The Lady and the Penknife

This is Richardson's own title for today's sequence; it's like that mocking epilogue after a solemn tragedy that the 18th century so favored--my favorite being a line somewhere in the epilogue spoken by Andromache after Philips' The Distrest Mother: "Ah, ladies had you known the good man, Hector..." There is a similar hilarious turn-about after Dryden's play on St Catherine played by Nell Gwynn.

The question for some readers might be how believable is this moment. If you don't find Clarissa powerful throughout this whole post-rape phase--after all the one thing she wants is to be let out of the house and this she doesn't get, and she's continually with Lovelace, being menaced and terrified by him--you might think this is the kind of dream also presented in the French heroic romances where women are flattered continually with scenes of power over men. It seems as if Clary is in control, but except for Lovelace's only half-voiced or weak desire to rape her again, which she thwarts, she is in every practical aspect of her life controlled by him or his whores.

In this connection I'd like to mention there was a play presented recently in Washington DC (it was also presented in New York; the critics laughed at it; it was praised in London)--Death and the Maiden. It pretended to be leftist by which I mean the playwright presented himself as caring about the miseries of the average person in a totalitarian dictatorship in some vague South American country, but its actual subject was a woman who manages to terrify two rather desperate men with a handgun. She hovered over them like some nemesis. To me it was filled with hatred for women if anything, and was ludicrous. In real life the gun would have been snatched from her hand within minutes. Forget it. The playwright seems never to have looked at a man's wrist and a woman's--and we were supposed to believe the two men were submitting to her. If so, the playwright has presented singularly inept and cowardly men. And then the woman proceeds to bully her two cowed males for what seemed like hours. Alas, my seat was next to a fat pole and there was no intermission, and I couldn't get out without making a clear fuss. I don't know how Dorothy Parker ever said "If you don't knit, bring a book. " It's too dark.

As I sat there, more realistically imprisoned than either of the males in the play, and disliking the harangue just as much, the play curiously reminded me of the stereotypical virtuous heroine of 18th century sentimental drama. It was just as unreal: virtue has a new definition that's all. Now I bring the play up because not only does it appeal to the same mindless suspension of disbelief that we find in heroic romance and here in this sequence, but because in comparison with it (and said French heroic romances) Richardson's novel is persuasive. How so? The psychology of Lovelace has been previously built up to make up accept his hesitation, his game- and role-playing, his apparent disdain of physical violence as a means to bring Clary to his bed. He wants her to want it (La Clos in his Les Liaisons Dangereuse picked this thread up in his great novel. Lovelace has already repeatedly hesitated, and he's show that if she would only strike during one of his antic or emotional moods, he is ready to marry Clary at the drop of a hat at this point. So too does Clary's psychology fit. It too has been built up over long series of secnes. She has over the period of time they've been "at" each other gained the moral upper ground and awes him. Her felt presence as aweful and commanding derives from his perception of her. He's guilty about what he did. The long many many letters (this great still book said Tennyson?) come into play to help us believe she was able to come out of that room, lock the door, and then back again, locking as she goes.

In a way power is a funny word; I would agree that Clary has a negative power which she has exercised all along; but now she does it completely; it's in almost not giving a damn about anything exept sex. She is indifferent to the world of money and prestige. This is the source of her freedom. It is still a source of freedom--as long as you are willing to take the consequences of not caring. We can see this if we think about how her family can still control. She seems to care about that awful family, and she does care about God. She invokes Him and the belief all the others in the room seem to have in order to protect herself. This too makes the piece more believable than my modern comparison of Death and the Maiden. Richardson's mimetic quality is important because the context is part of what it takes so many pages to build.

In the scenes at hand she also holds the women at bay by threatening them with the law which she says will protect a woman of her status, and may be used by her family who will be gleeful to wreak their hatred on them once she's dead. Perhaps Clarissa is magnificent because she doesn't care what the vermin who surround her think. She will go on to demonstrate she does not care enough about the world's opinion of her to marry Lovelace, does not want to live on sufficiently. She renounces and she wins. It's a paradox until the last part of the close begins and we find she does care about her role as "exemplar" for other maidens like herself. And then the book falls away badly, becomes from this point of view false to what one had valued it for.


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Page Last Updated 10 January 2003