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Letters 173–216

Summary Letters 173–216

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.