To what extent is Mrs Harlowe controlled by a supposed conventional ideology?

Reading the various responses to my queries, I wonder if one problem a 20th century woman (like myself) has in reading Clarissa, is that one cannot be sure how far times have changed or how far supposed ideals really affect people's daily behavior.

For example, is it not impossible to demonstrate if and to what extent a literary work mirrors the real lives of the people for which it is produced? In every era much of people's diurnal lives and thoughts are missed out of public discourse, and this discourse is also channelled through what is socially acceptable to the group who are assumed the audience and the agency which publishes and disseminates public utterances. If it's to the advantage of the society that the woman be used by the family as it sees fit, the social discourse will insist on this. Today we hear, horrors! that woman had a baby w/o a husband, and needs a check; what? she does not go out to work! gasp! she stays home with those children. what vermin. Take her out and shoot her. Rat-a-tat-tat. Contrariwise (as Tweedledee would say) it is equally hard to show the reverse process-- Oscar Wilde's epigram that life imitates art. It's not just a witticism. People think they have certain feelings or pretend they have certain feelings because it is publicly said they do; they fear other people would feel they are shocked to hear they don't; they might be despised or, worse, excluded from the group. Many ideals are today spouted by people who don't really think or behave in the ways they suppose (let us all recall Dr Johnson to Boswell on at least not thinking cant).

Thus I have a hard time believing any woman ever really would become distraught or lose her self-esteem at the idea that she is not being obedient or sufficiently passive. In literature, think of all the many heroines in Elizabethan drama who are anything but obedient; in life, think of Mrs Behn herself, not as great an anomaly in her nature as people sometimes suppose (to cite some more early women whose diaries or journals I have read: there's Lady Ann Murray, another spy during the Civil War; there's one Lady Brilliana Harley; there's Lady Russell. So while I am well aware that bullying and persistent nagging which one cannot escape can do much, still it is hard for me to understand how such fear can arise from anything but physical abuse. One thing I hoped this list would do would be to get me back into Richardson so I am going to look and see if I can find that discussion between R and Lady Bradshaigh on love and fear and R on the court case as to wife abuse, and report back.

On the other hand, I agree I am not sure Richardson means us to see Charlotte Harlowe's behavior too realistically; I really just threw the idea up for discussion, especially as someone earlier took what was meant half in jest seriously; probably the moral pattern projected here of the craven personality who is destroyed by her own inability to act, to take the consequences of a decision, to hold to some principle, is what we should keep our minds on; in this connection Charlotte is a reverse mirror of her daughter.

And I cannot resist adding, in self-defense, although someone else did notice, I never said anal intercourse was perverse or unsavoury. Whatever law or tradition may say, these are not my opinions. (I never used the negative word "sodomy.") I admitted my own failing that I find it hard to talk about these things directly, though nowadays they spring to mind not only because of ordinary experience but because of what is daily discussed on TV & suggested by modern playwrights and other artists. Since the prosecuting attorney in the case of Mr Simpson has been mentioned, I will now mention one in connection with Mrs Harlowe, that of Mrs Bobbitt. Both the real 20th century wife and the fictional 18th century one are examples of women not only physically but morally and mentally and spiritually abused. Yet I would aver that the intensity of the trial case grew when Mrs Bobbitt told of how her husband sodomized her. What is never said which I'll say here is sodomy hurts the person who is sodomized, and whether Mrs Bobbitt was telling the truth or not, it doesn't matter. The appeal was to our knowledge sodomy represents physical pain to the sodomized

Well, the worm does turn very occasionally, and in the modern instance, the woman did strike back. For Mrs Bobbitt I felt only deep pity and sympathy for the younger woman & very great anger at feminists who wrote against her. I'd like to know where sisterhood was then? They despise her for being lower class and have no patience with the vulnerable or powerless when it comes right down to it. As for Mrs Charlotte Harlowe, Richardson gives us a searing portrait of a version of this type of woman, even if the particulars of her husband's case (gout) might preclude anal intercourse (though I don't see why). I also suggest that Richardson does not want us to too much pity or sympathy, only enough to make Clarissa the more vulnerable because Clarissa's lack of power is parallel to her mothers and as Solmes's wife she may have to endure similar punishments. Richardson also wants us to view Mrs Harlowe as complicitous, as caring more for herself, her peace, her safety than her daughter's. She is the Nazi or any state official who excuses himself for doing the bidding of the state towards a vulnerable individual by saying she was ordered to.

Ellen Moody

Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Mrs Charlotte Harlowe and Stella Kowalski
             What is Mrs Charlotte Harlowe so scared of? What is she threatened with?

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