A rake’s progress
Historical popular romance has long been fascinated with the character of the Rake (or “Rakehell”). But what is a Rake?
Originating in 17th-century drama and poetry, the Rake is an amoral, upper-class gentleman. The ultimate seducer, he drinks, gambles, debauches innocents, and usually gets his comeuppance by the end of the play, reforming either at death’s door through confession or earlier, through the love of a good woman. More than eroticism, however, is at stake in the Rake’s progress. Emerging in English literature during a period of religious and political strife, this figure also embodies the transition of power from hierarchy to democracy.
Seventeenth-century Britain was profoundly reshaped by the deposing and then beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the 20 subsequent years of Puritan rule. These events created a cultural need to establish a new kind of hero who understood the new world order. Rather than one who performs chivalric deeds or one who emulates Christ, the Rake is a character whose heroism (or anti-heroism) is based upon his mastery of language and image, law and social contract. Moreover, like the Puritan, the Rake believes in a world of “total depravity” where sexuality and the body define the way law, language, and love work. Of course, unlike Cromwell and his comrades, the Rake embraces that depravity, at least until his final conversion.
After the restoration of the monarchy, writers cast the Rake as a witty, often times slightly nefarious character, mostly in satiric comedies. This genre tended to diffuse his threat to virtue and chastity. The sentimental and romantic novels that followed in the 18th century, by contrast, cast the Rake as a dangerous and, often, truly villainous person: a seducer and a rapist, like Lovelace in Richardson’s Clarissa. He now embodied cultural fears about the changing role of women and their increasing independence in matters of love, sex, and marriage.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Rake as a stock, even clichéd character was mostly displaced by the Romantic or Byronic hero. Unlike the Rake, who believes that everything is pre-determined by sexual desire, the Romantic hero believes in and preaches Free Will. The closest thing to a Rake you’ll find in 19th-century fiction and poetry is the dandy—but the dandy is no Rake. He’s more interested in the seductive nature of art and aesthetics than in anything purely sexual.
Given this history, why do Rakes make such a comeback in historical romance fiction, at least in the United States? Is it merely because American women really want to reform a bad boy? I suspect that it isn’t so simple.
I think the reason that the Rake is still such a necessary character in historical romance is because our modern understanding of sexuality is not that different from the one we find in those original 17th- and 18th-century Rakes. We, like the Rake, believe that sexuality is the foundational aspect of identity, that we are pre-determined by our sexuality, and—as much as we have complicated this idea through various theories—we still see sex and sexuality as being as inescapable a fate as Calvinist predestination. Women’s sexuality, especially, remains a point of contention, as our bodies are the subject of endless
discourse both publically and privately.
As a genre, American popular romance asks—repeatedly, in novel after novel—how to navigate these of issues of sex and sexuality, power and powerlessness, free will and predestination, and whether love and sex are the same thing. The romantic relationship is an attempt to find a balance between the Rake’s dogmatic view of sexuality and the heroine’s desire for choice. As long as we have questions about the personal and political power of sexuality, the Rake will serve as a handy figure: one who tempts us into trying things, and asking things, we otherwise might not.
Angela Toscano will begin work on her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa this fall. She received her MA in British and American Literature from the University of Utah. On occasion, she has been known to review romance novels for the blog Dear Author under the name Lazaraspaste. Her paper, "A Parody of Love: the Narrative Uses of Rape in Popular Romance," appeared in issue 2.2 of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Find out more about Angela Toscano.