Yesterday I read a twitter discussion about the current lack of bad girls in YA fiction. It got me thinking about my early love of eighteenth century British novels, in which bad boys, or rakes, as they were called, abound.
To me, the ultimate bad boy is Lovelace of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Smooth-talking to outright lying, Lovelace maneuvers his way into the heart of the sweet, innocent Clarissa and then betrays her. Poor Clarissa. For one thousand pages she is almost forced to marry a repulsive older man and kidnapped by Lovelace. In the second one thousand pages of the novel, after Lovelace (shockingly!) rapes her, she slowly and agonizingly dies. Lovelace’s remorse and his offers to marry her fail to change her mind. Life without her virtue is unthinkable. We the readers know the underlying tragic truth: Clarissa loves Lovelace despite his unworthiness, and he, dishonorable though he proves himself to be, loves her back.
Another Richardson novel, Pamela, features an immorality and innocence clash, but the end is happier. Pamela, a servant in a young man’s house, succeeds in overcoming her rakish master’s advances, and he finally marries her.
Clarissa and Pamela are moralistic tales meant to teach girls the danger of giving up their virtue through the use of characteristic bad boy good girl stereotypes. But not all eighteenth century characters were written under these premises. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defore (the author of Robinson Crusoe) centers around a bad girl. The title of the novel gives an idea of how bad Moll is: “Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once was to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon….” Moll’s exciting (yet by eighteenth century standards quite depraved) free-spirit adventures sadly end by the novel’s finale. She marries her last husband and is reunited with her brother and their son.
John Cleland’s eighteenth century novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is another example of a bad girl novel whose main character, Fanny Hill, is a happy and successful prostitute. While this novel does end on a redeeming note (Fanny marries her first love and settles down), it is filled to the brim with modern and sexually explicit descriptions which Fanny gives in a straight-forward, clear and unembarrassed voice.
It is possible that readers find bad boys more attractive than bad girls. I am not qualified to judge. But I admit I did always like Lovelace better than Moll. Then again, it might just be because Moll deserts all eight of her children in the novel. Lovelace, though, always struck me as a tragic character. He does not realize till it is too late that what he really wanted was Clarissa’s love, and desperate and inconsolably remorseful, he allows himself to be killed in a duel with Clarissa’s cousin. How sad is that?