Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (and Watt’s Clarissa chapter)

It took me so long to finish Clarissa that I never followed up on contemporary characterization posts and, sadly, I won’t be working on them in the foreseeable future. Instead, I’ll just do some quick free association: Liv from iZombie sort of reminds me of Clarissa in a weird way (which might make more sense when I post my breadths notes about the adaptation of iZombie later this summer). Mr. Hickman is like Lord Gillingham on Downton Abbey, Miss Howe is (surprise, surprise) rather like Lady Mary. And what of John Belford, our author-figure/anti-hero? In my mind he’s something like one of the Winchester Brothers (of Supernatural) or Stefan Salvatore (of The Vampire Diaries). Have I mentioned that I spent a lot of my downtime over winter break watching bad TV?

Anyway, on to more serious business: my notes about the novel itself. I’ll start with some observations about its


1. POV and Time

I was extremely interested in the way Richardson used third person throughout the novel. First, it isn’t entirely consistent. Most of the letters are, of course, first person relations of events and experiences. The letters Richardson (or, should I say Bedford?) omits or truncates are denoted with a bit of third person, semi-omniscient, and italicized exposition. However, some of the letters between Lovelace and Joseph Leman lapse inexplicably into third person (Letters 139 and 140, specifically) with no authorial signalling (not even italics) as to why. It seems to me that this third person, like the other uses of third person in the novel, allows for a condensation of material and a consequent speeding up of the timeline, however, I can’t help feeling that there’s something more at work here. I suspect that it establishes Lovelace as an author-figure in his own right. Maybe, that is, he’s writing the story (or maybe Richardson is conflating himself with Lovelace and Leman?) and Belford is just compiling afterward. On the other hand, it might just be the manifestation of the difficulties of novel writing, the difficulties of maintaining a formally realistic POV when there needs to be some distance between author and character.

2. Meta: Writing about Writing about Writing

Throughout Clarissa, there is some real anxiety about writing. Is it a moral and beneficial pursuit? Is it wicked and corrupting and virulent? I don’t know that Richardson himself comes to any really decisive conclusion. It is by writing that Clarissa falls from grace and because of her illicit (though well-meaning) early correspondence with Lovelace that she dies “ruined.” But, as she herself notes in the final letters, this “fall” allowed her to recognize her own vanity and pride, become purified of them through suffering, and meet her creator with a purer soul–her writing literally ensures her salvation.

The potentially threatening and destructive (but also healing and constructive) power of writing is also foregrounded in Clarissa’s status among her friends as a “ready scribbler”: her family refuses to receive her letter because she can move her friends (or influence them against their supposedly better judgement and resolutions). They are afraid of her words.

Ian Watt suggests that there is something suspicious about Lovelace’s use of shorthand, that his foolish sidekicks consider it a sort of magic, Babylonian code. Of course, we the readers know that Lovelace’s writing is “bad” or representative or his reprehensible moral character, in that he early and increasingly uses it to rationalize and justify his eventual rape of Clarissa (not that it actually can be justified).

A series of moments throughout the letters develops this theme:

First, while Clarissa admits that much of her time is spent writing, she is suspicious of Lovelace because much of *his* time is spent writing:

“[S]upposing it to be true, that all his vacant nightly hours are employed in writing, what can be his subjects? If, like Caesar, his own actions, he must undoubtedly be a very enterprising and a very wicked man, since nobody suspects him to have a serious turn; and decent as he is in his conversation with us, his writing are not probably such as will redound either to his own honour or to the benefit of others, were they to be read. He must be conscious of this, since Mrs. Fortescue says that, in the great correspondence of letters which he holds, he is as secret and careful as if it were of a treasonable nature…That you [Miss Howe] and I, my dear, should love to write is no wonder. We have always from the time each could hold a pen delighted in epistolary correspondencies. Our employments are domestic and sedentary, and we can scribble upon twenty innocent subjects and take delight in them because they are innocent; though were they to be seen, they might not profit or please others.” (Letter 12 from Miss Clarissa Harlowe to Miss Howe)

Interestingly, despite their ostensibly different subject matter, the correspondence between Clarissa and Anna and Robert and John are not fundamentally different in one respect–Clarissa supposes that neither, if perused by others, would be profitable for moral or spiritual instruction.

She changes her tune in the second half of the text, when she asks Anna Howe and John Belford to compile all of the correspondences in order to submit them to the world as a testimony, a witness to her innocence and destruction, so that others in her position (and other stubborn, bizarrely spiteful parents and family members) might take warning and amend their ways. This potential of words is hinted at fairly early:

“For what are words but the body and dress of thought? And is not the mind indicated strongly by its outward dress?” (Letter 161: Miss Clarissa Harlowe to Miss Howe)

3. Epistolary Form and Audience Participation

As I will mention in more depth below, this text is particularly affecting. In part, I think its efficacious affectivity is due to the epistolary form, which, despite the use of specific names and other properties of formal realism, requires us to take the place of the correspondent. We are Belford and Anna Howe. We are participating in the story. The peculiar position we, the readers, are placed within becomes most apparent, however, in the conclusion. The narrator (Richardson / Belford) who is busily accounting for each character’s fate, and asks of Arabella’s unpleasant but not necessarily just end:

“What a heart must that be, which would wish she might be as great a torment to herself, as she had aimed to be to her sister? Especially as she regrets to this hour, and declares that she shall to the last of her life, her cruel treatment of that sister” (1490)

Although it is clear how we are expected to feel/behave in this situation, actually the reader’s hearts are that “unnatural” or “ungenerous” heart and not just in regard to the spiteful Arabella. We want Lovelace and Clarissa’s brother James, all of the ruined women and rakish men Lovelace employed, and everyone else who did Clarissa wrong to be punished not only equally to, but maybe even above and beyond their crimes.

