Epistolary, Too


Fragonard Le Verrou (The Bolt) c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: WGA

Clarissa’s tribulations – she is treated abominably by her lover and the author – were too much for the gravity of some of Richardson’s worldly-wise contemporaries. Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is unapologetic fun-loving, lusty fiction; Clarissa is a beguiling mix of comedy of manners, social criticism and erotic tragedy disguised as moral improvement.

Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff's Office exhibited 1833 Charles Landseer 1799-1879 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00408Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff’s Office by Landseer, exhibited 1833 © Tate Gallery London

The anti-hero, Robert Lovelace, is handsome, sardonic and self-loathing in the great libertine and vampire tradition. We know the type, the complete shit, wearing Whiff of Sulphur Aftershave, whom we secretly fancy more than the nice man next door. Lovelace belongs, or rather wants to belong, to Dark Erotica. “While I, a poor, single, harmless, prowler; at least comparatively harmless; in order to satisfy my hunger, steal but one poor lamb….” (Letter 515)

He is also a rapist who uses an 18th century variant of Rohypnol. Clarissa is as susceptible to his sex-appeal as the reader; she fights her desire with moral intelligence and instinct for self-preservation, but we know, reading between the lines of her letters, how much she is attracted to her abuser.

Our young female reader will need all the heroine’s strength of character to stop herself being seduced by Lovelace, particularly when he reveals, too late, that he really does love and esteem her. There’s no doubt he’s an epistolary bastard; having his cake, eating it, and throwing it up.

Listen to: extracts from Lovelace’s letter to his friend Belford, Letter 497, Clarissa

Yet, even a criminal, our impressionable young reader will think – because the real girl behind the exploited image has a brain and might consider law as a career when she grows up – deserves a fair trial.

The rest of us, as conscientious readers, have a moral dilemma: should we forgive Lovelace, as the Christian Clarissa does, because he has entertained us so well, or condemn him because he is a rapist and liar? And are we not guilty of deriving pleasure from Clarissa’s misfortune, because feeling sympathetic to someone else, and shedding a few tears, makes us feel so good about ourselves?

Look how edified politicians felt by the death of Charles Kennedy – but that ineffable feeling won’t make them behave better in the future. It was a temporary drama, like reading a good book, or seeing a good play. Damn. Damn. Damn.

We support Tess of the D’Urbervilles (another Pure Woman, represented by Thomas Hardy in 1891) when she puts the knife in strawberry-feeding Alec, and are paralysed with shock at her execution when Angel Clare is rewarded with her younger (thinner) sister to keep him warm till the end of his days. Justice either nodded off, or spoilt one of her sons, again.

In these fictions, women’s capacity for self-immolation for the sake of other people is fathomless. I hear screaming in my head, and see bright burning red, not Madonna/Virgin forgiving blue – and yet we carry on doing it, given a chance, our thing, the eternal feminine, das Ewig-Weibliche (a male concept, of course).

Like most men, good and bad, Lovelace blames his mother for his faults, confident that there will be another woman around to forgive them, and if she doesn’t, he’ll force her.

Clarissa doesn’t want to change Lovelace; she wants to save him; he doesn’t want to change, and knows that whatever evil he does, he will be saved because, in the end, he will be saved by forgiving her for always forgiving him. He is a hunter, a despoiler, not a lover. So what, he thinks, when she’s dead “…though I treated her like a villain? Do I not pay for it now?…Whose then can she be but mine?”

cardinalvirtue2Ricci Cardinal Virtue 1706-07 Fresco Palazzo Marucelli-Fenzi, Florence. Image: WGA
Impartial justice, one of the Christian cardinal virtues, was usually personified as a woman holding a sword and scales in the tradition of the Roman goddess, Justitia, and was not always blindfolded.
She can see what she’s doing.

Oh, the moral dangers of reading. The birth of the novel was a long and hard one, as 18th century writers of fiction struggled to untie the ambiguities of artistic and ethical responsibility, of sentiment and judgment, authorial control and the autonomy of characters. It must feel odd, to give birth to someone so much bigger and more beloved than you.

A disgusting metaphor of untying the umbilical cord between writer-creator and baby-novel springs to mind; I’ll spare you any biological illustrations.

