A Magnificent Entrance, a Virtuoso Letter

When Lovelace opens the curtain and delivers his soliloquy upon the stage (let 31, Monday, March 13, Ross Penguin, pp 142-8), revealing to us what Clarissa has not seen (now off stage & palmed off with grave letters meant for her "grave" eyes), Richardson begins a series of virtuoso performances: a series of letters, some dated earlier, follows, each in a different style, with a different mind set "personated" through allusion, points of view, tricks of grammar, all highly entertaining (particularly Uncle Anthony). In the Lovelace character Richardson repeatedly alludes to Milton's Satan (including the band of followers), to erotic dramatic & non-dramatic poetry (& even Rochester's "upon nothing," to suggest dire possibilities of atheism or nihilism, at any rate immorality), but I wonder this time through, if, as in the case of Fielding's famous presentation of Sophia Western in Book IV, complete with trumpets and flowers, Lovelace as a reality will survive such treatment. I'm impressed by Richardson's reading and facility with English; but is this persuasive that the man has everyone on his strings as puppets? that he is motivated by some original woman who jilted him and wants revenge "upon the sex." I guess what happens is after a series of letters we will begin to invent a plausible deeper inner narrative to fill the crevices which seem so gaping right now.

Prof Dussinger has suggested we should admire Clary for her faithfulness to her family, given the recent propensity of people to deny all obligation and loyalty and reciprocal bonds altogether, although as Alfred Lutz also rightly points out, they are sordidly selling her to the highest bidder, as families I am afraid regularly did before the later 19th century (and many still today though in disguised or muted forms). Probably though we should search in vain for an argued radical and moral objection to the Harlowes' behavior in Richardson; he's your conservative who finds evil in individuals or abuses of institutions, not the institutions themselves. Lovelace's argument here, for example, is not against what Kant I think says is one of the more vicious ways people can treat one another--as things for profit, ambition, and use (somewhere in _The Doctrine of Virtue_); it's simply he wants her to obey him, to become his obedient woman. I set what I called the Clary voice against this grinning distasteful half-sentence of the Lovelace voice:

and when the bird was flown, I set more value upon it, than when I had it safe in my cage, and could visit it when I pleased.

Can such a man know what love is? ownership, yes, that he's got down pat.

Still the charm and energy of the piece made me remember Dr Johnson's famous meditation upon the novel in his Rambler No. 4 particularly where he wrote:

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness, for being united with so much great merit.

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the art of murdering without pain.

A teacher in my undergraduate days informed the class that "doubtless" (or some such word) Johnson was referring to Tom Jones in the first paragraph; he said it could be nothing else, and that was that; end of discussion; and indeed Johnson condemned Fielding's book in no uncertain terms. But I have always wondered & never had the opportunity to ask anyone whether Johnson was not somewhere in the crevices of his mind thinking of Lovelace in the second paragraph of my excerpt, especially considering the last paragraph of No 4 which has always seemed to me to describe the function of the character of Clarissa in her book:

...I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform.

I know there can be no certain answer except well, maybe, given the year 1750 (just after & around Clarissa), and with the proviso that many other works of the period could fit Johnson's description. Still I wonder ... Ellen Moody

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