It goes without saying that the plot of the novel bore no relation at all to the sexual power dynamics experienced by actual fifteen-year-old servant girls in mid-eighteenth-century England, or by very many other women. The idea that a servant girl had enough agency to lay down the terms on which she would consent to sex (only after marriage) puts Pamela squarely in the realm of fiction.
And not all of Richardson’s readers interpreted the story in the way he intended. Rather than a paragon of chaste virtue, Pamela was seen by some as a schemer. Her rise to the top was the fruit of rational calculation (a literal case of “virtue signaling”) rather than inner modesty—the very opposite of integrity. Henry Fielding’s satire Shamela and Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela; or, Feign’d Innocence Detected (both published in 1741) treat the heroine’s modesty as mere performance designed to trap Mr. B in marriage. Once chastity is cast as a matter of presentation, all sorts of slapstick narrative possibilities emerge, but there was a serious point to the satirical send-ups.
Eighteenth-century polite society held that modesty was innate in women, but conduct books offered lessons in it—how to dress decently, to speak timidly, to glance downward, and even to blush. If the display of chastity could be learned, inevitably it could also be faked (though faking a blush is tricky, as Shamela discovered). The target of the satires was the hypocrisy that deemed a woman’s reputation more important to her social status than her actual virtue. Mary Wollstonecraft called it a “system of dissimulation” in which it was “easier to copy the cast of countenance, than to cultivate the virtues which animate and improve it.” Chastity was not proved by modesty, she argued, but the other way around.
Eight years after the publication of Pamela, Richardson returned to the chastity plot with Clarissa, an altogether darker version of the story. Clarissa is, like Pamela, a paragon of virtue, but her virtue does not save her. She gets imprisoned, deceived, drugged, and raped by the loveless Lovelace, who then decides that he is not satisfied with the rape, since she could neither assent to nor refuse sex while unconscious. “The will, the consent, is wanting,” he complains, and so his desire is unsatisfied, and he tries again. Clarissa learns (over six months and a thousand pages) that neither chastity nor modesty has real-world effects. At least not for her. Clarissa never consents. For her, chastity is not a commodity but a virtue of the soul, and she prefers to die rather than lose it.
Richardson discovered the real-world effects of creating such an aggressively chaste character when he lost a large portion of his readership. Once it became clear that there would be no marriage at the end of the novel and the heroine was trading in her hymen for the other world, people simply stopped reading. More than a third of those who purchased the first four volumes decided not to buy the final three.
Clarissa is a central text for During’s study of the representations of chastity, stretching from the cults of Artemis and Diana and early Christian asceticism (for both men and women) through English pastoral courtly love and the cult of “virginity enthroned” in the person of Elizabeth I, to eighteenth-century novels, in which the battleground is a woman’s honor, and their Victorian successors.
The chastity plot in Western culture is a huge subject, and this study is necessarily selective, though certainly wide-ranging. We get the violence unleashed by Hippolytus’s dedication to chastity in Euripides’ play Phaedra (Hippolytus was “literature’s first stormy male virgin [who] wanted to replace this world with one washed clean of women”); the transformation of warlike chastity (Artemis) to a more humble and tender version (Mary the virgin mother); saintly struggles against the power of women by Paul, Augustine, and a host of other Christian luminaries; virginity in Spenser, Shakespeare, Richardson.
Still, the focus on English literature makes for some strange omissions—no discussion of Joan of Arc, or “Joan the Maid,” for example. Most of During’s material is from a prefeminist era, although critiques of chastity by both Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf help shape the questions the book asks. These might best be summarized as: How can we disentangle the role that chastity has played in moral thinking through the ages from the value that patriarchy has set on women’s chastity in particular? Is there a way of rescuing chastity from moral conservatism?
During acknowledges that for feminist and liberal thinkers—for whom it is axiomatic that sexual morality is, or should be, a matter of choice—chastity is a hard sell. The rediscovery of modesty and sexual reticence by conservative religious movements forms part of an ongoing backlash against the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The new chastity (she discusses Christian, Jewish, and Islamic varieties, and the vogue for abstinence-only sex education in the US in the 1990s) advocates a “conventional, biblical, and heteronormative approach to moral life,” and it does so by promoting an ideal of female passionlessness that is not so far from eighteenth-century ideas of innate differences in men’s and women’s sexual appetites.
