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Jean H. Hagstrum. Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982. 368 pp., illustrated. Cloth, $30.00; paper, $9.95.
That man must have a heart of stone, says Oscar Wilde, who can read through the death of Little Nell without laughing. This has always been my sentiment about the death of Richardson’s Clarissa; Clarissa as a whole has always struck me as the greatest, most sustained piece of soft-core pornographic soap opera in English. That such a fuss should be made over the deflowering of a not otherwise interesting bourgeois young lady; that Clarissa herself, her abductor, everyone else in the novel, and apparently begin page 53 | all of Europe from Dr. Johnson to Diderot and de Sade, should agree to apprehend the young woman’s steady and humorless concentration on her own purity as the symbol not only of virtue but of Virtue, sensibility, nobility, sublimity, greatness of soul, angelic exaltedness and even sainthood, to me seems marvelous. I can imagine that the novel, and the feminization of culture it represents, would have deeply offended and irritated Blake; cf. the “subtle modesty” passage in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, “My Spectre Around Me,” and much else.
Far otherwise is it in Sex and Sensibility, Jean Hagstrum’s monumental survey of love in the Restoration and the eighteenth century. Hagstrum’s admiration for Richardson’s “amazingly perspicuous and intense portrayal of love” extends to exclamations of his own about Richardson’s heroine (“How profoundly inner and intuitive the Protestant Clarissa is!”) and to the urgent insistence that she is no prude but “deeply a woman” who would have loved Lovelace had he been worthy of her. Clarissa “dreamed of a man who would combine virtue with physical charm. . . . One of the most poignant of the letter fragments that survive the rape shows that Clarissa really wanted marriage.” Lovelace “is made to run the gamut of human evil” when he dreams of siring, by Clarissa and Anna, children who will intermarry. Yet he is an “appealing” being of “heterosexual exuberance” (Hagstrum defends his potency and masculinity against doubters), possessed of considerable though amoral “sensitiveness,” a potential Man of Feeling capable of rising finally to a full appreciation of Clarissa’s greatness; which, however, “cannot of course avail to salvation.” Clarissa’s death is “this great apotheosis.”
That Hagstrum is not so much a theoretical analyst of the cult of sensibility as a member of it in good standing, is the chief defect and the chief strength of Sex and Sensibility. Literary issues of language, style, structure and genre scarcely concern him. Neither Freud nor De Rougemont, much less Foucault or Bataille, impinge, although the connection between[e] love and death is one of his major topics. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century development of the “closed domesticated nuclear” family ideally based on personal choice and affection, documented by Lawrence Stone, is cited by Hagstrum as the social basis behind the cultural phenomena he investigates, but the relation between art and literature and social change is not his subject: the interpretation of characters and their feelings is.
To the post-Romantic reader, Hagstrum’s inclination to moralize his song may seem excessive. Milton’s ideal of wedded love and uxorial joy, love as an elevating and civilizing influence, the domestication of heroism, tender feeling in particular and heterosexuality in general, are approved of. Thus Dryden’s works “often throb with a bold and hearty physicality.” When the good Maria confesses her love for the criminal George Barnwell on the eve of his execution in Lillo’s The London Merchant, “seldom has the theme [of love and death] been more movingly exploited.” The love of Pamela and Mr. B. “elevates a spirited and determined girl to high station and gives to the noble husband . . . a marriage of true minds, hearts and bodies.” Hagstrum is unmoved by the ideal of “angélism,” the female too pure for physical passion, or by any sort of platonism. He admires passionate heroines, and feels that Dryden’s portrayal of Dido as weak and licentious is “perhaps unforgivable.” In his chapter on “The Abandoned and Passionate Mistress,” he asserts that the period took to exotic deserted heroines like Dido, the Portugese Nun, and Eloise, “not because it wanted to escape reality” but because it needed “to fuel the domestic enterprise” by depictions of women who feel “intense devotion to a single man that is lifelong and irreversible and that lasts to the very edge of doom.”
Antithetic to normative heterosexuality is what Hagstrum calls “morbid” or “narcissistic” love, the locus classicus of which he finds again in Milton, both in the Satan-Sin relation and in Adam’s antihierarchial attachment to Eve as “flesh of my flesh,” i.e. his similitude. Incest, threatened and actual, is a huge and fascinating motif in this period; both incest and love for one’s likeness or mirror-self belong in the category of “the narcissistic sins.” Thus Southerne’s stage version of Behn’s Oroonoko,[e] which displaces the themes of “love of woman for disguised woman, love of woman for effeminate male” into a farcial subplot, may be a “healthy attempt to expunge a potential stain on the psyche and on society.” Interestingly, Hagstrum does not disapprove the intense erotic friendships of Clarissa-Anna and of Julie-Claire in La Nouvelle Eloise, perhaps because they do not successfully challenge the primacy of heterosexual passion.
The primary advantage of Hagstrum’s approach is that it enables him enthusiastically to consider an immense range of works, among byways as well as highways, more or less on their own terms. His investigations of Pope’s, Swift’s, and Sterne’s quirky and poignant variations on the theme of sensibility are tolerant and tender. The subject of ungratified infantilized eroticism—the lover as son—in Goethe and Rousseau is finely handled. The sorts of questions he tends to ask—has the Portugese Nun really stopped loving her ravisher? Should Clarissa have married Lovelace? Why does Uncle Toby retreat from the Widow Wadman?—capture, one feels, the actual preoccupations of the authors and their original readers, far better than a cooler, theoretically-oriented reading could have done. So too, Hagstrum’s inclination to moralize emotion places us squarely within the ethos he describes. A bonus, throughout Sex and Sensibility, is Hagstrum’s discussion of sex and love in the parallel traditions of painting and music. The array of plates, reproducing a set of highly-charged erotic paintings from Barry and Correggio to Greuze, should convince anyone that the Age of Reason enjoyed its steamy side.