The English novel is a phenomenon that only took form in the early years of the 18th century, and is generally attributed to Daniel Defoe. Prior to this time, stories were told either in dramatic form on the stage, or in the shape of long verse narratives, as they had been since ancient Greek times. Strange though it may seem, the medium of extended prose was reserved for theological and philosophical treatises and works of scientific theory.
A man of modest beginnings, Samuel Richardson went on to produce the great epic novels of the 18th century. He inherited from Daniel Defoe a fascination with female characters as the symbolic outsiders of a rapidly changing society, but the psychological depth in his portrayal of character is truly revolutionary. If Defoe’s protagonists are striking chiefly for the events that befall them, Richardson’s are all the more rounded and believable for the emotional realism with which they react to those events.
The two central works upon which Richardson’s reputation rests are his Pamela (1740), the tale of a serving-girl who is brutally seduced by and eventually marries her master, told in the form of a volume of letters that the author is ostensibly editing, and Clarissa (1747-8), the harrowing story of a woman subjected to a regime of sexual abuse by an amoral aristocrat, Lovelace, who is eventually responsible for her lonely death. Vast in scope, it remains the longest novel in the English language, and harrowing in its evocation of innocent suffering, it struck many readers as hard to swallow for the degree of patient stoicism with which Clarissa accepts her fate. Clarissa was a tract for our time no less than its own, it tells how one human being refused to be treated as a thing by another….
He chose for his novels then, and it could not have been a happier choice; the letter form. The flow of letters from Clarissa to her friend Anna Howe, and from Lovelace to his crony Belford, and the decriptive letters with which from time to time Miss Howe and Belford, or even more minor characters, take over the story, gives the book an exceptional innerness, a sense of penetration into the central secrets of human purpose. Yet, within those letters, as Clarissa specifically says, the writing is always “to the moment”; that is, all the scenes are given dramatically, with exact reproduction of speech, accent gesture, and movement of every character as it happened at the time. No novel combines such immediacy with such complexity. No novel has such a curious and compelling pace once the reader has been drawn into its flow, because each separate letter hits sharply and rapidly with its dialogue, melodramic or comic, with its visual directness through the described movements and gestures of the characters, and with carefully sustained tension. Also, the long flow of the novel involves the reader slowly but completely, like an enveloping, inescapable boa constrictor, through the repeated descriptions of the same incident seen through the eyes of two or more correspondents.
This cunningly joined slowness and directness complemented each other, for the intricate unwinding of the inner souls of the two main characters adds an exciting depth to the short, vivid scenes, while the careful relevance of the detail of these scenes cuts out those elaborately detailed scenic-backcloth descriptions that slow down novel narratives from Sir Walter Scott onward. The journey before the reader will be, for three quarters of the book, drawn out and long, but what one is reading at any given moment is sharply felt and quick.
The reader who finds himself moving at “Clarissa’s” unique and hauntingly paradoxical pace, however, will soon find that he is not only being taken into the recesses of the human soul but is participating in a major battle between good and evil. And it is this battle that gives the novel, so quaint to our ear in its diction, although always colorful and lively, its extraordinary relevance for modern readers.
In the battle between Clarissa and Lovelace, we go ever deeper through a beautifully realized fight between two particular individuals: through the social conflict between the Harlowes’ bourgeois, aquisitive Puritanism and Lovelace̵
aristocratic, extravagant, arbitrary will; even through the age-long battle between the sexes, which in this simple form may seem obsolete; and then to something eternal and fundamental in the human condition. For “Clarissa” is finally a novel about the refusal of one human being, the heroine, to be treated as a thing by another. It is, perhaps, the most complete and powerful account of that terrible battle against power to be found in literature.
From the very first page all Richardson’s dramatic sense is used to engage us in this battle. The first quarter of the novel gives us a family situation, with eight or more characters drawn with beautiful economy. The Harlowes, who for the next three quarters of the novel are an indispensable off-stage paradise lost to Clarissa by her completely logical filial disobedience and flight, are superbly portrayed as a hardhearted, avaricious, city-merchant family that has made its pile and established itself at Harlowe Place in the country. As the contemptuous , aristocratic Lovelace says in his first letter, ”Everybody knows harlowe Place, for like Versailles, it is sprung up from a dunghill, within many elderly persons’ remembrance”.
“On an unconscious level, he suggests an old aristocracy bound to the land, organic in everyway. The feeling is one of rule in harmony with nature, an earthy territoriality over flora and fauna. You see it in his easy, playful attitude toward servants, kissing the dairymaids; their pecking order is unquestioned and symbiotic. (Have we forgotten that in the old ways, it was a noble’s birthright to take a bride’s maidenhead?) His consciousness is the center of that old mythology, and he defines himself from that perspective–that which is passing away.
