Genuine Epistolarity Demands We Read in Psychological Not Calendar Time

I thought I would like today to point out that one cannot really read Clarissa strictly in date order. In this section we again (as occurred previously) come to letters which are dated one day but include letters from a day earlier; e.g., from Clarissa Tuesday morning, 7 o'clock (No 62, Ross Penguin, pp 260-3) includes Uncle Harlowe's letter dated and therefore we are to suppose written on Monday night (62.1, p 260).

The new letters which extend out this quiet interlude before the final assault in the 3rd edition show the same circular tendency or what in ordinary language would be called backtracking: Anna's letter from the 1st edition as now numbered in Ross's Penguin is No 65 and dated Thursday March 30 (pp 272-6), but the new letter brought into the third edition in the voice of Hickman No 66 (LXVI, Butt Everyman Vol I, 335-6) is dated Wednesday March 29. Now to see the circles within the circles let us note the events described on March 30th occurred last Sunday and Monday (March 26th and 27th). We ought to remark that in this latter instance the new letter was obviously written after the old letter even though the date is earlier. Is this them true of some of the others? Did Richardson write them in date order; did he imagine each day with its letters and then rearrange for various kinds of interlace effects? Am I mad to imagine him sitting around with all these letters like cards in a hand? This usage of letters to delve in ever deeper circles and to bring in presences upon presences is what omniscient narrative can't do.

When I first read on C18-L that it was proposed to read Clarissa in date order, I thought this crazy because I believed it to be impossible and to go against the grain of the book. My memory of the book was not of "letters in continuation" in the sense of a chronology which moved straight ahead like our diurnal common sense usage of time feels to us, the thing we all agree upon when we ask what time it is; I rather remember an long diary whic had been cut up, into which many other letters have been threaded. What Richardson and epistolary narrators are able to do in this way is to capture through an interlace of letters what Stephan Zweig is the business of the truly great biographer who does not take us from day to day and spend an equal volume on all groups of ten years in someone's life but rather skips quickly over many years and spends chapters and chapters on three months. Allow me to quote his eloquent opening to his :

"Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings. Just as the historian pays little heed to slow and stagnant epochs, and his interest is focused upon a few and scattered but dramatic and decisive moments--so, for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly tthough the clock-hands circle at the customary pace. Then, as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats."

One use of letter which I have been surprized to find is that though Richardson's primary narrators are heroic, sublime, indefatigible and therefore unreal in their ability to write long letter and live too, the length of each of their letters is kept sufficiently realistic so that that one can feel one is reading one seeming day at a time. But we ought to remember we are cheating; it's not so. We are not reading just that one day, travelling across the mind as it moves back and forth in time sometimes to years ago and sometimes to just last night and then forward again into the future.

Ellen Moody

Other posts under this date in the novel:
             The Lady and the Maid

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