The marriage settlements come back formalized from the lawyer, and Lovelace proceeds to pursue a license. He encounters unexpected difficulties with this, because he cannot prove that Clarissa’s parents have consented to the marriage. Clarissa’s happiness makes their relationship smooth and pleasant, and Lovelace’s vicious resolve falters several times. When it does, he reads over Anna’s insulting letters to stir up his desire for revenge.
Belford again writes to admonish Lovelace and ask him to give up the plot. He writes of Clarissa’s perfection and pleads with Lovelace not to debase it. He makes fun of Lovelace’s contrivances, calling them trite, stale, and poor. Lovelace responds indignantly to the latter accusation.
The next letter is written at eleven o’ clock at night. Lovelace is about to spring some new evil. Clarissa has gone to bed, and Lovelace is going to sneak into her room, hoping that if he surprises her in sleep, she will not resist him. However, his body seems to be rebelling against his plan: he speaks to his heart, his knees, his fingers to tell them to be steady. He’s about to give up the idea when someone yells “Fire!” A maid has set the kitchen curtains on fire, and there is no real danger. But there is a commotion, and Clarissa comes to her door half-dressed and about to faint with fear. Lovelace runs to her and takes her in his arms. He is enraptured to be holding her. Concerned for her health, he puts her on her bed and sits on the side to show he means no harm.
As she recovers her senses, Clarissa nevertheless accuses him of treachery. She assumes that the fire was a trick. Lovelace clasps her in his arms again. She struggles and begs him to let her go, appealing to his mercy and duty to protect a defenseless creature. He continues to kiss and caress her and she calls for help. Thinking Lovelace is about to rape her, she looks for something to kill herself with. Finding nothing, she sinks to the floor, embracing Lovelace’s knees, and begs for mercy. He is softened and promises her safety if she will promise to forgive him. She does, and he leaves her alone. He says that the trial has been a triumph for her and for her sex.
Clarissa breaks her promise and refuses to see Lovelace for a week. She will only communicate with him by letter, and in her notes she accuses him of betraying her and says that she will only think about seeing him again if it is her only route to reconciliation with her family. Lovelace tells Belford that if Clarissa would show love for him and confidence in his honor he would marry her and be hers forever. But he is not quite resolved; he reflects on the intricacies of his plots, on her distrust of him, and on the fact that she is superior to him and they both know it. He cannot imagine having a superior wife. He admits that Anna is right, that Clarissa shines even in a time of suffering.
Clarissa escapes. Lovelace is beside himself. He learns that she had told Dorcas she would stay in her room for a week and asked her to bring some rolls so she would not have to leave to eat. Dorcas had taken her to the kitchen to prove that the fire was real and Clarissa appeared surprised. She had sent Will, Lovelace’s servant, out with letters for Anna and Lovelace and took advantage of his absence to sneak out. Some time had passed before she was missed, although she had attracted attention in the neighborhood by her hurry, and a man had seen her enter a coach and overheard the direction she had given the driver. Will sets out to find her.
A letter from Anna arrives. She has been making inquiries and has finally discovered most of Lovelace’s plots, including the real character of Mrs. Sinclair’s house and the nonexistence of any Captain Tomlinson or Mrs. Fretchville—the widow from whom Lovelace was to purchase a house for Clarissa. She tells Clarissa to leave the house immediately. Lovelace is so infuriated by the letter that he puts pointers in the margin to mark the words that require vengeance.
Will finds Clarissa. She has not gone far and has decided to stay where she is, at the house of a woman named Mrs. Moore, until she has some direction from Anna. Lovelace goes to the village and disguises himself as a gouty old man. He asks to take a room in the house where Clarissa is staying and tricks his way into her presence. She recognizes him, and he throws off his cloak, to the surprise of the people of the house. Clarissa pleads with them to hide her. Lovelace tells them she is his wife and has run away; although she is telling the truth, he is a better actor and convinces them of his story. He gives Clarissa a letter from Captain Tomlinson to soften her, but she remains furious. Lovelace tells everyone to leave her alone. He tells the good women of the house his contrived story and gets them on his side, although one of them remains doubtful. Clarissa will not defend herself.
Anna sends a letter that asks if Clarissa has gotten her last, which she says is very important and cannot fall into Lovelace’s hands. Clarissa sends a servant to get it. Lovelace has replaced Anna’s letter with a forgery that contains much of the original but none of the incriminating information. On Lovelace’s orders, Will has gotten involved with the servant girl who has been carrying Clarissa’s letters, so Lovelace can intercept them easily. He forges a letter to Anna to reassure her that Clarissa is fine. He also flirts with the Widow Bevis, who is staying at the house, and is sure that she will help in his plots against Clarissa.
