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.