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Manasi Subramaniam

Manasi Subramaniam is Commissioning Editor at HarperCollins India. These views are her own. She blogs at

The Empty Vessel: On female desire in Victorian literature

s products of a largely phallo-centric society, our sexual discourse has had to limit itself to male desire and its immediate outcomes. Our literature, art and cinema have embraced the idea of "forced seduction" or the idea that rape can somehow turn into love. This literary theme has been described by a well-known Dutch newspaper as: "Once upon a time there was a very pretty girl. She was raped. The boy begged for forgiveness and they lived happily ever after."

But where's female desire in all this? Even the old questions of rape versus seduction do not take into account any sort of independence or initiative from the female participant. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the eponymous protagonist experiences a sexual encounter with Alec D'Urbervilles that is regularly described as either a seduction or a rape. Hardy at some point describes the relationship between Tess and Alec: "She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile, had suddenly despised and disliked him, and had run away. That was all." Hardy himself is ambiguous — is Alec a womaniser and a cad, a flirt who seduced Tess, or is he a rapist who forced himself upon her, who tricked her into being a sexual conquest?

But neither of these questions are about what Tess wants. Had Tess wished for a sexual liaison with Alec, but had been unable to voice that desire due to convention, this encounter — this bizarre, macabre, necrophiliac, sleeping-beauty-esque encounter — might have been her only way of active participation or expression of desire. Modern sexual intercourse depends heavily on consent and agency — or it should — but the Victorian equivalent was bound by an onus on the female to be a passive receptacle, a recipient of sexual intercourse, regardless of desire. This adds a third layer to the scene: Did Tess give into temptation or was this what she had wanted all along?

n Les liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos — best known for its film adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich — the difference between the victim of rape, also known as "seduction" if it turns to love, and the female libertine is brilliantly explored. The Marquise de Merteuil is a woman with agency, desire and experience, unashamedly so, while the young Cecile de Volanges and Madame de Tourvel, who are corrupted and destroyed by the machinations of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise herself, are real victims. All the while, it celebrates the fleeting joys of intimacy, wrought through some human connection or the other, without ever reducing its participants to the obligations of their gender.

On the other hand, the most horrifying scene in Ben Jonson's Volpone, for example, is the "seduction" scene, where an ageing Volpone forces himself on the young and innocent Celia. When Volpone experiences an erection, he immediately connects his arousal in this situation with a remembered theatrical triumph: "I am, now, as fresh, / As hot, as high, and in as joviall plight, / As when (in that so celebrated scene, / At recitation of our comedie, / For entertainement of the great Valoys) / O acted yong Antinous; and attracted / The eyes, and eares of all the ladies, present." Celia is entirely an empty vessel here, to be filled with Volpone's desire and to be emptied when his desire shrinks: physically, emotionally and metaphysically, this is all she is.

Modern sexual intercourse depends heavily on consent and agency — or it should — but the Victorian equivalent was bound by an onus on the female to be a passive receptacle, a recipient of sexual intercourse, regardless of desire.

Volpone goes on to suggest, after the rape, that the union could be more than physical, that their souls are now united: "Where we may, so, transfuse our wandring soules, / Out at our lippes, and score up sums of pleasures." This suggestion is vile. Jonson's lack of subtlety in the scene is maddening. He trivialises the rape, as he and his contemporaries were wont to do, and simply refuses to address its atrocity. It is from this scene that the audience embarks on a love-hate relationship with Volpone. They despise the violator, but why do they adore the trickster? It is frustrating to watch, but it demonstrates that most important aspect of the crime: that it can be committed even by the people one adores.

The stillness of the empty vessel reinforces the passive receptacle theory; perhaps they must learn that old trope and make the most noise.

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