To Prosecute or Not to Prosecute?

This time Caroline Breashears started the discussion, and her posting of the 22nd referrred to the letters dated from August 18 to 22, Nos 427-30, Ross Penguin, pp 1251-7.

Richardson arranges the letters so that we must return to 18 August and relive last week with Clarissa. It has been quite a week. I think the most interesting exchanges are with the Rev. Dr. Lewen and Arabella, both of whom urge Clarissa to prosecute Lovelace.

Clarissa explains to Dr. Lewen both why she will not prosecute and how she hopes to satisfy her friends--through a collection of letters. Her letter implies the superiority of print over the legal system. A court scene would transform a terrible event into a jest; it would lack the "private and serious audience" necessary to weigh the evidence (Letter 428). Of course a collection of letters would have such an audience, though Clarissa refrains from noting that. She says instead,

The warnings that may be given from those papers to all such creatures as may have known or heard of me, may be more efficacious, as I humbly presume to think, to the end wished for, than my appearance could have been in a court of justice, pursuing a doubtful event, under the disadvantages I have mentioned.

Print surpasses the legal system as a means of conveying truth and as a preventative. It does so, the letter implies, because it requires a private audience and demands from them a higher level of engagement. Truth emerges in the private, not the public sphere.

Arabella's letter to Clarissa presents a different view of private and public appearances. If Clarissa does not prosecute, the family wishes her to move to Pennsylvania "for some few years till all is blown over." Arabella adds that this solution "would rid your father and mother of a world of cares, and fears, and scandal" (Letter 429). I realize that a trip abroad is conventional: eighteenth-century novelists regularly ship their fallen women off to the colonies or France. What interests me here is that the situation would be temporary. If Clarissa's family believed, as they imply, that Clarissa had thrown herself into a rake's bed, they would never allow her to return. Their terms confess guilt and embarrassment over the scandal, not over Clarissa's behavior. The plan is also a rather sinister sacrifice of Clarissa's reputation to justify themselves: if she goes like other fallen


To this I replied:

This is simply to concur with Caroline's posting on the letters for the last few days; it is interesting that Richardson brings up the subject of a court trial again, but there is really no argument whether going to court is the right thing to do; Clarissa's point of view that she would lose and her inability to go through with such a spectacle, even if she were to be treated sympathetically by her family and lawyers (not likely), prevails immediately; Richardson is interested in showing us that her family are using the trial to indict her in their own eyes; since she won't go to court, it's clear she's "guilty" of living with Lovelace before marriage; they really don't expect her, as Caroline says, to take up the offer; both this and the second "plan" (to send Clarissa to Pennsylvania) are offered with the family's interests in mind; all is reputation and convenience and ease with them.

It does seem as if Belford is the only one willing to help Clarissa, and as he does, whatever his motives, he gains stature in the book. Dr Lewen will not interfere if Clary's family do not approve; Anna obeys her mother. There's no escape from the stranglehold of family. Clarissa does speak strongly both to Dr Lewen and to her sister, and there is, of course, the famous passage, often quoted to Clarissa's detriment:

The man whom once I could have loved, I have been led to despise; and shall not charity complete my triumph? And shall I not enjoy it?-- And where would be my triumph if he deserved my forgiveness?--Poor man! He had a loss in losing me... (Sat. Aug 19, Letter 428, Ross Penguin, p 1254)

Richardson could not have (to my mind) damned any version of Christianity which argues this kind of pride is reasonable or just than by allowing us to listen to these (implicitly) sneering tones. I believe there is a section in Johnson's Review of Soames Jenyns piece on evil which explodes just such "enjoyment" and arguments for "suffering" as being "for the good". Still some of us (Margaret Drabble probably) might be even more irritated by her abject willingness to go to Pennsylvania. On the other hand, maybe she'd be well rid of them at long last.


From C18-L although not specifically intertwined with the matter of Clarissa's interchanges with Dr Lewen and Arabella, but written around the same time and with reference to the same topic (which spilled over into C18-L more than once), the following group of postings are informative and relevant:

From: Jessica Munns

Subject: Re: Clarissa and Rape For an "actual" rape case, for which the offender was charged, convicted, and transported, see V.A.C. Gatrell's chapter "The Rape of Elizabeth Cureton" in *The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868*, Oxford: OUP, 1994. This is actually a case from the 1820s but in many respects the legal issues of evidence etc. have not altered since the late 18thC. You might also want to look at Ian Bell's *Literature and Crime in Augustan England,* London and NY: Routledge, 1991, Anna Clark's *Women's Silence Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in ENgland 1770-1845,* London and NY: Pandora Books, 1987, Frank McLynn, *Crime and Punishment in 18thC England,* London and NY: Routledge, 1989, and, of course, J.M. Beattie, *Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800,* Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, pp.124-132 for his discussion of legal attitudes and practices. One thing that will emerge from all this reading is that if you go on legal evidence alone, rape was rare.

Jessica Munns

From: "Harry W. Duckworth"

Subject: Re: Clarissa and Rape

Dear Friends:

If convictions for rape were rare in C-18 England, the reason probably had to do with the fact that the penalty was death, though the sentence, like other capital sentences, could be commuted to transportation. I remember reading an account of a rape trial in London in a newspaper of the 1780s [sorry - I can't remember more than this] where, through some mixup, a young single woman had been locked out of her parents' house in London in the middle of the night. She was accosted by a man looking for a prostitute, who took her into a public convenience and raped her. The evidence presented left no doubt that the act had been against her will, but it also appeared that she had been so petrified by being locked out that she hadn't explained herself clearly to the man, that he had not used force, and that he had honestly believed that he was dealing with a prostitute rather than a "respectable woman". It is likely, at this period, that any young woman on her own in the city streets in the middle of the night, regardless of how she was dressed, would have been assumed to be a prostitute. So the jury acquitted him, though they were full of sympathy for the victim (and blamed her father for not taking care of her) because they didn't wish to convict the defendant of a capital crime under the circumstances.

Prosecutions for rape often succeeded if the victim was a child, and if she had been infected with a venereal disease. No one seemed to have much sympathy for the defendant in these cases.

As to civil suits, I do know that suits for criminal conversation were brought from time to time in C-18 against the seducer of a married woman, and these were eagerly reported in the press, but the basis was apparently that a husband was legally entitled to the exclusive enjoyment of his wife's favours, so that the seduction was an offense against property. Married women, with no property of their own, were not entitled to sue on these grounds, of course. I don't know whose "property" the sexual honour of an unmarried minor was - her father's?

Harry Duckworth

From: "James E. Gill"

Subject: Re: Clarissa and Rape

My colleague John Zomchick (who lurks on the list but is too modest to respond) treats the difficulty of securing conviction for rape in his Family and the Law in 18th-C. Fiction (Cambridge UP, 1993). J. E. Gill

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