100 Best Novels Guardian list, 17th century literature, Book review, Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, 1748, volumes 3 & 4

Back to ‘Clarissa’.  At the end of book 2, Clarissa has taken the bold, if not foolhardy step of running away from her family home with the blaggard Lovelace. While it looks to the rest of the world as if this was an elopement, the actual events were more confused – Clarissa intended to tell Lovelace the plan was off, and she was going to try one more time to persuade her family of her implacable opposition to the proposed marriage with Solmes. Well aware of this possibility, Lovelace arranges for their liaison at the end of her garden to be ‘discovered’, and bundled her into his carriage.lovelace

Volume 3 opens with the reader concerned for Clarissa’s fate – has she fallen foul of Lovelace’s dishonourable intentions? Not yet. Clarissa has exchanged one form of imprisonment for another. Lovelace keeps a close eye on his prize, but for now decides to continue to frighten her into submission rather than his usual technique of using violence, or as he would think of it, seduction.

Thus far we have had only a limited portrait of Robert Lovelace (‘loveless’?). We know of his reputation as a libertine, a seducer of innocent women, which he acknowledges is justified. He holds a grievance against all women as a result of an earlier failed romance, which he uses to explain his relentless philandering. The extent to which this is a true self-portrait, or simply a caricature, is at this point unclear. But in volume 3 and 4 he begins to emerge from the shadows, and he is a truly unpleasant creation.

In letter 12 to Belford he regrets that Clarissa and Miss Howe live so near one another,

Else how charmingly might I have managed them both! But one man cannot have every woman worth having—Pity though—when the man is such a VERY clever fellow!

In letter 14 he congratulates himself in his restraint in not pursuing other women while his focus is on Clarissa. He estimates he has been celibate for:

“let me see, how many days and nights?—Forty, I believe, after open trenches, spent in the sap only, and never a mine sprung yet! By a moderate computation, a dozen kites might have fallen, while I have been only trying to ensnare this single lark”.

In his exchange with his spy in the Harlowe household, Joseph Leman, (V3, letters 38 and 39), he freely admits an earlier affair with a Miss Betterton, dismissing it as “a youthful frolic” and while accepting an illegitimate child was born as a result, denies Leman’s claim that “there was a rape in the case betwixt you at furste”. He then immediately contradicts himself, saying

“It is cruel to ask a modest woman for her consent. It is creating difficulties to both”

Even his closest accomplice, Belford, pleads with him to behave honourably to Clarissa, and describes him as “cruel as a panther” (V3, letter 51).

Later in volume 4 Lovelace returns to his favourite topic, bragging about his ‘seduction’ technique (letter 16), which sounds a lot like rape to me:

Is it to be expected, that a woman of education, and a lover of forms, will yield before she is attacked?… I doubt not but I shall meet with difficulty. I must therefore make my first effort by surprise. There may possibly be some cruelty necessary: but there may be consent in struggle; there may be yielding in resistance.

His plan to ensnare Clarissa slowly unfolds. He manipulates her into moving into lodgings in London, where they live together to outward purposes as husband and wife. It becomes apparent that these lodgings, unbeknown to Clarissa, are nothing more than a high class brothel, run by Lovelace’s previous victims.

Lovelace thinks of himself as a master plotter, ensuring Clarissa is isolated from family and friends and surrounded by his agents. His plot is vulnerable to discovery at any time, but a more serious objection is that Lovelace hasn’t decided what his ultimate objective is – is it to deflower and then discard Clarissa, or to marry her? He enjoys the business of plotting and manipulating, being in control, but when his plans are foiled by Clarissa’s resolution to remain chaste, he is petulant and sulks. When pressed on this issue, he claims that his seduction of Clarissa is all a test – if she successfully resists him he will reward her with marriage; if she fails and succumbs to his charms then she was never worth his attention in the first place. This is contradicted by his boastfully predictions of success, even if he should need to resort to violence – I don’t think even Lovelace himself is persuaded by this flimsy justification. He is a hard man to dissuade however, and even Belford’s point, that in ‘ruining’ Clarissa he would be furthering the aims of her brother and sister, does not deflect him from his course.

Clarissa, meanwhile, remains highly suspicious. She realises that she has become ever more vulnerable, isolated from friends and family, with just her correspondence with Miss Howe as a lifeline. The tone of the novel shifts slowly in volume four as more letters from Lovelace are featured, and the authorial voice becomes more prominent. The correspondence, which in the earlier volumes is presented verbatim, is now quite heavily edited, with the narrator telling us what sections of letters he has excised, summarising others, and commenting on the characters’ behaviour.

When a reconciliation with her family is refused, and when hopes of assistance from her long-awaited cousin Morden evaporates, Clarissa accepts that marriage with Lovelace is now her only remaining option. The wedding, and the attempt on her honour that will precede and perhaps pre-empt it, are coming to a climax when volume 4 closes. However the final chapters, possibly as an attempt to secure readers for the following volumes, show Lovelace indulging in an extraordinary rape fantasy, in which he and his fellow ‘bravos’ kidnap and rape Miss Howe, her mother, and her maid. Lovelace enjoys the thought of his trial – in which he plays the central role of conquering hero – more than the ‘escapade’ itself, and brags of using his position to avoid conviction. These letters to Belford are unanswered, and are uncomfortable reading, out of tone with the rest of the novel. Having thought that Lovelace was finally coming to terms with the likelihood of marriage, it seems he has had a last minute change of heart, and is planning to continue Clarissa’s torture as long as possible, before she finally realises he is irredeemable.