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:
Let me rejoice that she has passed the Rubicon: that she cannot return: that, as I have ordered it, the flight will appear to the implacables to be altogether with her own consent: and that, if I doubt her love, I can put her to trials as mortifying to her niceness, as glorious to my price — For, let me tell thee, dearly as I love her, if I thought there was but the shadow of a doubt in her mind whether she preferred me to any man living, I would show her no mercy. (p. 387)
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."
I thought myself, I said, extremely unhappy. I knew not what to determine upon: my reputation now, no doubt, utterly ruined: destitute of clothes fit to be seen by anybody: my very indigence, as I might call it, proclaiming my folly to everyone who saw me: who would suppose that I had been taken at advantage, or had given an undue one; and had no power over either my will, or my actions: that I could not but think I had been dealt artfully with: that he had seemed to have taken what he might suppose the just measure of my weakness, founded on my youth and inexperience: that I could not forgive myself for meeting him: that my heart bled for the distresses of my father and mother on this occasion: that I would give the world, and all my hopes in it, to have been still in my father's house... (p. 390)
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.
I am a critic, thou knowest, in women's dresses — Many a one have I taught to dress, and helped to undress. But there is such a native elegance in this lady that she surpasses all that I could imagine surpassing. But then her person adorns what she wears, more than dress can adorn her; and that's her excellence. (p. 399)
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.
Although I never saw a man, whose person [i.e., physical appearance] I could like, before this man; yet his faulty character allowed me but little merit from the indifference I pretended to on his account. But now I see him in nearer lights, I like him less than ever — Indeed, I never liked him so little as now. Upon my word, I think I could hate him (if I do not already hate him) sooner than any man I ever thought tolerably of — a good reason why: because I have been more disappointed in my expectations of him; although they never were so high as to have made him my choice in preference to the single life, had that been permitted me. (p. 507)
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.
Here have I been at work, dig, dig, dig, like a cunning miner at one time, and spreading my snares like an artful fowler at another, and exulting in my contrivances to get this inimitable creature absolutely in my power. Everything made for me — Her brother and uncle were but my pioneers: her father stormed as I directed him to storm. Mrs Howe [Anna's mother] was acted by the springs I set at work: her daughter was moving for me, and yet imagined herself plumb against me: and the dear creature herself had already run her stubborn neck into my gin, and knew not that she was caught; for I had not drawn my sprindges close about her — and just as all this was completed, wouldst thou believe that I should be my own enemy, and her friend? — that I should be so totally diverted from all my favourite purposes, as to propose to marry her before I went to town, in order to put it out of my own power to resume them? (p. 518)
Yet, Lovelace recognizes that Clarissa is becoming sadder, and fears the problem of her depression will interfere with the future he envisions.
But after all, so low, so dejected continues she to be that I am terribly afraid I shall have a vapourish [i.e., morbid or depressive] wife, if I do marry. I should then be doubly undone. Not that I shall be much at home with her, perhaps, after the first fortnight or so. But when a man has been ranging like the painful bee from flower to flower, perhaps for a month altogether, and the thoughts of home and a wife begin to have their charms with him, to be received by a Niobe [turned to stone by grief, in legend] who, like a wounded vine, weeps its vitals away while it but involuntarily curls around you; how shall I be able to bear that?
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.