We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

ASECS, Portland: Samuel Richardson's novels · 1 April 08

Dear Harriet,

It was a beautiful day in Alexandria, Virginia today: the sun was strong, the air balmy, suffused through with warmth (not hot), everywhere flowering trees, new light green grass, spring flowers, daffodils, crocuses, flowering bushes. I begin this way to make a contrast: this past week when Jim and I were in Portland, the world was yet wintry; cold hard winds, rain mixed with snow which alternated with cool sunshine. The newspaper we got at the Arlington Club (where we stayed) assured us the weather was unusually cold.

No matter. Most of the three day conference I was in the Hilton Hotel attending sessions, or in the interstices between these, having the occasional, however brief and fleeting, precious conversation, renewing old acquaintances, encountering a few friends. For better or worse, I did stick to a few themes and authors. I now regret that I went only to one of the three sessions on film, wish I had tried at least one Austen meeting, but then what I heard did hold together (so to speak).

For tonight I’ll tell you about four sessions I attended where I heard papers & discussions about Richardson. I went to these because recently I’ve been regalvanized, tremendously excited all over again by Clarissa, not through rereading the enormous novel, but through a very slow viewing of the brilliant 1991 BBC/WBGH film, written by David Nokes and Janet Barron, director Robert Bierman, starring Saskia Wickham and Sean Bean.

One of the first stills of Clary from the film: having her hair tightly brushed

On our Eighteenth Century Worlds list at Yahoo a few of us intend to read Clarissa in real time starting January 10, 2009. In the meantime I’m glad to find out what’s happening in the scholarly Richardson world.

Perhaps astonishingly there were two separate sessions just on Sir Charles Grandison and in the third Grandison evoked considerable interest. The first, on Thursday, 3/27/08, at 11:30 am, was called “Editing Sir Charles Grandison.” I discovered a new complete edition of the novel to be published by Cambridge University Press is under way. The speakers: Jocelyn Harris told us about her heroic endeavours in the 1970s which issued in the first unabridged (3 volume) scholarly edition of Grandison published by Oxford University Press. Unless I mistook, Prof Harris said she had collated a 7-volume version of the novel at least 5 full times. Melvyn New (who edited Tristram Shandy) said that while Harris used the first or 12 mo. edition, he and his Cambridge team were going to use the 2nd or octavo edition. He argued the evidence suggested that the octavo edition represented Richardson’s considered and corrected intentions. Derek Taylor discussed authors and novels who have been influenced by Grandison, among these Henry James’s The American and Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Robert Walker discussed the difficulty of knowing how far one should elaborate on allusions: do we know that Richardson knew the original context; what context did Richardson intend for each allusion.

To conclude the session, Peter Sabor, the general editor (he worked on Frances Burney’s letters and diaries), said that while Grandison is the one Richardson text to have a previous respected scholarly edition, another is called for on the grounds of all we have learnt since the 1970s; the Cambridge edition will also be 4 volumes.

The discussion afterwards centered on how much we can assume Richardson knew of the original contexts for his allusions; how much the culture of English translation of the era spread to non-erudite people; and finally the afterlife of Grandison. Which authors can we say knew or read Grandison? It seemed that two famous women authors (Austen and Eliot) and many women readers are not sufficient to gain respect for Grandison; we need to find prestigious male authors imitating Grandison. Professors Harris and Margaret Doody suggested that Austen did not write the (poor, vacuous) playlet called Sir Charles Grandison. I didn’t have the nerve to raise my hand and ask about abridgements. Recently on Austen-l I learnt there is a startlingly brief abridgement of Grandison on sale at Amazon: at 168 pages, it appears to cut just about everything but the plot-line of the playlet attributed to Austen (the story of Harriet’s abduction followed by her much later marriage to Sir Charles).

