Psychological Depths & Complexity: Absolute for Death--and Terror

The letters which stretch from Tuesday August 22 to Wednesday August 30 (Nos 417-41, Ross Penguin, pp 1218-78) are remarkable for the variety of voices introduced and the psychological depth & complexities of experience Richardson is able to present and plumb through his interwoven dramatic and meditative narratives into which he has embedded so many allusions to the Bible. They have also to many readers seemed unacceptable because of the attitudes towards death presented in them.

It is remarkable how Richardson maintains a narrative which is ratiocinative and linked coherently while bringing home to us the completely non-reasonable state of her mind. Perhaps this is one way in which the Job meditations work. Throughout the whole sequence he also conveys to us through the mistaken conclusions everyone else who writes makes about her, their continually as we nowadays say, "not getting it," and the irrelevancy of their worldly morality.

The common sense daylight mind might say, well, she has lost all perspective, and this is reprehensible or some such word, but the point is the perspective's gone. You cannot reason with a mind caught up in this emotional whirl: her sense of Lovelace can only be articulated through extremes of images: he is her enemy and persecutes her soul; he lurks everywhere; he's just around the corner about to pounce; she feels terror; she's all alone, a sparrow; the image here is the wrathful God of Calvinistic thought. It's like a child afraid of a sound or noise (or to be lighter in tone, of going down the drain); no use reasoning or talking, the fear is too primal (it doesn't matter that the drain is too small; that's not it). And Lovelace's complete inadequacy in his ludicrous attempt to interpret the meditation brings home how shallow he is, how far from grasping the depth of her repulsion. We can then see her growing into a skeleton sympathetically and her death is right. It is the only thing she can do with integrity.

Similarly the narratives of Lovelace's ugly, sometimes pathetically childlike and absurd (his behavior at the counter and elsewhere reminds me of stories told of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester dressing up similarly and selling things in the street as a mountebank), sometimes crude and then again desperate and undignified searches are all psychologically and morally astute. That he gets everyone to laugh pleases him; he doesn't stop to think the varied emotions that go into laughter (including nervousness, a kind of animal response to gain balance). The conclusion of Lovelace's narrative with his "serious conversation" (Ross Penguin p 1222) is moving; here we see he has not only this overwhelming enthrallment upon seeing her (which he evidences elsewhere) but a kind of tenderness for her. That he could have loved her, even if he never could have understood her.

The three letters for Tuesday August 29 (Nos 440-441, Ross Penguin pp 1273-1295) takes further into Richardson's peculiarly devious appointment and longed-for encounter with death. It's hard to imagine one dying in any prepared or even controlled manner such as Clarissa is here attempting. It does seem, again to the common sense daylight mind which fears annihiliation above all, instinctively sees in death the ultimate evil that can happen to any individual, if forgiven and therefore dismissed as the product of an unhealthy mind, then called bad names like neurotic or ugly, strange, vengeful. It is sinful has been the conventional way of putting it. it does seem to me that when just about everything leaves the brain what maybe will be left are some, if you are lucky, sense of images of loved people or very old memories of physical places, maybe from childhood or some important time in one's life. Maybe a line from a book or poem which is deeply intertwined with one's cherished memories and imaginings come back.

In this connection I'd like to bring uyp Richardson's presentation of Belton's terror. Again Richardson is determined to do it in slow time and not dissolve away. It is hard for a non-believer to enter into this scene, and to me it shows how counter-productive is the belief in an afterlife. If what religion offers is peace, it reneges on the promise; it increases people's terror of death. It has been remarked that many of the "good death" scenes in fiction are just that fiction. Prettied up in just about every way one can imagine. Belford's words cannot comfort Belton. We must suppose many 18th century readers entered into this kind of narrative fully & identified on some level with Belford even if they said well, "he's other; I'm not a sinner, &c &c." I find the dramatic narratives touching, and am indignant on poor Belford's behalf, and wish someone would come and tell the man, it's all nonsense, die in peace and tell yourself you're well quit of this scene & maybe you did make a success of it or knew some happiness in your way. Let's think it out and see if we can't find something. There is no-one there to tell him this: Mowbray mocks, and Belford who here stands in as the agent of the establishment which inculcated such belief increases the terror.


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