Romance, Married Names, and the Dread of the Liminal Wedding Night

I find Richardson's playing upon Clarissa's name in one of today's letters interesting because it is embedded in a conversation in which we find Lovelace adverting to the not yet exploded custom wherein a woman changes her name once she marries. There are those who call the taking of the husband's name an acknowledgement that the women is chattel:

"[Miss Rawlins] took it with an air of eager curiosity, and looked at the seal, ostentatiously coronetted; and at the superscription, reading out, To Robert Lovelace, Esq ;--Ay, madam--Ay, miss--that's my name (giving myself an air, though I had told it to them before). I am not ashamed of it. My wife's maiden name-- unmarried name, I shoudl rather say--fool that I am!--and I rubbed my cheek for vexation (fool enough in my conscience, Jack!) was Harlowe--Clarissa Harlowe--you heard me call her my Clarissa.--
I did--but thought it to be a feigned or love name said Miss Rawlins
I wonder what is Miss Rawlins's love-name, Jack (Letter 233 [June 7], Ross Penguin p 786).

There are several themes Richardson is playing most wittily upon. First the use of a romance lady name by young girls. It is a sign of their nubility; they themselves adopt them in order to separate themselves out from crude reality; they often use them as part of a friendship with other girls. It is a kind of secret name. Today many girls still try to change their name when they become teenagers. The passage is also an implicit acknowledgement that Richardson's novel belongs to the romance tradition which begins with Sidney's Arcadia, carries on through the heroic French seventeenth-century romances--and Madame de Scudery's Clelie includes a didactic characters named Clarisse.

More interesting because having deeper implications is the discussion of last names. Miss Rawlins is impressed by the Esq.. Lovelace gives himself an air because he knows it impresses. He also refers to Clarissa's married name. In the sequence to come Lovelace will gain the sympathy of Miss Rawlins and Mrs Moore. How? By pretending that he and Clarissa have not yet consummated. Clarissa does not use the last name because she is still a virgin is what he will eventually imply.

Eighteenth century novels often lead us up to the wedding ceremony and then stop there. We get no picture of what happened that night. Or they skip over the night and begin in the morning. One might ask, why? Prurience? The sense that the woman reader dreads this night because her culture has made so much of her virginity? Or do women long for the encounter at the same time as they fear it. I suggest the last idea is the one Richardson embodies in Miss Rawlins. It's interesting that the women believe Lovelace. A French novel which comes later, Isabelle de Montolieu's Caroline de Lichtfield has a heroine who is allowed to marry and leave her husband immediately afterwards. Is this a wish- fulfillment fantasy?

It is interesting how Richardson focuses in on this aspect of sexual anxiety for women. Lovelace is of course profoundly unsympathetic. But we do not have to take his attitude. Sex meant babies meant possible death for the average woman in the 18th century. Once married, her lot was set; there was no divorce, no turning back. Once her virginity was gone, she was seen in a wholly different light. More was expected, perhaps too much for a girl deliberately kept in an innocent state.

My own anecdotal and autobiographical knowledge tells me many women who remain virgins until they marry today dread this encounter still.

I suppose it is from this point of view we can see how cruel is Lovelace's light-hearted later comment at Hampstead:

And indeed the women and I, and my beloved took all mean the same thing: we only differ about the manner of coming at the proposed end... (Letter 237 [still June 7], Ross Penguin, p 806)

I like many readers take the easy out of getting a great kick out of the subversive ironic tone used about sex and love and marriage here; it's Richardson after all who is pursuing his terrified virgin heroine, who is escaping into the mask of Lovelace to break all the taboos of his world. But there is another outlook. One which understands what is at stake for women who are told to obey. Let us now recall Mrs Charlotte Harlowe's dread of her husband.


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