Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: Day Three

July 17, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

As early as Letter 17 in Clarissa, Clarissa Harlowe is bargaining with her parents to "live single" (Penguin edition, p. 95) in return for getting out of the arranged marriage to Roger Solmes. In the hundreds of pages since then, the ideal of "living single" has become more and more appealing, and more and more unlikely.

At the beginning of Volume III of Clarissa — which I read today between 8:30 AM and 8:00 PM with two half-hour meal breaks — Clarissa recounts how she secretly met with Robert Lovelace to tell him that she would not be running away with him — and then is tricked into doing precisely that. Now Lovelace apparently wants to marry her! Although in the past he's been the type of guy who prefers short-term relationships, Clarissa has gotten him thinking long term, if that's what it'll take. One problem, however, is that Lovelace's concept of love is rather scary. Here he is writing to one of his crony rakes, John Belford:

Everyone knows that Lovelace is a rake and a libertine, as well as handsome, charming, and intelligent. But Clarissa would like to make up her own mind regarding marriage. That she has been saved from one forced marriage only to be plunged into the willing arms of the overbearing Lovelace has taken its psychological toll. Clarissa is eating less and experiencing long stretches of — although the word's not used by Samuel Richardson, I have to call it "depression."

Clarissa's best friend Anna tells her she must get away from Lovelace or marry him. A single girl simply cannot stay in his presence and still maintain any type of reputation. Clarissa's honor is still intact — Lovelace hasn't quite cranked up his seduction powers yet — but no one will believe that for long.

What's interesting in Volume III of Clarissa (which comprises Letters 94 through 173) is that the tug of war between Clarissa and her family has been replaced with the tug of war between Clarissa and Lovelace, except that this one is much more ambivalent. To Lovelace, Clarissa is certainly the most desirable woman he has ever met.

There are times that Clarissa believes Lovelace to be earnest in his promise to reform his libertine ways, and there are times she finds him kind and considerate, and yet overall, the more she knows him, the less she esteems him.

There's that desire for the "single life" again, although the prospect of that is now becoming dimmer and dimmer. Clarissa is up against a man very skillful at what he does, who has planned several steps ahead, who knows exactly what he's doing, but who's only missteps result from finding himself in virgin territory.

Yet, Lovelace recognizes that Clarissa is becoming sadder, and fears the problem of her depression will interfere with the future he envisions.

Throughout the trials with her family that Clarissa has had to endure, she has placed much hope in her cousin Colonel Morden returning back to England from Florence and straightening out the mess. By the end of Volume III, Lovelace has put Clarissa in a room in a house in London that she suspects is not quite what it appears to be; everyone around them is made to believe that they are already married; and Clarissa is relayed a letter from Colonel Morden: She must, he tells her sternly, obey her parents in the marriage they want for her, and to stay away from Robert Lovelace. He is worst than she could possibly know.