Sex in the Eighteenth-Century Perspective
Samuel Richardson’s novels are taken up wholly with the interests of sex; furthermore, those interests are represented in a markedly different light from that of novels in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is a commonplace that the essential stuff of the novel, whether romantic or realistic, has been the relations of men to women and women to men, and more particularly, the specific concerns of sex. Women of fashion and consequence naturally enjoyed immunities from both the physical and the social effects of their freedom. In Elizabethan times the citizen’s wife was commonly pictured as “easy.” In the eighteenth century the presumption had turned in her favor. Love in the modern sense; that is, sexual interest associated more or less closely with other spiritual and intellectual relations, is, to be sure, the romantic theme of most eighteenth-century fictions, but sinister sexual complication is a characteristic adjunct of the standard theme.