A Conversation with Frances Ferguson on “Rape and the Rise of the Novel”

by William Jordan Williamson

The Eighteenth-Century British Literature Workshop in the NYU English Department hosted “A Conversation with Frances Ferguson” on October 17th, offering an opportunity to discuss with Dr. Ferguson her landmark essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel.” Dr. Ferguson published “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” thirty years ago this year, and the talk at NYU is one of several she has given reflecting on the groundbreaking essay, including a symposium on the essay in late September at Princeton.

The event at NYU, which was hosted by Dr. Wendy Lee and organized by Elizabeth Berajano of the Eighteenth-Century British Literature Workshop, allowed for a more informal talk on Dr. Ferguson’s work. Dr. Lee introduced Dr. Ferguson, who currently teaches at the University of Chicago after past appointments at Johns Hopkins and Princeton, and is working on two book projects, Designing Education and A Brief History of Reading and Criticism. “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” though, was the focus of the evening, and Dr. Lee offered a brief account of the essay, which she said influenced her own decision to pursue a career in academia.

“Rape and the Rise of the Novel” focuses on Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 epistolary novel and, according to Dr. Ferguson, along with Richardson’s Pamela, the first “full” example of the “psychological novel.” As a category of law that necessitates an understanding of subjective states, Dr. Ferguson argues, an early novelist like Richardson could discover in a narrative centered on rape—in the novel, Lovelace’s rape of Clarissa—the possibility of depicting “the importance of psychology as the ongoing possibility of the contradiction between what one must mean and what one wants to mean.” This contradiction, along with the epistolary presentation of the novel’s material, establishes a mode for the novel distinct from the model of free indirect discourse that would later become dominant.

Dr. Ferguson’s talk reflected on the status of the essay thirty years after its original publication in Representations, and she gave a few updates on it. Notably, she applied the model of “writing to the moment” that she outlined in “Rape and the Rise of the Novel”—a model that allows a character like Clarissa to register her nonconsent to or disagreement with occurrences that she has little formal ability to object to—to James Comey’s writing of memoranda around his meetings with Donald Trump. The model of “writing to the moment” that Comey and Clarissa employ might now be seen as a way of responding to a world that presupposes the consent of its subject mostly by formally preventing them from dissenting. The introduction of Comey to the model, though, provoked some worry from the audience about losing the original essay’s particular focus on rape and rape law for broader notions of consent.

Dr. Ferguson seemed almost less concerned about preserving the original force of her essay than the audience did and was, with the detachment of thirty years since writing it, able to look with surprise, for instance, at her “relentless” analysis of legal forms she undertook, and to reflect that she was probably “unaware of how ambitious [she] was being” in the essay. Thirty years after its publication, though, it is obvious that the essay fulfills the ambitions Dr. Ferguson might have had in writing it. Indeed, if anything, the conversation demonstrated that while its anniversary occasions a look back at it, “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” is as important a text today as it was when Dr. Ferguson first wrote it.