Scenes of Sympathetic Affection: Richardson at His Best and Worst

In this week's letters (Fri, Sept 29 to Thursday, October 12, Letters 525-9, Ross Penguin pp 1459-72) Richardson shows an ability to create scenes of sympathetic affection which are touching, effective, not sentimental but real. At the same time we see how lacking he is in literary judgement--or shall I say tact. The accounting of Clarissa's hours for each day of her life is ludicrous.

The best: Lovelace appears once more through the mostly loving but rueful eyes of Belford, charming, slight, ever gay, hard to resist; Lovelace's mockery of Belford is not kind but it catches the ridiculous and relieves our feelings. Their parting is touching. The comic undertow of the rueful kind voice is perfect:

"'And for me, I never will, I never can marry--That I will not take a few liberties, and that I will not try to start some of my former game, I won't promise--Habits are not so easily shaken off--But they shall be my way of weaning. So return and reform shall go together.
'And now, thou sorrowful monkey, what aileth thee?' I do love him, my lord.
'Adieu!--And once more adieu!--embracing me--And when thou thinkest thou hast made thself an interest out yonder (looking up) then put in a word for thy Lovelace.'
Joining company, he recommended to me to write often; and promised to let me quickly hear from him; and that he would write to your lordship, and to all the family round; for hesaid that you had all been more kind to him than he had deserved.
And so we parted. (Ross Penguin, p 1463).

It is this Lovelace, unpriggish, unassuming, affectionate that Charlotte Montague knew. It is hard not to prefer him to the self-elected Clarissa. Of course what we are to see is this is just a passing superficial emotion of the moment; it is nothing to be depended upon, and does not go deep enough into the man to transform him into a permanent friend for any woman. He is the epitome of anti-feminism, Jung's male animus come to life.

The dialogue between Morden and Belford where they promise to be one another's executors (Thursday morning, Oct 5, Letter 528, Ross Penguin pp 1463-5) struck me as highly probable behavior for people of their class (propertied, but not enormously so) and time. Again Richardson strikes an attractive note of sympathy and spontaneity I am afraid is mostly missing from Anna's overdone portrait of her friend.

The worst: there are a number of places in Clarissa where Richardson hits a note so wrong as to become offensive, irritating, and as many have said unhealthy, in Margaret Drabble's phrase in her notes on Clarissa to her edition of Austen's Lady Susan/ The Watsons/Sanditon (1974 Penguin, p 221n.28) "morally repulsive." One of these is the portrait of Thomasine. All the fears the primitive male harbours of the sexually mature women are embodied in this horrible monster Belford conjures up as preying on the weakened (of course) Belton. The death of Sinclair is overdone. This portrait of Clarissa is in fact worse than anything poor Sir Charles Grandison must endure in his book. As literal axioms I suppose many of her Clarissa's sentiments are impeccable, but presented in this manner, as it were a child's catechism, except even children don't get anything so unbending and unreal, and trotted out with such solemnity, they are the sort of thing which makes one want to shake Richardson. The best one can do is smile at the unconscious jokes, as in "It was incredible to think what might be done by early rising, and by long days well filled up." To which I say "there we are."

When I think of all the sophisticated adults who wrote and read in the 18th century I can scarcely believe they read this seriously. It is certainly ammunition in the hands of those who would have discounted the novel as irredeemably silly even when moral, or especially when moral. The daily accounting of hours subtracted and added to Richardson does seem to have realized might seem "perplexing and unnecessary" but he seems unable to stop himself. Perhaps in his life this is what he did to make time for himself not only to work long hours at his business but to read a great deal, socialize, and at long last write in his last years the 3 books. Strict allowance of hours was Trollope's trick too (also words--250 a page a day he said), so there may be autobiographical mirroring here as well as the puritan diary tradition. Anna's letter does end on her rage and desire for revenge at the loss of her friend; as earlier her response to the corpse paralleled Lovelace's so now her response looks forward to Morden's instinctive drive when he finally meets Lovelace:

"'Once more then let me execrate--But now violence and passon again predominate!--And how can it be otherwise?
But I force myself from the subject, having lost the purpose for which I resumed my pen.

A. Howe. (Ross Penguin p 1472)

Here we have Richardson returning to his artistry

Ellen Moody

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