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Eighteenth Century Female Chastity, As Seen Through Antonia and Pamela Andrews

Updated on May 14, 2013

Female Chastity in The Monk and Pamela Andrews

Antonia’s initial appearance in Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk and her description personifies her as female chastity, whereas Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is the embodiment of the same virtue without being described physically. In order to preserve their chastity, both women must protect their bodies.

Hidden behind a veil and covered from head to foot, Antonia is described as “light and airy as that of an Hamadryad. Her bosom was carefully veiled. Her dress was white […] and just permitted to peep out from under it a little foot of the most delicate proportions.” Although almost completely covered, her body is still admired even though observers are only provided with glimpses of parts. In being the representation of female chastity, Antonia is angelic and ethereal. Concealing herself not only reflects her isolation from the world but also her efforts at keeping herself protected from unwanted eyes.

Pamela also embodies chastity in Richardson’s novel. Her parents command her not to let people tell her she is pretty “for you did not make yourself, and so can have no praise due to you for it” and that “it is virtue and goodness only, that make true beauty.” This is why her physical description is not given and why Antonia is covered. Their chastity alone is supposed to be the beauty that attracts men to them. In embodying chastity, both Antonia and Pamela do not bring attention to their physical appearance.

Lewis agrees with Richardson’s ideals of female chastity, then, in making his chaste heroine protect her body in order to protect her chastity.

Female Chastity in Eighteenth Century Literature

Female chastity in eighteenth-century England depended a lot on appearances and how a woman behaved, which is reflected in Antonia and Pamela Andrews. All of these actions were dependent on a good education.

Leslie Reinhart discusses female chastity in her essay in which she claims that paintings from this era reflect how dolls, dress, and books helped guide little girls into womanhood. She describes how “a typical book prescribing proper conduct said the ideal woman is ‘humble and modest from reason and conviction, submissive from choice, and obedient from inclination.’”

Although they receive their education from their parents and not from any book the reader is made aware of, Antonia and Pamela are everything that makes up the ideal chaste woman in both appearance and action. Antonia keeps herself veiled out of modesty and for protection and is obedient to Ambrosio, an important religious official, despite warnings from her mother to be wary. Pamela is modest and humble does all she can to fight off attacks on her chastity but still obeys Mr. B as her master and is obedient because she knows her place.

In summary, female chastity in eighteenth-century England was as wholly dependent on appearance as in action. Both female characters in Richardson’s and Lewis’s novels reflect this by living up to their exterior qualities and doing all they can to maintain their chastity while being obedient. Therefore, both the formal realism genre and the Gothic agree on the same ideals of female chastity centered around appearance.

Once Antonia’s body is completely revealed, her chastity is amplified while the likelihood of its preservation wavers. The first reveal of her body occurs when Matilda provides Ambrosio with an enchanted mirror that allows him to see whatever he wishes. He looks into the glass and sees Antonia bathing herself, recognizing how “though unconscious of being observed, an in-bred sense of modesty induced her to veil her charms.” Even without clothing, Antonia veils herself. This reflects how concerned she is for her chastity so that even when alone she protects her body out of habit.

The second time she is exposed to Ambrosio is when she is asleep and he uses myrtle the Devil gave him to keep her sedated so that she is under the monk’s control. Ambrosio observes how “an air of enchanting innocence and candour pervaded her whole form; and there was a sort of modesty in her very nakedness.” Both of these scenes show how Antonia is naturally pure and that the more she is physically revealed, the more desirable she becomes.

She is exposed when she is unable to protect her body from Ambrosio’s lusting eyes. After the first time, the monk agrees to a deal with the Devil for the myrtle which leads him into the second reveal. Here, he would have satisfied his desires but Antonia’s mother steps in to save her.

Lewis suggests that female chastity is all about the female body. It can only be preserved as long as the body is protected. Once this protection is lost, it is only a matter of time before the one who has seen it exposed takes away the woman’s chastity.

