This letter by Lovelace to Belford, which contains Morden's to Lovelace, and Lovelace's reply may have been meant to blacken Lovelace, but since, as with so much of the book, the arguments and axioms are embedded in a stream of psychologically realistic and therefore relativistic discourse, it can have the opposite effect from what's intended and increase our sympathy for the villain-hero who is lost, empty and about to die.
In the letter Lovelace (yet again) rehearses the business of the failed proposal. We are given some of Clarissa's most candid and persuasive remarks on her inability to nail him when he would put out a paw ever so hesitantly. We hear of her asserveration: "she could not be guilty of affectation or tyranny to the man she intended to marry," and even more in her favor, "I had a plain path before me." And: "She would have had no reserves... had I not given her cause of doubt." We are not to think, as I did in my last post, about how he did ask her, and how she it was who could not meet the offer, how she was unable to face the sexual encounter that would follow. We are to remember how he teased, and tortured, and worked the game so that she would have to play by his rules to "catch" him," how he frightened and tricked her.
And yet. And yet. As we read since we apply this rumination to the character Lovelace we can read this as remorse; here he is going over this stuff obsessively. We don't read for the literal meaning as we would were this an omniscient narrator ("gentle reader, let us recall how.....") or our stern editor; instead it's what's preying on an individual's mind. He misses her; all is vanity to him now.
I suggest Richardson is aware of this possibility, that is why the letter ends flippantly and with Lovelace's (choral) comment (on him): "but this looks so like the confession of a thief at the gallows." We are meant to think of someone who has committed a crime, and is not sorry to have had the goods, but is very very sorry to be going to jail. And then Lovelace is not preparing to meet his maker; he's the cocksure male, it's sport, he'll be as "calm and undisturbedas a bishop at his prayers." We are to be appalled.
Yet are we? and were they in the 18th century? This is not a rhetorical question. I don't think it's true to say in the 20th century we accept dying any more easily than they did in the 18th century. Think of what occurs in the modern ICU units in hospitals, with people kept alive in despite of nature and sometimes in despite of what we might call common sense (I refer to the pain and the machines and the bringing back techniques). Here I'd like to quote a witty paragraph with which Lewis Thomas opens one of his essays on death to make my point that all the preparations thought necessary in the Christian spirit of things (perhaps as a buffer, a way of heading off the terror, of neutralizing it) can be found in books on "the art of dying today:
"There are so many books about dying that there are now special shelves set aside for them in bookshops, along with the health-diet and home-repair paperbacks and the sex manuals. Some of them are so packed with detailed information and step-by-step instructions for performing the function that you'd think this was a new sort of skill which all of us are now required to learn. The strongest impression that casual reader gets, leafing through, is that proper dying has become extraordinary, even an exotic experience, something only the specially trained get to do" (from "On Natural Death").
Lovelace refuses to be specially trained. He does not believe he's going to die, but if he does, well, flies do it. He wouldn't put it exactly that way (maybe he'd have thought of mice, as in taverns), but such a sort of idea swims around here, and that's why his attitude was thought of as "atheistic" or "libertine." I don't think he's gallant here (though he is in his last coherent statement on the field: "I have provoked my destiny..."); in this letter it's more like a hard shrug.
But he accepts what's to come, and we are, will we nill we, impressed.