No time for a segue, we need something uncontroversially lovely to reconcile differences, quickly. Over to you, Jane.

The sexual tension between virtuous Clarissa and vicious Lovelace in Richardson’s melodrama is as palpable in the purer light and more wholesome air of Pride and Prejudice (1813), every time Elizabeth and Mr Darcy snipe at each other.

Our young female reader doesn’t need to see them kiss to feel their passion, any more than she needs to see the middle-aged monk Abelard and nun Heloise take their clothes off.

The words do the acting and the spaces between them are filled with love.

Armida'magic garden

Tiepolo, Rinaldo and Armida 1755 – 60. Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Image: WGA
The lovers from Tasso’s poem recline in Armida’s magical garden which is installed with Palladian features similar to those at Pemberley, but we would never catch sight of Elizabeth and Darcy canoodling in their grounds, flashing their breasts and knees.



14 comments on “Epistolary, Too

  1. PJR says:

    Thank you, Vinnieh, but it isn’t always! A stutter in my brain stops the word flow. One reason I am an infrequent blogger. Apologies that I haven’t had time to catch up with your blog recently – I will remedy as soon as I am out of the thicket.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vinnieh says:

    Your use of vocabulary is just amazing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. erickeyswriter says:

    I do like a good game of dress up now and then!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PJR says:

    In response to Adrienne (and Eric, getting himself dressed up as Lovelace): the book, and the sexual tension between heroine and anti-hero, need far more subtle consideration than I’ve given here. In some ways the “bad boy” is offering the “good girl” a way forward, not just a way out, of an alternative patriarchal tyranny threatening her. Clarissa isn’t chicken. But, oh, lord, now you’ve exposed me: I’ll have to read the whole bloody thing AGAIN – I was chewing the cud from years ago…..


  5. erickeyswriter says:

    “We can reason and decide not to go with the bad boy” – Don’t say things like that, Adrienne! You’ll completely eliminate my dating pool!


  6. Even hens submit themselves to the roughest roosters. Are we better than chickens in the end? I think we are beings set apart from animals but we can still make the choice to act like them or not. We can reason and decide not to go with the bad boy (maybe after many ridiculous attempts to change them).

    For those who believe in evolution it’s a bleaker picture. Women behave as they should behave out of biological necessity. Women submit themselves because chickens do.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. erickeyswriter says:

    Good! I have something in the works!


  8. PJR says:

    Eric Keys, I am ready for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. erickeyswriter says:

    I may have to write a piece specifically for you to read!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. PJR says:

    Eric, the link was my pleasure. Beth, thank you – that was an overwhelmingly generous comment. I worry that the writing isn’t doing its job properly – it should reach its target first time, not fumble around. You are all such receptive and kind readers; thank you for understanding what I’m trying to get at. I don’t know how you make the time to read – I have to catch up with everyone else’s blogs now, and lead a reluctant people to rebellion in Condominia…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Beth says:

    Spectacular writing, Pippa, as usual. I find that your posts require some rereading and digestion, and I always learn something about the worlds of art, literature and human nature. These are complex concepts, very worthwhile to explore and wrestle with a bit, and you have such an impressive ability to articulate them. Your use of art to illustrate literary works (or is it the other way around?) really gives the posts depth, and of course, your voice clips flesh the whole thing out beautifully as a satisfying work. Wonderful post!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. erickeyswriter says:

    Thank you so much for the link!

    “The words do the acting and the spaces between them are filled with love.” –> Perhaps one day I will be talented enough to do away with my rather more visceral approach to the topic. But till then, I will continue proudly in my more blatant approach.

    As with Pete, I have been enjoying hearing your voice very much. I hope you will continue to do readings of this sort.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. segmation says:

    In Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff’s Office by Landseer such emotion can be felt! >>> http://www.segmation.com

    Liked by 1 person

  14. beetleypete says:

    I am continuing to enjoy both the words and sounds of this series Pippa.

    I have long been fascinated by the desire of the sweetest women for the worst of men. Whether in romantic fiction, on the reels of countless films, or leaving the Law Courts having dropped charges against abusers, their capacity to forgive so as to still be part of the life of these villains is one of the great mysteries of life.

    Best wishes as always, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

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