Lucinda Elliot

Review of Samual Richardson’s Clarissa

imagesclarissaI finally finished ‘Clarissa’ a couple of weeks ago.
It’s an incredibly long read, and sometimes a tedious one. Richardson never writes fifty words when five hundred will do,and he just loved to tell not show.

His moral expostulations that so amused Coleridge are even more in evidence here than in Pamela: the moral conflict between Lovelace and Clarissa has more at stake than the one between Mr B and Pamela, because finally Lovelace is shown to be too wicked to be capable of reformation.

In Richardson’s earlier novel, Mr B does, after his outrageous attempts on Pamela in the first half of the story, have an –  unconvincing –  moral turnabout and offers Pamela the marriage which, it seems, makes all these earlier, shabby attempts on a servant’s maid’s body all right.

To be fair to Richardson, Mr B supposedly clears himself of charges of attempted rape in ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’ (one of the dullest books I have ever read), explaining away his dramatic leaps from cupboards and pinning her down with the help of the brutal Mrs Jewkes as apparent misunderstandings (!!!). Mr B, though debauched enough to be a seducer, is not finally to be seen as a rapist.


Lovelace was almost certainly a rapist before he ravishes the drugged Clarissa – (an act he blames on the prostitutes in the brothel, two of them girls he has debauched himself). We hear of his abducting a woman he admired before, and when he got her to the inn, as he blithely admits to his tool Joseph Leman, ‘It’s true I didn’t ask her for her permission. It’s cruel to ask a virtuous woman’.

He schemes to kidnap and rape Clarissa’s friend, his opponent Anna Howe, in a maritme raid in which he hopes to include his group of fellow debauchees, but this idea comes to nothing as his obsession with Clarissa leads to her own desctruction at his hands.

He also casually suggests drowning a treacherous mistress of his dying friend Belton, along with the two boys of doubtful paternity (it’s hard to tell from the context if he is serious or not).

The style of this shameless brute is throughout lively and amusing enough sometimes to beguile the reader almost into warming to him at times – until you remember his disgusting history of abuse of  women based solely on one disappointment in love, and an apparent conviction (shared with Richardson) that a woman’s ‘chastity’ is her only honour. He is a great believer in the rakes’ code that the only women worthy of respect are the ones who will reject his advances.


We see him being charming to his cousin Charlotte, winning her over with kisses, and entertaining his rakish friends. We see him scheming diabolically, excusing himself inadequately, and finally, being destroyed by Clarissa’s avenger Colonel Morden. His final words during his death throes are ‘Let this expiate!’ Presumably, this is addessed to Clarissa herself. What can expiate his behaviour to his other victims, and those he has made into brutes themselves, isn’t a question Richardson addresses.

His scheming is sometimes ludicrous – for instance, wishing to test Clarissa’s feelings for him, he doses himself with the emetic ipecacuanha, then sends out for blood from the butchers to mix with his vomit to convince Clarissa that he is dangerously ill ( of course, she is duly compassionate).


Lovelace can’t explain away his diabolical machinations when Clarissa comes to believe in them. The reader has access to them from the beginning through his detailed correspondence with his friend Belford, who later goes over to the Clarissa camp and lets her see his friend’s letters, thereby exposing the full extent of his pointless and elaborate schemes against her virtue.

I don’t believe anyone – even at the time – could possibly really have thought of this novel as true to life. There are domestic details which are, obviously, for Richardson, ever a vivid and lively writer when not launched on a moral homily, can bring his imaginative world to life admirably. His depictions of life in great houses, in a brothel and in eighteenth century shop, are colourful and interesting. Still, his story is in no way believable and most of his characters and their relationships are improbable, whether they are virtuous or debauched.

Clarissa is an impossible seventeen year old ( the more extraordinary as she ages two years in eight months and is nineteen at the time of her death). She is always virtuous and dutiful.

She does appear to give way, very early in the novel, to one fit of spite when she describes her sister Bella as having ‘a high fed face’ but even this may be a fault in his ‘epistolary method’. This remark is more suited to the acid pen of Anna Howe than that of the high-minded Clarissa. Her purity is such that nothing can soil even to her ruffles – these remain unsoiled in the grubby ‘spunging house’.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I in any way am decrying Richardson’s  achievement as a man who wished, in portraying the conflict between a virtuous woman and a rake, to warn ‘the inconsiderate and thoughtless of the one sex against the base arts and designs of specious contrivers of the other.’ He also wished to, ‘Caution parents against the undue exercise of their natural authority over their children in the great article of marriage’.

Richard was faithful to his scheme in showing the lurid and almost insane scheming of Lovelace to overcome Clarissa’s resistance to his seduction attempts after he has lured her away. In this, he is  helped massively by her family’s horrible insistence that she make an advantageous match with a man she finds physically repulsive.  Soon, Lovelace has Clarissa trapped in a brothel, from which she at last escapes.  He used an exciting, if incredible story, and vivid, if over the top characters, to make his points.

This novel has many weaknesses quite apart from the ones I have mentioned. For instance, Lovelace’s scheme to try Clarissa’s virtue to the point that he does, can’t  even make sense within his own frame of reference. Arguably, from his viewpoint,  having given her a short ‘trial’ rather than becoming embroiled in schemes that make acting honourably by her impossible, he should have married her. Then he could calmly refuse to reform. Still, it is, particularly given the undeveloped state of the novel in this era, an impressive achievement.

Richardson did what James N Frey calls ‘following through’ with admirable consistency, killing off Clarissa through a decline and causing Lovelace’s own death in a duel later on. We are left with little doubt of Lovelace’s final destination.

I’m glad to say I don’t believe in hell and damnation, but Richardson clearly did, and makes it obvious that Colonel Morden feels a good deal of guilt for having dispatched such a villain before he had time to repent. This is what Clarissa pleaded for him not to do in her posthumous letter.

While Richardson’s heroine and embodiment of virtue has become an anochronism, his dated but complex villain still gives inspiration and food for thought.

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