Clarissa hears from Anna that the Harlowes will not send her any clothes or money. They intend for her to suffer. Troubled by the circumstances of her escape, Clarissa confronts Lovelace and asks him how much of the event was premeditated. Lovelace boldly tells a story very close to the truth: he admits that he had employed Leman as a spy and told him to cry out if he saw anyone coming. Clarissa asks how, if someone was approaching the house, she had not seen them; Lovelace produces a letter from Leman explaining that a dog had startled him into yelling, and he had tried to follow them and let them know of the mistake. Lovelace also confesses that he had seen Clarissa’s letter and assumed it was a revocation, so he did not open it. Clarissa is shocked at the complexity of Lovelace’s contrivances, but Lovelace’s free confession of them, and his explanation that it was concern and love for her that prompted his actions, comfort her somewhat. Lovelace’s version of the story demonstrates his quick cunning: he reveals much of the wicked truth while appearing much less wicked than he really is.
Lovelace is now very agreeable to Clarissa. He seems impartial about her choice of where to go, makes generous offers, and promises to reform. Although much encouraged by Lovelace’s new attitude, Clarissa still doubts that she should marry him; however, she also wonders why Lovelace has not yet pursued the idea of marriage at all. Clarissa blames herself for her bad situation, saying she was too vain in hoping to remain an example of virtue.
Lovelace angers Clarissa by speaking disparagingly of her family, then he wins back her regard by showing her letters from his aunt and cousin. These women have very good reputations and high social standing, so Clarissa is concerned about their view of her. The letters express kindness toward Clarissa and admonish Lovelace to treat her well. Lovelace tricks her into deciding to go to London and agrees to write to a friend, Mr. Doleman, to ask about lodgings there. Doleman’s letter lists several available lodgings, and Clarissa picks what seem to be the best—the house of the widow Sinclair on Dover Street. Lovelace pretends indifference but exults to Belford that she has fallen into his trap again, implying that the house (which is not on Dover Street, and not owned by Mrs. Sinclair) is not as respectable as Doleman’s letter makes it seem.
Lovelace discovers that James Harlowe and his friend Captain Singleton are plotting to kidnap Clarissa. He makes light of it, but Clarissa is frightened. While she is in a state of confusion Lovelace suddenly proposes, knowing that she will not be able to accept in those circumstances. Leman writes to inform Lovelace that he may be prosecuted for the rape and abandonment of a woman named Miss Betterton, who had died in childbirth several years before. Lovelace tells Leman that this was a youthful folly and gives him instructions for turning the Singleton plot to his own ends. A letter from Belford disapproves of Lovelace’s actions and tells him to do justice to Clarissa.
Clarissa writes to her Aunt Hervey and receives a harsh reply, which indicates that the Harlowes had intended to stop their persecutions after the Wednesday trial meeting with Solmes. Clarissa is despondent, but things are about to get worse. She receives a letter from Arabella telling her that Mr. Harlowe has laid a curse on her, “that you may meet your punishment, both here and hereafter, by means of the very wretch in whom you have chosen to place your confidence.” Clarissa is most terrified at the extension of the curse into the afterlife. Anna tries to comfort her and sends money, which Clarissa returns. She writes that Lovelace has been very tender toward her in her distress and has finally made an earnest offer of marriage, although Clarissa could not accept it because of her agitation. Anna tells her to stop being ceremonious and get married at all costs.
Lovelace writes that he is about to be caught in his own web. Clarissa’s illness at the news of her father’s curse had frightened him into a genuine proposal, and he intends to marry Clarissa after all. But he continues to discuss his plots. He knows that James has abandoned the Singleton project but will continue to pretend it’s a threat in order to increase Clarissa’s dependence on him. He has enough doubts about marriage to leave himself loopholes. As he prepares to set out for London, Lovelace describes a battle with his roguish heart, which turns him away from his honest purposes. He reflects that it will probably be better for both him and Clarissa if they do not marry, since he will make a bad husband.
Lovelace and Clarissa arrive at Mrs. Sinclair’s whorehouse and, now that he is there, Lovelace admits to wavering in his honest purpose. The women of the whorehouse—Polly Horton, Sally Martin, and Dorcas Wykes—welcome Clarissa warmly, although she’s distrustful of them. Lovelace has gone so far as to buy second-hand books so that they will appear to be readers of moral literature. Clarissa finds that she cannot hold Lovelace to his promise of separate lodgings and that she must uncomfortably acquiesce to his story that they are already married.
It is revealed that Polly and Sally had been respectable women before they knew Lovelace, well educated and raised as if for a higher class. They had indulged in “public diversions” and became easy targets for seduction. The two are jealous of Clarissa and discourage Lovelace from behaving honorably. Lovelace tells Clarissa he has found a house for her and is in negotiations to buy it from a widow named Fretchville, which provides an excuse to put off marriage. Lovelace throws a party and invites his crew of rakes—Belford, Mowbray, Belton, and Tourville, as well as a woman named Miss Partington. Lovelace gives them all instructions to act respectably, but Clarissa finds them vulgar and offensive nonetheless.
