Clarissa, Week 1 (Preface, Letters 1-31, pp. 1-148): UPDATED

Hi folks,

Thanks for a great seminar on Thursday. As I mentioned in class, we’ll begin slowly with Clarissa and then speed up as we go along.

In class Thursday, we’ll read as a group the Preface, including the Principal Characters (35-8), then the first 31 letters, and conclude with the first letter of Lovelace to Belford (142-8).

For your first blog comment, I’d like you to mine your reading journals to talk about the transition from amatory fiction (Bowers) to a more circumstantial realist presentation (Watt) in SR. You might also want to think about the extent that SR might want us to recognize Clarissa’s characterization as potentially offering a ““reform’d coquet” (Spencer) style narrative (with other characters perceiving her this way) and then showing this reading of her to be wrong.

Hit the comment button on the left hand column (or the “leave a reply” box) and discuss what you noticed in the transition in a paragraph or so, along with some textual evidence taken from the texts you discuss. You are free to use the Bowers, Watt, or Spencer selections, or not, in your responses below.

Good luck,


UPDATE: Please have these posted by Wednesday evening, so we can all read and review them before classtime. Thanks, DM



Author: Dave Mazella

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, Department of English, specializing in 18th-century British literature.

10 thoughts on “Clarissa, Week 1 (Preface, Letters 1-31, pp. 1-148): UPDATED”

  1. What strikes me as a point of primary difference between Richardson’s realistic work and the two more outlandish texts we read previously is, of course, the stakes—in both of the previous stories, the emphasis was far more on the hijinks than it was on the aftermath. Richardson inverts this pretty immediately in his work: Miss Howe’s first letter makes it clear not only that there are consequences, but that some have already been faced. These consequences are, in these earlier letters, primarily put forth as moral and financial, unlike the high-drama/low realism of the body in The Reform’d Coquette.

    It seems, in fact, that Clarissa’s intent to focus on the important moral and spiritual consequences of her suitor predicament runs somewhat contrary to her family’s baser concerns of money and reputation. This, to me, is a fairly serious argument against any intra- or extra-textual attempts to paint her as a coquette, even a reformed one. Clarissa, instead, seems to abhor any behavior that would lend itself to coquettish. She notes as much in a letter to Miss Howe, saying “I would so conduct myself as not to give reason for even an adversary to censure me; and how shall so week and so young a creature avoid the censure of such, if my friend will not hold a looking-glass before me to let me see my imperfections?” (73). Further, Anna (Howe) notes in an earlier letter “that I am fitter for this world than you, you for the next than me—that’s the difference” (69). These concerns are ones that seem far beyond the scope of Amoranda and Fantomina’s perspective. There are other differences, too, of course—the style of the prose itself, the tendencies towards psychological realism, the level of detail in the narrative arcs, be they primary, secondary, or even tertiary—but what strikes me most prominently in the comparison is this vastly increased attention to the stakes of the matter and the very real moral, social, and sometimes physical danger that the women find themselves in. It’s hard, that is to say, to imagine Clarissa having the same response as Amoranda when faced with a cross-dressing would-be rapist.


    1. Thanks for going first, and also for these points. Yes, I think the difference really hinges on the higher stakes of the story for the heroine but also the people around her. The mediation of Anna Howe, for example, seems really important for the effect here: how does her voice help us understand the stakes and situation better?


  2. As Amandelin has noted, the shift closer to psychological realism is one of the most easily identifiable changes from the two novellas to Clarissa. Both Fantomina and The Reform’d Coquet devote more attention to the heroine’s series of predicaments than to the interiority of the heroine (or other characters). Richardson’s epistolary style, of course, lends itself well to the latter. The novel’s characters feel more real, almost immediately, where the novellas’ characters read like physical representations of roles or virtues.

    I was also thinking of the way setting might function in Clarissa as opposed to those first readings. The world seems more open to the heroines in the novellas, in which the narrative carries us from one place to another. Clarissa often seems more claustrophobic, at least at this stage. Like Clarissa herself, we are often confined to a limited space and a limited perspective; we follow along with her as she remains mired in her predicament.

    Anna Howe is essential for providing an avenue for Clarissa to articulate her thoughts; she is also, in a sense, our filter for the novel’s information. Clarissa seems to write most openly to Anna, who seems to be the only character on her side. Standing separately from the united front of Clarissa’s family, she can challenge their motives and their reading of Clarissa’s character, often willing to be more scathing than Clarissa herself [ex, her “You now half convince me, my dear, that you are allied to the family that could think of so preposterous a match, or you could never have had the least notion of my advising in his favor” (67), and Clarissa’s later “I am very angry with you for your reflections on my relations” (134).].