In this highly gendered conception of sexual life, purity is for women because men, with their male equipment and their manly lusts, aren’t much good at it. And at the same time as women’s proper sexuality is defined as innately “good” and moral, the rebranding of chastity as an ideal makes feminism, rather than patriarchy, the oppressor of women. Advocates of the new chastity argue that only by rejecting permissiveness will women regain autonomy and cease to be debased by men:
The rhetoric of evangelical abstinence campaigns now favors words such as choice, empowerment, and autonomy, stealing some of feminism’s thunder by presenting a young woman’s decision to defer sexual activity as her exercise of what nineteenth-century feminists called “personal rights.”
There is, of course, a vast difference between the degrees of choice, empowerment, and autonomy available to young women who grew up in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English patriarchal society and those living in the contemporary United States (though arguably not vast enough). Rather than offer a social history of sexual mores, or even of women’s agency, which might account for some of that difference, During focuses on a series of representative narratives that she uses as landmarks in her survey of the history of chastity as an idea. She identifies, somewhat schematically, two versions of the chastity plot, one mainly religious and transcendent, and the other mainly secular and patriarchal.
Before the maiden, or keep-yourself-intact-for-marriage, plot, the chastity tale was a tale not of bourgeois moral virtue but of hoped-for religious transcendence, and During argues that early Christian martyrs learned the power of virgin purity from the Greeks. This was chastity against reproduction, and against gender. It was about aspiring to the condition of “a disincarnate angel,” and During calls this the “eunuch plot,” after those whom Jesus describes, in the Gospel of Matthew, as having “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Precisely because there are, as Jesus says, different meanings ascribed to the eunuch, including the highly this-world-focused role of castrated male servants protecting emperors and their dynasties, as well as those who featured as sexualized objects of desire for men, I found the phrase “the eunuch plot” unhelpful.
But During is interested in the type of eunuchs who choose celibacy as a route to the afterlife, who think that they are listening “to a telephone from the beyond,” as Nietzsche scoffed in his attack on the “ascetic ideal” in The Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche’s objection to this “saintly form of debauch” was that it made sense only within the grand narrative of fall and salvation, corruption and recovery. If you think that we are mere pilgrims on earth, and the real world is the next world, it might be worth trying to return to the state of innocence before Adam and Eve, before the Fall. This is chastity as a foretaste of eternity, and there’s a certain rationality to it if eternity is just around the corner, as it appeared to be for the early Christians.
During argues that Richardson’s Clarissa is a tragic figure because she insists she’s in one plot (the one that proves the purity of her soul), but everyone else in the novel thinks she’s in the other (the one in which chastity is useful insofar as it proves a maiden’s value, but must be discarded at a crucial point so that the novel can come to a satisfactory end). This is a neat argument and During has fun making it. But I wonder if the eunuch and the maiden plots were ever as far apart as she suggests. The early Christian martyrs who had taken vows of chastity saw themselves as saving their bodies for Jesus (who was happily still a virgin too). Their honor was a commodity, just like Pamela’s, but in a much bigger market.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, for example, the patron saint of unmarried girls, apparently had a dream in which Mary appeared to her and asked her if she’d like to be married to Jesus. She had been turning down the suitors her father offered her, but she agreed to Jesus, only to be told it was impossible as she wasn’t a Christian. So she converted, dedicated herself to her celestial husband, and was martyred for it. Brides of Christ are keeping themselves for the future just like chaste women saving themselves for marriage, a parallel revealed in the new fashion for chastity among young women on the religious right. As During points out, adherents of the “purity ring” movement, or “true love waits,” abstain from sex in order to be able to hand over the prize of their virginity in a quasi-religious rite. Pamela, plus god.
What links the two versions of the plot (aside from the no sex, though it turns out that isn’t always absolutely necessary) is integrity—staying whole and intact, in body and in mind. Chastity’s two types of integrity—dedication to an otherworldly ideal, or secular respectability—are determined by who gets to take the prize in the end, heaven or your husband:
While the eunuch stakes almost everything on the chance for otherworldly transformation, the maiden seeks to have her significance recognized in the world. She needs to test her virtue and see it can command belief.
