The Influence of Richardson: On Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Edith Wharton

During a lull in the novel at this point when Clarissa's meditations which are a patch-work of quotations and allusions ot the Bible, I posted a few postings on allusion, except this time allusions to Clarissa rather than in it.

It seems clear to me that Richardson's Clarissa influenced Thackeray's early gem, A Shabby Genteel Story, published in a marvellous collection of Thackeray's early and best pieces (ed DHTaylor in a relatively inexpensive paperback whch includes the once again unhappily relevant and great "Going to a Hanging"). It is impossible to do justice to the tone of A Shabby Genteel Story whose basically dark pessimism about everything about life is masked by a continual mockery light in its touch and sentiment true to the heart (to use Victorian terms). Well, this is a story of lower middle class people, the Ganns, who are endlessly trying to appear aristocratic but whose real happiness in life is having fallen and become admired by all who have the misfortune to be fleeced or the happiness to be deluded by their pretensions. There is a daughter everyone despises & humiliates, one Caroline, because she has been left no money, and to the boarding house comes one apparently aristocratic man, a Mr George Brandon who is going under an assumed name but whose name we never learn. He becomes enamoured and seduces her; they run away without marrying, and before we read the final sentence we are given to understand they are never heard of again, and very bad things happened to Caroline indeed; the final sentence of the piece is "God bless thee, poor Caroline! Thou art happy now, for some short space at least; and here, therefore, let us leave thee."

All this to say that about 2/3's of the way through Thackeray makes an astute & multi-faceted use of the parallel he sees between Brandon (or X if you will) and Lovelace and Caroline and Clarissa. First partly because Victorians would not allow Thackeray to present the slow seduction, we get his apology for not presenting it because

I have always felt a kind of loathing for the skill of such geniuses as Rousseau or Richardson, who could paint with such painful accuracy all the struggles and woes of Eloisa and Clarissa--all the wicked arts and triumphs of such scoundrels as Lovelace (Everyman, p 88).

He then launches into a parallel between the "scoundrelly Lovelace" and his Brandon-X; some of it is serious, but then the tone twists and turns and it's comic because when Brandon presses her, she runs from the room in horror! and writes a suicidal letter:

George, you have almost broken my heart. Leave me if you will, and if you dare not act like an honest man. If ever you speak to me so again as you did this morning, I declare solemnly before Heaven. I will take poison. C.

And Thackeray, the narrator, carries on: Indeed, the poor thing had read romances to some purpose... (90)

The parallel is used to shed varying lights by referring to both the seriousness and absurdities of Richardson's book. The Ganns have, alas, not perfectly the art of living magnificently on nothing a year in the way Becky and her Rawdon manage in _Vanity Fair_ but the book looks forward to it, and contains a little-noticed use of Clarissa.

Memories of Clarissa may also be found in Wilkie Collins. on the first, a tenuous allusion to Richardson's novel in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, which might have been just be a matter of common language, except that the books' themes of seduction and betrayal by a predatory male over an innocent woman and the use of first-person narratives recalls Richardson's own.

It seems to me that inThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins owes a debt to Richardson's Lovelace when it comes to some of the more entertaining and sexually alluring aspects of Count Fosco, the villain of the piece, a brilliant creation of a kind of fiendishly evil yet fascinating individual for never apologizes, never complains, and rarely explains. The only explanation we have is a final first-person narrative; the book is made up of a series of interwoven first-person narratives, not letters, but on-going journals, depositions, documents, diaries, whatever Collins could think of, letters too, and the use of the voices & juxtaposition reminds me of Richardson's brilliant use of the epistolary narratives (a harmony of voices and all that); the last narrative by Fosco (at long last he comes clean to the "magnificent Marion," one of our heroines) seemed to me to echo or recall Lovelace at moments.

One phrase of Fosco's struck me particularly: Fosco argues he is "comparatively an innocent man." This of course could just be coincidental, but it brought home some interesting comparisons between a (I hope there is no ardent Collins person on our list) deeply silly book like Woman in White in which the author consistently shows a literary tact Richardson lacks, and has a better grasp on how to "teach" if you must teach a reader; and a book like Clarissa which is not silly but can mar equally felicitious creations. It brings home how difficult it is to decide on criteria for judging a book.

I daresay most people on our list could devour The Woman in White in a couple of days, never a dull moment really; you don't force yourself at all, and read on to find out the absurd details of the whole construction; Richardson tires us terribly; the same matter is hashed and rehashed and rehashed once again. Yet it is dumb to care about what happened at this station at that day as opposed to the other, and it is not dumb to care about rape. If we look to Richardson's aim we must respect his tragic conception in a way I sugest we can't respect or at least talk about of Collin's "entertainment" (to use of Collins's novel the phrase Graham Greene used for his so-called "frivolous" novels).

I have also found some memories of Clarissa in Anthony Trollope's Ralph the Heir. The heroine has the same name, and she is similarly allured by a man who seems to her glamorous, sexy, Byronic. In John Caldigate the way Hester Bolton's family treats her once it is discovered her marriage may be bigamous, and if not, her husband certainly lived openly with another woman in Australia shortly before returning to England and marrying her, and--horrors--she will not leave him, recalls the Harlowes' behavior to Clarissa. Hester's family become nightmare ogres, cold, materialistic, bigoted: they lock her up, there is a scene where from one side of a bolted window, she calls to Caldigate to save her, which reverses the situation in Clarissa where Clarissa calls to strangers in the street to save her from Lovelace) .

Richardson was not forgotten by the Victorians.


To this later on Wednesday, August 16th, Janet Aiken replied:

I was delighted to hear of Ellen's discovery of two more references to Clarissa in other novels, having myself just finished reading Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country which also contains one. I am interested in hearing from anyone who can point me to twentieth-century novels with similar references. The two Ellen identifies do not appear in Sarah Smith's reference guide to Richardson, although Smith does cite other works by Thackeray mentioning Richardson.


To which I replied on the next day, August 17, 1995

In response to Janet Aikens's comments, earlier this summer Virginia Woolf's reference to Richardson's novel by naming Mrs Dalloway "Clarissa" was mentioned; Woolf's heroine's decided preference for her narrow white bed upstairs as opposed to the one she shares with her husband is part of the skein of reference in that novel. I wonder if she could provide a more exact reference to "Sarah Smith's reference guide to Richardson;" I too would be interested to see the kinds of uses more contemporary authors made of Richardson's characters.

Ellen Moody

Home Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 10 January 2003