(To be fair, we the readers probably also wanted Clarissa to just die already after several hundred pages of her predicting and preparing for her death.)

And Richardson knows this, otherwise why would he feel the need to justify the light punishment Arabella receives?

All of this is to suggest that, as readers, we are not only the most direct testament to the morally ambiguous power of writing to move the human heart, but also of the need for an instructive, morally and spiritually beneficial kind of writing. We are the ones for whom this cautionary correspondence has been compiled and passed around (supposedly in manuscript form).

4. Drama

I also want to briefly mention the nods to the dramatic form throughout Clarissa; Watt discusses these in his chapter on the novel, but it seems significant that, while Clarissa uses the dialogue format, Lovelace escalates from use of dialogue in a typically dramatic way to the incorporation of several “acts” of the tragedy he is writing (i.e. his plot to “test Clarissa’s virtue”).


[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 giving occasion to the sentiment. –Boswell

The inclusion of the above quotation in the introductory material of the Penguin Classics edition of the text does Richardson’s masterpiece something of a disservice. That is, while it does take FOREVER for the story to unfold, as a reader I found that I was physically bound up in the story. Every emotion and every instance of the narrative had sufficient time and attention to really embed themselves in my mind. The text is highly affecting. Many readers note this in regard to the sense of increasing claustrophobia, however, I think that the everyday emotions and reactions are also amplified in this text. I felt dread, illness, faintness, and more as I read–even though I knew the end that things would come to before I even started reading the novel.


I don’t have much to say, here, other than that if there is a play on the tragedy and epic forms in Clarissa (as Ian Watt suggests in his chapter on Henry Fielding’s affinity for epics), then I think the characterization provides us with an early instance of a character type that has become extremely popular in contemporary fiction and media: the anti-hero. Namely: John Belford. Sure, he repents. But for much of the novel, Belford is a rake who just happens to have a white knight complex. He recognizes Clarissa as a virtuous damsel in distress and, while still being Lovelace’s best friend / sidekick / a man of questionable character in his own right, does something now and then to help her out. But we’re supposed to like him, I think, particularly in comparison to Lovelace. So, anti-hero. He’s bad but he can be good and we aren’t supposed to hate him.


There are some interesting things going on in Clarissa in regard to the poor and their moral characters. (Actually, I see the same things going on in Fielding’s Jonathan Wild and Defoe’s Moll Flanders, though less obviously.

Clarissa cares a lot about the working and upright poor. She specifies in her will that she wants part of her estate to be used to help the poor who have jobs, although in a very limited fashion. I know that the novel was written during the time when society had an increasingly secularized conception of what it meant to be poor (i.e., the State was responsible for the poor, not the Church, and poverty did not automatically equate with moral depravity).

Clarissa’s virtue seems to be built upon the fact that she helps the poor, even though the Old Poor Law (1601) did not impute responsibility to individuals but rather to parishes. (See Gertrude Himmlfarb’s The Idea of Poverty for a more detailed analyses of English Poor Law).

Clarissa (and the other early novels I am reading), place great emphasis upon economic individualism (as Ian Watt terms it) or economic independence. Moral integrity seems to depend on it, for Clarissa, and she in turn assumes that giving the poor too much assistance will make them dependent and corrupt their good work ethics. It is for this reason, in fact, that she doesn’t help the idle poor (oddly, she makes no consideration whatsoever of the impotent poor, except in her donations to her poor, rheumatic maidservant, Hannah). There’s a particular connection to Defoe’s Moll Flanders in this treatment of poverty and individuality.


Watt, Ian. “Richardson as Novelist: Clarissa.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 208-38. Print. 

Throughout The Rise of the Novel, Watt proffers Richardson as the father of the novel, to the exclusion of Fielding and Defoe. He argues that Clarissa demonstrates a mastery of the techniques of formal realism and a particularly effective approach to the problems posed by formal realism.

In this chapter, he notes that there is not the same conflation between author and narrator Richardson struggles with in Pamela. (I disagree: I think he does conflate himself to some extent with both Belford and Lovelace. Watt seems to suggest, in another chapter, that the rape fantasies of Lovelace’s early letters might be Richardson’s own fantasies.)

Watt spends significant time considering the ways in which the dual (and sometimes intersecting) correspondences allow Richardson to navigate interiority and exteriority, activeness and passiveness, virtue and vice, and other binaries of character and morality.

He makes particular note of the Epiloge-style conclusion, which is a technique that continues to be used today to tie up the narrative threads of subplots and minor characters.

He suggests (and I agree) that Clarissa becomes a sort of Angel of the House figure (although that term is anachronistic, certainly).

He examines the second half of Clarissa within the tradition of funereal literature.

He examines the social negotiations the novel makes (dealing with primogeniture–the reason for brother’s jealousy, upward mobility, etc.).

I have some reservations about this chapter, particularly on pps 232-4, when Watt gets a bit rape-culture-y, in a manner reminiscent of Freud (he suggests that Clarissa secretly wanted to be intimate with Lovelace, and therefore blames herself. But victims of rape (and our culture in general) often blame themselves, and it is just as likely that Clarissa’s actual account of the incident is trustworthy. Finally, I think she has a thing for Hickman, and I think there’s more evidence for that than for her “secret love” of Lovelace–though I don’t have time to support this assertion at the moment.)

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