Family Violence in Clarissa and other novels

During the year of our group read of Clarissa in real time, several queries on Clary-L slid over into C18-L, and there also appeared on C18-L a number of queries on Clarissa which related directly to what the group on Clary-L was discussing.

One interesting one concerned the scenes of intense menace and violence which resulted in Clarissa's brother wrenching her arm sufficiently hard and for a long enough time that it hurt her badly. It included some thoughts on feelings we today could describe as sibling incest or at least the notion that a brother owned his sister's body and had the right to say how it would be disposed of in the period. This thread ran as follows:

I seem to have begun the conversation, but cannot find the whole of my posting, so I place here what I have and then Caroline's response to my posting in response to a query by Carol Sherman:

RE: Arm-Wrenching in _Clarissa_

I can refer Carol Sherman to a very long scene which takes place on April 3rd in Clarissa, "Tuesday evening; and continued through the night (Letter 78, Ross Penguin, pp 302-20, 18 pages of intensely menacing encounters) with a scene pointed out long ago in Ian Watt's book, the strikingly parallel moment in Tom Jones where because Sophia has refused the young man her father, Squire Western, wants her to marry, he "spurns" Sophia, and "dashes" her face to the ground, and she is left prostrate (Bk 6, Ch 7). Interestingly people do not remember Western as all that awful, but remember Mr Harlowe as terrifying and physically oppressive, and yet in the scenes in Clarissa in which the mother and father play roles there is rather a continual feel that violence is about to erupt, and the mother is very much on edge to the point of dread, but the father simply relies on his physical presence and an implied threat, i.e., in the earliest of the encounters:

Just then up came my papa, with a sternness in his looks that made me tremble!--he took two or three turns about my chamber--And then said to my mamma, who was silent as soon as she saw him--
My dear, you are long absent...Let us have you soon down--you daughter in your hand, if worthy of the name.
And down he went (Friday, March 3, Letter 16, Ross Penguin pp 87-94).

The book is that more powerful for the understatement.

Reading in date order and real time, one is rather continually aware of her mother's and her dread in anticipation of something; the mother says more than once in different ways to Clarissa that Clarissa doesn't know what she, Charlotte Harlowe, endures, but no specific horror committed by Mr Harlowe is ever given. It's a felt dread, something implied, repressed, and mental as we see it in the scenes given us. Now I would refer Carol Sherman to Tuesday, March 7, Letter 25 (Ross Penguin, pp122-6); and the scenes between Clarissa and the mother where the father is an absent presence downstairs, as when the mother says to Clarissa to be sure that Clarissa not let the father know she knows Clarissa and Lovelace correspond; at one point she writes a note in a kind of crescendo of dread telling Clarissa to burn one of her letters (Let 25.2, Ross Penguin pp 124-5) They are spied on by others who report on them.

There, however, is one long sequence though in the family scenes where violence does become physical, and does so twice. It occurs during the long series of dramatic narratives dated April 3rd (referred to above). On both occasions the franker bully is James. First, when Solmes is brought to Clarissa towards the end of the harrowing ordeal, she tries to leave the room, and her brother wrenches or twists her arm badly:

He had led me up to meet Mr Solmes, whose hand he took, as he himself held mine... I snatched my hand away.
How now miss!--
And how now, sir--whar right have YOU to dispose of my hand...
I would have broke from him, but he held my hand too fast.
Let me go, sir!--Why am I thus treated?-- You design, I doubt not, with your unmanly gripings, to hurt me, as you do: but again I say, wherefore is it that I am to be thus treated by YOU? He tossed my hand from him with a whirl that pained my very shoulder. I wept, and held my other hand to the part (Ross Penguin, p 306).

The second occurs when, closely recalling Sophia Western, Clarissa end up kneeling on the floor trying to reach her father (who has no pity anyway). Here it is:

I will not stire from my knees, continued I, without admission--at this door I beg it!--Oh let it be the door of mercy! and open it to me, honoured sir, I beseech you!--But this once, this once! although you were afterwards to shut it against me for ever!
The door was endeavoured to be opened on the inside, which made my brother let go the key on a sudden, and I pressing against it (all the time remaining on my knees) fell flat on my face into the other parlour; however, without hurting myself. But everybody was gone (Ross Penguin p 312).

There are so many obsessively repeated near and actual and dreaded confrontations.