The second session, “Beyond Clarissa,” was later that Thursday, at 4:15 pm. There were 4 papers and one respondent, all of which took all the session so there was no time for discussion afterwards. Jim and I missed part of Elizabeth Kraft’s paper: it appeared to have been on religious tolerance in Grandison. In the novel the hero, Sir Charles, gets entangled with an Italian Catholic heroine, Clementain Porretta, and agrees that were he to marry the girl, she could bring their daughters up Catholic while he would bring up their sons Protestant. Kate Oliver argued that Sir Charles as a figure combines masculine traits with many feminine ones, and is in effect woman-like in much of his behavior and ideals. Megan Hiatt showed that Grandison reflects debates Richardson had with Hester Mulso where Mulso argued for much greater autonomy, eduation, control of their destinies for women while Richardson was adament on behalf of obedience to parental authority no matter how unjust the behavior of the parent. James Horowitz’s paper suggested why women like Grandison until today: he showed there’s a continuum of women in the novel. There’s a kind of sociological comprehensiveness to the book. He felt that the parallel heroines in Sarah Fielding’s portraits of Cleopatra and Octavia were imitated by Richardson in his parallel heroines, Harriet Byron and Clementina Porretta. I liked how Mr Horowitz saw parallels between Richardson’s heroines and Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax; also between Richardson’s heroines and Thackeray’s. He likened what we find in Grandison to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (it also has parallel heroines, an ideal hero, serious themes).

John Dussinger ended the session by suggesting that Richardson enjoyed arguing with young women and would sometimes stick to a point of view in order to keep up an argument, and that his letters are to be understood as partly playful. Prof. Dussinger questioned whether Sir Charles can be regarded as feminine as he has so much power, liberty and exercises male virtues frequently (philanthropy, generosity). On the international themes in Grandison, he told us about international books Richardson had printed: A Civil History of Naples dedicated to John Villiers, Earl of Grandison; the Negotiations of Thomas Roe has two Grandisons, one of whom was a man who rose to prominence through city business. He thoguht the name Grandison was taken from real men Richardson identified with on some level or admired.

On Saturday morning at 8:00 I heard Sam Cahill give her paper
on female readers of Richardson in a session otherwise intended to include papers on Handel’s oratorios (but the speaker didn’t show) and a sentimental American novel, Charlotte Temple where without marrying him, the heroine runs away with a British soldier hero to America, gets pregnant, lives as an outcast and dies. Ms Cahill looked at how religions in the women’s letters functioned either to justify educating women or as a contrast to show how unfair not educating them is. The argument would be lack of access to education is a great injustice for it inhibits development of the soul. The respondents discussed were Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot. Carter called Richardson “in this respect” (education) “a Mahometan” (Islam as a culture and religion was thought to treat women very badly). Talbot defended Richardson; how can you think the author of Clarissa had a low view of women? Ms Cahill made the interesting observation that Carter can be seen “to question Richardson’s entire project.” That is, Carter didn’t believe Richardson really meant to give women autonomy, respect, control over their destiny.

Since Professor Dussinger was there, we got into a lively discussion afterwards. He Sam Cahill [UPDATE; see comments] told of how Richardson didn’t treat one of his correspondents, Sarah Westcomb with respect since Westcomb did not have a strong personality, even though Westcomb had real literary gifts (apparent in her letters). Richardson was harder on submissive women! He enjoyed the give-and-take of the confident aggressive type like Hester Mulso. Apparently Richardson didn’t respect his own daughters’ intellect.
On his behalf he did publish a number of women’s books and poems, including Carter’s translation from Epictetus.

I thought it would be interesting if we could know what women thought of Mary Wortley Montagu’s presentation of Islamic women as satisfied & happy in her Turkish Letters. I’m not sure that attitudes towards education for women can be aligned with specific religions, as it was French catholic women who wrote such remarkable treatises on education and educated women (e.g., Madame de Genlis and Louise D’Epinay). It was very important for example that in France women were given by custom much liberty in socializing, and the saloniere was not an unusual figure in elite culture.

The last session I attended at the conference was a roundtable dedicated to discussing “Richardson in the 21st Century.” It was in one of the large ballrooms; the chairs for everyone who showed up were set up in a large circle. Jim came with me after we had bought wine and beer at the one hotel bar we had found.

