The Yearned-For Reconciliation

Clarissa's exchange of letters first with her Aunt Dolly Hervey and then with Anna Howe (reaching across Thursday, April 20 to Tuesday, April 25, Letters 141-148, Ross Penguin, pp 497-512) over her intense yearning for a reconcilation with her family reaches a kind of climax on "Sat morn. April 22 with in the striking line:

I may go to London, I see, or where I will. No matter what becomes of me (Ross Penguin p 506).

These words stirred to Caroline Breashears to write as follows:

This section of Clarissayxocr_5.english.tar.gz puzzles me. Despite knowing her family, despite hearing from Anna and Lovelace that her family remains firm, Clarissa continues to hope for a reconciliation with the Harlowes. Why? There are several possibilities:

1 Clarissa can't admit that her family is terrible. To accept their position is to accept their moral degradation and the hopelessness of her own situation.
2 Clarissa knows reconciliation is impossible, but persists because she must justify herself to the world. By provoking a direct rejection, she reestablishes her role as victim, and places her family again in the position of aggressors.
3 Clarissa knows reconciliation is impossible, but persists because she is unsure about Lovelace. She fears both marriage and a rake; she delays.

There are other possibilities, of course: perhaps Clarissa is too confused to understand her situation, or perhaps Richardson simply erred. I think, however, the above three, or perhaps a combination of them, more likely. Can anyone offer a solution?

The posting by David Evans which Caroline refers to appears to be the following:

Have we at all discussed the fact that from the beginning of the story Clarissa is legally much more free of her parents than she wants to believe. Some recent scholars with law degrees have emphasized that not even Papa Harlowe had any authority over his daughter's inheritance from the grandfather. That's the "original sin" that brings all the father's wrath down on this younger daughter. Again, it's Clarissa's "situation" that is working the wheels of her fate. No wonder she regrets not having died during that bout with a fever! Her envy of daughters lucky enough to live in Catholic countries and thus free to retire to a convent rather than marry is doubtless a feeling shared by many of Richardson's first women readers. In fact, English families DID send some of their unmarriageable daughters to France to become nuns. Hester Thrale gives some fascinating account of these poor women whom she visited during her two journeys through France.

If Clarissa can by virtue of assuming her estate become truly autonomous of her parents (that is, in full legal possession of her inherited fortune, though it is in her abhomin- able father's ostensible control), WHY does she ultimately choose to run away with Lovelace, rather than simply retiring to her other house, or, for that matter, temporarily seeking refuge with the Howes? One of the things I've found frustrating with Richardson in the past (I haven't read _Clarissa_ since 1985, my first year in grad school) is the weird moral abolutism, coupled with this very strange casuistry, that his characters indulge them- selves in. It seems to me that setting up housekeeping independently is far less of a transgression against her family than going off with Lovelace, but she seems to have some indeterminate scruple about blowing them off that way.

I realize this line of thinking runs a bit ahead of us, but the groundwork was laid at least a week ago.

To Caroline I then replied as follows:

Caroline Brashears has herself offered three important reasons why Clarissa keeps hoping for a reconciliation. I incline to disbelieve the second:

2. Clarissa knows reconciliation is impossible, but persists because she must justify herself to the world. By provoking a direct rejection, she reestablishes her role as victim, and places her family again in the position of aggressors.

Clarissa seems always to want to see her family in the best light; she is not a masochist in the sense that no-one does she profess any enjoyment of her misery; the "heights of despair" are not for her. She does have a view of herself as looked upon "by the world," but to justify herself in the world's view would be simply to marry Lovelace, the rich witty handsome aristocrat.

I firmly agree with 1 and 3:

3 Clarissa knows reconciliation is impossible, but persists because she is unsure about Lovelace. She fears both marriage and a rake; she delays.

The problem with demonstrating either of these is the same problem Freud encountered; he hypothesizes something which the person denies; there can be no test because the more the person denies the feeling, the more the Freudian says, "ah ha!" To admit her family is horrible seems to be to her a frightening truth. Then where is her safety? She will not and does not discuss sex. Sometimes as I read I am so aware of how it is clearly in Lovelace's power to say, "okay, end of discussion, that's it, let's get married," and, without more ado, go off to obtain said license, bring in a clergyman and 2 witnesses, Clarissa would not deny him. It is up to him in her view; what she seems particularly to abhor is the demand that she initiate the proceedings. But at others when he "loses it," to use modern slang, and does suddenly get down on bended knee and ask her to wed him, she puts us off with some vague passively constructed abstract sentences, which circle away from the matter at hand (or at foot):

But what could I say to this?--Extorted from him, as it seemed to me, rather as an effect of his compassion, than of his love? What could I say? I paused ... I desired he would avoid such measures as might add to an uneasiness which was so visible upon reflecting on the irreconcileableness of my friends ...

Why this sudden distinction between pity and love; on bended knee his words are those of the passionate lover who seeks to protect her. Then the last sentence defies parsing.

I am no longer sure who it was who said that the solution to the problem of why Clarissa does not take Lovelace up at such moments when suddenly he's down and pleading, "Make him yours, and only yours, forever," is that she really wants to reconcile herself with her family. The writer wanted to know why we don't take her seriously (believe her) when she says she wants to be reconciled to her family first. Possibly because times have so changed that marriage is no longer viewed as an alliance of an individual to a family (as Clarissa clearly views it) and people no longer sees themselves as a member of a group knit forever by blood and law. Despite any popular propanda to public discourse to the contrary, most people early on learn not to expect absolute loyalty or safety, from their families. Possibly because Richardson was an older man when he wrote this novel and continually sees things from the perspective of the older parent (whence all Clarissa's letters in favor of Anna's mother). Possibly because it's too simple an explanation. Possibly it's incredible on the grounds that the family have treated her so abusively. I think it's an interesting question.

I would suggest that if you can believe Clary's desire for reconciliation, that makes her a deeply pathetic presence, which I at least found to be so in her letter to Aunt Hervey of Thursday, April 20, Letter 141. Perhaps Richardson wanted us to believe Clary's really wanted to return to her family first or have their say-so before marrying Lovelace so she could be sure to have them as "friends" after marriage so that we would pity her intensely. For myself this desire to reconcile makes Clarissa seem very young, very much a child. She seems to believe her actions are in her family's thoughts as children do. She has yet to hear them as strangers or broken records or irrelevant. You can't go home again, doesn't she know that? And it's not just that in this earlier era people couldn't see this. They could, some in comical veins (Gay who makes exquisite humor from this bitter or simply neutral truth) and in melancholy saturnine vein ( (I am thinking of Johnson in many of his Ramblers Idlers Adventurers).


Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Anna's _Norris_: One Thread in a Tapestry of Allusions to retirement poetry

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