Lewis focuses on Antonia’s body in terms of her chastity because the body is essential in preserving it and losing her virginity from failure to protect the body is blamed on the woman more than the man. In the final moments of her purity, Antonia awakes to find herself locked in an underground cemetery with Ambrosio. Immediately, she “was sensible of her danger, forced herself from his arms, and her shroud being her only garment, She wrapped it closely round her.” Unable to fight him physically, Antonia attempts to hide her body and beg the monk for mercy. She loses the battle once her body is too weak from the struggle and she realizes her supplications are in vain.

After she is raped, she realizes that “she could never hope to be creditably established; She would be marked with infamy, and condemned to sorrow and solitude for the remainder of her existence.” She was raped, forced from her chastity, and yet she is punished for it. Since women are not prone to uncontrollable sexual urges like men and cannot physically defend themselves against men, it is important for them to keep concealed. Antonia fails in this. In her failure to preserve her chastity, she knows she will be cast out of society.

Lewis shows here how even the most virtuous heroine has their weakness when it comes to their body, even if their resolve is strong, and that in losing the battle for their chastity they lose their social lives as well.

At the time this novel was written, prostitution was a major problem, which coincided with eighteenth century England’s issue with the Gothic genre. Many believed that this genre endangered the likelihood of the maintenance of chastity for its women readers. This societal concern, according to Bradford K. Mudge, is substantial reason why Gothic novels such as The Monk fell under such harsh criticism.

Mudge claims it was essential that novels normalize female sexuality in order to diminish the problematic prostitution situation. He says that male reviewers were concerned about the growing number of women readers and writers. He claims that “on a theoretical level, the reviewers insisted that the debate about good and bad novels remain inextricable from the definitions of good and bad women.” Free from societal standards, the authors of gothic novels could do whatever they wanted in their works, even breaking societal codes by having a monk become a sex addict. If novels were meant to be exemplary, what would stop a female reader from deciding to break societal codes of sexual behavior?

Mudge says “like the Gothic novel, like prostitution, the pleasures of literature threatened chastity.” I disagree. By providing readers with a female heroine destroyed by the loss of her chastity, The Monk gives its readers more reason to protect their chastity, for fear of social ruin and isolation, regardless of whether that outcome would be likely to occur or not. No woman would want to suffer the same fate. Antonia’s story is a warning to protect and shield the body in order to protect a woman’s chastity.

After the fatal act is done, Ambrosio blames Antonia for his raping her. In his eyes, it is her fault because she did not remove the temptation, her self, before it was too late. He declares that “when I stand before his judgment-throne, that look will suffice to damn me! You will tell my Judge, that you were happy, till I saw you; that you were innocent, till I polluted you!” His emphasis on the “I” in his pronouncement mocks her as she lies there defiled.

He seems to suggest that Antonia is more manipulative than she seems. He knows that she will blame him but, in his eyes,she is the only culprit. Naturally beautiful, pure, and chaste, it is her fault that she let him see her. She came to him for help and introduced herself when she was concerned over the survival of her sick mother. He did not seek her out. Her beauty and modesty enslaved him as much as Matilda’s exposed breast at the beginning of the novel.

Although it was accidental, both women were still exposed and maintained their status as an object of temptation by remaining within sight. Neither of the females listened to warnings when asked to leave Ambrosio and remove the allurement. Consequently, Antonia loses her precious chastity and her life because of her choice not to heed the advice of her mother and ban Ambrosio from her company. This is why she is blamed for her loss and feels destroyed once her chastity is stolen from her.

© 2012 Lisa


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    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 5 years ago from WA

      Thank you for reading. I don't think these novels are too well known but they're worth a read, especially The Monk which is one of my favorites.

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 5 years ago from Chennai, India

      Very Interesting! I would like to know more about Pamela. Nevertheless this is a well written hub. I have not heard about the book-The Monk till now through you. Thank u for sharing this with us. Vote up.