The speakers: Margaret Doody argued that the writing culture on the Net (facebooks, listservs, websites, blogs) and the present change in western cultural atmosphere brought about by mingling with women from Islamic and traditional cultures where women have the same problems 18th century women did has rendered a book like Clarissa believable and contemporary. To text one another as a way of living doesn’t seem improbable; we read everyday about women forced to marry, undergoing highly unjust punishments, unfree. Jocleyn Harris’s contribution fascinated me: she claimed that the 2007 film, Atonement by Joe Wright (based on Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize nominee novel) is a free adaptation of Richardson’s Clarissa. She said there was an allusion to the novel early in the film; that the characters and story were analogous at important points; that the ferris wheel which so improbably is found on the beach comes from the ferris wheel of Lovelace’s imagination in Clarissa. Betty Schellenberg discussed the edition of the complete correspondence of Richardson she is general editor for. William Warner wanted to see free indirect discourse in Richardson’s epistolary mode. Although hers was the shortest comment, Lisa Zunshine’s question, how can you lead a class of students to fall in love with Sir Charles Grandison elicited the most replies. I said I found I had liked Sir Charles upon his first appearance as rescuer of Harriet, but that within a page or so when an avalanche of compliments and astounded appreciation of the hero began, I lost all ability to take him seriously as a believable character.

I didn’t have the nerve to say anything else much. There was something strongly intimidating in the atmosphere. Possibly this was the result of having famous Richardsonians in a room where most of the people seemed to be young graduate students. It was, for example, asserted (as if there could be no other view) that the 1991 film of Clarissa is “ghastly” in the context of a reverse snobbery I’ve seen in comments on Austen movies that because it’s apparently faithful it’s dull. “Plodding” was the disdainful term. (Lisa Zunshine is an exception here; she told me she has watched the film many times and at times loved it.) There was an atmosphere of fannish respect. Finally, unfortunately, another apparent consensus among the “top” Richardsonians is the one Eagleton discussed in his book: we are to criticize Clarissa for really meaning no, and partly or a great deal sympathize with the vile Lovelace because forsooth sex is fun. Not with him—as Richardson is at pains to show us. (Of course there might be silent dissenters from thiS orthodoxy; if so, they didn’t speak up during the conference.)

So here is Eagleton’s rebutal. I recently read his The Rape of Clarissa, which I found to be an extraordinary insightful, humane & pro-woman book. Eagleton deplores (wittily) those who deconstruct Clarissa to side with Lovelace as standing up for the male hegemony and point of view of women’s sexuality that Lovelace enacts. A girl who does not want to have sex has the right not to sex; someone who does not want to be raped, is not to be mocked and castigated because she is tricked into it. Eagleton’s is one of the more persuasively at once ethical and radical readings of Clarissa I’ve come across. Yes it’s also about the class conflict in the book, and shows how central is the subjective act of writing, and how the violation is carried on through violating the written soul (and thus the movie cannot reproduce the book except through translation or analogy—they used the masquerade), but central to Eagleton’s argument that Clarissa has in our time (he writes just after the 1970s, the first explosion of the 2nd wave of feminism) become a central statement again is the sympathetic depiction of female sexuality in the book. I can’t recommend The Rape of Clarissa too highly. Eagleton has also good sections on Pamela and Grandison too.

Sean Bean as Lovelace wringing bird’s neck as symbol of what he does to women, Sean Pertwee as Belford standing by (an allusion to Pope’s Windsor Forest savage hunt)

For the rest here I’d add to the roundtable that the present anti-feminist backlash adds to the relevance of both Clarissa and Pamela I; that to encourage students to like Sir Charles you should teach them just how awful was the permitted behavior of men to women in the 18th century (owning all property, controlling the woman’s children, men having the right to beat their wives, the macho male one-upmanship duelling nonsense).

As you know, on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, we mean to read Clarissa in real time starting on January 10, 2009. I hope to return to the film with renewed vigor and time and write something demonstrating its brilliance and power. And now I’ve ordered Atonement book and film, so I will be returning to this topic, Harriet.

