On Lovelace as a Literary Concoction Rather than Believable Character

Reading over yesterday's letter by Lovelace (Ross Penguin Let 127, Sat, Sunday, Mon) I was struck by (at least to me) how unreal he sometimes seems. He seems to me at times something drawn out of literary types, not only those of Nicholas Rowe, but of a group of gestures or attitudes that went by the name of rake in public. In The New York Review of Books_for April 20th, there was a persuasive analysis of the recent spate of sex surveys by R.C. Lewontin; he comes to the conclusion that what these surveys measure is not any hard facts about behavior but "an indissoluble jumble of pratices, attitudes, personal myths, and posturing" (p. 29). Although I admit to not having read Eaves & Kimbel for a long long time, I remember very clearly what Richardson's daily life really was: 18 hours a day of work, and then read by candlelight; he married the boss's daughter; one cannot imagine a very witty courtship; there's just not enough time in his older years for much social mixing among the "risque" or "le monde" (to use the French phrase). It's as if he believed the posturing of the cavalier poets (as in Suckling's "Out upon it, I have loved,/Three whole days together;/ And am like to love three more,/If it prove fair weather," and this only because it's her, any other and he'd long ago had beat his hasty retreat). There's a hollowness at the core of Lovelace.

Similarly Richardson's inability (for me at any rate) to portray Anna's relationship with Hickman in truly persuasive scenes (her argument today about how a man must begin with insolence in order to interest a woman is at the very least curious and argues a theory rather than any reality); and his unwillingness or discomfort in portraying the kind of natural softening, which I called love (but am willing to find another word if someone will suggest one), and which one might have expected of Clarissa at this point (people just don't behave in accordance with precepts in this way) seem to me to suggest _Clarissa_ is one of those works which grows out of books more perhaps than out of life.

This is not so with the family scenes we have just all trudged through--the two sisters, the mother & daughter, the brother versus sister, the final climax over Solmes, the aunt's visits&c, they persuaded me at least fully. The problem for me with the scenes with Betty Barnes is they recalled to my mind some of Defoe's dramatic narratives in his Religious Courtship and such like books. One could argue the power of the second phase of the book derives from the sexual combat itself not necessarily the persuasiveness with which the scenes are presented; it's the topic they swerve round rather than the way they swerve.

Perhaps I'm thinking about the literary roots or milieu of Richardson because in a class I teach we are reading Gay's Beggar's Opera; we saw a film by Jonathan Miller and are now working our way through the scenes. What in Gay is clearly meant ironically and cannot be seen as necessarily meant as real (rather as a kind of caricature) has been by Richardson taken for reality and in a sort of solemn way. I've been thinking that Richardson adheres to a Hobbist view of men and women; most people have their worldviews formed at a younger age, and Clarissa came late in life for Richardson; he would have been no longer young even in 1728 (39 years old) when Lockit first opined:

Lion, wolves, and vultures don't live together in herds, droves or flocks.-- Of all animals of prey, man is the only sociable one. Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.

I did find the passage in Boswell's Life of Johnson where Johnson refers to the taboo of virginity; one of Lovelace's passages on the "injury" a wife who is not a virgin does to the man who marries her:

the wife by a failure may do much more injury to the huband, than the husband to the wife, and not only to her husband, but to all his family, by obtruding another man's children into his possessions, perhaps to the exclusion of ... his own

is echoed by Johnson:

the chastity of women [is] of the utmost importance, as all property depends upon it (Everyman ed, II, 623). (/blockquote>

Of course the difference is that Lovelace invests the whole procedure of "the ordeal" to see if Clary can hang on to her virginity with such a sense of emotional and intensity (or "sacred" horror) that the robust practical explanation won't do for a convincing explanation of Lovelace's behavior or Clarissa's responses to his sexual advances. It belongs to "the savage mind" to use the old-fashioned phrase of Levi-Strauss's original formulation.

To end my little posting on Richardson's relationship to his milieu, like Gay's Peachums (who everyone will recall believe the widow's hope for her jointure is all that keeps her spirits up), Johnson is not too hopeful about the possibilities of permanent love or joy in marriage:

Sir, it is so far from being natural for a man and woman to live in a state of marriage, that we find all the motives which they have for remaining in that connection, and the restraints which civilized society imposes to prevent separation, are hardly sufficient to keep them together (II, 421).

This is of a piece with Murray's quotations from Johnson's journalism, and Johnson's not on bad grounds; if we look about us today we find when there's nothing to prevent the separation marriage fast becoming while not a thing of the past by no means anything to be depended upon by anyone.


Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Lovelace as a Literary Concoction: 'The Affair of Miss Betterton'
             In the Throes of Genuine Epistolarity: Quietude in Calendar vs Psychological Time

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