Clarissa's family's malices and her curious contradictory responses to Lovelace

Caroline Breashears began the thread which meditated the letters written on this day:

Sunday's letters shed new light on themes we've been discussing: Clarissa's credibility and her family's malice.

In Letter 89, Clarissa responds to Anna's charge that she really wants to go with Lovelace rather than with her. Clarissa says she fears damaging Anna's relationship with her mother and her reputation with the world: "And would you . . . voluntarily rush into the highest error that any of our sex can be guilty of?" Although the escapade would be criticized, surely Clarissa exaggerates the crime--"the highest error"--as well as the punishment. Clarissa does commit a higher error, and Anna thinks both her mother and Hickman would forgive her adventure. Clarissa, however, is an adept at finding scruples to hide, even from herself, her own motives.

Clarissa's announcement that she will not go with Lovelace likewise betrays her self-deception. Anna's letter has "absolutely determined me not to go away," she says--then adds, "at least, not tomorrow." As Richardson reveals, Clarissa is too harassed and confused to be "absolutely determined" about anything.

Letter 90 returns to the source of that confusion. Through Betty, Clarissa has learned that Mrs. Norton is to come Tuesday to help her through the wedding:

So she is first to endeavour to persuade me to comply and, when the violence is done, she is to comfort me and try to reconcile me to my fate. They expect fits and fetches . . . expostulations and exclamations, without number: but everybody will be prepared for them: and when it's over, it's over; and I shall be easy and pacified, when I find I cannot help it.

The Harlowe expectations and attitude toward the ceremony resemble Lovelace's toward the rape. The Harlowes differ, however, in adopting legal means to effect their end: Clarissa would be married, with her family's approval, under a clergyman's eyes. There is no "crime," they would say; "she's provided for, and we're a unified family."

It's that pretence to normalcy that makes these letters seem to me so terrifying. As Ellen has observed, the haunted coppice and garden seem Gothic. Perhaps the family and house are, too. Clarissa repeatedly says that the family used to be happy, that she used to delight in visiting her Uncle Antony at his house. Now everyone seems strange: home is a frightening place where virgins are imprisoned, odious suitors intrude, and sublime fathers glower and thunder. The wicked brother and sister hardly seem related to Clarissa, or even to each other, as they walk "lover-like" past her in the garden. The mother refuses to see her child. Clarissa becomes the stranger in her own home, becomes isolated and endangered by those sworn to protect her. It's the ultimate nightmare. If home isn't safe, where is?


To this I replied focussing on the letter Clarissa writes to Anna Howe from the"ivy summer-house, eleven o'clock" on that same morning of April 9th (No. 91, pp 366-70) as follows:

Re: Why Did She Meet and Run Away With Him?

I was when I first read the book and still am puzzled about why Clarissa leaves herself open to Lovelace's plot which enables him to run away with her. After all had she not gone down to the garden, and lingered there, and agreed to come again and again, he would not have succeeded in taking her away.

Why am I puzzled? To me it's not a matter of her family. I can believe she would flee them. Her brother is terrifying; at times it's clear he would prefer her to be dead. Solmes menaces vengeful sex for the trouble and humiliation she is putting him through. But more than this Clarissa seems not simply not to have the least esteem, gratitude, understanding of, playfulness towards, respect for, or the slightest pleasure at the sight of Lovelace. Indeed she seems barely able to tolerate his presence, except as she waits like some sort of cat for him to give her some opening to extend her claws in sharp words of complain, insult, argumentation or scorn. Their first dialogue in the garden in one of cat and mouse, it is a battle from the very start.

Caroline offers the idea that home is not safe and therefore she must run. David Evans wonders why she does not set up a separate house. I offer the idea I think is most explicit in the text: Clarissa really believed she would be forced into Solmes's bed.

I would also point to her physical timidity. My view of her reluctance to accept Lovelace's proposal is not that it's matter of punctilio, of gaining some ground in the relationship, but that she is frightened of him, scared of sex even with a man she seems also to find alluring. Now in the garden Lovelace simply scared her into it. Again she explicitly says she was frightened lest a physically violent encounter erupt between her male relatives (including the gouty father) and Lovelace and his silent nearby armed associates. A presentation of this kind of emotion in its more common form is found in Evelina where Willoughby succeeds in embarrassing Evelina into being abducted. I don't mean this as a joke; I point out to a continuum of behaviors from those we see in our daily life to this heightened theatrical moment in Richardson's gothic romance.

I could not agree more with Caroline that one inference from all this is that there is no safety. But I rather think Clarissa does not see this until much later in the book. She is not shattered to the limits of endurance even after the rape--once she recovers from the drugs. It seems to me she only begins to see how nowhere is safe after her time in the sponging-house when no-one came--but Belford, Lovelace's friend. I would then ask not why she does not resume her estate (she is too obedient, she wants a reconciliation and knows how grasping is her family, she might lose in court, she wouldn't know how to go about it without Morden's help &c&c). I bring this up to point to another option. Why did she not go to Lovelace's family. He offers this. She would have been safe there. The irony here is she doesn't go lest her family reject her complete, and in fact, had she gone to the M's, they might have been more than resigned to the "aristocratic" connection. I have always wondered if she didn't go because deep inside her she knew that way did lie marriage to Lovelace and the bedding down with a man whose least approach leads her to hysterics--as in the fire scene.

Ellen Moody

Other posts under this date in the novel:
             'The Wonderful Variety of Sounds:' Interlace in Clarissa
             The Crisis of Clarissa's Fate: The Irretrievable 'Escape'

Home Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 10 January 2003