The ferris wheel in Atonement (Focus, Universal, 2007, director Joe Wright, screenplay Christopher Hampton)

That’s all for this evening. I’ll send along another report soon.

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. P. S. All the sessions but the one where we saw editors of a prestigious university press were overwhelmingly made up of women. In the second, “Beyond Clarissa,” I counted 23 women to 4 men. These numbers may show how Richardson is still read as a male writer in drag :). It is true that increasingly those teaching in the humanities in college are women.
    Elinor    Apr 2, 12:15am    #
  2. Well, what a great time you seem to have had. In view of our read of Richardson, which we embark on January 2009. I thought it interesting that the”top Richardsonians” seem to think Richardson is particularly relevant in the present international climate. So perhaps our read becomes very timely. I was intrigued by your reference to Atonement. Perhaps we could read it after “Clarissa”? Just an idea.
    It was interesting that a new edition of Grandison is to be published. Looks like Richardson is getting more attention, or is it just me taking more notice.

    Clare Shepherd    Apr 2, 11:43am    #
  3. Yes yes yes. There is new interest in Grandison. Who would believe 2 separate sessions with 4 speakers in each, and a third session where Grandison was again discussed. I know on ECW we have two people who not that long ago read all of Grandison and this without being in a class where it was part of a mandatory assignment.

    Consider too that the Cambridge University Press edition is to be 4 not 3 volumes (Harris’s edition is 3 volumes) so much more room for notes, for contextualizing material, for pictures too. Of course it may be local conditions causing this: a group of scholars who push a text to a university which sees a chance of a prestigious publication. They also encourage individual students to take up the book. But that can go only so far.

    The papers were disappointing to me in a sense because only 1 of them (Mr Horowitz) tried to show why Grandison is again relevant to us; still, the interest was clearly there and I wondered why in the case of papers which showed Grandison to have a severe and punitive attitude towards women. What could be the purpose of proving this? An interesting comment in Peter Sabor's talk that didn't get much notice about how some readers prefer Clementina (George Sand was one; Scott another).

    More: I should mention a new abridgement of Clarissa is coming out from Broadview Press. It’s edited by John Richetti and Toni Bowers. I realize both are eminent tenured scholars and the edition will (I fervently hope) be a better chosen abridgement than the previous. George Sherburn’s (the one now most people get) emphasizes religion (Vol 4 is 1/4 of the book), but he also does cut in a way that keeps sympathy for Clarissa. It is possible to cut in ways that make the reader sympathize with Lovelace; you remove some of his more cruel letters. I think that’s what happened in the 1950s Modern Library edition by Burrell.

    But I fear the new consensus that we are to be somewhat even-handed will be reflected in the selection of letters chosen for the edition. Feminism is scoffed at even in the academy, so Doody’s history of the novel, The True Story of the Novel is called preposterous and in Richetti’s Cambridge Companion to the novel it’s assumed Watt’s thesis the novel arose from 4 men and 1 women (Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Austen) is adequate. There’s also in the academy too a lack of real empathy for victims, the powerless and women as an assumption, no movement towards understanding retreat as a life’s choice. Beyond this, any abridgement will necessarily select and distort.

    All that said, I know I’ll get the Broadview and be grateful for it as a text to use.

    And as I wrote there’s a new generation of books on Richardson that I’ve not read as yet at all.

    As to reading Atonement on ECW after Clarissa. I’d love to. Yes, let’s. And let’s discuss the film Atonement and see if we agree it’s a free adaptation of Clarissa. I’ve been told McEwan’s book is superb. From Kathy C:

    “He IS nominated for the Booker Prize every year or so and does deserve it. Atonement is a historical, psychological novel of sorts, the main events set during WWII, and the reader doesn’t understand who is penitent till nearly the end of the book (as I remember): chronologically it goes backwards.”