Mrs. Howe writes to Clarissa to forbid her correspondence with Anna. Clarissa agrees, but Anna insists that they carry on in secret with the help of Hickman. Lovelace exults that it is his machinations, through Leman and Uncle Antony, that have turned Mrs. Howe against Clarissa and removed that means of escape.
Lovelace’s friends send him a letter condemning his plan to ruin Clarissa, whom even they can see is a superior being. Lovelace agrees with their praise of Clarissa but mocks their sermonizing: he has resolved to resume his scheming.
Lovelace is at a crossroads in this section, as he wavers between his affections for Clarissa and his inherent libertine ways. Clarissa’s consistent virtue seems about to win him over, and when her father’s curse sends Clarissa into grief and illness, Lovelace is worried and compassionate. He characterizes his proposal as a way of keeping her on earth, which indicates that this despair might have killed her without it. However, it also suggests that Lovelace’s promises (and, essentially, his wicked schemes) are keeping Clarissa away from heaven. After this incident Lovelace resolves to be honest, but he is never fully committed to it, as he continues to build on his contrivances, just in case he changes his mind. Although he believes that marriage is the right thing to do, Lovelace acknowledges that his inability to desist from his libertine intrigues will most likely lead to grief for both him and Clarissa.
Lovelace’s resolution to be an honest man is quickly tested upon arrival at Mrs. Sinclair’s house. The women there goad him away from his albeit shaky resolution and their teasing has a strong effect on him. The women cannot bear all of the blame, however: as soon as he steps into Mrs. Sinclair’s house, the battle seems to have been almost won by wickedness. The house brings out the worst in Lovelace and reinforces his already evil nature: he describes a battle with his heart, which is unusual in that the heart does not represent Lovelace’s better or more caring self, but instead embodies his villainous habits and responds to wicked temptations. Indeed, if it is the women who tempt Lovelace to evil, he has himself to blame for it, since he ruined them in the first place. In a sense, then, Lovelace has brought himself and Clarissa to a place where his own wickedness is concentrated and will entrap them both.
It seems that Lovelace enjoys testing the limits of his power by putting Clarissa into more and more intolerable situations. The party demonstrates that his wickedness knows no bounds, even among other depraved characters like his rakish comrades. Although very bad men themselves, Belford, Belton, Tourville, and Mowbray know that Lovelace’s treatment of Clarissa exceeds their limits of bad behavior and Clarissa’s grace, sense, and beauty shine through even in the middle of a whorehouse, and are perceptible even to hardened rakes. Their response is indicative of both her exemplarity and his inhumanity. Lovelace’s motivation for exposing Clarissa to his libertine friends is not quite clear, but it could be another of his tests: he says that he wants to show her off to them, but their vulgarity would threaten any hope that she’d be won over. This might also explain his choice of the whorehouse for lodgings, as the whores are jealous and resentful of Clarissa. Women’s cruelty, Lovelace remarks, has no boundaries, while men’s stops somewhere. Where Lovelace’s boundary lies remains to be seen, but it is well beyond even the rake’s pale.
Although Clarissa’s innocence and virtue continue to hurt her, she does have some kind of instinct for evil. She cannot content herself with the idea of marrying Lovelace, and she intuitively dislikes the whores even though they appear to be genteel ladies, due to Lovelace’s arrangements of books and instructions for proper behavior. But, naturally, Clarissa feels bad about her dislike and attempts to quell her suspicions. Because Clarissa refuses to be obligated, she also rejects Anna’s money, which might have made escape possible. Her unshakeable codes of behavior once again help to place her in great danger.
The actions of the Harlowes also align with Lovelace’s plots. Their remarkable implacability keeps Clarissa from returning home and their refusal to send money gives her no way to go anywhere else. Mr. Harlowe’s curse throws Clarissa into despair and into deeper dependence on Lovelace. James’s scheme to have Captain Singleton carry Clarissa off is quickly dropped, but it gives Lovelace endless excuses to stay near her and to forbid her from going out.
Sally and Polly act as examples of what could happen to Clarissa and also represent Richardson’s overarching theme of the innocent woman’s subjection to the mischievous rake. Although some of the books Clarissa finds in her room are put there to deceive her, Sally and Polly are characterized by Lovelace as great readers. They give evidence of their cultural literacy by occasionally bursting out into poetic quotation. Gentility, in the case of Sally and Polly, is only a screen over wantonness and cruelty. The fault for their fall is placed in their upbringing, rather than their characters, reminding the reader of Richardson’s characterization of the book as a warning to parents as well as daughters. The mention of Lovelace’s victim Miss Betterton, while her whole story is not yet known, provides another example of the dangers posed by rakes to young women, and Lovelace’s careless treatment of the threat of prosecution shows that little recrimination is likely to come to offenders of the law.