Further subtitled “Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life. And particularly shewing, The Distresses that may attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage”.
The good news is that I have finally finished volume one of ‘Clarissa’.
The bad news – for me – is that I have another eight volumes to go! This is indeed a monster of a novel, running to over 1500 pages. To preserve my sanity I am going to approach it as a series of novels, and may well break it up with lighter reading,
Clarissa is an epistolary novel, where the narrative is progressed through the characters’ correspondence. This has the advantage of showing us their thoughts and feelings, and given the frenzy with which Clarissa and her friends and family write letters, sometimes several in one day, including to members of the same household, gives an immediate reportage feel to the novel. The disadvantage of this format is that without an omniscient narrator there is little in the way of descriptive writing – we are only told what the characters believe to be relevant, which excludes the setting, their appearance, etc.
Clarissa, a rich young lady, is the subject of a fierce battle of will between herself and her family. Her father and other relatives want her to marry Mr Solmes, an even richer young man, who promises to add to the family’s overall wealth and status, and believe it is their right to dispose of their daughter as they see fit. She is valuable property, the more so now her grandfather has recently bequeathed her some money. She is disinclined to accept these arrangements. The family believe her refusal stems from an attachment to an unsuitable young man, Mr Lovelace. She adamantly denies any such attachment, but Richardson skilfully uses the differences between her descriptions of events and those of others to allow the reader to deduce that there may be some truth in their suspicions. An impasse is reached, which is where volume one ends, with the family resorting to ever more forceful attempts to persuade Clarissa to accept Mr Solmes, and she equally forcefully rejecting him.
The bulk of the novel (this volume at least) is formed of letters between Clarissa and her friend, Miss Howe. It is a significant moment when a third voice is introduced, that of Lovelace, who reveals himself as the libertine Clarissa’s family fears him to be. In Letter 35 Lovelace boasts to a friend,
“I will throw myself into my charmer’s presence. I have twice already attempted it in vain. I shall then see what I may depend upon from her favour. If I thought I had no prospect of that, I should be tempted to carry her off. That would be a rape worthy of Jupiter!”
This is one of those sentences that brings the reader up short – is Lovelace really lasciviously anticipating raping Clarissa? My initial reaction was that he might be using the word ‘rape’ in a special, eighteenth century context, a robust form of seduction. The word ‘ravish’ is sometimes used in this way, implying a more complex relationship than a simple assault. But I think that would be letting Lovelace off the hook – he clearly has every intention of having sex with Clarissa, and her consent is of little concern to him. Richardson makes it clear that Lovelace considers having sex with women a form of revenge.
“A rape worthy of Jupiter”.
We are, in this one packed phrase, at the heart of the novel’s sexual politics – Clarissa is a possession, the most prized component of which (in addition to her grandfather’s inheritance) is her sexual attractiveness, and in particular her ability to provide an heir. It is that value which is threatened by the lothario Lovelace, and that which her family imprison her in order to protect. It is another example of the double standards of the time, that Lovelace’s reputation for immoral behaviour is something that can quickly be forgotten when it comes to considering him a potential groom, when set against his considerable fortune and expectations.
Only eight more volumes to go!