Lovelace complains of Clarissa’s chilly attitude toward him. Anna has repeatedly advised Clarissa to act more warmly toward Lovelace, for diplomacy’s sake, but Clarissa says his behavior forces her to keep him at a distance. Cousin Morden writes to Clarissa. He advocates for Solmes, stressing the importance of morality in a husband and warning her about the wicked sensuousness and profligacy of the libertine character, apparently having firsthand knowledge of it. Clarissa bemoans her lot and suggests that Anna ask Hickman to intercede for her with her uncle. She will not take any step until she hears from him.
In order to convince Clarissa that negotiations on a house are indeed underway, Lovelace assigns a friend of his, “Captain Mennell,” to play the part of house broker. Mennell meets Clarissa and has qualms about deceiving her, but Lovelace convinces him to continue. Lovelace is nervous about Clarissa’s correspondence with Anna and wishes he could see the letters. One evening Clarissa drops a letter without noticing, and Lovelace sneakily picks it up. She catches him trying to hide it, seizes it back, and locks herself in her room. She resolves to leave Lovelace if she gets any encouragement from her uncle. Anna approves and comforts Clarissa by saying her story will be not only a warning but an example to women who hear it.
Anna writes to Mrs. Norton and asks her to intervene with Mrs. Harlowe. Norton replies that as much as Mrs. Harlowe’s heart bleeds, she can do nothing for Clarissa. The request to Uncle Harlowe also fails. Anna advises Clarissa to marry Lovelace as quickly as she can. Clarissa agrees to see him the following morning. She tells him that her application to her family has failed. Lovelace is offended that she is willing to give him up and he frightens her with a violent declaration that she must be his. He apologizes and offers to draw up marriage settlements. Clarissa conveys these to Anna for consideration. They are very generous, but the conclusion is cold and makes no mention of a wedding day. Lovelace later presses for an immediate wedding but at the same time suggests reasons for delay. They will wait for the approval of Lord M., Lovelace’s uncle.
As usual, Lovelace exults in his cruelty but mentions that he has been sincerely affected by Clarissa’s virtue and distress. Belford criticizes Lovelace’s lack of feeling and respect for virtue. Lord M. writes to Belford, asking him to persuade Lovelace to marry Clarissa. Lovelace ridicules Belford’s arguments and ridicules Lord M. for his use of proverbs.
Belford tells Lovelace about the sad situation of their friend Belton: Belton is very ill and has just found out that his longtime mistress has been diverting all of his money to a lover for many years. Belton cannot get rid of her, because she has passed for his wife for a long time, and he does not know what to do about the two boys he had thought were his sons. Belford reflects that “keeping” a mistress is a worse idea than marrying one, because the mistress has no good reason to be faithful, with neither a reputation to lose nor legal consequences to fear. Lovelace refuses to take a lesson from this. He decides to get Clarissa to a play so Dorcas can search for her letters.
Anna has formed a plan with a trader named Mrs. Townsend to free and hide Clarissa. Anna is convinced that the Singleton plot is still in effect because a mysterious sailor has been hanging about.
Uncle Antony has proposed to Mrs. Howe, in a pompous, less-than-romantic letter. He sells himself on his health, money, lack of children, and collection of knickknacks; he commends Mrs. Howe on her frugality, fortune, and the fact that she has only one child (whom he hopes will not live with them). He notes that he is “none of your Lovelaces,” in that he is making his proposals as plain and direct as possible. After running the matter by Anna and getting only mockery for her pains, Mrs. Howe writes an equally ludicrous refusal but confesses a desire to see the knickknacks.
Dorcas has found and transcribed several of Anna’s letters. Lovelace reads them and is enraged by Anna’s insulting words about him. He sees that Anna has influenced Clarissa against him and finds out about the Townsend plot. Lovelace vows revenge on both girls. Egged on by the women of the house, Lovelace resolves to take more liberties with Clarissa. He treats her with enough anger and ardor to frighten her but is held back by his admiration of her. He decides he will have to surprise her at night. Clarissa had written a positive answer to his settlements, but she tears it in half when she gets back to her room. Lovelace reads this letter after Dorcas transcribes it and is softened by its display of generosity and virtue.
Lovelace makes an excuse to give up on the house plot when Mennell refuses to deceive Clarissa any longer. A strange man comes to the neighborhood, inquiring about Clarissa and Lovelace. Letters from Charlotte Montague and Lord M. pacify Clarissa. Lovelace decides to make himself sick in order to test Clarissa’s love. He takes ipecacuanha to make himself vomit, puts pig’s blood in the vomit, and instructs the women of the house to act as though the illness were very grave. Clarissa shows her love with her concern and tears; Lovelace is charmed. Clarissa knows that she has been “detected” and is confused about her position.
The man who has been hanging about is identified as Captain Tomlinson. He explains that he has been sent by Uncle Harlowe to ask whether Clarissa is married to Lovelace. If she is, Uncle Harlowe is ready to start a process to welcome Clarissa back to the family. Lovelace lets on that they are married, intending to get Clarissa to sign a note with her married name. The more he can get Clarissa to go along with this lie, the less leverage she will have in making him marry her and the more difficult it will be to run away.
