Clair Wills on Virtue

Clair Wills reviews Lisabeth During's, The Chastity Plot, in the New York Review of Books.

“A woman’s honor—most clearly signaled by her virginity—was not her own. It was crucial to middle-class marriageability, and the taint of “family weakness” was enough to wipe out all chance of matrimony for Lydia’s sisters. (For the same reason—to protect the family from shame—Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park banishes his married daughter Maria from the family estate to a “remote and private” part of England after she runs off with Henry Crawford.) As it turns out, however, Lydia’s indiscretion can be hushed up. Darcy has the resources to compensate for her loss of character. He pays off Wickham’s debts in exchange for his marriage to Lydia, and so clears the way for himself to marry Lizzie. In effect he buys two women, or a whole family of sisters, by paying for their reputation.

Austen’s novel is a brilliantly ironic take on what Lisabeth During calls “the chastity plot.” The course of true love never does run smooth, at any rate not in the English social novel of the nineteenth century, in which misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and plain missteps ensure that it doesn’t all end too soon—that there is, in fact, a plot. For your longed-for love match to get fouled up by someone else’s indiscretion (with a third party) seems particularly harsh. It is, however, the inevitable consequence of a system in which women’s sexual virtue acts as a guarantee of the legitimacy of social reproduction.”

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