Epistolary Narrative: Strengths and Weaknesses

Robert Adams Day's book pointed out long ago the intricate connection between dramatic and pictorial narrative to the moment in a novel and the use of epistolary narrative. We see here in this sequence its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: Letters 333-4, Sunday night July 16 though Monday July 17 (Ross Penguin pp 1050-68). This is riveting drama; the conversations are utterly natural and we are with Clary as the wolves surround her and begin to tear her to pieces. I liked her quiet ironic moments of counterthrust best because the language is so like what one encounters all the time, only lifted a bit, polished, and then set into this scene of debt collectors. Has anyone here ever had a phone call from one of these people? I have. The sponging house is still with us only it takes the form of the acid voice on the phone reminding you about your bill for your charge card, and then the bullying intimatidating threats of the people they sell their bad credit lines to. But here's our Clary:

"were it not better to give way to the two gentlewomen's offer to bail her?--They could tell her, it was a very kind proffer; and what was not to be met with every day.

She believed so" (Ross Penguin, p 1059).

I love it. True grit.

The conversation between Belford and Clarissa when he comes to rescue her contrasts in tone and attitude beautifully (as perhaps Henry James would put it, but then he would call the above irony of Clarissa magnificent and I can only allude to the modern movie). The immediate dramatic scenes here (Letters 336-9, Monday night, July 17 to Tuesday night, July 18, Ross Penguin, pp 1069-80) show Clarissa dominating Belford with ease. If one can accept that such a conversation might conceivably happen--not really probable, people don't talk in this high-minded a way for any length of time--if however we suspend disbelief, one can say that one reason Lovelace never allowed Clarissa to get anywhere near him morally or emotionally (his love is an external kind of worship), is that had they married she would have become the stronger presence in the relationship. Had Lovelace in other words allowed Clarissa really to get near him, reach him where he lives as Belford now allows her, having experienced and seen all she went through, she would have been his mistress in the more powerful sense of the term.

I did find her taking Belford's arm touching on the previous day. She voices the same quiet ironic voice: "I have not had good people about me for a long time before; so that (with half a smile) I had begun to wonder whither they had all gone" (Ross Penguin p 1076). The ironic suggests underneath it all has remained an element in her mind the world cannot get to, and that will resurface once the wolves go away.

Belford's visit on the 19th brings us to Doctor H in; Richardson anticipates a certain overdoing of it with having Belford talk about Clarissa finds fathers and mothers everywhere. I suppose were this turned into a play or read aloud one way to do it would be to emphasize the shattering of Clarissa's spirit. The lies told Clarissa about her dresses are also interesting. Lying is sometimes the right thing to do. It also keeps the narrative realistic. How does Clary pay the rent? buy food? pay for her nurse? This is not a dreamland where such questions are not considered.

Lovelace's self-justifying and playful letters interwoven throughout this sequence show him to be shallow in the extreme. One wonders what would have happened to him had he not had money? Had the world closed in on him? They not only only reinforce the moral stance of the book (we are responsible for what we do and what happens as a result of what we do), but they also Clarissa's position the more tenable. Who could marry such trivial person? He is irremediably frivolous.

Now for the weakness: it may seem unimportant but it causes the novel to be somewhat misread. Anna's letter of the 20th (351, Thursday, Ross Penguin, p 1109) brings Anna before us still not coming to her friend. At this point what would be more natural than Anna go to visit Clarissa. But she can't, for then we'd have no letters. So Richardson must provide a letter from Mrs Howe where we learn Mrs Howe is taking her daughter to the Isle of Wight. It is death, Anna says, notto see Clary first, but the stern demands of epistolary narrative come first. Perhaps people read too much into nobody coming to see Clary; if they did, they needn't write to her, and then where would we or Richardson be?


Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Her Longing for Death, for Escape, for Nature or God to Take Her

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