And So We are Come to Clarissa's Dying, or, Has it Been Suicide?

Clarissa's death is moving and spun out through a series of pictorial-dramatic narratives ([Tuesday, Sept 5 - Soho, six o'clock, Sept. 7, Letters 465-75, Ross Penguin pp 1337-1356), and one feels curmugeonly to point out that Lovelace is not wrong to cry out at one point (though he generously says immediately afterwards he regrets saying this) that she does not forgive him, but triumphs over him by her pretense of Christian forgiveness. That this is not a modern notion might be demonstrated by Austen's Pride & Prejudice written not that long afterwards. When Mr Collins hears Lydia has run off with Wickham, his first letter instructs his cousin, Mr Bennett, to throw her off and never see her again; in his second, having heard that Mr Bennett actually received the young couple into his house after they married, Mr Collins expresses his shock and dismay as a clergyman particularly, concluding: "You ought certainly to forgive them as a christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or alow their names to be mentioned in your hearing," to which Mr Bennett gives the right rejoinder: "That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!"

Still enough has been delineated to convince us that Clarissa's refusal to see Lovelace is the result of deep trauma and loss of perspective and a real desire simply to die (which is part of the reason she's dying), that she would be shattered by his presence--well, at least at first anyhow.

Caroline Breashears is right to point out that the weeping of Anna and Clarissa's family, the sending of monies (well, a promise of it, real soon now), the compassionate proposal smack of the crocodile. No-one comes. No-one but Belford and at the last moment Morden.

In these last letters though the picture of Clarissa is sometimes that of the "languishing lady" (which Richardson himself cannot help sticking in as a phrase) of a romance, her tone is sympathetic, gentle, and certainly she's not got anything to live for in the world as it has presented itself to her. Her relatives, as she notes even at the last, do not believe she did not want independence; no-one much changes and they would all be at logger-heads soon enough. In fact it's hard to believe Clary had all those happy years before she became of marriageable age we are supposed to imagine.

Lovelace's letters provide a counterpoint of real sorrow, inability to understand, and childlike anger. He's the spoilt child whose mother is not giving him what he wants. But he too gains in these letters because his remorse is also real enough, if only momentary, and heightened by the frustration of being unable to go to see her.

Of course one could make fun of Clarissa's writing posthumous letters (will she never cease to, even after burial?), but this is from the other part of the mind we are supposed to shut off while reading these last melancholy missives of Belford tracing the gradual dissolution.


To this Caroline Breashears replied:

An eighteenth-century reader, Catharine Macaulay, says the heroine's death "is not so much the consequence of an oppressed mind, as a rigid adherence to the discipline of fasting" (Letters on Education [XV]).

How does Clarissa's death strike other readers? I'm torn. On one hand, I'm happy for her, knowing that (in Richardson's world) she's going to a place where she'll find peace and love. I think she's great. On the other hand, I think she's being slightly deceptive (as with the allegorical letter to Lovelace): she follows her doctor's orders, but she does so only technically, knowing that the principal ingredient--a will to live--is missing.

What I'd like to know is whether everyone (like Macaulay) thinks it's suicide. I'd also like to know how everyone finally feels about Clarissa.


To this I replied on the next day, September 8, 1995:

Re: Does Clarissa Commit Suicide?

Caroline brings up another of those taboo areas Richardson's text swirls around--the subject of suicide. It is revealing to find that an intelligent enlightenment woman like Catherine Macaulay was openly willing to say that Clarissa willed her own death. A Christian is supposed to wait for God's dispensation, and it was a mortal sin to do away with oneself; it is still unacceptable to most people today. One must be, as FR Leavis said, "on the whole for life."

So Richardson skirts around it. Since one of the physical characteristics of Clarissa's gradual decline is an ever-growing thinness, until at last she's "emaciated," it is natural to suppose she's simply stopped eating. The problem is that early on she denies this; she says she will carry on, and eat and drink as well as she can and submit to God's will. On the other hand there are several points at which we see she cannot eat; her distress is just too great. Another resolution of the problem Richardson throws us is that God himself is somehow "taking" Clarissa to him; all the talk about these "assurances" suggest some inward dialogue between Clarissa and her God for hours on end as she prays and he gradually weans her, so to speak, from the world.