During blames Protestantism, and Calvin in particular, for the domestication of chastity. Appalled by the venality of lecherous monks and predatory or concubine-keeping priests, the sixteenth-century reformers rejected celibacy as part of the Christian ideal and redefined chastity as the chaste love between married partners. During regrets the loss of apocalyptic energy:
I prefer to see the effects of the Reformation on the ideal of chastity as a decline rather than a demystification. Chastity was officially kept alive, but what the Reformed churches put in its place was a weak and accommodating surrogate, chastity disenchanted….Where, in this capacious new world of wedded virtue and continent marriage, were the mystical powers of the virgin body?… The virgin about whom Paul is thinking does not spend her time worrying about her personality or reflecting on the special beauty of her sexual innocence. She is in a hurry for the end of time to arrive. This is not what the bourgeois Miss is about. Maidenly and delicate, she is keeping herself for marriage. Chastity is praised in both instances. But it is hard to recognize it as the same virtue.
During doesn’t have much to say about chastity post-1800, and there are obvious reasons for that. Mary Wollstonecraft’s plea for “a vindication of the rights of woman” was a minority taste when it was published in 1792, but in the nearly two and a half centuries since then feminist movements in Europe and the United States have, for the most part, embraced her rejection of maiden delicacy as the natural condition of femininity. Chastity has gotten poor press in post-Enlightenment cultures, and for inheritors of those expectations it can be hard to find a suitably serious tone in which to write about it. But as During’s ancient and pre-Reformation examples show, chastity has also been associated with agency and even authority.
Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, whose lifetime dedication to the sovereignty of her own body proved to be a masterly way of stabilizing the English crown, managed what few women, most notably the Virgin Mary, had done before her, which was to associate virginal integrity with power. (Or the cult of the Virgin Mary did so, rather than Mary herself. And as many historians have argued, Elizabeth’s cult borrowed freely from Marian iconography.) But for the rank and file of history’s women, female honor has involved submission or resistance to masculine control, rather than power. The word “chastened” is useful here. This is largely true too for sisterhoods of nuns, whose vows of chastity might give them a hotline to the divine but have not, historically, helped much with busybodying bishops and priests who oversee their jurisdiction on earth.
Some sisterhoods have fought back. In her entertaining if somewhat deranged 1987 book Intercourse, the feminist activist Andrea Dworkin (not, sadly, a source for During) argues, in relation to Joan of Arc in particular, that
virginity was an active element of a self-determined integrity, an existential independence, affirmed in choice and faith from minute to minute; not a retreat from life but an active engagement with it; dangerous and confrontational because it repudiated rather than endorsed male power over women.
This is radical feminist chastity, and Dworkin recommended it as the only way to loosen the masculine stranglehold on sex. She was coming at the problem from the conviction that all sex under patriarchy is rape. But there is a kernel of sanity in this argument and it has to do with the emphasis on choice. At the heart of chastity lies the principle of election. That’s why it is associated with integrity. Chastity has to be chosen, like a vocation; otherwise it’s something else—asexuality, indifference, impotence.
It is the element of choice that enables the “plot” part of the chastity plot. Lovelace understands that he hasn’t possessed Clarissa by raping her while she was drugged, because the drug took from her the ability to choose (either to consent to sex or to resist him). Or in a less tragic key, Lydia Bennet is simply too silly to understand that she has lost her honor, and so she doesn’t really lose it. She can be rehabilitated, because as Austen presents her she doesn’t choose between virtue and pleasure—she doesn’t have the wit to realize it’s a choice.
If this is the case we shouldn’t look to sex as the enemy or conqueror of chastity. Where sex is, so chastity may be. Sex is chastity’s enabler. The opposite of chastity is not sex (or, as the maiden plot implies, marriage) but necessity or compulsion. The violent misogynists associated with the “incel” (or “involuntary celibate”) movement are the enemies of chastity today, because they insist on their right to sex. They are contemporary culture’s answer to Richardson’s Lovelace, though with the capacity to prove a good deal more deadly. Elliot Rodger, the self-proclaimed incel who carried out the Isla Vista killings in 2014, was not content with the death of one woman for refusing him, but chose mass murder instead.
During is interested in male chastity as well as female, particularly the struggles of the early saints against their desire for women. This was often represented by the saints themselves—Paul, for example—as women’s lascivious intent to undermine men’s religious resolve. He enjoined them to silence, modesty, and covering up instead. How different the history of the church might have been if love had won out against self-control as an organizing principle. The problem for women was that they were responsible for men’s self-control, as well as their own, and their own had (has—we are not yet in a brave new world) to be measured out rather precisely. When does self-control tip over into coldheartedness, according to the chastity plot? When does sexual integrity morph into solipsism?