Clarissa insists on telling Tomlinson the truth about her marital status. Lovelace explains that they have not yet married because Clarissa awaits reconciliation with her family, but he offers the settlements as evidence that the formalities have been put in progress. Tomlinson seems won over and professes his desire to help Clarissa be reunited with her family. Lovelace agrees to cooperate in the reconciliation. Clarissa is overjoyed at the prospect. She prophecies that her family will become warmer and warmer to Lovelace until they wonder how they could ever have opposed him. Lovelace is genuinely affected by her words and her happiness. He describes the “odd sensation” of being moved to actual tears. But in the next letter he confesses to Belford that Tomlinson is actually his friend Patrick McDonald. Lovelace has set up this trick to get Clarissa’s guard down, but he also says that he is being kind by giving her some real joy before her inevitable defeat.
Lovelace often says that revenge and love are his two dominant passions, and the complexity of his contrivances can be seen as a way of keeping them in balance—that is, of keeping open the possibility of happy marriage as well as of avoiding it and “keeping” Clarissa as a mistress. Lovelace’s “ipecacuanha plot” suggests that Clarissa can win him over with kindness, although Clarissa herself is surprised that she does feel tender toward him. However, she is also ashamed that she lets Lovelace see her feelings: she doesn’t seem to recognize the advantage that this discovery has gained for her. Nevertheless, things go on better between them after this incident, and the preparations for marriage appear to be moving forward, although, of course, Lovelace always leaves himself a loophole.
Anna plays a complicated role in the plot: she is not simply Clarissa’s foil, who by being bad shows off the goodness of the protagonist. In some ways she seems wiser than Clarissa, and she is certainly better at navigating the world they live in. However, she does not always represent a wiser course. Her advice often seems good: she encourages Clarissa to stand up to her family when they are mistreating her and counsels a diplomatic approach to Lovelace.
However, it is Anna’s angry letters that halt what had looked like positive progress, and they renew Lovelace’s desire for revenge. Anna’s treatment of her mother and of Hickman is not presented as a model of good behavior; rather, her behavior seems intended to demonstrate by contrast the superiority of Clarissa’s policy of showing respect and kindness. Clarissa rarely takes Anna’s advice, generally because it would require her to compromise a principle. If she showed kindness to Lovelace, for example, he might be won over and stop contriving against her, but this would mean seeming to condone Lovelace’s bad behavior and possibly being dishonest as well. Clarissa holds on to her purity of morals, but this keeps her from getting out of trouble.
The interaction between Mrs. Howe and Antony Harlowe is comic, and it acts as a foil to the Clarissa-Lovelace relationship. Mrs. Howe is a rather silly, somewhat avaricious woman, who was a shrewish wife while her husband lived. Antony is a stingy, self-important old bachelor. He prides himself on being “none of your Lovelaces” because he is explicit about his intentions, and he puts them in writing to show that he intends to carry them through. Lovelace’s reputation as an equivocator seems to be strong enough that his name alone denotes the idea. Lovelace is very good at making promises and then getting out of them: in this way, Antony seems to be giving us a model of the right way to court a woman. But we cannot take him seriously, as his letter to Mrs. Howe is pompous, silly, and completely unromantic, and it seems clear that he wants to marry her because it happens to be convenient, not out of any warm affection. Mrs. Howe, too, fails to give us a good model for how to react to a proposal. She refuses, of course; it was something of a joke in the eighteenth century that a woman always had to refuse her suitor at least twice before she accepted. But her refusal is not graceful or dignified; it is just as silly as Antony’s letter.
Belton’s story is significant in two ways: it serves as a lesson about the tragic consequences of rakish behavior and as a reflection of the skewed gender politics of his society. In its simplest interpretation, Belton’s demise is a warning to rakes that, while the libertine life might be fun for a few years, it will end in misery. It also gives Belford a chance to moralize on the ways in which honesty and marriage are preferable to crime and “keeping.” In addition to its transparent moral, the story re-emphasizes how a woman’s ruined reputation in society affects her relationship to the world around her. If Belton had married Thomasine, she would have had legal incentives to remain faithful, and she would also presumably have maintained her virtue. A woman who is ruined and unmarried has nothing, neither law nor reputation nor morality, to rein her in. A man who does not “do justice” to his lover can expect a bad end not only because it seems morally right but because his mistreatment enables and even trains his mistress to mistreat him in return.
In this society, a woman’s morality is profoundly constrained: it is first and foremost defined by sex, and her virginity is constantly under siege by stronger and more experienced men. Virginity is equated with virtue, and there is an implication repeated throughout the novel that a woman who is seduced must have been morally corrupt all along. This exempts men from taking accountability for their manipulative, deceitful behavior, and it also rules out any possibility of a woman, especially a fallen woman, having any moral strength of her own. Clarissa’s virtue is what protects her from Lovelace, and, if he succeeds in seducing or raping her, he will conclude that there is no such thing as incorruptible virtue in women—that no woman is inviolably chaste, and so no woman is truly moral. The injustice of his philosophy (and of this society at large) is exemplified by the Tomlinson plot, which allows Lovelace to manipulate Clarissa’s attachment to her family, one of her most admirable qualities, to gain even more power over her and carry out his plan to ruin her.