This rollicking account of a chaotic, cruel and dispiriting history opens with a 19th-century seduction case in which an older, apparently respectable man exploited and impregnated a fifteen-year-old girl in his care (the girl’s reputation, as in so many similar instances, was trashed). This is seduction as crime rather than desirous play, a public concern touching on questions of morality, philosophy, politics, class, race, gender and economics. It’s more than disheartening to realise how little has changed.
Clement Knox argues for an idea of seduction that emerged in the 18th century with the rise of ‘modernity’. Ovid, Christine de Pizan, Chaucer, Shakespeare et al are considered intellectually apart, distanced from us by post-Enlightenment ideas of liberalism, materialism and feminism. The seduction narrative fundamentally changed as passion and logic collided, creating two modern, intertwined forms: the ‘Villainous’, based on the exploitation of vulnerability, and the ‘Heroic’, relying on the power of reason and sensuality. The tension between these two forms is presented in a series of biographies that explore the difficult ‘grey zone of agency’.
By exposing such notorious rakes as Francis Charteris and his associates, Knox argues, William Hogarth in A Harlot’s Progress and Samuel Richardson in Pamela and Clarissa codified and popularised the modern concern with seduction, sparking a revolution in socio-sexual behaviours and attitudes. Charteris, whose ‘capacity for roguery’ was legendary, legged