Go on, you know you want to really...

It's the epitome of wickedness, but also the ultimate affirmation of life. Continuing our two-week series, John Walsh celebrates the joy of seduction and the cads and temptresses who practise it
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Eve was the first seducer. Not because she was naked and slinky and (as it turned out) fatale, but because she led Adam astray. That is unless you agree with Milton that Satan was the seducer in the Garden of Eden, steering Eve away from the straight and narrow. But that's the point of seduction. It's not about having casual sex with lots of people; it's about leading people astray (from the Latin, se- meaning aside, and duco meaning lead) and enticing them into doing something they weren't planning to do, and will probably live to regret.

Seduction is more than an action, it's an exulting in transgression, a promise of corruption. It's an attitude. It's the Compte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, taking the married-but-still-virtuous Madame de Tourvel to bed against her better judgement and murmuring: "Tonight, it is time to acquaint you with some Latin terminology." It's the moment in Joyce's Ulysses when Gerty McDowell, a young nanny sitting on Sandymount Beach, is attracted by the dark, buttoned-up figure of Leopold Bloom standing nearby and, linking both hands around her knee, leans back to watch the fireworks overhead in order to give him a flash of her silk knickers. It's the smirk on the face of the leather-trousered Lothario Michael Hutchence, as he posed beside his latest conquest, Kylie Minogue who seemed transformed by him from a bright-eyed Pollyanna-next-door into a dark-eyed vamp steeped in bedroom lore. It's that smirk on the face of Joey Tribbiani in Friends when he asks every new girl, "How you doin'?" with its unspoken secondary question: "How long will you pretend to hold out against my irresistible sex appeal?"

It's Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, disturbing Benjamin Braddock's 21-year-old self-absorption by throwing her car keys into his fish tank. It's Sergeant Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd performing the sword exercise upon Bathsheba Everdene, and finally slicing off a lock of her hair.

And could there be a more tempting image to lead impressionable Edwardian men astray than the sight of Margarethe Gertrude Zelle photographed in her finery her head, neck, breasts and upper arms festooned with Eastern diadems, in contrast to her white, naked rump? She led so many men to their peril and doom under her assumed name of Mata Hari, she had to be stopped by a French firing squad in 1917.

Seduction is courtship without the promise of marriage at the end. Seduction's only end is conquest, mainly sexual conquest, although for some seducers it's enough to have the victim in their power, enraptured and enslaved by love.

When Keats's haggard knight-at-arms describes how his wild-eyed fairy girlfriend sang to him on a horse, and fetched him roots and honey and manna dew, he seems to evoke a charming scene of innocent romance; but in a dream he learns that he's been seduced and is now, frankly, done for: "I saw pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried "La Belle Dame Sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!"

It's an extraordinary image of love as imprisonment, as a fate from which you'll never be wakened or freed. But the knight is, of course, an exceptional figure: the victims of seductions are almost always women. They suffer "a fate worse than death" in agreeing to have ill-advised sex not because a law has been broken, but because their innocence or credulity has been exploited and betrayed.

Seduction actually was a crime in the middle ages. English common law defined it as "when a male person induced an unmarried female of previously chaste character to engage in an act of sexual intercourse on a promise of marriage". A father was permitted to bring an action for the seduction of his daughter because it deprived him of her "services or earnings", but that seems to take an excessively mercenary view of the value of a daughter.

Down the centuries, many people especially outraged fathers have confused seduction with rape, arguing that a woman who is naturally virtuous and true could not possibly be persuaded to have sex with a scoundrel. If it's impossible for her to have succumbed of her own volition, it follows that she must have been forced or so the thinking goes. But the possibility that the woman was a willing partner in the event, that she was actually a co-conspirator in the whole seduction process, fuelled a hundred plays in the Restoration era and beyond.

There's a wonderful scene in William Congreve's Love for Love, in which the effete townie Tattle is left alone with Mrs Foresight's young ward, Miss Prue. She appears to be a simple country girl, virginal and endangered by this silver-tongued fop, but the truth is quite different. When Tattle proposes making love to her, she readily agrees, saying: "Come, I long to have you begin. Must I make love too? You must tell me how." He, the supposedly vile seducer, is confounded by her directness and has to explain the rules by which men demand sex and women deny them, while gradually being persuaded and eventually complying. She picks up the rules very quickly, as demonstrated when Tattle says: "And won't you shew me, pretty Miss, where your bedchamber is?" To which she replies: "No indeed won't I. But I'll run there and hide myself from you behind the curtains."

The country girl, the maidservant, the innocent seamstress, the trusting pupil they've been the archetypal prey of seducers from time immemorial, the raw material of a thousand vivid dispatches from the sex war in poems, dramas and novels. They became known generically as Fallen Women girls who had dashed their chances of marriage and a happy life by having an inconvenient baby out of wedlock (something that seldom seemed to happen to the upper classes) or becoming the mistress of a blackguard.

