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.
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.