‘Marriage is the only available—and acceptable—option for the eighteenth century heroine’. Is this true?
Class and gender chiefly governed British society in the eighteenth century and the opportunities for a woman to achieve social and financial security were scarce. In this society men of the upper class governed the female identity. This patriarchal climate stipulated that, “a respectable woman was nothing but the potential mother of children” (Blease 7). In the context of eighteenth century British society, this prescribed duty implied marriage first and was shortly followed by procreation and duties relating to family life. Although marriage and maternity provided the only socially acceptable path for women during this time, some women turned to prostitution as an alternate means of subsistence. However, in eighteenth century society, where sexuality, especially female sexuality, was repressed, prostitution as a line of work was largely tabooed. Thus, marriage during this time provided the only respectable means for a woman to achieve a comfortable and virtuous life. In addition, amidst a socially stratified society, marriage also served an alternate purpose as a potential means by which a woman could elevate her social situation. These social politics, combined with the sexual inequality that characterised eighteenth century British society, are manifested throughout the literature of the time. Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded, embraces the notion that marriage is the only acceptable path for his heroine. However in Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, John Cleland provides the antithesis of Richardson’s novel by depicting pleasure as his heroine’s ultimate source of freedom throughout the account of her life as a prostitute. Both Richardson and Cleland approach marriage within their respective works in radically different ways as each text provides its author with a vehicle to comment on the function of marriage amidst eighteenth century British society. Pamela and Fanny Hill reconcile the differences in their fundamental structure through their portrayal of marriage not as the only available option, but the only acceptable option for their heroine. The disparate depictions between the lives of Cleland and Richardson’s heroines throughout their respective texts serve to assert that marriage is not the only available option for their heroines. Throughout the first volume of Pamela, Richardson’s heroine continually deflects the sexual advances of her master claiming that she “would rather lose [her] life than [her] honesty” (Richardson). Conversely, Cleland’s heroine, Fanny Hill, devotes the bulk of her memoir to the graphic recollection of her sexual encounters as a prostitute. Although inherently different in plot, the heroines of these two texts share a common origin as poor, lower class country girls. The similar and somewhat ambiguous upbringings of Pamela and Fanny create an innate comparison between the two characters and their lifestyles. Cleland manipulates this parallel and portrays Fanny as the antithesis to Richardson’s heroine. Throughout both texts, the authors interrogate the institution of marriage as a complex issue intricately connected with social class and sexual inequality. Many critics have labelled Samuel Richardson as “puritanical, meaning little more than that he had a rigid moral code” (Morton 242). Richardson’s Puritan principles manifest themselves throughout the novel through Pamela’s repeated denial of Mr B’s designs on her. Pamela abides by a strict moral code throughout the text claiming “how easy a choice poverty and honesty is, rather than plenty and wickedness” (Richardson). This resolve to cling to her virtue is not only for her own spiritual protection, but also for the safeguarding of her person. Her refusal to become “mistress of [Mr B’s] person and fortune, as much as if the foolish ceremony had passed” is governed as much by her moral...
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