A genre of fiction which first gained popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epistolary novel is a form in which most or all of the plot is advanced by the letters or journal entries of one or more of its characters, and which marked the beginning of the novel as a literary form. Many many scholars still regard Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) to be the first example of the epistolary novel,and indeed the first mature novel to be written in English. Richardson’s ground-breaking work is marked by a coherence of characterization, plot, and theme that had been missing in earlier fictional efforts, and his use of the epistolary form lends realism, complexity, and psychological subtlety to his story. “Calrissa”, his second novel was a flowering of the theme in which the letters he wrote in the voices of his female protagonists are considered the finest expression of feminine concerns and sensibilities of the period, mixed with traces of gothic obsessions with suppressed violence and sexual pathologies.
You might say that British author Samuel Richardson( 1689-1761) went all out when he wrote Clarissa in the mid-18th century. At more than one million words, it’s the longest novel in English literature. Clarissa is the story of a virtuous, virginal heiress who runs away from her nasty family when they insist she marry a loathsome individual for his money, falls into the hands of a handsome rake named Lovelace, who wants only to get her into bed and finally rapes her, in a strange context of the sex-death dialectic that ran counter to conventional Puritan notions.
“The problem is the values and behaviors Richardson stigmatizes are found everywhere in a rape-prone society, which studies demonstrate ours still is. Comparative sociology demonstrates that rape is “not the invariable consequence of biologically determined male aggression”, but rather approved complex social processes which prompt individual men to act out their their gender,sexuality, desire and bodily impulses in a violent way. I read Clarissa as a book intended to make visible our and Richardson’s societies’ appetite for violence, admiration for competitive aggression, which includes predatory and cruel behavior, especially in males,The book also exposes the emotional thinking behind the subjugation of women to family aggrandizement and primogeniture, and the culture of public shaming about sex, which both together prompt honor-killing, of which Morden’s murder of Lovelace is a displaced instance.”
In Lovelace, Richardson was analyzing a rapist in a fundamental way not seen before. His character, Clarissa, participates in the sweeping changes of attitudes in the eighteenth century which we see registered in novels of sensibility. In non- or pre-sensibility novels, the nature of characters’ sexual experience is a function of their will to dominate or compete. If they do not have a strong will to dominate or impulse to be aggressive and triumph over someone, they are pressured to submit, can be taken advantage of, and, unless they opt out, are often preyed upon as a victim. Richardson’s ability to examine an eroticization of death and lace the narrative with gothic overtones made his novel into a remarkable pioneer probe into associative thought and semi-rational imaginings, made the more “experimental” by Richardson’s professional skill at playing with typography.
It has been repeated ad nauseam that Richardson wrote to counter “that dangerous but too commonly received notion that a reformed rake makes the best husband” (Everyman Clarissa I, Preface, xv). What has not been said with clarity is his character conception of Lovelace fits many of the characteristics of recidivist rapists: an absent or distant father, over-present mother, domineering egoism which emerges in his regarding others as objects for him to manipulate; experiences where his violence is rewarded, admired and his stories amuse (SR, Clarissa II:1026-40, Letters 323-26); and his quick impulse to hate as a result of his frequent apprehension he is somehow rejected or insufficiently respected: “oh Jack, the rage of love, the rage of revenge is upon me! (SR, Clarissa II:882, Letter 258). Lovelace’s “exercise of viciousness combined with unrestrained privilege” in the post-rape parts of the novel cohere with Jonathan Swift’s descriptions of sexual predators in contemporary common life: for example, Lovelace threatens to knock out yet more of his servant Will’s teeth and once again stalks Clarissa by ruthlessly bullying and insulting her cowering silent landlords (SR, Clarissa, II, 1209:1209-18, 1219-23, 1295, Letters 416, 418, 445).
