Lucinda Elliot

Clarissa -Richardson’s Saintly Heroine – Rounded Heroine Minus Bodily Urges


When it comes to a complicated main character, a character who is according to E M Forster’s categorisation rounded as distinct from flat, I don’t need to look any further than the novel I’ve been reading recently, ‘Clarissa’ by Samuel Richardson..

She is a fascinating creation, in some ways a rounded character, vividly portrayed as loving to feed her poultry and make tea for the family; yet in other ways, she seems oddly incomplete, seen as she is by her creator as almost a ‘creature without a body’

Richardson was of course, a prize- holding, fully-paid-up card-holding patriarch, with an obsession with a woman’s so called purity that seems to teeter on the verge of the ludicrous.

Accordingly, the honour of Clarissa, like her predecessor Pamela, is tested in the area of virginity. This makes for a massive shortcoming in a novel that might otherwise have been a truly riveting drama of a contest between good and evil in the persons of Clarissa and her caddish, charming, handsome and finally brutal violator Lovelace.

This is a shame; and contrived though the situations are, improbable as Lovelaces’s schemes often are too, ridiculous as the value which both Clarissa and Lovelace place on her not surrendering to his whiles is, it still makes for in fascinating read two hundred and fifty years after it was written.

To lose her ‘virtue’ then meant for a respectable, upper middle class girl like Clarissa in that age social ostracism; her not surrendering to Lovelace is more than a pretty girl refusing to let a caddish admirer bed her; Clarissa’s physical virtue means everything to Clarissa and Lovelace; in her, he is putting on trial all women and his lack of faith in them. He holds in debased form exactly the same moral code as she does regarding women’s virtue.

Richardson was an innovator in that he did write about women and their problems, however far fetched his plots and the contrivances of his seducers/potential rapists, and for this he does deserve a round of thanks from all woman writers. He cleared the way through macho unthinking adventure stories to a softer, more reflective approach. His successors were Fanny Burney and later, the incomparable Jane Austen.

Just as in his last novel Sir Charles Grandison Richardson portrayed his ideal man, so Clarissa is his ideal woman, who is, first and last, a ‘lady’.

Now, all women know, and most perceptive men suspect, that those women who wish to be ‘ladies’, even the ones who are downright prissy in male company, are far more outspoken and earthy (and also critical of males) whenever they are alone with other women.

This being true even today, it must have been far more the case in an era when ignoring the coarser aspects of reality was becoming an aspect of gentility.

By and large in the eighteenth century, life was brutal compared to how things are in western society today. Death and dirt and pain were ever present.

Against these background features, throughout the century, there was a move towards ‘gentility’ and increasing polarisation of sex roles, which was finally to lead to what might be called the ‘cult of the lady’ in Victorian times, and the fainting, sheltered heroines of the time.

Richardson’s writing shows a strangely divided psyche over the issue of women. He seems to have honoured ‘the sex’ and valued their contributions to his writing; he even had a group of highly sycophantic female readers and advisors, who gave him feedback on his novels, particularly the issues of delicacy and punctilio in them. However, these his ‘dear sisters’ had to keep to the rules, and to speak as delicate ladies. Richardson admired puritanical morality (and as Fielding makes obvious, this was often synonymous, at least in his first novel Pamela with complacent, self- serving morality).

To most modern readers in the west, and I think especially women, Richardson’s equating a woman’s being sexually untouched ( and also untouched by stirrings of physical desire, certainly outside marriage and quite possibly even within it) with honour must seem absurd.

In Clarissa the heroine takes this to extremes. At the time critics thought she was depicted as over delicate. Even taking into account her fully justified apprehensions of Lovelace as an encroaching seducer, her cold behaviour to him when she believes herself informally engaged to him is such that she is dismayed by so much as a kiss.

After he tricks her into running away with him, and she suspects that he has indeed duped her, she is annoyed with him and remarks at the first guest house (where he insists on staying too): – ‘I find you do not improve on acquaintance, Sir.’

He doesn’t do what she expects him to do, and what, by the code of punctilio he ought to do at once, and propose to her outright, setting a date for the wedding.

Instead he protests that he must adhere to her former conditions. Previously, she said she wouldn’t listen to his proposal until he had begun a reformation and attempted a reconciliation with her family. Now, he uses these conditions once imposed on him against her. Disliking marriage, he hopes to prevail on her to live as his mistress.

