Is female passion dangerous, or is it a form of empowerment?
Historians and critics often look upon the 18th Century as “The Age of Reason”. However, it may be more accurate to say that the century was marked by two main impulses- reason and passion. This notion is explored most explicitly in Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” . However, it is interesting to consider the issue of female passion in texts that do not so overtly deal with the topic and are more ambiguous in nature. Defoe’s “Roxana” provides a tale of a woman who has sold her virtue, at first unwillingly for her survival and later for her status and wealth. This is difficult to deal with in light of the copious amounts of didactic conduct literature of the period. As the text suggests “A woman ought rather to die, than to prostitute her Virtue and Honour, let the Temptation be what it will” . The “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”, or “Fanny Hill” as it is often known, is superficially very similar- a naïve young prostitute that rises to respectability. Conversely their characters could not be more different, and the distinctions between them raise important questions of female passion and its consequences.
It is probably necessary in order to consider female passion to ascertain what is meant by the term. Vivien Jones suggests that for passions we should “see sexuality” . This is interesting in terms of Roxana, as the perhaps modern day expectation of passion in its sexual sense is absent, juxtaposed with her curious lack of maternal instinct for her eleven children. Hunter refers to Roxana’s curiosity as intellectual, social and physical . Despite this, her inherent coldness seems to ultimately make her incapable of passion, yet she employs the products of such to her advantage. Fanny fits more easily into this idea of female passion, with her swooning and violent fits of passion.
“ ‘My life!- my soul!- my Charles!’- and without further power of speech swoon’d away, under the oppressing agitations of joy and surprise.”
A medical dictionary, some five years prior to the publication of “Fanny Hill” refers to “hysterica”- hysteric passion which “Reason, Experience, and the Authorities of the greatest Physicians, concur in pronouncing Matrimony highly beneficial in removing hysteric Disorders”. Female passion is therefore seen as dangerous and it is necessary to constrain and repress it.
However, although Fanny Hill is an openly sexual, passionate character I would argue in some ways it is a conservative text. Despite its obvious scandalous, sensational content, Fanny still manages to abide by traditional roles assigned to women in the 18th Century, upheld and encouraged by the conduct literature. The scene that describes Fanny and the other girls of Mrs. Cole’s performing provides parallels to a polite dance at a ball.
“As soon as he had disengag’d, the charming Emily got up, and we crouded round her with congratulations, and other officious little...