Lucinda Elliot

Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ and Forced Marriage in the Eighteenth Century

Clarissa and Lovelacerapejokes

I’ve been meaning to read Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ through for years and years. Unlike Sophie de Courcy, I’ve only read extracts. Now I’m getting down to it.

Yes, well. I don’t expect to enjoy it, exactly; ‘sententious or what’ is my vulgar update on Goodreads – but it’s like climbing Snowdon if you live in Wales – you have to do it sometime.

Richardson says his purpose is: – ‘To warn the inconsiderate and thoughtless of the one sex against the base arts and designs of specious contrivances of the other. To warn parents against the undue exercise of their natural authority over their children in the great article of marriage…’

That’s telling us. More seriously, though, Richardson, writing in an age when young women of middle and upper class families were expected to marry for position, not for personal choice, and one in which a woman’s reputation was so largely –and ludicrously to modern eyes – dependant on her chastity, was addressing serious issues. Richardson’s goal was an admirable one. The more so, because his complex and notoriously engaging villain finally reveals himself as a rapist.

As forced marriage still takes place in some communities today, and as, disgustingly, the number of rapes committed when women have been drugged and rendered half conscious has risen over the past few years – the issues raised in this archaic novel with its implausibly persistent anti-hero/disguised villain are still relevant today.

It was unfortunate that in his previous novel ‘Pamela’ (here’s a bit of arcane information: it was pronounced in those days with the stress on the penultimate syllable) Richardson, in his attack on ‘droit de seigneur’ created not, as he intended, the picture of outraged innocence and a tale of ‘virtue rewarded’ but rather the pairing of a couple of arch hypocrites and a saga of self-serving morality.

I gather that most critics think that ‘Clarissa’ does not share the same faults to anything like the same extent – but DH Lawrence’s comments on the resemblance to pornography of the sexual attempts on the outraged heroines are probably worth bearing in mind. I’ve only read 105 pages out of total of maybe 2,000 so far – so I can’t comment yet. The action hasn’t yet got going properly.

What is apparent to me already is that Richardson, like the later Francis Burney uses the ‘epistolary method’ rather clumsily, so that his heroine comes across as malicious and smug at times, which can hardly have been intended. She complains that her sister, who is determined in forwarding the loveless match proposed for Clarissa with the mean, ‘splay footed’ ‘orange wigged’ Mr Solmes – is acting in an unsisterly way, as she is; but Clarissa’s own apparent lack of sympathy for Bella’s unrequited fancy for the libertine Lovelace is low-minded in a supposedly supremely Christian heroine. The unfeeling gibes about her unrequited desire for him should have been limited to the sharp-tongued Miss Howe.

When he story opens, Clarissa has been manipulated into corresponding with Lovelace on behalf of her family, and is being courted by him and by the unattractive Solmes.

She doesn’t really want to marry either, disgusted with the meanness of the one and the rakish history of the other, but following a duel between her brother and Lovelace, only his declared passion for her keeps him from waging war on all the male members of the household. Previously, her relatives thought of giving Clarissa to Lovelace because of the likelihood of his inheriting a peerage, but when it seems possible that Solmes will be able to buy his way into the aristocracy, keeping in with Lovelace is no longer necessary to the Harlowes, who put pressure on Clarissa to break off her correspondence with the rake and notorious duelist.

At the same time the heroine’s family are keeping her virtually as a prisoner in their efforts to force her to accept marriage to Solmes, and the groundwork has been laid for Lovelace to be in a position to offer Clarissa his protection, which is of course as benign as that of a lamb given by a wolf.

Forced marriage was a real and hideous possibility to women from the more wealthy sectors of society at that time and features often enough in the novels of the eighteenth century. For instance, it forms part of the plot of Francis Burney’s Evelina, where the heroine’s grandmother plots to marry her off to her loutish and unappealing cousin and heir. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet asks Mr Bennet to order Elizabeth to marry Mr Collins, while in Mansfield Park Sir Thomas Bertram puts pressure on Fanny Price to marry the rakish Henry Crawford as being in her own good.

While it was generally assumed when making convenient matches that couples became used to each other and that ‘love grows after marriage’ to force a girl to a life of sexual misery with a man she found physically unappealing seems astoundingly unfeeling.

Clarissa is prepared to allow her parents the right to forbid her to marry a man they consider unsuitable – Lovelace – but isn’t prepared to accede them the right to marry her against her will.

This portrayal of opposition to parental authority in a Christian heroine and dutiful daughter was a revolutionary position for a novelist to take, and perhaps only a writer as sententious and respectable as Richardson could have got away with it and retained popularity.

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