This section is the most action-packed yet in the novel, and in some ways the most complicated. In addition to Lovelace’s usual wavering between trust and distrust, and between optimism and pessimism, there are events that are out of his control and surprising even to him. The fire scene is the most dramatic of these: intention and responsibility in this episode and its aftermath are hard to sort out. Lovelace neither sets nor lies about the fire, and the liberties he takes with Clarissa are spontaneous, not premeditated. Clarissa’s accusations that he had started the fire are therefore incorrect, yet they are not wholly unjust: not only would we be unsurprised if Lovelace had indeed arranged the whole episode, we know that before the fire began he was getting ready to attack Clarissa.
While Lovelace’s particular offenses after the fire were not premeditated, he is certainly guilty of premeditating even worse crimes. The fire may have even saved Clarissa from rape, and although she is wrong in her conjectures about it, it may still save her by motivating her escape. On the other hand, just before the alarm, Lovelace’s conscience and love seemed to be winning out over his villainous side. It is impossible to know what would have happened if his reflections had not been interrupted, but the speed with which Lovelace reverts to his evil intentions suggests that even if his conscience succeeded in this episode, it would be squelched another time. Clarissa’s rejection of Lovelace after the fire, and her escape, ruin any chance that Lovelace’s love would win out over his revenge.
Lovelace’s character hovers between redemption and evil in this section, and it becomes clear that Clarissa is wreaking a major change in him. He is more than once overcome by Clarissa’s virtue and his love for her, and at one point he even finds himself sobbing. His description of this strange sensation to Belford is comical, but it shows that Lovelace is not in the habit of crying. Just before the fire, Lovelace’s body seems to be on the side of his conscience: his knees are weak, his fingers shake, his heart is in his throat. He recognizes the seriousness of the action he is about to take, saying “my beloved’s destiny or my own may depend on the issue of the two next hours.” In this episode, it seems his love for Clarissa is real and that he has finally reformed: he thinks he will change his plan and wishes that Clarissa will sleep sweetly and undisturbed.
What follows is a tragedy of misinterpretation: when Lovelace is finally being sincere, Clarissa interprets him more harshly than she ever has before. When he has actually refrained from doing her harm, she considers that he has done an unforgivable thing. Lovelace, of course, is no innocent victim of Clarissa’s misreading; in fact, she is accusing him of much less than he has actually been guilty of. Nevertheless, it is Clarissa’s misreading that turns the plot back against her just when it seems almost ready to go her way.
In these series of events, Clarissa finally takes control and seems to be learning that there are times when letting go of virtue is necessary. She also gets an accurate enough idea of Lovelace to run away from him, although we know her actual reasons for doing so are unfounded. She lies and tricks her way out of the house and takes a false name and tells a false story when she is away. Clarissa has been bad before, of course—she kept up her correspondences against her parents’ command and ran away with Lovelace—but these new actions show her ability to scheme in a comparable way to Lovelace.
Although it looks like Clarissa is taking wise actions to carry out her escape (however dishonest they might be), her good sense falters: she is very clever when she sends Will with false letters and asks Dorcas for a week’s worth of food, yet she foolishly stays within Lovelace’s reach. Furthermore, when he arrives she scarcely makes any effort to get the ladies of the house, who are good ladies (with the possible exception of the Widow Bevis), on her side. Some critics have speculated that Clarissa, unknown even to herself, desires Lovelace and does not really want to get away from him, which would explain some of her seemingly stupid moves.
Clarissa also has singularly bad luck, which, as a constant obstacle, only serves to emphasize her role as heroine of the novel. If things were easy for her, we would not be so impressed by the strength of her virtue. If things are as hard as they can get, and unfairly so, her virtue will shine brighter. The letter from Anna that would have made everything clear arrives the very day that she runs away, so Lovelace can tamper with it before it gets to her hands. Her escape from her parents, too, apparently occurred just before they were about to relent. That such a paragon of virtue should have fate against her seems like a violation of poetic justice. It may be that making Clarissa so unlucky allows Richardson to heighten the drama of the events: A letter that comes just a moment too late is much more dramatic than one that comes in time, or several days too late. Another possibility is that Clarissa’s bad luck is like Job’s, whom God subjected to extreme misery so that he could show his faith and constancy.