“I know he is a devil, but he has something of the angel yet undefiled in him, which makes him so charming and agreeable that I must love him be he never so wicked.” Loveit, Etherege’sMan of Mode (1676).
I first thought of Oscar Wilding as a syndrome after a packed matinee performance of a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the late 1970’s. The undisputed heroine of this version was Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, intent on marrying all her daughters off well. If there was not a standing ovation for the wealthiest property exchange secured in the closing scenes, there was escalating rowdy applause, and one other striking feature – the glorious Fitzwilliam Darcy and his noble friend, Bingley reduced to walk-on parts, a couple of limp-wristed dandies insufficiently grateful for their narrow deliverance from the decadent world of aristo privilege.
This intrigued me, since I was studying the villain-hero from Milton to Byron, with particular reference to Samuel Richardson’s immortal character, Lovelace. For me, the proud aristocrat, Darcy, was far closer to the two rich tributaries Richardson had combined in his villain’s portrait, the ‘archangel ruin’d, and the excess/Of glory obscured’ of Milton’s seducer Satan, and that Anglican Don Juan, the restoration rake, wit and poet at the court of Charles II, the Earl of Rochester. What millions of women have admired in such figures for hundreds of years is their capacity to love women for themselves, either disreputably in the plural, or singly as precursors of the great Romantic lovers – in both cases with an excess going far beyond the calculations and constraints of bourgeois property exchange, or patriarchal law and order.
So here was a fall indeed! Previously I had been amused by the lengths to which male literary critics seemed willing to go to diminish the Rochesters, Lovelaces and Byrons in their readers’ eyes. But now I began to notice the considerable impact on the whole tradition of what I can only call a bourgeois revenge.
It was there from the outset, of course, the Spanish hellfire reserved for Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan, and immortalised in the title of Mozart’s opera, Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, though the effect is somewhat undermined after so much glorious music by the vindictive little closing fugue that restores order though not much else to nearly everyone who survives; there too, in Rochester’s deathbed renunciation of libertinism and conversion to Anglican Christianity turned into a hugely popular pamphlet of the time by his mother and her chaplain, Gilbert Burnet. Nor does it end there. Fast forward to the ruin that Charlotte Bronte was willing to inflict on her Rochester, Emily on her Heathcliff, or the thrashing to within an inch of his life that Eugene Wrayburn undergoes for Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, the terrible remorse of a stricken Eugene Onegin, or de Winter of the soul endured by the aristocratic hero (and adoring heroine) of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.