Reading Clarissa in COVID times

CONTENT NOTE: the novel I’m discussing centres on an act of sexual violence. This review, like the book, doesn’t contain any graphic description of the assault, but it does give narrative detail about it.

If you’ve come across Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (maybe as an important predecessor to Jane Austen, maybe as one of the longest novels in the language), you probably know it doesn’t have much spoiler potential. Over around 500 letters across 1,499 pages in the Penguin edition, an easily condensed plot unfolds: Clarissa Harlowe, an aristocratic exemplar of eighteenth-century female virtue, is forced by her family to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love out of fear that she prefers the charming, wealthier, but morally depraved Lovelace, with whom she ends up running away (mostly against her own will, but as the only escape). Through his increasingly brutal contrivance, she is imprisoned, sexually harassed, and, eventually, drugged and raped. Repeatedly pursued by Lovelace as she repeatedly escapes, she eventually reaches the safety of a lodging in which she prepares herself to die peacefully, which she does, not long afterwards.

The twists and turns of plot don’t exceed that of a normal-length novel, and Richardson doesn’t explore in depth nearly as many lives as Middlemarch, for example, which begins to look like a novella by comparison. Clarissa, along with other characters and her own author in his preface, from start to finish, apologises for writing so much—but continues to run to excess rather than trying to work on concision. The verbosity which builds up to such sheer volume, more than the content it expresses, is in many ways the point. It amplifies the sad truth of the novel that with so much to say to plead her cause, to beg compassion, to articulate her sufferings, Clarissa gains no one’s ear; it jarringly juxtaposes the silence and silencing which defines the novel’s central event of assault; it testifies ambivalently to language’s simultaneous powerfulness as a weapon in the service of political power, and powerlessness when mobilised without and against that power.

As contemporary Samuel Johnson commented, one doesn’t read Richardson for his plot. Instead, Richardson is credited with birthing the psychological novel—the epistolary form (Clarissa is a series of letters written and received by various protagonists) is commonly held to give more unlimited access to characters’ internal workings, and it was popular in the eighteenth century, a while before modernism’s stream-of-consciousness came to dominate on that front. But more recent critics have challenged the psychological emphasis of Richardson’s work, most interestingly through the lens of rape law: Frances Ferguson’s landmark essay on rape and the rise of the novel analyses how Clarissa’s non-consent is stripped of dependence on her mental state as it becomes aligned with the never-consent of minors in law, for example. This live question of the novel’s psychological depth becomes especially important when we consider that Clarissa, though it gives voice to an oppressed, young, female protagonist, is written by a middle-aged man who shared few of her fictional experiences. Though a feminocentric novel, that is, Clarissa is not easily read as a feminist one. What we read, much like in Pamela, is the intensely, vividly well mapped-out, but ultimately imagined, psyche of a paragon constructed chiefly by the male gaze.

I read Clarissa in the two weeks leading up to Christmas 2020. I got a winter version of that quintessentially summer experience of doing nothing but reading fiction all day. Cambridge’s usual end-of-term quiet was especially pronounced as we emerged tentatively from national lockdown, and most students headed home early for Christmas. With days to myself sitting cross-legged on my bed as the nights drew in early, my absorption in the world of Clarissa was accelerated by the not-much-going-on-ness of the depopulated student centre of Tier 2 Cambridge.

Richardson’s novel, for a number of overlapping and surprising reasons, is a good one for our isolation times. Though I’m looking ahead to the ‘Love, Gender, Sexuality, 1740-1824’ paper which I’m taking next term, Clarissa also fits in the scope of the ‘Tragedy’ paper which I studied last term. In the COVID context, this paper’s exploration of human suffering through an overwhelming curriculum of philosophy, history, literature, and all other imaginable art forms taught some particularly urgent lessons about compassion, affliction, endurance, inequality, and optimism, faith, love in the face of it all, many of which Clarissa continued. This novel also has a lot to say about separation: when I stepped out of the correspondence between Clarissa and her close friend Anna Howe to live-message friends in other cities and countries, to share the minute details of day-to-day happenings, hopes, and emotional states which Anna requests of Clarissa, I didn’t really feel that I had left its pages. That definitely has a lot to do with my sentimental tendency to mentally write myself into a novel, but the emotional coping mechanisms which Clarissa manages to find in her imposed confinement might be a useful transhistorical touchstone.

But I think the most important and sobering thought which Clarissa hands us across the intervening centuries is the chilling power of gradual escalation. Lovelace’s calculated assault begins as an attempted courtship in defiance of Clarissa’s family and intensifies through a pressure for correspondence, a secret, partially forced elopement, and plans to “seduce” Clarissa with her consent, to repeated sexual harassment, and finally rape when she is imprisoned and drugged. Each new letter tracks the smallest of steps towards this brutal peak, such that the reader, especially as Lovelace’s letters begin to take over as the central narrative voice, feels the urgent necessity to fight off desensitisation if they are to register, fully, compassionately, and painfully, the trauma which sits at the centre of this novel. Going beyond the overblown rhetoric from Lovelace’s friend which is quoted on the back of this edition—‘Oh thou savage-hearted monster!’—we have to find ways to respond with anger and pain to the violation which the novel had long ago confirmed as an inevitability. I’d still place a question mark over the ability of Richardson’s heroine, a male fiction of paragon virgin virtue, to help us find our response. But our own feminist sensibility, alert to the sickeningly widespread nature of sexual violence then and now, compels us to mobilise a response to Clarissa’s trauma, even as it threatens to paralyse us when we think about just how unexceptional Clarissa is in her (fictional) experience of sexual assault. As the severity of the pandemic’s death toll reaches its gravest peak so far in Britain and we simultaneously find ourselves exhausted by a third lockdown, Clarissa’s call to do the difficult work of re-sensitising ourselves is an important one. Its particular emphasis on sexual violence might seem removed from our pandemic moment, but not if we recall that violence against women and girls, rather than just economic downturn, is a side-effect of regulations which reduce our social contact and restrict us to homes which aren’t equally safe for everyone.

At this moment of crisis, it is of course ICU beds and testing facilities and compliance with COVID law which we need, not eighteenth-century literature which takes a two-week investment to offer its philosophical comfort. But reading Clarissa is an exercise in repeatedly renewing compassion, even in the face of distance and helplessness—and so is reading any literature which deals, seriously or even tangentially, with suffering, inequality, experiences which aren’t your own, or experiences which resonate liberatingly with yours.

Reading what gets you through, in any case, is the best form of voluntary self-isolation.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Cadence Ware says:

    I’m studying this paper this term as well! Haven’t tackled Clarissa yet though, but your review is making me want to read it!


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