Bernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA
Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?
What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.
What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.
The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.
Before by Hogarth, 1730 -31 © Tate Gallery London
Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.
It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.
But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.
Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)
And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:
Listen to: Audio extract from Letter 312, in which fashion and class-conscious Clarissa is visited by Lovelace and two female accomplices, impersonating two of his rich, aristocratic relatives.
Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”
That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.
The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..
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