Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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My Week with Clarissa: Day Six

July 20, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Central to a successful narrative in an epistolary novel is the free exchange of letters among the characters. Consequently, any interference with those letters can seem like a tear in the novel's space-time continuum — almost like the ripping film in Bergman's Persona or the "holes" in the picture caused by the avian swarms in Hitchcock's The Birds.

This is how Clarissa seems when Robert Lovelace begins intercepting letters between Clarissa and Anna, and then forging some letters as well. Not only does Lovelace violate the sacred friendship between these two young women; he interferes with the free flow of information upon which an epistolary novel depends.

It is therefore to the reader's immense relief when Clarissa turns up early in Volume VI of the novel under an assumed name renting a room above a glove shop in Covent Garden. She quickly re-establishes her correspondence with Anna, and they soon sort out the confusion caused by Lovelace's interception and re-writing letters to his own advantage.

Volume VI of the first edition of Clarissa encompassed the letters now numbered as 294 through 418, and pages 969 through 1,223 of the Penguin edition, which I read today from 8:00 AM to 9:00 PM with a half-hour break for one of Deirdre's scrumptious catfish dinners with mac & cheese. I am exhausted and spacy, and the final volume scheduled for tomorrow is 22 pages longer than what I read today. (See Deirdre's blog entry for her eye-witness take on this project.)

In Volume VI, Clarissa regains control of the narrative. She is safe, she is writing letters, and in a series of three letters beginning with number 312, she tells her version of the series of deceptions that led up to her being returned to the "vile house" in London (which the reader knows is actually a brothel), drugged (apparently with laudanum), and raped by Lovelace.

Anna recommends that Clarissa prosecute:

But the idea of "appearing publicly in a court to do myself justice" (p. 1019) is much more than Clarissa can handle right now. And then suddenly she doesn't respond to Anna's letters. She is gone. One of the women from the "vile house" saw Clarissa in church and had her publicly arrested for failure to pay room and board during the time she was held captive! She is taken to a holding cell — a room in a policeman's house — and is kept there for three nights. The effect on Clarissa's mental health is devastating.

Although Clarissa stops writing for a little while, she still has control of the narrative through John Belford, who has been receiving most of Lovelace's letters for the duration of the novel. Belford has become increasingly disgusted with Lovelace's behavior, and particularly the rape, and when he visits Clarissa in the holding cell, his sympathies for her overflow. Through his letters to Lovelace, Belford gives Clarissa voice in the narrative while undergoing his own reformation from rake to one of Clarissa's main supporters.

But the trauma of the arrest is the beginning of the end for Clarissa. After being taken back to her room above the glove shop, she talks frequently about the death she knows is coming soon, and comforts herself by assembling "meditations" from the book of Job. What Clarissa is suffering from is sometimes called "grief" in the novel, and sometimes a "broken heart," but we'd probably classify it as depression. She barely eats, and what she's really dying from is malnutrition. Clarissa looks forward to her death, and wants only to reconcile with her family before she goes.

Clarissa's cousin Colonel Morden, who has been returning from Florence for much of the novel, is finally in England, Clarissa learns.

Clarissa dominates the narrative of Volume VI, but that's not to say that Lovelace keeps quiet. Indeed, Lovelace's long letters begin the volume and end it. Volume VI begins with Letter 294, an extraordinary vindication of the lifestyle of the rake. At the end of the volume, he's stalking Clarissa at the glove shop, hoping to have yet another personal interview with his beloved, even if it kills her.

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