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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
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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady!