One Last Determined Assault

Letters 73-83 (which stretch from Saturday, April 1st, and record the movement of time with an intensity which makes each moment lengthen out so we Tuesday morning at six o'clock on April 4th, to conclude in Thursday night, April 6th, pp 287-342, well over 50 pages of behavior on the part of the Harlowe family which is obsessive, compulsive, and repetitive--dreamlike, a nightmare) are a kind of culmination of all the phases of Clarissa's struggle with her family, from that with her mother to that with her siblings, to finally the father at least letting his presence be brought forward.

As I read these letters, I think to myself even someone who might not be drawn into Richardson's fictions would be hard put to deny the vividness of the visualized scenes, the acute dialogues which persuade one that there are really presences here, the tensions which seem to lift off the page. Those who would be sickened by the violence and by the implicitly half-approved of demand that Clarissa bow down and kiss the family's whip, might still find themselves admiring Clarissa's heroism in the face of this determined assault, even if later in the book Richardson's attitude is revealed as not as unambiguous towards it as we could wish. As a result of some of our members' remarks I was made aware that the very limited nature of the physical violence (it is limited at the worst to arm wrenching--not that this doesn't hurt) makes the whole thing all the more believable.

There is so much to be remembered and discussed--an embarrassment of riches indeed. I just thought I might be practical in the sense of looking to how Richardson is working out his plot and at the same time Clarissa's character by pointing to the repeated admonitions of Dolly and Anna--and even, though I'm stretching it here, perhaps by implication Clarissa's Aunt Hervey--that once she goes, she must marry Lovelace and immediately; that in fact, to go is to marry if she wants to be safe.

The words fall from Dolly's mouth "without hesitation" that she would have

Mr. Lovelace out-of-hand, and take up her own estate, if she were me [that's what she'd do]; and there would be an end of it.

But of course there would be an end of Richardson's novel, so Clary can't do this [joke alert, joke alert].

In Anna's pained letter in which she has to confess to her friend that her mother, Mrs Howe (Letter 81, Ross Penguin, pp 329-332) will not interfere, Anna goes back and forth, but her plans for Clarissa to live alone seem ludicrously unreal, and at one point she says "I should long ago have take your Dolly's advice--yet I dare not touch that key." Dolly's "tenderness" is a function of her lack of hypocrisy which makes her appealing.

Clarissa's letter dated the same day, Thursday, today, April 6th (when it is a beautiful peaceful balmy day in Virginia and my husband and I plan a long walk this evening), shows her at her best: she sees her pride, her vanity; she's also not fooled by her aunt's moralisms, Polonius-like, the Aunt is ready with the maxims. Clary's reply: "I cannot tell what." I think Richardson's repeating of the sentence: "I am excessively uneasy" in various forms also adds to the ominous feel, a kind of drumbeat. But it's clear Clarissa has not seen that her irresolution with regard to Lovelace can do her no good at a her statement: "that he should not hint marriage to me, till I consented to hear him upon that subject will be the teasing bait with which he'll begin his name, as he waits for her to speak. (Sharp real game everyone still plays today when they find it convenient and can.)

I should like to answer Adele Fasick partly by simply agreeing to differ. I do see that the economic marketplace made the appearance of virginity a prime prize not to be sold cheap, I say the appearance for one wonders whether the public discourse reflected the reality in many cases. I still believe that they are horrified by the loss of virginity in and of itself, and would add that the extraordinary emphasis on it which is found in middle-class literature between the later 18th century up to WWI is by no means a criteria for agreeing with it. For myself I'm too old to be considered someone whose morality was formed in the late 20th century, more like 1950's I'm afraid.


To this Caroline Brashears replied:

As Ellen Moody says, there is an embarrassment of riches in this week's reading. I'll begin by following up on her observation that Anna and Dolly repeatedly admonish Clarissa to marry Lovelace if she goes with him. Anna and Dolly weren't the only ones who felt that way. Lady Mary, who eloped with Wortley under similar circumstances, blamed Clarissa as

so faulty in her behaviour as to deserve little Compassion. Any Girl that runs away with a young Fellow without intending to marry him should be carry'd to Bridewell or Bedlam the next day.

I don't know if Lady Mary saw the irony in her statement--that Clarissa does temporarily lose her sanity and even spends several days in a sponging house. What she must have seen, however, was the pragmatism of Anna's advice. It's this constant juxtaposition of Anna and Clarissa, the practical and the punctilious, that makes us aware of just how extraordinary Clarissa is--and how doomed. She is, as Anna remarks earlier, made for the next world; Anna is for this.

That's one reason I admire Anna so much. I concede that Anna is at times unkind to Hickman, that sometimes her wit scathes where it should rally. Yet, I think her circumstances--a young woman pressured into a state desired by few, a state that usually meant great loss of power for women--should make us allow much. Then, she has so many fine qualities. In this point, I think my attitude toward Anna resembles that toward the heroine of our much-discussed GWTW: I don't condone her unkindness, but I do admire her spirit, her will to survive.

Clarissa's chances of survival lessen with every letter this week. We know what happens when she goes with Lovelace; this week's letters clarify what will happen if she stays at home. The consequences are the same: rape. Solmes's sadistic enjoyment of Clarissa's suffering, and James's hints that Solmes should punish Clarissa once married, indicate what will happen in the bedroom. Aunt Hervey's threats, however, suggest another, figurative parallel to what does happen to Clarissa: "ill or well, the ceremony will probably be performed." The family, women as well as men, will force Clarissa through the wedding even if she is in fits--just as the whores will assist Lovelace in the rape when Clarissa is unconscious. Both performances are empty mockeries of the conjugal state, insisted upon to break Clarissa and prevent anyone else from ever having her.

I wonder if the anti-Clarissa members of our group pity her at this point? I certainly do.

Caroline Breashears :

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