What seems to get him most is the lack of homage the new fangled Harlowes show him. His rage is the wounded pride of the old gods at not getting their fruit basket. It’s all that going-on about Arcady, the romantic mask. Their very speech is the Roman thee-ing and thou-ing. Those harlequin figurines, their masks and bold dress. How odd they make me feel–they’re so alluring, so frightening, from someplace between awake and asleep.”
Clarissa, the youngest daughter, is a strange cygnet child; socially accomplished, talented, spiritually thoughtful, graceful in her beauty; yet her tenacity of will, her sharpness of intelligence, her toughness in misfortune, make Clarissa perfectly credible as the admirable daughter of her wholly repulsive arriviste family. She has, because of her virtues and charm, been beloved by the family as a social asset, but as the book opens she is beginning to know what it is like to be unloved.
Her very virtues have outdone her with her family. Her brother’s avarice and jealousy have been aroused because she has been left an independent property by their doting grandfather. Her elder sister begins to hate her for being preferred by the wealthy aristocrat, Lovelace. Her brother, always sensitive of his origins, quarrels and duels with Lovelace. And now, Clarissa, as a dutiful daughter and chattel of her family, is told to forget this glamorous suitor and to give herself instead to an odiously ugly and clumsy rich oaf, Solmes. She refuses and soon learns what rock is concealed beneath her family,s former soft indulgence of her. Yet, drawing upon her real sense of her own rights and her delicacy of feeling, backed by the assurances of years of pampering as the favored child and by the possession of an independent estate, she resists.
The first quarter of the book represents the preliminaries to a war between herself and her family that is never fought. Richardson had, in 1740, edited the diplomatic negotiations of Sir Thomas Roe at the Ottoman court in the preceding century. He makes wonderful use of his knowledge in this part of the novel. Clarissa imprisoned in her room, offers various terms of negotiation to her family- she will make this sacrifice and that, and in return be absolved from the hateful marriage; but the family has the power and her proposed “treaties” get her nowhere. In the end she has no alternatives but capitulation or flight. ….
Lovelace finally tricks Clarissa into leaving her family and eloping with him. He then manipulates her into staying with him in rented apartments in London, at a house that, as he told Clarissa, is owned by a respectable widow of an Army officer, who lets rooms and takes care of her two nieces. In reality, the house is a brothel; the owner, Mrs. Sinclair, is a madam; and her nieces are prostitutes, turned into such by Lovelace, who had earlier seduced and abandoned them.
It is precisely the fear of being embodied against her will and thus ceding control of the situation that underlies Clarissa’s actions on several occasions, in fact walking into situations almost knowingly, imprisoned by her own puritanical streak that blinds her and controls her as a form of self-destruction. Clarissa’s behavior is indicative of a complex amalgam of feelings: she is aware of the truth of her friend Anna’s advice, angry with herself for allowing an ambiguous situation to take control of her, and half-ashamed at realising that, in spite of everything, she is still attracted to the rake Lovelace. She cannot explain any of it to Lovelace and thus recapture whatever dignity can be recaptured by mentioning that she is not sure she wants to marry him at all. Thus, for Clarissa, there seems to be no way out of this vicious circle, that George Butte has summed up as “I know that you know that I know”, which emerges in Richardson’s novel as a potentially threatening and invasive embodied subjectivity….
However, the final three volumes were delayed, and many of the readers began to “anticipate” the concluding story and some demanded that Richardson write a happy ending. One such advocate of the happy ending was Henry Fielding, who previous wrote Joseph Andrews to mock Richardson’s Pamela. Although Fielding was originally opposed to Richardson, Fielding supported the original volumes of Clarissa and thought a happy ending would be “poetical justice”.
Others wanted Lovelace to be reformed and for Clarissa and he to become married, but Richardson would not allow a “reformed rake” to be her husband, and was unwilling to change the ending. In a postscript to Clarissa, Richardson wrote: ”if the temporary sufferings of the Virtuous and the Good can be accounted for and justified on Pagan principles, many more and infinitely stronger reasons will occur to a Christian Reader in behalf of what are called unhappy Catastrophes, from a consideration of the doctrine of future rewards; which is every where strongly enforced in the History of Clarissa.”
Although few were bothered by the epistolary style, Richardson feels obligated to continue his postscript with a defense of the form based on the success of it in Pamela. However, some did question the propriety of having Lovelace, the villain of the novel, act in such an immoral fashion. The novel avoids glorifying Lovelace, as Carol Flyn puts it, ”by damning his character with monitory footnotes and authorial intrusions, Richardson was free to develop in his fiction his villain’s fantasy world. Schemes of mass rape would be legitimate as long as Richardson emphasized the negative aspects of his character at the same time.”
But Richardson still felt the need to respond by writing a pamphlet called Answer to the Letter of a Very Reverend and Worthy Gentleman. In the pamphlet defends his characterizations and explains that he took great pains to avoid any glorification of scandalous behaviour unlike many others that rely on characters of such low quality.