Descriptions of clothing in ‘Clarissa’ are rare, which means that when they are included the reader pays particular attention. Two descriptions in particular stood out for me – one of Mr Solmes, and a little later, one of Clarissa:
Describing Mr Solmes
In volume 2, letter 34 of ‘Clarissa’, we are given our first clear description of her approved suitor, Mr Solmes, from the agitated perspective of her maid, Betty:
“Miss! Miss! Miss! cried she, as fast as she could speak, with her arms spread abroad, and all her fingers distended, and held up, will you be pleased to walk down into your own parlour?—There is every body, I will assure you in full congregation!—And there is Mr. Solmes, as fine as a lord, with a charming white peruke, fine laced shirt and ruffles, coat trimmed with silver, and a waistcoat
standing on end with lace!—Quite handsome, believe me!—You never saw such an alteration!”
Physical descriptions of characters in ‘Clarissa’ are rare, so when they do occur they stand out, as Mr Solmes’s waistcoat does here. He is dressed for a solemn meeting with his intended, with all the family in attendance. Clarissa is panicked by the maid’s enthusiastic description of the gathering, and Mr Solmes’s appearance in particular. The use of the term “full congregation” suggests this is going to be a ceremony, and Clarissa surely fears that the threatened marriage is being sprung upon her.
The peruke is a Georgian wig worn by gentlemen. It came in different lengths, from the relatively modest to the full Beau Brummell. It would not perhaps have been too distinctive on its own, but combined with the fine laced shirt with ruffles, waistcoat “standing on end” with lace, and a silver trimmed coat (which today one would describe as a jacket, I think) one can easily picture Solmes as a bridegroom. While wedding attire was not as prescriptive as it is in today’s Western society, this formal attire would not be unsuited to a wedding.
The marital atmosphere of the scene is amplified by the adjectives in the maid’s speech suggestive of suspense and extension – “arms spread abroad”, “fingers distended and help up”, “standing on end”. The room is full of anticipation, and perhaps there is even an echo of the phrase ‘to walk down the aisle’ in the maid’s ‘to walk down into your own parlour’.
Clarissa’s reaction can hardly be considered a surprise given this build up.
If Solmes is a disappointed bridegroom, the same could be said of Clarissa from the intricate description of her in volume 3 letter 7. In this letter from Lovelace to Belford he describes Clarissa’s appearance on the night of her removal from her parent’s home. He has already told Belford, with a leer, that “I am a critic, thou knowest, in women’s dresses. Many a one have I taught to dress, and helped undress”, and this boast of his observational skills in relation to the detail of women’s clothing seems justified.
“Her head-dress was a Brussels-lace mob, peculiarly adapted to the charming air and turn of her features. A sky-blue ribband illustrated that. But although the weather was somewhat sharp, she had not on either hat or hood…
Her morning gown was a pale primrose-coloured paduasoy: the cuffs and robins curiously embroidered by the fingers of this ever-charming Arachne, in a running pattern of violets and their leaves, the light in the flowers silver, gold in the leaves. A pair of diamond snaps in her ears. A white handkerchief wrought by the same inimitable fingers concealed—O Belford! what still more inimitable beauties did it not conceal!—And I saw, all the way we rode, the bounding heart (by its throbbing motions I saw it!) dancing beneath her charming umbrage.
Her ruffles were the same as her mob. Her apron a flowered lawn. Her coat white sattin, quilted: blue sattin her shoes, braided with the same colour, without lace; for what need has the prettiest foot in the world of ornament? neat buckles in them: and on her charming arms a pair of black velvet glove-like muffs of her own invention; for she makes and gives fashions as she pleases.—Her hands velvet of themselves, thus uncovered the freer to be grasped by those of her adorer.
This is our first full description of our nineteen year old heroine. The context here is important, naturally. Clarissa has arranged to meet with Lovelace at the end of her extensive garden. Originally the plan was that they were going to leave Harlowe Place and run away to one of his relative’s many houses – the detail of the plan was never fully explored. Clarissa has had second thoughts, and decided not to go, despite an imminent moment of crisis in her family’s campaign to force her to marry Mr Solmes. She decided to tell him of her decision in person, lest he feels the need to burst into her house in an attempt at rescue – or at least that is what she tells herself. He is prepared for this change of heart, and bustles her into his carriage anyway. The other relevant aspect of the context is the date and time – it is late evening in April – Lovelace tells us that the weather was “somewhat sharp”. Clarissa is not dressed with a view to running away or eloping – Lovelace interprets this as a demonstration of her determination to remain with her family.
What stands out from this description is the level of detail – Lovelace has had plenty of time during the coach-ride to notice Clarissa’s apparel, but he picks up on every small detail, and believes Belford will be interested in his account. His account goes from head to toe in order, starting with her Brussels lace mop-cap. A mop cap was a lightweight piece of fabric of varying ornamentation Typically it covered all of the hair and was typically bordered by a broad ruffle or decorative frills. One made from Brussels lace was rather fine – and was largely ornamental (rather than functional). Whether this was standard day-wear for a Georgian young woman is hard to say. The impression I have, with only very limited evidence to support this, is that the mob-cap was a sign of respectability. The cap is secured by a sky-blue ribbon – the first of several images Lovelace draws from nature in his description. Her morning gown is standard day wear, but the material it is made from – paduasoy – is a heavy, rich corded or embossed silk fabric, quite opulent for everyday wear. While Clarissa may not be dressed to elope, she is dressed for more than a quiet evening meal alone in her garden – she is dressed to impress, whether she is prepared to admit it to herself or not.
Lovelace’s eye travels to her arms, covered in embroidered violets and their leaves. The choice of violets is of course deliberate, referencing as it does the story of one of the goddess Diana’s nymph companions, who was pursued by Diana’s twin brother, Apollo. To protect her, Diana changed the nymph into a violet. Clarissa is to be the subject of a similar unrelenting pursuit – and possibly a similar fate? Richardson encourages this train of thought by invoking a more explicit classical reference, to Arachne. In Greco-Roman mythology, Arachne was a talented mortal weaver who challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a weaving contest; this hubris resulted in her being transformed into a spider. Women being transfigured from their natural state into violets or spiders – what can this mean for Clarissa?
I am going to pass swiftly over Lovelace’s lascivious leering over Clarissa’s breasts, and consider the next phase of his description. As well as wearing a morning gown, Clarissa has on an apron, embroidered with flowers, continuing the nature theme, a white satin coat and a black velvet muff. This is quite an opulent ensemble, if not bridal then surely suggesting that the thought has crossed her mind. Clarissa’s ambivalence about Lovelace – she is attracted to him, but afraid of his reputation – is reflected in her costume. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it seems clear that Clarissa dressed carefully for this appointment, intending to make a positive impression on Lovelace.