In Lovelace Richardson offers us a composite portrait of a man who is eager to rape women. The first letter of the novel by a character to Lovelace who has experienced the real Lovelace, is by his long-time servant and Harlowe mole, Joseph Leman, and there we see Joseph assumes Lovelace is planning to rape Clarissa. In their interchange a list of the young women Lovelace has raped emerges. With a parodic insinuated glee, Lovelace turns what happened in this or that instance that Joe alludes to as “no rape in the case.”By 1744 Richardson seems to have completed a first draft of his second novel, Clarissa: or, The History of a Young Lady, but he spent three years trying to bring it within the compass of the seven volumes in which it was published. He first presents the heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, when she is discovering the barely masked motives of her family, who would force her into a loveless marriage to improve their fortunes. Outside the orbit of the Harlowes stands Lovelace, nephew of Lord M and a romantic who held the code of the Harlowes in contempt. In her desperate straits, Clarissa appraises too highly the qualities that set Lovelace beyond the world of her family, and, when he offers protection, she runs off with him. She is physically attracted by if not actually in love with Lovelace and is responsive to the wider horizons of his world, but she is to discover that he wants her only on his own terms.
In Lovelace’s letters to his friend Belford, Richardson shows that what is driving him to conquest and finally to rape is really her superiority. In the correspondence of Clarissa and her friend Anna Howe, Richardson shows the distance that separates her from her confidant, who thinks her quixotic in not accepting a marriage; but marriage as a way out would have been a sacrifice to that same consciousness of human dignity that had led her to defy her family. As the novel comes to its long-drawn-out close, she is removed from the world of both the Harlowes and the Lovelaces, and dies, a child of heaven. In providing confidants for his central characters and in refusing to find a p
in the social structure into which to fit his sorely beset heroine, Richardson made his greatest advances over Pamela, the previous novel. He was determined, as his postscript indicates, to write a novel that was also a tragedy; expressed in the original form of alternative narrative: showing how one event can be two things to different people.
These are complex psychological characters. To side with one is the throw the other away.”If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.” ~Samuel Johnson by way of Boswell.
The ‘knowledge of the heart’ is the ambivalence of real life. In Samuel Richardson’s time, there were no psychologists. Instead, they had books, myths, parables for mirrors. CLARISSA has been read for ~250 years because the psyche of the novel is so fully drawn.”…for whatever the disguise, what is taking place is the creative eros connecting with an awakening psyche…
Ideally, we want to see Samuel Richardson, full of good intentions, sitting down to write a tale that might instruct parents, lovers, and children. And, just as in Clary’s story of the lady who kept the pet lion, mind what followed: Mr. Richardson let loose his demons and created Lovelace, a beguiling tormentor for his Clarissa. In spite of himself, the artist, the very human man, seeped through into his novel. … ”Clarissa” fascinates because the leads are so ambivalent. And they help us confront the ambivalence within ourselves. Though we love Clarissa Harlowe for her mind and her virtue, her goodness and her beauty, part of us really wants Lovelace to win; but he is unable as well; at best a bouquet of blood flowers.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, English writers began to portray a multiply-layered, mutually-reflecting, deeply dynamic subjectivity— “deep intersubjectivity”—a “change so subtle and fundamental that it has been difficult to conceive and describe” , particularly as today we take its impact for granted in the prose of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, McEwan, and others. George Butte defines it as the web of partially interpenetrating consciousnesses that exists wherever perceiving subjects, that is, human beings, collect. [T]he process begins when a self perceives the gestures, either of body or word, of another consciousness, and it continues when the self can perceive in those gestures an awareness of her or his own gestures. Subsequently the self, upon revealing a consciousness of the other’s response, perceives yet another gesture responding to its response, so that out of this conversation of symbolic behaviours emerges a web woven from elements of mutually exchanged consciousnesses. Richardson preceded them all….