And so, the struggle of will and wits between the two begins. Clarissa, though she shows Christian humility, will not take any nonsense from Lovelace, and this is one of her most endearing characteristics: – ‘You are boasting of your merits, Sir: let merit be y our boast: nothing else can attract me. If personal considerations had any weight with me, either in Solmes’ (her rejected suitor) disfavour, or in your favour, I should despise myself: if you value yourself upon them in preference to the person of poor Solmes I shall despise you!’

This is bravely spoken when Lovelace is her only protector now, and the vain schemer and abuser deserves this and the many put-downs to which she subjects him, and far, far worse. Still, there is a problem here.

She does admire Lovelace’s personal attractions; she does admire ‘his person’, and as she is later to find out when he deliberately makes himself ill, she is already slightly in love with him. This attraction isn’t adequately depicted by Richardson , possibly throgh his wish to portray his heroine as above bestial lust.

She wouldn’t be even slightly in love with Lovelace, if she knew his full discreditable history as an accused rapist who despises women. In this, Clarissa is unlike some un-self-critical heroines. Many of these are quite happy to throw their lot in with a rake, believing that his former treatment of other women is largely their own fault and less important than his (current) treatment of the heroine herself.

Clarissa, though naïve, is objective enough to see that Lovelace’s treatment of her soon resembles his devious treatment of her sister when he was officially courting her.

Clarissa is Richardson’s ideal women, and Richardson had highly repressive notions of how a woman – anyway, a lady – should be. Accordingly, this necessitates her denial of her own sexuality. How far this is arguably Richardson’s intention – that Clarissa, who is ‘all mind’ is too blasé about the strength of her unrecognised attraction to Lovelace – is an interesting point. The author’s own language, his way of thinking of Clarissa, his whole perception of her as a semi angelic being precludes any earthiness in her or any clarity on this point.

This can lead to absurdities; later, when a prisoner for debt in the grubby room at the ‘Spunging Hoise’ Clarissa’s ruffles are still snow white. This is obviously meant to show metaphorical spotlessness (to demonstrate the point that despite her rape, Clarissa is still pure) but comes across as rather ludicrous.

She possess some sort of filter by way of an aura, which repels dirt and no doubt flies, but unfortunately fails to repel Lovelace, whom she recognises in her metaphorical story of a ‘lady’ who kept a ‘beast’ as beneath his specious exterior, a brute; as his friend Belford says, ‘as cruel as a panther.’

As she is ‘all mnd’, she eats almost nothing for several months before she is literally dragged away from her family home by Lovelace, so that one wonders she isn’t seriously underweight by that time. She is shown drinking tea with Lovelace, but never shares a hearty dinner with him (too corporal). After she goes into a decline, she wastes away to a lovely skeleton, but no ugly bodily symptoms are allowed to intrude on the reformed rake Belford’s notice during his account of her beautific last hours.

Early in the novel, I was dismayed that Clarissa did seem to indulge in some petty spite by mentioning ‘the poor Bella’ (her sister, the one Lovelace ostensibly first courted) having a ‘high fed face’ and comments on how when delighted at the thought of having such an attractive husband, Bella ‘compliments her own person’. All this seems unworthy of Clarissa, so that one wonders if it is just another failure of ‘the epistolary method’ or if it betrays a covert sexual rivalry over Lovelace that even predates Lovelace’s transferring ‘his addresses’ from her elder sister to Clarissa herself.

In her final letters to her family, and despite their witholding of a final blessing and forgiveness of her for running away with Lovelace until it is to late, Clarissa shows no malice or resentment of their cruel treatment. Now she does strike the reader as truly angelic and quite above petty rivalry or spite. Richardson shows repeatedly that she has lost any interest in Lovelace as a man, having rejected repeated pleas from him to marry him by way of reparation, and she embraces her death as reunion with the divine.

Lovelace and Clarissa are undoubtedly great achievements in depiction of character. It is unfortunate that Richardson’s view of women made it impossible for him to depict a truly rounded heroine in either the self interested Pamela or the far more admirable Clarissa; Except very occasionally, Pamela lacks depth; Clarissa seems to lack any bodily urges.

In the cruel Lovelace, as I have mentioned before, and as I will go into again, Richardson’s achievement is truly magnificent; he has created a truly rounded villain.

2 Responses

  1. ‘I find you do not improve on acquaintance, Sir.’ – You must admit, that is one humdinger of a putdown! I’m going to remember that one… 🙂

Leave a Reply