On the issue of domestic violence there are many who have seen the O.J. Simpson case as an instance of domestic violence to the point of death, and who would point to the not guilty verdict here and elsewhere in similar cases as evidence that our society has not moved away from accepting as "human" severe physical violence wreaked by a man upon a woman.

Ellen Moody

To this Caroline replied:

From: Caroline Breashears

Subject: Kicking Clary

Carol Sherman asks about violence in Clarissa for a paper on scenes of family violence. Clarissa contains no scenes in which Mr. Harlowe kicks Clarissa or her mother, but it does have several charged scenes between Clarissa and her father.

In Letter 8, Clarissa kneels to her father and asks that she have only his will--not her brother's--to obey: "I was going on, but he was pleased to withdraw, leaving me on the floor."

Ellen Moody has pointed to Letter 78, in which Clarissa's brother wrenches her arm. In that letter, Clarissa also kneels at a door separating her from her father. She presses against the door, begging to be admitted; the door flies open, she falls flat on her face. The room is empty.

Ellen has also noted Western's cruelty to Sophia in Tom Jones. Another chilling scene of domestic violence appears in Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless, where Betsy's husband dashes her pet squirrel's brains out during an argument. The narrator comments first on the barbarity of this action, then notes

the bloody and inhuman deed being perpetrated by this injurious husband, merely in opposition to his wife, and because he knew it would give her some sort of affliction, was sufficient to convince her, that the took pleasure in giving pain to her, and also made her not doubt but he would stop at nothing for that purpose, provided it were safe, and came within the letter of the law. (Vol. 4, Ch. VII)

Of course, physical correction of wives was then legal.

I hope that helps.

Caroline Breashears

Arthur Weitzman had objected to my original posting in a way that was dismissive and by implication not a little scornful of the group to which I was said to belong, so I was led to expand on Caroline's and my first posting as follows:

Arthur J Weitzman writes:

"I wish people like Ellen Moody," to which I respond, "what category are you placing me in?" What kind of person am I, pray tell?

I did not say that the action in Clarissa resembled the brutal murder that was the cause of the O.J. Simpson trial; this is a misconstruction of my words. I said the mental ideas behind the acceptance of male authority and the legal right to physically beat a wife short of death are not by any means gone from our society. These ideas or attitudes lie behind Clarissa's family's infliction on her of their right to demand she marry Solmes. They are selling her. Is Mr Weitzman suggesting that anything a father commands a child to do, that child must do? I hestitate to call him "a kind of person" but I sense in his reply (and I regard him as speaking as an individual) an identification with this "disappointment felt by this father faced--in his mind-- with a disobedient child."

Is he also implying the rape is nothing. He writes: we are told "besides the rape of Clarissa, the only other violence in the novel is the duel..." What more would he have? Does he need more? Rape is an attack, a brutal attack; it has again and again by various individuals (whose categories I will not try to define) been linked to murder in its emotional context and it has been regarded by some societies as deserving the same punishment as murder. What would Lovelace or James Harlowe have to do to Clary to satisfy Mr Weitzman's ideas of violation sufficient to make one appalled or indignant or declare a crime has occurred. Obedience is apparently all. The child is the instrument of the father? the property is it? his views are to be those the child is to live out, no matter what these are?

And as to the various interpretations of the OJSimpson trial and verdict they are many and of interest to Americans. In my classroom a boy brought in a TV and asked for permission to put it on at one o-clock, When it was refused I was looked upon as unreasonable. When the class time ended he rushed to the front of the room, plugged that TV in and the whole class gathered round to watch and listen. People in the hall waiting for the next class came in to listen. The professor of the next class, like myself, had to wait until the verdict was heard. The emotions displayed were astonishing in a way I will agree because really the case is not emblematic or typical in many ways. But literally thousands of people have watched, discussed, written, and reacted with intense emotion to various aspects of this case. One important aspect is the issue of domestic violence. There have been many articles by women and men of various political points of view asserting this. One I will quote because she writes with stark clarity is Katha Pollit who said: "the OJ trial was always about domestic violence, and it still is. Americans don't want to believe that respectable men, much less beloved sports heroes, assualt and even kill girlfriends and wives." She then goes on to cite a case in Queens last year where one Karamchand Singh was acquitted of murder after he had "stabbed his former girlfriend twelve times and smashed her head with a four-pound piece of cable. Self- defense, said Mr. Singh; besides, she was a slut. Even his lawyer was stunned that the jury bought it." Other cases have been cited with similar details and results.

