"Before" by William Hogarth Credit: Tate

The dangerous art of seduction

A new history tells us much about power relations between men and women—from Samuel Richardson to The Game
April 1, 2020
“To investigate seduction is to think about power, desire, race, class, agency and the law.” This is an ambitious undertaking for any writer, not least a first-time one. Clement Knox claims that the “seduction narrative” is “a product of the modern world and serves as a vehicle for the exploration of modern values, modern experiences and modern concerns.” He begins with the Enlightenment, a time of “intellectual developments and value shifts,” and covers the three centuries since.  

The etymology of the word—se + ducere, to lead away—is ripe for exploration. Is this leading away evidence of untamed passion and a lack of reason, or of sexual permissiveness, “emotional authenticity” and liberalism? Knox casts back to the grime of late 18th-century London, honing in on the vile and villainous characters who stalked its streets.  

There is a focus on literature as a mirror to societal shifts—from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and the satirical spin-offs it inspired, to the Victorian obsession with hypnotism and the racial prejudice in Dracula. All these works, Knox writes, “subvert in different ways the tradition of the seduction narrative.”  

The section on Mary Wollstonecraft is one of the book’s best, full of scandal and the impact her radical thinking had on her daughter Mary Shelley, who went on to write her own exploration of seduction: “Though she and… Mary had met only in passing at life’s boundary,” Knox writes—the mother died days after giving birth to the daughter—“it was enough to ensure that the line of succession went unbroken.” 

Extracts from diaries, letters, songs, sketches and cartoons are scattered throughout this pacey, suspenseful and funny book. Culminating with reflections on Neil Strauss’s feeble seduction manual The Game, Knox’s book demonstrates with impressive flair how the contest’s rules might change but the goal stays the same.  

Strange Antics: A History of Seduction  by Clement Knox (William Collins, £25)