    Miss Howe can also provide Clarissa with information she would not otherwise gain during her confinement. Clearly, the two have been in confidence before, and they serve as advisers to one another. However, this novel’s structure makes clear that individual perspectives are limited; for example, Anna cannot access Lovelace’s perspective in the same way she does Clarissa’s (although Belford, and the reader, can perhaps do so through Lovelace’s letters at later points). While we know that she advocates for Clarissa, we cannot say definitively that every piece of advice she offers is sound.

    As an additional thought, if Clarissa doesn’t necessarily lend herself to being read as a woman in need of reform, I wonder whether we might eventually be able to read Anna Howe in something like that light. Alternatively, I wonder what understanding we gain by comparing Anna Howe’s arc to Clarissa’s.


    1. Good. We seem to be developing a list of features that lend this novel its psychological realism: a morally mixed characterization; more consequential and elaborated sense of physical setting; a friend and confidante whose insights are important but also importantly limited; skepticism towards the reformation narrative. How do you think these take us into a more complex picture of these characters’ psychologies?


    2. A word you mentioned, “claustrophobic,” really struck me, because you are absolutely right, I think. Clarissa’s life mirrors her letters: singular in opinion and limited in space. I began wondering why should a story so fleshed out as this (I mean, a novel with so many fully named characters and clear connections between them all) would be subject to the epistolary form, when narrative would allow for a wider scope into the situation. But how else better to create a realistic atmosphere of a young woman confined while also offering a personal inspection of her character other than reading her letters to the best friend?

      Reading Bower’s article on amatory fiction really put Richardson’s work into a better perspective for me, as I now had information about its predecessors which to compare it. If amatory fiction served many purposes, such as to educate young women on sex, to represent current social, political, or economic concerns and anxieties, and to portray male and female desire, then it is quite reasonable to assume that this type of fiction would be more general. That is, the subject matter is broad, therefore, there is really no need for specificity. For example, Bower states, “Also frequently invoked in amatory tales is the notion that men are inherently changeable (either insincere to begin with or honestly incapable of keeping their many vows of faithfulness), while women are naturally more trusting and trustworthy” (60). To speak of men and women broadly and generally as such borders along the search for a universality of some kind within both sexes.

      On the other hand, a novel like Richardson’s forgoes universality for particularity. An epistolary novel is perfect for such a goal, as Watt notices, because it locates the characters, setting, and events in time (24). The emphasis on the original and individual is only highlighted by the abundance of detail yet lack of “open space” for both the protagonist and the reader within the letters. Further still, our perspective is more narrow on an individual, despite reading her correspondence with another character, because they both agree that they are the same person (I cannot seem to locate the exact quote here, but I am sure I recall that correctly). Thus, it is almost as if we are reading a diary, but one in which the only talking character responds and examines herself.

      The shift in perspective (from 3rd person to essentially 1st) and in form (clear and standard narrative to letters) from the earlier novellas to Richardson is stark and a clear indication between amatory fiction (a general story meant to represent “the” human experience) and circumstantial realism (a recount of just a single believable human experience). This claustrophobia, while frustrating at times waiting for the protagonist to slowly think things out, is successful in giving us that particularity appropriate to the literary convention.


      1. Good. That particularity is also partiality, as we can see from AH’s letters: she has a recognizable style as Clarissa’s advocate, and passionately argues on her behalf throughout her narration of events. Every character’s letters are delivered from a recognizable perspective and set of values (Harlowes love money; AH loves Clarissa; Clarissa loves . . . . . virtue, etc etc). It feels claustrophobic because in some sense we feel like we and every other character are crowded into a small closet, even while the story slowly advances.

        I’m interested in your contrast between general and specific characters: we know that at some point English fiction abandoned the romance naming conventions, and more generally romance plot conventions, but it also retained them in certain hidden ways. Are there ways that the generality of these characters and their romance functions gets demonstrably retained?


      2. I think we get some hints as to SR’s realist project in the preface, notably in his defence of the book’s length.

        “Length will naturally be expected, not only from what has been said, but from the following considerations: that the letters on both sides are written while the hearts of the writers must be supposed to be wholly engaged in their subjects: the events at the time generally dubious– so that they abound not only with critical situations, but with what may be called instantaneous descriptions and reflections which may be brought home to the breast of the youthful reader, as also with affecting conversations, many of them written in dialogue or in the dialogue or dramatic way.” 35 (SR, CH, Penguin Classic Edition)

        Comprised within the colons of this sentence, and its dashes, are all the narrators deliberations and decisions, which are only natural given the dire straits our heroine finds herself in, but also her “descriptions” and “reflections” which while they do not rise to the level of “actions” are the very stuff of the narrators’ inner and outer world. SR knows this is his intervention into the novelistic form and is confident of its success, it is description and reflection, which we now refer to as “exposition” that will give the narrator its affect, that will allow it to “be brought home to the breast of the youthful reader.”

