Volume 2 of ‘Clarissa’ is extraordinarily like volume 1 – Clarissa’s family send various people to try to persuade her to comply with their wishes, she in reply explains her adamantine opposition to Mr Solmes. Lovelace, the libertine suitor who her family have rejected, lurks in the background, waiting for his opportunity. Every word is recorded faithfully for Miss Howes, Clarissa’s faithful friend, who in return occasionally chips in with some moderately helpful advice. Miss Howes’ suitor Mr Hickman appears briefly, but is dismissed primarily as a nuisance to be dealt with once the main drama is concluded.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion at times that Clarissa is enjoying being the centre of attention, even though the threat she is living under is real enough. She generates vast volumes of letters, often several in one day, but her practical problems of getting these to Miss Howes – there is some clumsy business with a loose brick in the garden wall – are overlooked. Email would have been so convenient to imprisoned young women in the eighteenth century!

With so little ground to cover, and so many pages to fill, Richardson inevitably gets long-winded, as in this extract from letter 43, which for me is also an example of pretty clumsy writing

“If the thing requested be of greater consequence, or even of equal, to the person sought to, and it were, as the old phrase has it, to take a thorn out of one’s friend’s foot to put in into one’s own, something might be said— nay, it would be, I will venture to say, a selfish thing in us to ask a favour of a friend which would subject that friend to the same or equal inconvenience as that from which we wanted to be relieved, the requested would, in this case, teach his friend, by his own selfish example, with much better reason, to deny him, and despise a friendship so merely nominal.”

Moments of actual activity, rather than debate about a daughter’s duties, are rare, and the format Richardson has adopted makes it impossible for him to describe any such action when it does happen other than in retrospect. He increasingly resorts to having people scribble notes as they wait for someone to arrive, and then breathlessly report on what has happened, with the events themselves being the one time the screen goes blank. The constraints of the format occasionally lead to Richardson breaking his own rules – footnotes begin to appear from the anonymous editor of the correspondence, pointing out various contradictions in the characters’ behaviour. Using correspondence allows the author to give us directly and immediately the character’s thoughts and feelings, but the other shortcomings of the form are becoming more obvious as the novel progresses.

Despite being her intimate correspondence, Clarissa rarely tells us what she is really feeling – she instead spends a huge amount of time setting out what she believes she ought to think and feel. Which is why her dream recounted in letter 34, when the prospect of a forced marriage with Solmes seems imminent, is revealing:

‘Methought my brother, my uncle Antony, and Mr. Solmes, had formed a plot to destroy Mr. Lovelace; who discovering it, and believing I had a hand in it, turned all his rage against me. I thought he made them all fly to foreign parts upon it; and afterwards seizing upon me, carried me into a church-yard; and there, notwithstanding, all my prayers and tears, and protestations of innocence, stabbed me to the heart, and then tumbled me into a deep grave ready dug, among two or three half-dissolved carcases; throwing in the dirt and earth upon me with his hands, and trampling it down with his feet.’

There is a real and immediate physicality to this that is absent in the rest of Clarissa’s letters, real violence. Dirt and half-dissolved carcases are not the kind of things young Georgian ladies are meant to dream or talk about. It is tempting to interpret this as a sex dream, with its reference to stabbing and tumbling, and of course one would expect a young woman of this era to be apprehensive about the impending loss of her virginity – “innocence” – on her marriage, but I think the genuine fear here is palpable. For once this is no longer a game for Clarissa – she is slowly beginning to realise that sooner or later she is going to have to leave her warm protective family home with its servants and high garden walls, and have to face the real world in which she will be another man’s possession. No wonder she is terrified.

 

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