On Epistolary Narrative

The year began on C18-L with a free-wheeling discussion of what is most striking about Clarissa: it is told in letters. I contributed the following brief comments inside other postings:

Let me suggest that in Clarissa the letter become free-ranging prose poems; sometimes mad, sometimes hysterical, often leading to pages and pages of dramatic narrative which read like a play, and that while we read we are entirely immersed in the meditation or the dramatic narrative and are not thinking of role models. I think the book is a kind of strange poetry, deeply romantic (now someone will object I know), and exemplies Shelley's argument in his Defense of Poetry that the idea that a book which cannot be turned into some direct relevant moral cannot be great. Shelley writes:

The whole objection ... rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. Ethical science arranged the elements which poetry created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life ... [poetry rather] awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought ...

Take a letter by Clarissa, or one by Lovelace, who are our brilliant characters in this book, both of them. As one reads one is not thinking about action so much, nor about its relation to the real world, but about the "combinations of thought" that are presented as we go. Each letter is an utterly free meditation which goes here and there and everywhere. The personality of Clarissa is to me one which"apprehends" deeply moving thoughts, sometimes "greatly good." The personality of Lovelace is amusing and entertaining and subversive in a shallow way; he can rivet you with his wit and imagery; I suggest careful reading wil show she is more deeply subversive of the ordering of her world, particularly of its materialism and the vicious use of sex.

That it will take real stamina to read Clarissa in real time is also interesting. Clarissa begins on January 10th. Some of the sequences attached to a given day are very long with letters within letters; others are short. The book falls into diary which no-one could really write--and we will find hard to read--in the time allowed. There are also a couple of significant gaps in time. We are about to have one, the month Clarissa spends with Miss Howe. The next occurs at the close of the book just before Morden kills Lovelace. I don't think that epistolary technique when it is exploited to its fullest can have verisimilitude. Clarissa is at its best profoundly unreal. So too Grandison when it comes Volumes III to V where the powerful Italian sequences are embedded and interlaced into the English.

One thing this novel does do is show people's attitudes towards sexual antagonism and love and what is happiness. It's a kind of litmus test. Richardson's epistolary narrative whether he liked this or not leaves each reader free to react without the controlling omniscient narrator (I am thinking particularly of his rival, Henry Fielding).

Epistolary narrative therefore makes it very hard to present a psychologically convincing character as a firm role model which exemplifies this or that attitude towards life.

I'd like to remark here at the start of this year together that the label role model is one I have learned to dislike, not only because it is too simple, but because of the way in which it is used. In my experience, particularly in classrooms, I have seen it so easily twisted into a kind of literal this for that kind of equation.

In real life people also talk of role models, and often these (when sent into schools for children) can have the pernicious effect of making younger people ashamed of themselves or their mother or father on the basis of external prizes or prestigious visibilia the so-called "model" seems to carry around. The father or mother has worked hard all day doing some non-prestigious work; the child is sent to school to see a man or woman in a suit with a fancy tie (or ribbon) and shiny shoes. The manipulation is base.

People seek to validate present experience by citing role models. This seems to me to distort the writer's original intentions, which I am chary of. It often seems (to me) the reading is highly anachronistic; we are turning the text into one we would prefer rather than what is there. I do not believe we should judge books by whether we think they condone immoral or moral behavior which really is a matter of deciding whether a book is great in accordance whether it presents behavior we like or can identify with, a vision that is congenial to us.

Ellen Moody

Corey Brady on this day forwarded to the list the following:

I suppose I shouldn't be jumping into the pool without first testing the waters, but where does it come to you -- and to Elizabeth Lynch -- that letters convey our inmost thoughts? When you write letters, when you and we write these e-mail things, do we convey our inmost thoughts? We often write as we speak, tailoring our "discourse" for the person we expect to be reading us. E. M. Forster, in "Aspects of the Novel" says we ALWAYS know characters in novels better than we know people in life because the novelist can tell us for sure what characters are thinking, assert a sense of conviction that we don't always have for ourselves in life, much less for anyone who is not us. One of the characteristics of the epistolary form -- and, though consarn it I haven't started the novel yet, so forgive my weak memory if its failing me -- is to defer this very knowledge that Forster claims novels exploit, and as I recall, Richardson indulges the Richardson's technique, a quality of his realism is in part to exploit this aspect of his form. The whole question of "reliability" seems to me to be a silly and a modern issue. Should we expect characters in novels, their "voices," that is, to be more reliable than you or I?

Raphael Shargel

Then Corey herself wrote:

Dis/Ingenuousness of the Letters: The epistolary form would seem to ensure that the characters should express their true thoughts and feelings, especially as the letters (both between Clarissa and Anna and between Lovelace and Belford) are confidential, intimate (even code-written) communications. On the other hand, Richardson consistently undermines any basis for confidence in the characters' objectivity and honesty.

For example, Anna at first seems to be outside of both of the circles of conflict which surround Clarissa-those consisting of the Harlowes and of Lovelace's family and friends. However, Clarissa suggests in Letter 5 (Jan 20, p.55) that her brother James might have been married to Anna. So, her dislike of the family is not untainted. Later, too, we'll find that she was almost taken in by one of Lovelace's rake-friends. (I forget which--Mowbray?)

Clarissa could be accused of disingenuousness, both in her comments about her family and in her professions of dislike for Lovelace. She says of her summary account to Anna that she "will recite facts only," (L.2, Jan 13, p.41) and yet she repeatedly makes cutting comments about Bella in that letter. Also, her brief hesitations to revile her father and brother might be attacked as attempts to fan the flames of Anna's hatred. (See, especially, the end of Letter 5, Jan 20, p.54-5.)