        SR’s characters are in total agreement with his appraisal of the importance of exposition Clarissa Harlowe writes to Miss Howe, “.. you will always have me give minute descriptions, nor suffer me to pass by the air and manner in which things are spoken that are to be taken notice of; rightly observing that air and manner often express more than the accompanying words.” 42 (SR, CH, Penguin)

        Here SR’s terms “description” and “reflection” meet the qualities of lived experience that instantiate them: “air” and “manner”. These words refering to a quality of human expression that is both ambient and all important have a truly endless number of synonyms, like “vibe”, or “energy”, or “mien”, but SR is right to privilege them because they are a vehicle for narrative in the same way the rhythm section is the vehicle of melody.


  3. These quotations are well-chosen, and they show the extent to which SR is aware of the formal consequences of his approach, which in Pamela he called “writing to the moment.” The characters themselves share this awareness of the formal qualities of their writing. How does a commitment to a narrative style focused on deliberation rather than action play out here? How are its effects seen in other aspects of the novel? And how do you think it’s linked to this notion of “air” or “manner” or “vibe” created by his fiction? What is getting represented there?


  4. After reading the articles and y’all’s responses, one of the things that interests me is how a shift from amatory fiction to realism creates the opportunity for a character whose behavior might seem coquettish, but who very much is not. Look at Clarissa’s actions alone: she’s rejected three men already, is being courted by her sister’s former suitor (and is carrying on a clandestine correspondence with him), and is certainly delaying marriage, one of the characteristics of the coquette as defined by Spencer (142). Yet these actions are not due to vanity or a desire for power they way they would be for the coquette in amatory fiction. Instead, Clarissa’s motivations are largely about morality and about keeping peace between Lovelace and her family. This sort of tension between action and thought/intent seems to be characteristic of realism, and it’s realism’s emphasis on individual interiority that allows for it. Though other characters may see Clarissa as a coquette, the reader never does.

    Richardson also seems to write against reading Clarissa as a coquette in need of reform by emphasizing the unfairness of her situation and the cruelty of her family, by his concern with, in Watts’s words, “particular people in particular circumstances” (15). A feature of the reformed coquette narrative is a mentor (often a lover-mentor) or elder family member who guides her to the correct path (which leads to marriage). There’s no shortage of characters in Clarissa who could be so deployed—either of her parents, one of her uncles, her brother, Solmes himself—but as they are painted as specific and, in this case, fault-filled individuals rather than as archetypes, we take their efforts to “reform” Clarissa as ill-intended attempts to marry her off for their own gain.


  5. I had a similar thought as one of the above replies that the epistolary form strikes me as a prime example of Watt’s point about Richardson, Fielding, and Defoe’s novels moving from an atmosphere of vague generality to a much more detailed atmosphere of specificity. We know what time each letter is sent, for instance, and are given each letter in it’s realistic completion, replete with formal greetings and best wishes. The letter form also makes me think of Watt’s mentioning that “from the Renaissance onwards, there was a growing tendency for individual experience to replace collective tradition as the ultimate arbiter of reality” (14). The form casts doubt, in a way, on collective understanding in general because we are getting competing views as we read the letters and we may not at first know who is to be most believed (or, I suppose, we may not know ever if the novel doesn’t eventually cast Clarissa as the heroine…I think it is already casting her as the heroine now, but I feel like I can’t say for sure until I see letters written further down the line from other people—do they show contradiction to Clarissa’s portrayal of people and events? I at least have this question as I read).

    One of the other major shifts I see is that Clarissa seems to be really exposing, focusing on, and creating sympathy for, a woman’s powerlessness. The entreaties she makes to her mother in these early letters are tiresome in how repetitive they are, but I think their tiresomeness does serve to make the reader feel how futile Clarissa’s attempts at autonomy are. This, versus descriptions Bowers gives of amatory fiction: “Behn’s reversal of genders, though it lends comedy and exposes stereotypes, does little to revise the system of sexual force that amatory fictions continue to uphold, a system that most often worked, in fiction as in practice, to enhance male prerogatives and reinforce women’s comparative powerlessness” (57). In other words, amatory fiction doesn’t necessarily seem to set out to create sympathy for its female characters’ powerlessness, whereas so far I feel sympathy for Clarissa’s utterly futile attempts at effecting positive change on her situation. She gave her father guardianship over her inheritance to ease her family’s jealousy, only to feel now that she is trapped into doing whatever they demand of her. She has made attempts at authenticity (not wishing to “lead on” Mr. Lovelace, not wishing to marry someone she does not respect or care for), but been stopped on nearly every side by the wishes, demands, and understandings of other people. Even Miss Howe, at times, makes Clarissa voiceless by questioning Clarissa’s assertions that she does not love Mr. Lovelace (Richardson 73-74).


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