The downfall of Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles is signalled by the chapter headings: chapter one is "The Maid", chapter two is "Maiden No More". Her fate is not just to be seduced by the bullying Alec d'Urberville, and abandoned by the moralistic Angel Clare, but to become the plaything of Fate.

Yet Thomas Hardy could also see the comic possibilities in a fallen woman becoming the plaything of a particular sort of man. His delicious poem, "The Ruined Maid" tells the story of a rough country girl meeting a former associate on the farm and learning about the better quality of life she led in her disgrace: "Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak / But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek, / And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!" / "We never do work when we're ruined," said she."

So is seduction a matter of laughter or tears? Jenny Newman, the editor of The Faber Book of Seductions, writes in her introduction: "Traditionally there are two main ways of writing about the seduction scene. The first is comic in method. Its entertainment value springs from a display of tactics. Whether or not the seducer gets his or her own way, some kind of happy ending confirms a generally optimistic view of sex. This kind of seduction can be seen as a more adventurous counterpart to what happens in marriage, reaffirming the accepted order of society.

"The other view is tragic. People get hurt and, instead of being allowed to choose, they are drawn inevitably to betrayal. To succumb means the downfall of both seducer and seduced, and perhaps the whole of society too. Instead of co-existing with marriage, this sort of seduction tends to undermine it."

How strange, then, that fictional seducers tend to get a bad press, while real-life triflers with the innocent and virginal tend to win public approval. In his day, Lord Byron was reviled by high society after his divorce, but these days we regard him as a romantic hero. His casual swiving of chambermaids and servant girls all over Europe doesn't sound all that romantic, but still.

Possibly through some atavistic forelock-tugging, when confronted by upper-class misbehaviour, we greet stories of more modern seducers, such as Lord Snowdon and Lord Lichfield, as mere confirmation of their laddish incorrigibility.

Cleopatra's perfumed seductions of both Caesar and Mark Antony (and the spurious detail about her rolling herself in a carpet, to be unrolled before the former) strike us as winningly, charmingly exotic. Frank Sinatra was one of Hollywood's greatest seducers, but his sins of sexual corruption are mostly forgiven him, as they're forgiven those of his successor, Warren Beatty.

As for Alan Clark, the drawling aristocratic English lizard of love, who, over a period of years, gradually seduced a South African judge's wife and both of his daughters, we merely tut-tut at his disrespect for the venerable cuckolded judge, and murmur, "nice grouping".

Their fictional counterparts, however, rarely convince us of their appeal. Volpone, pretending to be mortally ill, so that he can inveigle Celia into his chamber, is a revolting old lecher. Humbert Humbert, the enraptured connoisseur of nymphet love in Lolita, makes us squirm with distaste. Porphyro in Keats's "The Eve of St Agnes," who sneakily watches the gorgeous Madeleine preparing to dream of her lover, then "melts into her dream," is the kind of chap who has sex with a woman while she's unconscious. Lady Booby, in Tom Jones, who tries to seduce Tom away from Sophie Weston, comes across as a disagreeable old boot. Eve and Satan have never had large fan clubs. The Sirens, the great seductresses from Greek mythology who lured sailors to their doom, have never seemed attractive figures. Even James Bond, debonair hero of 80-odd seductions on screen and page, became considered a boorish sexist dinosaur.

Nowadays, we tend to regard it as rather quaint that men and women once pursued and fled from each other, fenced and parried, told wicked lies and promised marriage, rather than talked to each other and explained their desires and intentions out in the open. We may be shocked that, throughout Restoration comedy, women who say "no" seldom mean it. We may think it quaint that men in previous centuries seemed to think women would have sex with them, provided they were sufficiently persuasive and vehement, and went on about it for long enough; not a word was said about whether the women fancied them or not.

But the idea of seduction remains itself rather seductive: the pursuit of love as a thrilling chase, a hunt, a push-me-pull-you quadrille of rejection and acceptance, scheming and flirting and (best-case scenario) a final, sweet acquiescence from the gracious lady.

Behind the best seduction poems and scenes in plays and novels lies a certain tone of voice. It's knowing and funny, logical and persuasive, and, in trying to persuade a woman to come across, it pays her the compliment of constructing fantastical reasoning. John Donne does this in "The Exstasie", where he explains that spiritual soul-mating is all very well, but at some point it must be expressed in physical terms or "else a great prince in prison lies". Very convincing, I'm sure you'll agree.

But the finest example of the seduction poem remains Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," in which the poet explains to his girlfriend that their time for loving is short, when it is compared to the wastes of eternity: "Thy beauty shall no more be found / Nor in thy marble vault shall sound / My echoing song; then worms shall try / That long-preserv'd virginity, / And thy quaint honour turn to dust, / And into ashes all my lust. / The grave's a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace."

Would any sensible woman be seduced by it for a moment? Probably not. But its tone of rational urgency, its playfulness and barefaced cheek, must have loosened a few corset hooks-and-eyes over the years. "Let's get it on," is the message. It's the message that seducers have been trying to insert, subliminally, in their victims' ears for centuries.

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