Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: Day Four

July 18, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Today, from 9:00 AM to about 5:30 PM in a virtually non-stop reading orgy, I read Letters 174 through 231 of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, originally published as Volume IV in 1748. Although this is the fourth of seven volumes, the imbalance of text in the volumes means that I'm only about halfway through the novel.

Clarissa largely consists of letters from the 19-year-old Clarissa Harlowe to her best friend Anna Howe (and a lesser number of letters from Anna to Clarissa) and letters from Robert Lovelace to his crony rake John Belford (and a lesser number back). In Volume III, after Clarissa has ran off with Lovelace, the Clarissa letters and the Lovelace letters seem fairly balanced; often we read Clarissa's interpretations of events, and then read Lovelace's background manipulations of those same events.

In Volume IV, the balance of power has definitely shifted. In accordance with the observation that history is written by the victors, Lovelace has assumed domination and control of the narrative. This is bad news for Clarissa but great news for the reader, because Lovelace is one of the most vividly distinctive narrative voices in all of English literature. Lovelace is charming and cocky, but also nearly psychopathic and prone to petulant bouts of anger. At one point, Samuel Richardson is forced to censor part of one of Lovelace's letters, with the explanation,

Lovelace's major concern in Volume IV is to prevent Clarissa from reconciling with her family. He has obtained a room for her and is staying at the same lodging himself, having let it be known that they've been recently married (they haven't) but that they aren't sharing the same room until Clarissa has take care of familial reconciliations. He knows full well that there can be no actual reconciliation if Clarissa's family believes her to be married, or if they learn she isn't married but is staying at the same lodging house as Lovelace. Lovelace's primary motivation here is to destroy Clarissa's reputation for anyone else.

Lovelace seemingly has within his power the ability to attract Clarissa legitimately, but he is incapable of doing so. He doesn't know how to be honorable. Courtship for Lovelace involves intrigue, contrivance, deception, dishonesty, and manipulation. That is how he gets his pleasure. He doesn't imagine himself in a calm domestic setting; his most intense fantasies involve domination. Here is Lovelace writing how Anna's letters to Clarissa are ruining many of his plans:

Lovelace even fakes an illness, including the vomiting of blood, to get sympathy from Clarissa, and sure enough, she blames herself for subjecting him to so much stress. Through an elaborate and cruel ruse, Lovelace manages to make Clarissa believe that she will be reconciled with her family as soon as they are married. But when Clarissa agrees to this marriage, Lovelace wants to skip to the honeymoon:

In epistolary novels, often the letters become part of the plot, and that happens in Volume IV. Lovelace takes Clarissa to the theatre so that her room can be searched for letters from Anna, which are then copied for Lovelace's later perusals. Towards the end, an important letter from Anna exposing many of Lovelace's deceptions is intercepted, and a letter from Clarissa to Anna is forged. Clarissa has escaped from Lovelace's control, but he is hot on her trail.

Volumes III and IV of Clarissa were published in April 1748, but the last three volumes didn't come out until December. In the interim, Richardson received letters asking that Clarissa and Lovelace get together for a happy ending to the novel. Lovelace was certainly a scondrel that no woman should be attracted to, but Richardson had also succeeded in making Lovelace all too human.