A good way to illustrate this is by looking at one of the cases I have been reading. This is the case of Barton Dorrington from 1788. You can read the whole case (it is not long) by following the link to the Old Bailey Online pages, but the brief facts are as follows.
Dorrington was charged with the rape of Eleanor Masters, a maid servant. In the words of prosecuting counsel, William Garrow, this is what happened next:
she was sent on Tuesday the 15th of May towards Bow, that was the day of Bow-fair; when she had got some distance, she was overtaken by the prisoner, who told her he had often observed her, was very much in love with her, and had a very great disposition to make her his wife; she went about her business and returned; when she returned, she found the prisoner had been at her master's house and enquired for her, and the fact is, that he did come several times afterwards, and still affected to have the same disposition towards her; he told her that he had been a shoemaker, and was now a limner [illustrator or draftsman], and in short, that he wished to marry her. Gentleman; after a considerable number of times, he came on the 16th of May, when all the rest of the family were from home; this young woman let him in and asked him up stairs into the kitchen; he went up with her, and after they had been there a very short time, he tied her hands and put a handkerchief into her mouth, and accomplished that which was his evident purpose from the beginning.The case was complicated by two further factors. First, notwithstanding these events, when Dorrington returned to her house on the following Monday she left the house and went with him to a place (perhaps appropriately) called Foul Lane in Borough and stayed with him there for a few days, where she was ravished by him again before she was eventually found by her employer. Second, she was found to have given him a note stating the following:
"I promise to be married to Barton Dorrington on his demand, or to pay twenty pounds - Eleanor Masters."Dorrington was found to possess a number of similar notes in similar terms from different women leading Garrow to conclude that he was a serial rapist who made a practice of attacking vulnerable women and using the promise to marry them (which he clearly never intended to keep) as a way of extorting money.
Masters was the single witness in the case. The first part of her testimony was in response to a series of questions about the attack, where she was repeatedly pressed, in the face of her clear reluctance, to describe the attack in detailed terms "in order that the jury may judge whether it was a rape or no." The second part then related to the events following when she went with him to Foul Lane because, she alleged, he threatened her. But to my great surprise, as she was questioned about being ravished again, the Court suddenly interjects to state that it is wasting time to go further and the prisoner was acquitted.
How should we respond to this case? My initial reaction is one of puzzlement, even upset. Master's story seems credible and it is hard to see why it was not regarded by the court of providing even prima facie evidence of rape. The cross-examination is upsetting, as the demand of the law for chastity and good character on the part of the victim (seemingly personified by Masters) comes into conflict with the need to describe the rape in sufficiently graphic terms to constitute proof. And in other respects the scenario just seems puzzling: why would she have accompanied her alleged attacker after the attack? Why would she have seemingly acquiesced in the demand to marry a man she had met only a day before?
And then, there is that strange note. It seems comprehensible that Dorrington might have said, as Masters testifies, that at the conclusion of the attack he had held out the offer to marry her if she said nothing to anyone. This sort of conduct seems consistent with attackers or abusers in our own time who use threats or promises to secure the silence of their victims. But then why would she have signed a piece of paper promising to marry him "on his demand" or to pay him the substantial sum of 20l - a sum of between 2 and 30,000 pounds in today's money) if she did not?
So what to make of it? One reaction might be that this exemplifies the injustice to women. This was a patriarchal system. Female servants, as single women away from their families, were vulnerable to their masters and were also easily preyed on by sexual predators such as Dorrington. She was victimized - once by the rapist and again by the courts and legal system which did not recognize her claim. This is clearly correct, but is it enough? This approach would see the history of rape as the failure to recognize justice or equality judged from our contemporary perspective, and the problem with this then it is hard to attempt to see what is going on except in these terms. Why was the case dismissed? What was the meaning of Master's conduct? Did she really believe in some way in the promise of marriage?
A second kind of reading of this case has seen it as an example of the attitudes of the courts to malicious prosecution. This approach argues that eighteenth century criminal law was dominated by the fear of false of malicious accusation, as exemplified by the comment of Sir Matthew Hale, that rape is:
an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.On this view the suspicion was that prosecutrixes would make false claims to hide sexual indiscretions, or to try and force reluctant men into marriage - or simply out of malice. The suggestion here is that, in cases such as this, the court's fear of the false accusation distorted their view of the facts. Again, there is some suggestion of this in the statement by Garrow near the start of his speech when he states (following Hale) that charges are easily made, but his approach is balanced and it does not seem that the case can be reduced to this alone.
There are other factors to take into account, and though I am not sure yet that I can weigh the proper significance of each of these, I think a fuller reading of cases such as this would have to take them into account. First, rape was a capital offence at the time, and life was not so cheap that the courts would convict in the absence of clear evidence - and it is precisely the ambiguities and doubts, particularly relating to Masters' conduct in the days following the attack which seems to have given rise to problems for the court. Because it was capital, the law of the time required the woman to resist to the point that her life was in danger (a life for a life), and though attitudes were in the process of changing the courts would not convict where there was apparently consensual sex. This is not to defend these attitudes, but how we should understand the court.
Second, it seems clear that the spoiling of good character was central to the conception of the wrong. Although, notionally, the protection of the law extended to all women, legal commentators viewed the taking of the woman's honour, her good character, as the core of the offence - leading to many lengthy discussions of whether a prostitute or an unchaste woman might be raped. But crucial to this - and at odds with our own understanding of the crime - is that while sexual behaviour was part of the crime, the wrong was not defined by sexual behaviour alone. This was an element in a broader understanding which encompassed social status and character and their place in the social order. Thus, while Masters' apparently good sexual character was probably central to the prosecution being brought in the first place, she fatally undermined her own case when she admitted to sexual conduct which put her character in question.
And this begs the question of why she went with him in the first place when she seems to have had a reasonably protective master, who sought her out when she left and most likely funded the prosecution. It seems clear after all, that the note was not enforceable and she had already told the details of the first attack to her mistress. This is where I think it is hardest to understand what is going on, but I think her conduct must be understood in relation to contemporary understandings of seduction and marriage - and certainly the court seems to think that this might have been characterised as seduction gone wrong. Maybe she did believe the promise of marriage and maybe that was part of a broader social understanding about sex. There is evidence in the eighteenth century of what we might call 'bargaining in the shadow of the law' - sexual conduct on the promise of marriage and men marrying their accusers. Such conduct seems incomprehensible to us, but perhaps makes sense in a world where sex was valued differently, where there was less connection between romantic love and sex, where courtship opportunities were severely limited for domestic servants and so on.
Unfortunately we don't know what happened to the protagonists of the case. The best for Eleanor Masters might be that she was kept in service by her family in spite of her loss of character and was perhaps able to make a good marriage; the worst that she was thrown out because of her loose morals. In spite of his acquittal, the Court was moved to warn Dorrington about his conduct in no uncertain terms:
The seduction of these young women, under pretence of marrying, is not a crime of much less criminality than that which you have been tried for; and you will some time or another get your neck into the halter, if you do not leave off these practicesWe do not know if he heeded the warning, though certainly there is no further record of him in the Old Bailey Session papers. We can only hope that he did.