The solution might be to see this ending as unrealistic or "transcending realism." People are said to die of broken hearts; it is a commonplace that psyche and soma are absolutely intertwined, and Clarissa's spirit having been shattered by her world, her body also wastes away.

The problem here is that Richardson's fiction is so strongly mimetic and his great strength is in his psychological reality and convincing dramatic and pictorial narratives, and a lot of readers will somewhere in their minds be thinking to themselves, hmmn, nineteen year olds are pretty strong; it takes a lot to kill them, and physical nature would, realistically speaking, probably bounce back. Clarissa might remain psychologically maimed for life, but physically the body is stubborn and carries on. So she wills her death, exactly how we are not told.

If we come to this conclusion we find Richardson once again anything but conventional, anything but the upholder of the established order and conventional morality.

Ellen Moody

Then Caroline wrote again:

Subject: Death, Reading

I'm still musing about Clarissa's death. Ellen Moody ended her last,

If we come to this conclusion [Clarissa wills her death] we find Richardson once again anything but conventional, anything but the upholder of the established order and conventional morality.

It seems to me that Richardson is trying to have things both ways. Like Steele (see, for instance, Tatler 84), he thinks the good woman's only option--only heroic option--when raped is suicide: Lucretia-like, she kills herself. On the other hand, he believes a Christian does not kill herself. Clarissa therefore repeatedly trumpets her adherence to all prescriptions so that she remains the exemplary Christian. She must kill herself, and yet she must not kill herself. Does that ambivalence make Richardson conventional or unconventional?

Clarissa wills her death. Again and again she says she wishes to get above the world and be happy. She does it. This aspect of Clarissa's death seems to me one of the most bittersweet points in the novel. Only in dying does Clarissa have her will. Alive, she is the pawn of "friends" and "lovers" who deny her everything she wishes--compassion, freedom, a single life. Dead, she is mourned vehemently, yet ignored in the very articles upon which she had set her heart. I confess I peeked at tomorrow's reading, in which James Harlowe mingles sorrow with disrespect for his dead sister:

If we know her will in relation to the funeral, it shall be punctually complied with: as shall everything in it that is fit or reasonable to be performed; and this without the intervention of strangers. (Letter 494.1)

As ever, the Harlowes will decide what is fit: Clarissa's family respects her will when she is dead no more than they did when she was alive.

Caroline Brashears

John Dussinger then wrote as follows:

Ian Watt thought that the latter part of CLARISSA was morbid about death and attributed it to the peculiar mode of the Graveyard School and all the rest in the later 18th c. But maybe we're in better shape in the 1990s than Ian Watt in the 1950s to appreciate the elaborate discourse on death now in place among all the Hospice support groups in this country, at least. There are probably similar arrangements in other medical centers elsewhere in the world.

When I first approached CLARISSA as a graduate student at Princeton, I had already savored fantastic courses in medieval literature that stressed the surprising coherence of "ideology" over centures of Biblical commentary on record in the PATROLOGIA. Coming from that theological source, I felt then, and still feel now, that Richardson was perfectly orthodox and sincere in believing that a GOOD DEATHBED was almost undeniable proof that the soul did go off to better place. In other words, R did not bother to suggest that Lovelace would follow Don Juan to hell. We can use our imaginations. But at least this relentlessly "perfectionist" follower of Thomas a Kempis, et al. on the imitation of Christ, had plenty of textual justification for feeling confident that she was on course. No, Richardson should be commended for not interfering unnecessarily with the details of religious belief. Like Jane Austen many years later, he seemed to anticipate that the less said, the better, about such matters as religious doctrine and belief.

Did I say anything new? I completely agree with Ellen and Caroline, in any case. About that final celebration, instead of trying to tease out autobiographical accounts of what reading CLARISSA according to the present calendar has done for individual readers, maybe a less ambitious question might be narrowed to the matter of what moments in all this year's movement through the seasons made the most impact on our experience of the novel. I'm not sure that I can answer this question myself. But I felt it was worth asking anyway.


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