Charles Petzold

My Week with Clarissa: Day Five

July 19, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

The basic plot of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa is fairly simple and almost archetypal. It seems familiar even if you've never read the novel or even heard of it. Because it's almost impossible to discuss anything about the book without disclosing elements of the plot, I haven't been reticent to do that. While I'd never, never, never blog about the ending of the new Harry Potter novel, for example, I figure the rules are a little different for a novel that's over 250 years old.

Still, some people like warnings, so...

* * * Here There Be Spoilers * * *

As originally published, Volume V of Clarissa encompassed letters 232 through 293, and pages 762 through 969 of the Penguin edition, which I read today from 9:00 AM to 8:30 PM with a half-hour break for dinner and Sunday's episode of Entourage.

Robert Lovelace's voice dominates Volume V even more than in Volume IV, and in the very first paragraph he announces his presence in Hampstead with much chest thumping:

Lovelace is in Hampstead because that is where Clarissa fled after she escaped the house in London. (She always felt the house to be a little peculiar. We know from Anna's intercepted letter to Clarissa that Anna believed it to be a "vile house" (p. 747) and on page 909 it is actually revealed to be a "brothel.") To persaude Clarissa to return to London, Lovelace has enlisted one of his cronies to continue to play the part of Captain Tomlinson, who pretends to bring word from Clarissa's uncle that a family reconciliation is available if she were actually married to Lovelace. Lovelace also uses women to masguerade as his aunt and cousin to bestow their best wishes on the marriage.

Quite without warning, following the return to the house in London, comes the shortest and perhaps the most famous letter in Clarissa (p. 883):

Tuesday morn. June 13

And now, Belford, I can go no further. The affair is over. Clarissa lives. And I am
Your humble servant,
R. Lovelace

Although the reader might be a little confused, Belford knows exactly what's happened: Apparently with the help of some of the ladies of the house, Lovelace has raped Clarissa. Belford is furious:

We find out a few more details about the rape, and particularly that Lovelace had the assistance of "somenivolences (I hate the word opiates on this occasion)." (p. 897) Earlier in the novel, laudanum was mentioned, so that's a likely candidate. For several days after, Clarissa finds her head has been "killed" (p. 895) and when she recovers from the drugging, she hates Lovelace more than ever.

Richardson — functioning as "editor" of the letters — has promised us that we will hear Clarissa's account of the rape, but that won't be until Volume VI. It is Lovelace's letters that dominate Volume V, and although he acknowledges that he did something quite despicable, he actually believes that his position with Clarissa has now improved. He figures that she's now unsuitable for marriage to anyone else, so cohabitation might be appropriate. Otherwise, he might make it all up to her by marrying her. What other options does she have?

Although we're mostly seeing Clarissa through Lovelace's eyes in Volume V, all our sympathy is now fully with her. She is more adamant than ever not to have anything more to do with him, and yet he is holding her prisoner in the brothel, not allowing any correspondence between Clarissa and her friend Anna, refusing to take No for an answer, promising either to expose her or to exact revenge upon her if she does not comply.

The more Lovelace talks, the more we sicken of his voice. His heady power trip is showing signs of decay. His uncle is on his death bed, his cronies are abandoning him, his deceptions have been piled into a precarious tower, and in the closing pages of Volume V, Clarissa escapes the vile house again, and this time she's gotten a good head start.