    Elinor    Apr 2, 12:35pm    #
  4. The books Woman on the Edge of Time and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sound like books I would like reading. Have you read either of them? Sweet Briar’s library does not have either of those books, and I am disappointed.
    Jennica    Apr 2, 7:45pm    #
  5. Dear Jennica,

    Who wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? What a great title! Marge Piercy has a wonderful book of poems called The Moon is Always Female.

    I have a very old frail copy of Woman on the Edge of Time. I’m afraid if I tried to read it, it would fall apart. Do read it, Jennica, and write back here again and tell me and the others who read this blog what you think of it.

    It’s good to hear from you. Surely you will be graduating soon.

    Elinor    Apr 3, 1:14am    #
  6. I really enjoyed reading this blog – the sessions on Richardson sound interesting indeed, though I’m dismayed by the thought of too much sympathy with Lovelace. I will definitely read The Rape of Clarissa.
    Judy    Apr 3, 2:04pm    #
  7. From Sam Cahill:

    “Dear Ellen,

    Thanks so much for these descriptions of the Grandison panels! I wasn’t able to make any of the Thursday sessions and was very upset. Thanks for the great info!

    It was lovely chatting with you in Portland and I look forward to reading Clarissa in 2009.

    Take care,
    Elinor    Apr 9, 6:36pm    #
  8. Dear Ellen,

    It was good to see you in Portland and subsequently to have the benefit of your perceptive remarks on some of the panels that we both attended. But for the record I’d like to say that it was really Sam Cahill, not me, who had the impression that Richardson lacked respect for Sarah Wescomb and preferred tough-minded correspondents like Hester Mulso and Frances Grainger.

    Having edited all of the Richardson/Wescomb letters for Vol. 4 of the upcoming Cambridge Edition of the Correspondence, I can say with confidence that Richardson greatly valued his friendship with Sarah Wescomb and visited both Sarah and her mother at their stately Enfield home. The Wescombs would often send their carriage down to London to fetch Richardson. After her mother died from a long bout of gout, Sarah married John Scudamore of Kentchurch, Herefordshire, where she gave birth to a large and happy family. Even though Richardson was suffering from nervous disorders he still valiantly gave the bride away at the wedding ceremony held at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square (the same church where Georg Frederick Handel attended).

    Because of his poor health Richardson never made the long trip to Kentchurch, but they continued to correspond as Sarah gave birth to one child after another. By all appearances it was a very happy marriage, and both Sarah and John lived forty years together.

    John D.
    John Dussinger    Apr 9, 7:05pm    #
  9. Thank you, Ellen, for a marvelous summary of the panels I most wanted to see at ASECS this year (I wasn’t able to make it because of a death in the family). I’m fascinated and delighted by the renewed interest in Grandison; it’s probably my favorite eighteenth-century novel, and although I understand why people would be put off by the endless praise of Sir Charles throughout the book, there is just so much there about the delicate balance of appropriate male behavior, the high diplomacy required in any thoughtful and respectful negotiation between Catholic and Protestant, the endless ins and outs of expected female behavior, that I’m always willing to start reading it again from the beginning. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the new Cambridge edition—it’s been too long since SCG was out of the reach of new readers.

    And for Jennica – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is by Robert A. Heinlein, and was first published in 1965. It’s a good read, and I loved it when I was younger, but like so much of Heinlein’s early work it is imbued with a profound sexism that is difficult to read past. The (tall, buxom) woman, improbably named Wye Knott, who helps to head the rebellion early on, for example, frequently ends up asking the dumb questions that allow the two men to present lengthy pages of necessary exposition to the reader. Occasionally she ends up going for coffee while the menfolk have important conversations. It becomes rather irritating.

    But, like all Heinlein, it pushes at a lot of barriers while respecting others. There are interesting libertarian philosophical asides that are worth the read just for a glimpse into a different way of thinking, and the tension between the overtly challenged gender expectations and the implicitly accepted ones in the novel is provocative. I’m not sure that it would make a good pairing with Woman on the Edge of Time, but there are some parallels—group marriage, near-future rebellion, the nature of self-awareness.
    Teri Doerksen    Apr 10, 11:49am    #

commenting closed for this article