Only at page 472 of the first volume is Clarissa set free from an arranged marriage to an odiously ugly and clumsy rich oaf. Here is how Richardson builds up to it: Lovelace has finally tricked Clarissa into leaving her family and eloping with him, by contriving to be indispensable to her escape. And she has good reason to do so; an escape from the harsh and dreary family prison into the keeping of an elegant , handsome, witty, accomplished, emotionally infantile, obsessive and implacable man. his mania, intrigue for its own sake, with women at its center: women reduced to prey to be run down, or puzzles to be solved for amusement. To Clarissa, it is a classic love-hate situation, but she to is obsessed by the labyrinth of intrigue and like Hansel and Gretel they both get lost in the woods and in this case tragically eaten through a series of self-immolations and cannibalism. They are both manipulators, and ultimately the masquerade reveals two weak individuals taking the path of least resistance.
Lovelace 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. Clarissa is introduced to the inhabitants of the house as Lovelace’s wife, when, in fact, both Mrs.Sinclair and her nieces know that Lovelace does not want to marry Clarissa and instead intends to make her his kept mistress. Lovelace explains to Clarissa that since they spend so much time together, they have to pose as a married couple, even though they keep separate bedrooms, in order not to scandalize the (presumably) respectable inhabitants of the house. However, the real reason that he wants Clarissa to address him as a husband in front of Mrs. Sinclair and her “nieces” is that if he then happens to rape Clarissa, he would have the witnesses who could testify in a court of law that Clarissa considered herself married to him and thus cannot possibly complain of any sexual liberties he has taken with his “lawfully wedded” wife. …
Lovelace is ludicrous and disgusting, and so he knows. For he laughs at his own absurd wickedness as he indulges it, and comes in the end, as Clarissa’s courage defeats him, to a weary self-disgust. Yet, unfortunately, he is also serious. He is no amoral or even atheistic sinner, but a full believer determined to indulge himself and leave repentance to old age. Late Victorian agnostic critics, like Virginia Wool’s father, Leslie Stephen, could not comprehend this; surely so complete a rogue should be allowed infidelity in his sins, Stephen said. But, of course, it is exactly this equal battle between a Christian villain and a Christian saint that gives full logic to the fight.
In any event, the once spoilt, saintly girl is now the prisoner of her seducer. From this point on, until she escapes from prison of mortal flesh altogether, Clarissa goes from one prison to another. But, after accepting the fiction, that Lovelace is her husband for the sake of appearances, she enters an increasingly nightmarish world of false identity and false information; a parody of the illusion of life on earth itself, fueled in part for an irrational passion of the deadly game in which she is involved. Lovelace, for his part, operates on the most basic premises of primitive theory of power and control, which reflects much of the Freudian conception of the virginity taboo.
This taboo exists and is enforced so that a man can hope to marry a woman who has never had sex with anyone before; if she now has sex with him, she must stay with him. He is assured his children will be his; his male pride is safe and he’s in control of her. If she loses her virginity, no man who knows this will want to marry her. No matter what she does, she’s wedded psychologically and socially.As if coming out of Freud’s script, the women who resemble Clarissa in becoming freed of men they have had sex with, are most often themselves rakes, masculine-like women or in modern novels liberated feminists. Madame de Merteuil, Germaine de Stael’s Sophie de Vernon (from Delphine) and Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon are Clarissa’s peers.
Even so, Lovelace can only achieve his objective when Clarissa is drugged. There is already a hollow ring in Lovelace’s triumphant postscript that boldly announces to us what has happened. “And now Belford, I can go no farther. The affair is over. Clarissa lives.” Almost in the next letter, he is trying to reduce his prize, whose human superiority has evaded his real knowledge, to a thing of little importance, “…and when all’s done, Miss Clarissa Harlowe but ran the fate of a thousand of her sex.” Of course, he knows that if this were so, the whole great battle would simply be another of his dreary, unrewarding Don Juan conquests, even less rewarding than others, for to conquer the unconscious is a peculiarly sterile victory.
