Once more, Joan prevailed, even though a third attack would happen soon, in which Hellyer bragged about having raped another servant, Mary, whom he impregnated. To make matters even more complicated, it was widely believed that for conception to happen, both parties needed to orgasm, which blurred the line where consent was concerned; pregnancy was routinely used to prove that rape had not happened in the first place.
His experience with Mary was the reason why Hellyer had assumed that Joan would ‘acquiesce’ to his advances, indicating how vulnerable servant women were to this kind of violence. Of course, expressions such as ‘acquiesce’ and ‘consent’ were ambiguous and people used them in different ways. In Joan’s testimony, it is implied that ‘acquiescing’ would equate to stopping physically resisting and fighting during rape and submitting, highlighting the misleading dichotomy between male agency and female passivity. It is by no means what we would consider ‘consenting’ to sex today.
The relationship between masters and servants was based on economic exploitation and power, but it was also routinely described at the time as being founded on trust. Unfortunately, however, accounts of abuse are not rare. Rape as the forcible penetration of the body was commonly addressed at assize courts of the time, even though it was (as it still is today) difficult to prove. Especially if it happened in a private household involving servants. From the tiny minority of cases in which charges were brought, a small number of men were convicted. (Again, sadly, it is impossible not to think of how this is still true today.)
Joan’s account is long and full of details. Tellingly, Hellyer was prosecuted for illicit sex (fornication) with unmarried women, not rape. As Laura Gowing wrote, cases like this involved ‘a culture of service and the prerogatives that masters assumed’. And, although her testimony allows us a glimpse into Joan’s plight, we must keep in mind that this is a transcription, a mediated and possibly modified version of what she said in court. Still, her anger is palatable; at her attacker, but also, at her condition as a female servant working in a household, with limited agency, whose body was not her own, but rather ‘common property’ to those around her, who might touch her without her agreement.
Unfortunately, it is not clear what was the outcome of Hellyer’s prosecution. Joan’s testimony focused on self-defence even more than it did on the violence perpetrated against her. Rape (especially if it resulted in pregnancy) could potentially ruin her; she might be dismissed from service and not find a new position. So, it would make sense that Joan would choose to highlight her ‘good character’ and chastity in her testimony, as well as her resistance to her attacker.
If, like me, you enjoy watching Downton Abbey or Poldark from time to time, that’s ok. But remember that, behind the liberal and questionable use of rape in historical narratives, there are real historical women, who bravely resisted, testified, confronted their attackers, and survived. Not to mention those who were not so lucky; those who never testified, who were shamed or ruined, or those whose stories were lost.