Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 5. Clarissa: its unique place among its author’s works; its Sentimentalism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

I. Richardson

§ 5. Clarissa: its unique place among its author’s works; its Sentimentalism

The conception of Clarissa was prompted by something besides his natural desire to turn his newly revealed faculties to fuller use. Indeed, the design of the book was not only to convey a moral; it was to improve on the teaching of Pamela, and to correct any rash or unfair inference that might have been drawn from it. Well might Richardson be alarmed lest the teaching of his first novel should be misconstrued: would not romantic serving-maids and confident damsels dream of conquering their masters’ or lovers’ unruly passions, and was not Mr. B. too apt a confirmation of that dangerous axiom that “a reformed rake makes the best husband”? While the author of Pamela had been optimistic, because it was his main purpose to point out a positive example, the author of Clarissa thought it his duty, rather, to offer a warning, and to lay stress on the exceptional nature of conversions. Clarissa, or, the History of a young Lady, was, thus, doomed to end in gloom, and to be a demonstration of the perfidy of man. As the title-page declared, the book was designed to show “the Distresses that may attend the Misconduct both of Parents and Children in relation to Marriage.” The first edition consisted of seven volumes, two of which were issued in November, 1747, two more in April, 1748, and the last three in December of the same year.

The higher merit and the unique place of Clarissa among Richardson’s works are due to a deepened consciousness of his purpose and to a nobler energy of conscience. Puritan ardour and intensity is better able here to take the place of the suggestions of art, inasmuch as it is itself exalted into its most refined essence. That Clarissa’s heroic virtues should be sustained by her trust in a heavenly reward is, no doubt, a lesson unpleasantly thrust upon us during the latter part of the story; indeed, the piety of the poor sorely-tried soul partakes of the strictest and sternest spirit of an austere Christianity, and, in the rapture of her penitence and expectation, she refuses to see her friends, because “God will have no rivals.” Again, the gusto with which the author deals out fit endings and terrible deaths to the wicked, and his claim that every personage in the novel finally receives his or her due, belong, rather, to the sphere of edification than to that of realistic observation or artistic effect. But, leaving out the last episodes, and the constantly implied or expressed hope of a Providential remedy for human wrongs, the tragedy of suffering and sorrow which Richardson’s genius has spun out of itself reaches a greater breadth and height on the familiar stage of this world; it is free from the trammels of religious utilitarianism as well as of moral convention. The literary formula he had invented and made his own is thus afforded a wider scope. Whatever intrinsic artificiality it may contain is, of course, not less apparent here than elsewhere; the reader’s goodwill and complaisance are required on many points; a painful ingenuity has to be expended by the author in order to squeeze the writing, and, frequently, even the copying, of the epistles, into the bare limits of time allowed by the story; the network of the letters retains many items of trifling interest and, necessarily, implies a good many repetitions, while not a few incidents of the plot which could hardly be transmuted into the self-consciousness of the personages of the novel or into their knowledge of one another have to be allowed to slip through. The deliberate style of almost all the correspondents drags along into unparalleled lengthiness; and Lovelace’s self-revelation in his cynical confessions to his friends is, at times, irreconcilable with psychological truth. Still, when all is said, the clumsy framework of this epistolary drama is so constantly hidden under the creative wealth of a wonderfully minute imagination, and the enormous body of the narrative, as a whole, is borne along by so irresistible a flow of emotion, that Richardson’s masterpiece remains one of the great novels of the world’s literature.

Its appeal is to the heart. No doubt, the psychological interest of the book is broader and more varied than that of Pamela. Though Clarissa is proposed as an example to all young ladies, she accomplishes the all but impossible feat of remaining an attractive pattern of virtue. Not that she is faultless—a fact of which Richardson was well aware, though, perhaps, less so than he would have allowed. But there is a true nobleness, a natural dignity in Clarissa, a power of stedfast suffering, a true delicacy, an ardour of affection; while, together with her serious bent of mind, she has the supreme touch of a winning naturalness, fresh, unexpected and even provokingly spontaneous, which makes her a match for her friend, the sprightly Miss Howe. Nothing is finer or truer than the evolution of her feeling for her unworthy lover; nowhere else did Richardson’s knowledge of the feminine heart stand him in better stead. Lovelace, undoubtedly, is the forerunner of a long series of romantic heroes; the drawing of this character reveals a strangely penetrating insight, on the part of the author, into motives and moods, together with an almost naïve exaggeration. His is a divided soul, a study in the subtle degradation wrought by desire; he is, at the same time, more than a mere human personage—a power of darkness, the prince of lies; and the weird letter in which he murders his own conscience and himself tells the tale of the bloody deed is a triumph of imaginative art though a sin against realistic truth. The Harlowe family, and several of the less important figures, are depicted with a remarkable wealth and vigour of characterisation. In the history of the English novel, no such group of boldly and strongly sketched personalities had, hitherto, served as a background for so individualised a pair of lovers. And yet, the mere aesthetic appreciation of a profound study of the working of the human mind is, as we read, lost in our sympathy with a heart-rending story of undeserved woe. The family tragedy of the first volumes seizes upon our emotions like the slow, oppressive, inevitable approach of a storm; the circle of fate grows narrower and narrower as it closes round the unprotected Clarissa; and the chain of circumstance and event is woven with an extraordinary strength of dramatic cohesion. No sooner has Clarissa fallen into Lovelace’s power, than the crushing of her will and pride in a hopeless struggle is impressed upon us with the relentless, terrible determination of religious enthusiasm; only Dante or Bunyan could have painted such scenes with the same inflexible rigour. When her heart is broken, and she has nothing left to her but to die, the pathos of her long agony is overdone. Such cheap means of emotion as the coming of death, with all its attending circumstances, had not yet been exploited to satiety by domestic dramatists and sentimental novelists; Richardson avails himself of them only too fully, and our overwrought nerves are offended by his want of artistic taste. But, as is well known, his contemporaries were not so fastidious. During the months of breathless suspense when Clarissa’s fate hung in the balance, many letters reached the author deprecating a catastrophe; and, when the heroine, having settled all her affairs and written her eleven posthumous letters, actually departed this world, England burst into a wail of lament; nor was it long before the contagion of sorrow spread to the continent.