Her death, in the end, her proud disobedience, is almost a suicide of Masada proportions in refusing his offer of marriage in the only option left to her. Her slow decline and death, with a coffin in poor lodgings, does seem a little baroque, and Richardson does put into Lovelace’s mouth a good deal of the mockery we are ourselves ready to provide; and her teasing of Lovelace’s hopes is a bit of self-indulgent celebration of spiritual victory.
Yet those who have lived with Clarissa through the book, will, because of her continued intelligence, her tough defense of her own integrity, her absolute certainty of her own duty, find themselves exultant at a spiritual victory that is nevertheless a superb human triumph of the weak over the powerful. As for Lovelace, he meets his defeat in an even more manic mood; full of wild jokes, such as seeking to attend her deathbed disguised as a chaplain, and even making fiercer and fiercer Heathcliff like romantic demands. Now that she has been his, even thou pyrrhic , Richardson’s logical ruthlessness suggest to us that Lovelace is damned. But it is more than ruin for Lovelace. Wounded by Clarissa’s kinsmen in a duel in Italy, he dies crying, “Let this expiate”. But we know that his offer of a dead body is no expiation from a man whose desperate search for a meaning in life could find no better satisfaction than to reduce his fellow creatures to things.
Lovelace and Clarissa’s mental games are thus characterised—not always, but very frequently—by a certain asymmetry. At any givenpoint, one of the players seems to have a much better perspective on the subjectivity of the other, and, even then, that better perspective rarely translates into actually understanding that person. It could be that this see-saw pattern of representing fictional consciousness made Butte reluctant to consider Clarissa a strong example of pre-Austenian deep intersubjectivity. Butte implies that for Clarissa, at least, Lovelace’s inner world is “‘over there,’ on the other side of a space across which she [exposes] herself, wittingly or not” ; and one has to admit that Richardson’s novel does convey a strong impression of the ultimate inaccessibility of the subjectivity of the other in spite of the abundance of observations about that person’s social behaviour and body language.
Though the psychological parallelism between Lovelace and Clarissa has been previously examined, their analogous sexual identifications have received only brief attention. From Clarissa’s threats of suicide and Lovelace’s anesthetized rape of her, to her drawn-out death and funeral and Lovelace’s desire for her exquisite corpse, Richardson continually points us to the however unpleasant realization that the sexual taboo Clarissa and Lovelace share is death-in-sex. Indeed Clarissa can be seen as Richardson’s own courtship of death: the novel is riddled with descriptions and imagery equating desire with death, and is ultimately devoted to painting a protracted portrait of Clarissa’s beautiful demise. But the powerful theme of desire-in-death goes much beyond the protracted rape and death-bed scenes–it actually marries the notorious antagonists. It is precisely at the point where sex and death are linked that Lovelace and Clarissa themselves conjoin. ( Jolene Zigarovich )
“From the outset of the novel, Richardson employs images of death to reveal the complexity of both Lovelace’s and Clarissa’s characters and motivations. Indeed, images of death in the novel veil the underlying complexities of sexual impulse. Critics such as Ian Watt and Dorothy Van Ghent have previously mentioned the importance of death in Clarissa’s conception of sexuality, but the shared sexual eschatology of both Lovelace and Clarissa demands a complete examination. In “`Alien Spirits’: The Unity of Lovelace and Clarissa,” John Stevenson makes a crucial step toward the questioning and exploration of traditional interpretations, asking, “What if Lovelace and Clarissa embody a similar way of interpreting the world, and what if, most shocking of all, their similarity is grounded precisely in their attitude toward sex? … What if both of them hate sex, and for the same reasons?” Although Stevenson’s argument is certainly critical to this discussion, his conclusion that both Lovelace and Clarissa share a hatred for the body and sexuality leads us astray. In fact, the two characters are united in a much more shocking manner. Instead of a hatred for sexuality and the body, as Stevenson claims, both actually fetishize, are aroused by and obsess upon, the exquisite corpse. Both, in their own manner, are necrophilics.”