In her early actions on the Lovelace question, Clarissa consistently follows the letter of the law of social courtesy and justice, and opens herself up to charges of hypocrisy (from her family, and, perhaps, from unsympathetic readers.) She feels the need to object to James and Bella's attacks when "their vehemence carried them beyond all bounds of probability." (L.4, Jan 15, p.49) Yet she maintains that she is indifferent to Lovelace, and even that he is objectionable. Why, then, all the fuss to defend his reputation in the *private* sphere of the Harlowe household?

All of these charges, of course, could be answered by the claim that Clarissa always acts according to her extremely high standards of morality, courtesy, and truth. But then, as readers, we are trapped into deciding (and testing) whether Clarissa is an angel or a mere human--precisely the situation which Lovelace says he is in! Why does Richardson do this?

Elizabeth Lynch then wrote:

While it might be better to wait until more of us are familiar with the work I can't restrain a few thoughts that bubble into mind. The first is agreement with your observation that the epistolary form seems to insure that we will hear the true thoughts and feelings of the characters and equal agreement with the assertion that Richardson often undermines confidence in their objectivity and consistency. Yes and yes, of course. But true thoughts and feelings are hardly ever objective or consistent. Thoughts can be entirely sincere yet utterly subjective and inconsistent. I think that is often the case. It seems to me that that is a part of Richardson's accomplishment in Clarissa. These characters ring true because they are all, to some extent or other, self-deceived and deceiving.

In fact, the novel can be read as a "road" novel, that is, a journey to self-knowledge. If read this way then we can expect these characters to be most duplicitous at their earliest appearances.

At this point I will bring another book into the discussion. I'm pretty well primed for this, since I finished writing a large paper on Clarissa last semester. I leaned heavily on Tom Keymer's "Clarissa and the Eighteenth Century Reader." It's full of good things. Keymer focuses on the reception of "Clarissa." How would the eighteenth-century reader understand the situations and characters in Clarissa? What did Richardson expect to accomplish? Why did he write this book? An astonishingly sensible approach. Keymer builds a compelling case that Richardson intended this as an exercise in developing moral judgment. Keymer quotes a letter from Richardson in which he acknowledged that Clarissa herself is not entirely trustworthy and that he did not mean her to be. The problem with Lovelace's appeal is well known. Richardson meant these to be equivocal situations in which the reader makes the call. I think the danger for the twentieth century reader, especially in reading the book a second time, is to be too rigorously suspicious of Clarissa. Terry Castle's book, "Clarissa's Ciphers," a energetic feminist interpretation, is a helpful antidote for that tendency.

On all of this I'd like to know what you and others think.

Then Brian Connery:

Thus far, I'd have to agree with Corey that I find the problem of Clarissa's character vexing. While I wouldn't necessarily agree that her comments on Bella are "cutting," there certainly is a gap between the sentiments expressed in her letters and her decorous behavior with her family. In her remarks about Bella and brother James, I think that she simply reveals her talent as a writer for apt characterization and dialogue in the course of reporting; in this, she reminds me of Sarah Fielding's Cynthia in *David Simple*, who has too much wit for a young woman and learns to moderate it. (The second part of *DS*, by the way,would be an interesting text to include in a consideration of "tragic novels.") In and of itself this gap doesn't bother me. It's when the question of Richardson's intention is introduced that I get lost (this happens to me with Defoe as well). I get the sense that Richardson approves of Clarissa's apparent doubleness here--and this troubles me. So I'm grateful to Elizabeth for her summary of Keymer, which sounds sensible enough. Keymer's reading seems consistent with the second half of C's sentence about reporting the "facts only," in which she invites her reader to "judge." This eliminates the problem of Richardson's intention--or at least the problem of adapting one's reading to an a priori set of values that one labels "Richardson"'s.

Finally Mari Schindele commented on the effect of letters as follows:

I agree with Elizabeth Lynch's worry that we not be too "rigorously suspicious" of Clarissa at the outset but I do catch myself trying to read between the lines, to see what she's "really" thinking. For example, I want to investigate her feelings for Lovelace not so much because I suspect her of disingenuousness, but rather because she seems so unsure of and frightened by her own feelings--she is not supplying us with sufficient material for a real interpretation so we have to read "suspiciously." For example, when she frets to Anna Howe that she fears LL will come to visit her at Anna's and then begs her friend not to leave them alone together if he does come, she actually seems to wish transparently for the opposite of what she asks for. Corey's point about her defending LL's character in a private context reinforces this reading. Of course, it's a very popular move to try to find evidence that Clarissa loves LL.

It's Cl's friendship with Anna rather than her questionable feelings for LL that arouse whatever suspicions I have at this point. Of course Cl constantly encourages and ultimately propels Anna into the arms of the tepid Hickman, but in what we've read so far she seems to treat her friend even more dubiously. Perhpas the only time she sides with Bella in the novel is when she approves of Bella's cutting picture of Anna (although she does reject Bella's epithet "flirt"). And I really did a double take when she says that Anna and her brother could have been married (shows how carefully I read this the other three times). Did I misread, or is Cl actually mildly chiding Anna for not marrying James and helping to moderate his problematic temperament? She certainly thinks Anna should've let him down more gently. If she did wish such a horrible marriage on her friend, why?

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