The character of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story offers one example of the problem. Tracy (played by Katharine Hepburn), still spiritually chaste though once married to Dexter (Cary Grant), needs to lose her pride in her personal sovereignty (aka her frigidity) before she can be truly part of a couple, but there is no doubt that in “falling” she loses some of her power. The remarriage plot (During is careful to acknowledge Stanley Cavell’s coinage of this term) requires that the audience be on the side of romance, not chastity. It would be a highly unsatisfactory ending were Tracy to decide that, after all, she would be happier on her own, still sovereign. But I find myself much more interested in what I want to call the revirginity plot. I do not mean the commerce of resewing hymens or even, god forbid, the post-episiotomy “husband stitch,” but rather stories that allow women to combine integrity with desire.
During investigates the history of chastity for what it may be able to tell us about shifting moral codes and principles of integrity. Her book offers ample evidence that ordinary women’s attempts to deploy chastity and sexual resistance in the service of their own integrity and power were mostly doomed to failure or compromised by eventual marriage. With the odd exception (Hippolytus being one) male virgins have fared better, and we could call this chastity’s double standard. The emphasis throughout is on chastity as a means of maintaining sovereignty over the self through refusal. But I kept wondering what sexual integrity tells us about desire.
I’m thinking of a strange, posthumously published story called “Transfiguration” by the modernist writer Mina Loy. The narrator is on a train, traveling through Mexico, as Loy did in 1917 to meet her lover, the poet and boxer (and nephew of Oscar Wilde) Arthur Cravan. The atmosphere is threatening. There are soldiers with guns on board, and a “palpable blackness” outside, all described in highly wrought prose, with, incidentally, astonishing descriptions of landscape seen through the train window. A middle-aged Mexican woman, a seamstress, sits next to the narrator in the carriage; she befriends her over a basket of boiled eggs and spins her a tale:
Where woman meets woman in out of the way places her first concern is to tender a conversational passport of her chastity, so does the thin-lipped spectre of dishonour drive her buffoons before her even to the end of the earth.
My companion…told me how she had had to leave her native town, owing to the misadventurous liaison of her son with a light woman. She was seeking to renew her impeccable occupation as a seamstress elsewhere. I could understand could I not? Her shame and her humiliation before the neighbours who had watched her flower and wither, a virginal tiger lily, before and after her espousals and widowing.
What is the currency of chastity between women? There’s a wonderful moment in Edna O’Brien’s early-1960s trilogy The Country Girls when the narrator, Cait, loses her virginity to a married man (who will turn out to be a bounder), and she immediately considers her loss of innocence as a measure of her relationship to other women:
“Ruined!” I said, re-echoing his words with a queer thrill.
I felt different from Baba now and from every other girl I knew. I wondered if Baba had experienced this, and if she had been afraid, or if she had liked it. I thought of Mama and of how she used to blow on hot soup before she gave it to me, and of the rubber bands she put inside the turndown of my ankle socks, to keep them from falling.
In Mina Loy’s story, chastity is offered as a guarantee of honor from one woman to another, and it’s a kind of honor that doesn’t depend on age or marital status. Chastity is not innocence (ankle socks with rubber bands) but reputation and trustworthiness. The seamstress establishes her credentials and the two women travel on in partnership, spending the night in a shared room in a village boardinghouse along the route. The next night, however, the narrator’s companion is “caught red-handed” with a traveling salesman, and her professions of purity are proven to be false. It turns out that the “truth”—that she is technically far from chaste—doesn’t matter much. The following day the narrator watches as the seamstress, sitting across from her once more on the train, blossoms and glows “regally as a Madonna” with the “essential virginity of the spirit”:
By what glaring ethical impropriety had a fly-by-night amour with a stranger in a draughty railway inn invested this woman with such chastened and spiritual a dignity?
I was fired with the preposterous fantasy that if woman has been the pack mule for the transgressions of man it is because by some alchemy of her actions, she is within herself incapable of sin.
In Loy’s plot, chastity is impossible to lose. It is the property of the old and the used—something innate and incorruptible. It animates women and protects them from pollution by the sins of men, and it does not need to be proved. It blossoms anyway. The afterglow of sexual intimacy and desire reinforces the seamstress’s dignity and underwrites her chastity. This consenting chastity is a far more radical vision than that offered by Dworkin in her paean to Joan of Arc. Even though she has been found out in a lie, the seamstress doesn’t lose her integrity—instead she seems to gain more of it. A woman’s integrity and honor are her own—her sex is her own, even when she gives it away to an indifferent traveling salesman on a train.