Fragonard 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.
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.
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).
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?”
Ricci 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.
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.
Listen to AUDIO EXTRACTS FROM CLARISSA