Divorcing the Rake: Male Chastity and the Rise of the Novel, 1753-1857

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2020

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Loose understandings of naturalized sexual difference have worked for hundreds of years to bolster both the legal and social oppression of women. This dissertation, Divorcing the Rake: Male Chastity and the Rise of the Novel, 1753-1857, examines how novelistic rhetoric around sexual misconduct reinforced notions of sexual difference by naturalizing male hypersexuality while implicitly suppressing possibilities for female sexual desire. By looking at the sexual ethics forwarded by stories of adultery, bigamy, and divorce in the century between Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753) and the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857), my research shows that the emerging genre of the novel refigured sexually profligate male characters, rendering them not only palatable but desirable to readers. Departing from eighteenth-century drama where the hypersexualized rake took center-stage, the novel purported to critique male sexual misconduct by juxtaposing minor rakish figures—such as Austen’s Henry Crawford or Burney’s Sir Clement Willoughby—against chaste male heroes in the mold of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison. Representations of male sexual conduct during this period, therefore, idealized male sexual discipline by upholding male protagonists who willingly rejected sexual promiscuity. My work explores two seemingly counterintuitive effects produced by this idealization of sexual restraint. First, the alignment of male chastity with moral worthiness restricted women to monogamous marital desire by creating worlds in which “good” men opted for the same conservative sexual restrictions that were expected of women. Secondly, a good man’s self-discipline was also paradoxically evidence of his natural virility: a learned practice of sexual restraint implied a biological proclivity towards a transgressive level of sexual conduct. By idealizing male chastity, I argue, the novel not only worked to undermine the possibility of autonomous female sexual desire but also naturalized male hypersexuality, promoting compassionate reactions to male misconduct that were not afforded to women.

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Gevlin, Rachel (2020). Divorcing the Rake: Male Chastity and the Rise of the Novel, 1753-1857. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21511.

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