by: Samuel Richardson

Letters 333–396

Clarissa is wise to forbid a visit from Lovelace, as she knows by this point that he is and has always been dominated by wickedness. Whether Lovelace might have reformed had she let him see her is unclear: Clarissa’s exceptional virtue had influenced his libertine ways and, when with her. he had often claimed to want reform. But, in truth, Lovelace has always regarded a reformed life as a temptation, something to be fought against and rescued from. At times the urge to be good is so strong it takes over Lovelace’s body, causing him to reprimand his heart for jumping into his throat, or his knees for trembling on his way to a wicked deed. The fact that Lovelace is susceptible to virtue and has some natural inclination for it makes him a much more execrable figure: he actually has to fight himself to stay wicked, so he bears extra responsibility for his character. Belford, on the other hand, was at one time just as wicked as Lovelace, but he is completely redeemed in the eyes of the novel by giving into Clarissa’s purifying power.

Clarissa’s assignment of Belford to executorship is important, as by choosing him Clarissa is choosing the voice that will carry her wishes and voice into the future. This shows great trust in his faithfulness and attachment to her. Furthermore, the legal system of eighteenth-century England was quite different from the one today, and procedures like execution of wills were put into the hands of family and friends, not lawyers (although Belford is, as it happens, trained in the law). There were great possibilities for a person’s will to be violated after her death, as shown by the Harlowe family’s fight over Clarissa’s inheritance of her grandfather’s estate. The executor had the job of making sure the terms of the will were fulfilled, so it was important to choose one who was not only loyal and disinterested but also had the power to enforce its stipulations. Anna, for example, would have been unlikely to prevail with the Harlowe family if they disagreed with any of Clarissa’s choices. Clarissa is acting prudently by assigning this job to someone outside the family.

It is clear that Clarissa’s health is deteriorating, although the reasons for this are vague. We might expect that Clarissa would waste away from grief, but this is a realistic novel and people have to die of something. The shocks she experiences, especially the arrest, are blamed for her rapid decline, but the more likely culprit is her refusal, or inability, to eat. Repeatedly she turns down food, or tries to eat it and chokes. Even the prison guards try to get her to eat something, afraid that she might die on their watch. She insists that she cannot do it, but whether Clarissa can or cannot eat is important; if she can, and is refraining, she is killing herself, and she recognizes that this would be sinful. Her life or death must be in God’s hands, so she accepts responsibility for taking measures to keep herself alive. Yet it is never made altogether clear that it is impossible for her to eat, or why it might be so.

The extracts from Lovelace’s letters that Clarissa requests from Belford begin the collection of letters that will eventually tell Clarissa’s story, a story intended to help other young women in similar situations. That Clarissa’s tragedy becomes a universal lesson for others reinforces her role as an exemplar and suggests that her story, like her presence, will have a good influence on people. In asking Belford for Lovelace’s letters, Clarissa explains that her narrative is incomplete because she does not actually know the whole story; Lovelace’s letters will fill in the gaps.

In detailing this quest to compile their correspondences, Richardson gives an explanation for Clarissa—that is, for the collection of letters that we are reading. Most early readers of Clarissa probably understood that they were reading fiction, but the novel was still a relatively unfamiliar form, and a conceit of truth still clung to it. Richardson’s previous novel, Pamela, had originally been published as though it were a collection of found letters. This fiction didn’t last long; Pamela was so popular that Richardson had to reveal himself as the author to gain some control over the unauthorized sequels and extensions that proliferated after the publication. By 1749, Richardson was well known as an author, so the explanation of Clarissa’s letter-collecting is probably more of a vestige of tradition than any real attempt to fool the reader.