Lovelace writes to Clarissa and expresses his anger that she is, by common report, about to marry Solmes. It is clear that Lovelace has a spy in the Harlowe house, because he knows about everything that has been happening there. He tells Clarissa that his family (which is a very noble one) admires her and supports the idea of their marriage. He asks if he can approach Clarissa’s father and uncles to make his proposal, and also if Clarissa will meet him privately one night in the garden. Clarissa feels she should stop writing to Lovelace, but the threat to her brother and the fact that she has few other bargaining chips convince her to continue. She eventually responds to one of Lovelace’s letters, forbidding him to visit her father and uncles and insisting that she wants to stay single.
The Harlowes refuse to let Clarissa go to church and dismiss her maid, Hannah, who has been helping with the secret correspondences. Arabella’s maid, the pert Betty Barnes, is assigned to watch over Clarissa.
Anna’s situation provides a contrast with Clarissa’s. She and her mother have a close but tempestuous relationship, and Anna has none of Clarissa’s scruples about familial piety. Mrs. Howe wants Anna to marry a respectable man named Hickman, whom Anna mocks mercilessly. Mrs. Howe is close friends with Clarissa’s Uncle Antony. Anna recommends that Clarissa take control of her grandfather’s estate, which Clarissa had put into her father’s power. Clarissa refuses, insisting that as a daughter her proper place is in her father’s house and under her father’s control.
Letter 31 is the first written by Lovelace. It is to John Belford, one of his wild pack of friends. Lovelace writes of his hatred for the Harlowes and his love for Clarissa, whom he calls “my angel” and “my charmer.” It is revealed that early in his life Lovelace had been jilted for a man of higher status and had vowed revenge on all women. Lovelace also mentions that he is somehow manipulating Clarissa’s uncle and, through him, Mrs. Howe to turn them against Clarissa so that she will have no choice but to seek protection from Lovelace.
What makes Clarissa difficult, as well as interesting, is that it takes a very long time to relate a very small number of actions. Although the first section covers three months and more than a hundred plus pages, hardly anything occurs that could be called an event. The only major plot point, the duel between James and Lovelace, has happened before the book begins. The event that provides the conflict for this section, Clarissa’s forced marriage, has not happened yet and may not happen. From this first section we can gather that reading the book for plot will likely be disappointing. The action mainly goes on in characters’ minds and in their written and spoken conversations with one another.
Clarissa’s letter (or epistolary) form lends itself to a psychological, rather than plot-driven, novel. As Richardson notes in the Preface, a novel in letters is bound to be longer than one written as a narrative, because the letters will include the characters’ thoughts about and speculations on the events that happen. Since the letters in Clarissa are written by four different characters, we are given multiple points of view on single events, which also contribute to the length of the work and relative lack of action. This storytelling device was an innovation for Richardson. While his first novel, Pamela, is also in the form of letters, almost all of the letters are written by Pamela. Clarissa is more ambitious: the different points of view make the novel richer and allow us to relate with more than one character.