For the eighteenth century parallel, Caroline Brashears has quoted a "chilling scene of domestic violence appears in Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless." No, no-one pounds anybody with cement blocks. But these are novels for middle-class people and would not go to press if they presented the full sordid reality of some relationships. Caroline also went to the considerble trouble of finding several scenes of anguish and near-violence where humiliation is Clarissa's continual lot. And what for? For not wanting to sell herself in marriage to aggrandize her family, which taking the people into consideration who are for it means her father, uncles, and older brother. Caroline points out physical correction by men of women was well within the limit of the law. I invite Mr Weitzman to read Lawrence Stone's latest book Uncertain Unions and Broken Lives where not only is hideous violence inflicted on women by husbands and severe pressure of all sorts of psychological and other kinds of cruelties to make the child (it also happened to young men) "obey." This was condoned and accepted by that society and those women. Yes. And my point was the mindset is still here even in our supposedly enlightened society. It is crassly apparent in other societies today on this earth (witness wife murders in India, genital mutilation in Africa, forced prostitution in the far East). In more than one case in Stone a wife finally flees only because to stay would be to endure being literally beaten to death. In one incident which stays in my mind a husband comes upon his wife fleeing in a coach, takes everything out of said coach (as it's his), strips her, and then rips her ear-rings (pierced-type) out of her ears. But perhaps some people might say the ripping of these earrings out of her ears is, after all, though the only violence he committed.

Ellen Moody

On Clary-L, Katherine Larsen brought up the related issue of James's attitude towards his sister:

Perhaps I'm stating the obvious here (or the unthinkable?) but am I alone in feeling that James treats Clarissa more like a lover/husband than a brother, even a jealous and slighted brother? Perhaps being an only child I lack insight into sibling dynamics but The suggestion that Clarissa go to Scotland to act as her brother's housekeeper and the way he bids her "deserve his love" seem a mite suspect to me. Especially in light of Mr.B's relationship with his sister - who always struck me as being much too concerned with the sleeping arrangements - I wonder what's going on here. Is this a trite observation that everyone has gotten past long ago? Don't be afraid to let out a collective groan.


Kathy Larsen

Finally Carol Sherman thanked everyone:

Subject: Arm-Wrenching in _Clarissa_ To: Multiple recipients of list C18-L

Thank you to Ellen Moody, Arthur Weitzman, Caroline Breashears, Marty Wood, and Murray Brown for their lively and learned responses to my query regarding scenes of violence in 18th-c English prose-fictions. The door's being opened, letting Clarissa fall into the next room on her face is, yes, in the Sherburn abridgement (Riverside ed, p. 106) as is the brother's twisting of her arm (p. 103), scenes pointed out by Ellen. I quite see/feel the permanent threat of harm throughout the novel, an observation made by Ellen and by Marty; a life of terror can result from a single threat, accomplished or not, as observers of the battered-woman syndrome attest today.

Caroline reminded us of Ellen's reminder of Western's cruelty to Sophia (result=blood and tears) and adds a scene from Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless where husband kills wife's pet squirrel, which reminds me of the short-story made into film and shown on PBS in which women solve the mystery of a neighbor-woman's death by discovering that her husband had killed her pet bird, surely clear examples of displacement, not good for the animals, of course, but a sign of some ego-capacity--or of punitive superego--that seems less available to angry people today. (This is not an argument for substituting the torture of animals--or of children, which is common--for that of adults, just a remark on a mechanism of substitution or replacement.)

Murray offers an example from Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Harriet's bloody nose and bruises add to my wondering if these are not topoi of the topos: Julie's father, in La Nouvelle Heloise, and Suzanne's mother, in La Religieuse, cause the same injury in their children. The child-in-the-child is often destroyed also: miscarriage results for Julie, for Marie-Madeleine (Les Illustres Francoises), for Cecile (Les Liaisons dangereuses). The blood-and-tears motif, if it is one, and the sometimes double sacrifice attach the pictures, for some readers, to scenes of ritual sacrifice and of crucifixion. Ethnologists and others have studied legal exercise of physical violence in ancien-regime France and have found that it is a one-way street: parents to children, husbands to wives. To what extent these behaviors participate in supposed order-preserving rituals of child-sacrifice is a question I am asking myself. Many thanks again to all who helped.

Carol Sherman

Romance Languages


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