The Sponging-House: What's Wrong with This Deeply Moving Scene vs. Election/Damnation

The following is written not from the point of view of someone who is willing to enter into the idea that some people are special because of their class or status or virtue which was an idea apparently mostly accepted by most English people of the 18th century--I say mostly because we can only know what people who got their works into print or left manuscripts we can read thought. As I read I thought about William Godwin and his hero in Caleb Williams.

While the scene of Clarissa at the Rowlands is effective, it would be susceptible of the kind of interpretation I was disturbed to find my students took of Oroonoko. I was especially disturbed by black students taking this point of view. That is, Mrs Behn again and again says what is so bad about the way Oroonoko is treated is that he is special, he is royal, he is handsome, he is strong, he is all these wonderful things, with the clear implication that had he not been this had all been perfectly okay. It's implication is that slavery and all its inhumanity is per se okay; it's only slavery for Oroonoko that's no good (born out of course by the slavery the Africans practice on one another, and their selling one another in the earlier sequence of the novella.) I actually have had to read journals by black students in which they (clearly unaware of the implications for themselves) repeated this kind of litany. (Thus did I drop Oroonoko because I found the students got very disturbed when I tried to explain what was wrong with this point of view. It distressed so badly to have discuss African slavery, the complicity of Africans, to see that they had in effect accepted slavery. Too much.) So here everytime one is getting into it, we hear "but this for the divine Clarissa."

But this for the virtuous Clarissa? This for anyone. This for the lowest, ugliest, infinitely poorly dressed, immoral wretch would be as monstrous. (If anyone is keeping up in the papers with the feeble Mrs Smith from the southern state, she is being treated abominably; non experts act out the murder scene in court in front of the jury & the defense does nothing. But then Mrs Smith is not "a divine ...") And Richardson italicizes this kind of statement lest I miss it. As I read there was clearly the idea that the way in which Polly and Sally had been brought down to prostitution was what we were seeing Clarissa resist. It's there, but this is not what I'm asked to feel strongly about. I'm expected to be horrified because this is Clarissa; not for Polly and Sally who have become "other." Where is "there for the grace of God go I?" for them. They are very nasty indeed; in a way much nastier because the digs are slyer than Arabella's. It won't do.

Mr and Mrs Rowland are given slight sympathy by Belford; but not really. They would indeed have been hardened types. The apothecary needs a doctor himself, or better yet, a square meal. It's good Richardson brings this room & place and these people into the public consciousness and makes us appalled by it. I'll give him that. But when Sinclair wrote The Jungle people were not upset about the factory workers, they were upset about the quality of the meat they were eating (which laws are now being "questioned").

Godwin would have us look at the laws that permit the kind of thing inflicted on Clarissa and everybody else who is vulnerable. The relation of virtue to justice & equity indeed. Which gets me to a question. When I was in my late 20's, I must have read this scene many times, and never felt my present irritation. For the first time I wonder what is the law here. It seems a debt is claimed. Mrs Sinclair says she is owed 150l. But Clary is not sent directly to jail. Instead the debt is "farmed" out to Rowland who expects to be paid. What? Something surely. How much? Some percentage over and above the debt seems the answer. In effect interest. I wonder what was the going price? If he's not paid, he threatens her with debtor's prison. So this is a sponging house. How did this vile practice grow up? Who got into such businesses? These are the questions I ask now, and Ross has no notes upon this one.

Ellen Moody

To this a few days later John Dussinger replied:

Date: Sat, 22 Jul 1995 18:02:59 -0500

From: "John A. Dussinger"

Subject: Election/Damnation

I was surprised to "see" the silence that followed Ellen's paradoxical but intriguing point about Richardson's ethics in presenting a heroine as especially tragic because she must go through the worst kinds of abuses that less worthy characters presumably deserve. It's much like the thinking common in the courts of this country that punishment usually meted out to hard-core criminals is too severe for middle-class miscreants who break the same laws. Some of the Watergate scoundrels, for instance, were apparently kept safely away from the more horrendous lockups in this brutal society.

But I wonder whether Ellen's point does not finally obviate the possibility of the heroic in literary representation. I detect a deep-seated liberal streak here that reacts against anything hierarchical as "fascist." But in the context of the WWII era, ironically the propaganda of Nazi and Communist constituencies bore a remarkable resemblance. That was Leni Riefenstahl's point in a recent, fine documentary on PBS. The heroic is nothing if not deeply committed to the the welfare of the people, whether it's the RAF defending Britain or the Red Army tanks defending Mother Russia from an implicit rape.

To move to a different category, Ellen's point is not only radically liberal but also radically latitudinarian in the 18th-c. theological debates over salvation. Against all those gloomy Calvinists who stressed one thread from Pauline doctrines about predestination, good-natured deists and even blandly orthodox writers like Pope wanted to keep the door open to everyone, including the infidel. So by this reasoning, even Mrs. Sinclair and her "nymphs" shouldn't have to worry about fire and brimstone, and surely not Lovelace. After all, the heroine's ultimate forgiveness should be enough to answer the fellow's dying words (I'm jumping ahead, sorry). Read as a religious allegory, CLARISSA works fine, it seems to me, because it's so conventional about justifying worldly suffering as a means of TRANSCENDENCE, forget about the vulgar notion of future rewards. To be convincing, virtue has to be its own reward in the final analysis, even if it is Clarissa's self-assurance that she did not deserve the punishment meted out to her in this life. There's a sentimental streak here, perhaps, that not only the poor are more blessed because they suffer more, BUT the downtrodden rich are even more blessed because they feel more when they suffer! Ellen's point.

It's surely not just Richardson's problem that his story invites inequality as the social norm. Isn't it a given of any mimetic structure that attempts to say that virtue is actually a rare quality. I already quoted Richardson's remarks added to the third edition about "Clarissa's" as if there were not just this Christian martyr shown in our story but actually more than a few in England--and, get this!, in the British Dominions. Rule Britannia!

What this comes down to, probably, is an objection to the idea that heroism, individual achievement, heroic sacrifice, etc. should be identified any more closely with fascism than with its contemporary counterpart in communism. Trouble is, while the West enjoyed a Charlie Chaplin to skewer Hitler's heroic illusions well before the Holocaust, Stalin, by contrast, kept seeming so calm and familial that the Uncle Joe image stuck well into the Cold War. Now it's almost academic what the actual count in the millions of victims each should be awarded in the history of political tyrants.

Perhaps the one thing that needs to be stressed against Ellen's worry over fascist tendencies in CLARISSA is the simple fact that in our imperfect world, no matter hard we try to reassure everyone of his or her political equality, the reality keeps proving that hierarchical differences are inevitable. We always need leaders, and leaders always need followers. Some are instinctive about taking command of a situation, and probably many more are inclined to say, please help us. What's especially fascinating to me, however, is the way Richardson, that mousy manipulator of the great and small from the powerhouse of his printing establishment, turned over to his readers so much of the responsibility for coming to terms with his story. It continues today, doesn't it, as a principle of media news, to keep the viewers guessing about the great issues that are being played out, whether it's the glove that doesn't fit or the "correct" course to take to confront "ethnic cleansing" in a country just across the water from Italy, home of the Pope and of Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, and the rest of European culture.


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