I am intrigued by the number of near rape scenes that appear in The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless. Four attempted rapes actually occur and there is the suggestion of at least three more possible ones that Miss Betsy narrowly misses. This leads the reader to believe Miss Betsy is either a very foolish girl who simply does not learn from her mistakes or encourages them to search for some more elusive message that Haywood is unable to come right out and state.
A closer examination of the results of these incidents reveal both the double standards of the period, and an overt acceptance of male violence and convey the idea that no matter what part a man plays in these rape incidents he is rarely punished for his actions. Each incident sustains a different result and affects the participants in a variety of ways with the exception of Miss Betsy, inevitably believed to have provoked the actions through her thoughtless behavior.
The first of these adventures occurs when Betsy is visiting her brother Francis at Oxford, a male dominated environment. Rather imprudently, Betsy and Flora are persuaded to partake of dinner with a couple of Oxford students whose intentions are less than honorable. Betsy repulses the too forward advances of the gentleman-commoner after Flora and the young student have left her alone with him.
He however is quite determined to achieve his desires and it is only the arrival of her brother Francis that saves her virtue and honor. Francis, as any honorable man would challenges the man who has encroached upon his sister’s honor and a duel in which both opponents are injured ensues. Dueling is illegal and both and young men are threatened with expulsion from Oxford but interestingly enough neither are actually condemned for their actions. Their behavior is accepted as proper and honorable.
Betsy, really guilty of nothing other than bad judgment bears the burden of censure of both the women and men and receives blame not only for the duel but also for behaving in a manner unbecoming to a young woman of her status. The premise arising from this incident is that it is acceptable for men to express their violence in rape and dueling even though both actions are illegal. Miss Betsy’s lack of avoidance of the next incident is somewhat more questionable given the fact that she has willfully chosen to disregard the warnings given her by Mr. Trueworth in regard to her friend Miss Forward.
As a result of her resentment of the criticism directed towards her friend and her own determination to make her own decisions based on what she herself wants she creates a situation that certainly could have been avoided with clearer thinking. Attending the play with Miss Forward places her in the same light as her friend who has become a prostitute. Miss Forward’s trade brings them the company of two gentlemen who escort them back to Miss Forward’s home and Betsy feels that it would be improper for her to “leave her friend alone with two strange gentlemen” (Haywood, 237).
Betsy displays an awareness of the fact that she should leave by initially refusing supper but ultimately allows herself to be persuaded to stay, thereby underpinning the image of a flirt or worse, a prostitute. In her favor she insists on calling for a chair and making her way home after supper, but errs in allowing herself to be persuaded to take a coach instead and accepting the escort of one of the gentleman again reinforcing the image of being one of those “pretty obliging creatures” (Haywood, 239) who will delightfully entertain some deserving gentleman given the proper setting.
To her shock the gentleman takes liberties with her person and offers to set her up as his mistress. She fights him off and her sincerely frightened response and insistence on maintaining her virtue causes him to recognize that she is not “a woman of the town” (Haywood, 240) as her friend Miss Forward is. This results in him escorting her home and giving her the same warning regarding keeping company with Miss Forward as Mr. Trueworth had done previously.
His reminder to Miss Betsy “that a young lady more endangered her reputation, by an acquaintance with one woman of ill fame, than by receiving the visits of twenty men, though professed libertines” (Haywood, 241) reflects the attitude of the time and suggests that even though Betsy was in reality innocent of non virtuous behavior she would be guilty by association with Miss Forward who was definitely not innocent and be censored for such behavior whether guilty herself or not. Betsy immediately writes Miss Forward and severs her relationship with her aware that she has had a lucky escape.
This incident draws attention to the double standards that were in place at the time. If a young man was seen publicly with a woman of bad reputation it was considered as the norm and had no reflection upon his character. Conversely, a young woman who was seen with that same woman led to the assumption that she must be of the same type herself simply by proximity. The third and most bizarre incident is that involving Sir Fredrick a suitor most determined that Betsy should be his. In regard to this suitor Betsy has shown rare good judgment and broken off any contact with him.