In this section, we summarize our responses to blog posts which foreground writing, both its material condition and its affordances for constructing narratives of the self.
In Volume I, Letters 9-11 introduced a very specific back-and-forth between Clarissa and Anna about the ways they would write each other when they write about Clarissa’s feelings for Lovelace. Keri, responding to Letter 9, found the “author-reader relationship quite interesting and the ways in which Clarissa works through her own thoughts and feelings about Lovelace through her writing.” This letter, Keri suggested, also contains “a lot of moments where the writing seems more for Clarissa herself than to Miss Howe. Several places contain punctuation such as dashes or several exclamation marks, which, in context, suggest the immediacy of the letter-writing that mimics the style of personal diary or journal more than a letter to a friend. . . . Some thing as seemingly insignificant as the punctuation here shows that Clarissa is, in fact, working through her own emotions and feelings about these gentlemen while writing to Anna. In addition, the back-and-forth nature of Clarissa’s request demonstrates the immediacy with which Clarissa writes, and there are moments within this letter and in others where Clarissa goes for quite a while without directing the content to the reader at all.”
In Letter 10, we examined again how writers attempt to shape reader response. As Meghan noted, Anna here imagines a “kind of hypothetical dialogue between Anna and Clarissa. Though they aren’t talking to each other in the same room, Anna and Clarissa can still take into account the other person’s hypothetical reaction and can then plan their writerly moves accordingly.” Keri agreed, noting that “there are several moments in these letters where the writer, after introducing a specific topic, then tells the reader how to respond to it. It seems that these characters, like Richardson, are constantly try to exercise control over the content of their writing. I don’t really know what to think about this notion of depriving reader agency yet, but I do think that it is interesting.” Anna also suggests to Clarissa that she may feel a certain “throb” or “glow” when she thinks of Lovelace, an idea Clarissa very firmly denies in Letter 11. Nevertheless, the terms persist through several letters.
Volume II includes Clarissa’s “Ode” (Letter 54). Keri noted that the Ode might be Richardson showing “generic versatility,” but more probably that it is an instance of Clarissa using writing both as an escape and as a way of thinking through the situation she’s been forced into. It “helps her write her way into a new identity capable of handling difficult situations while maintaining her sanity and a relatively strong sense of self.” Jessica wondered about error in Letters 59 and 60, specifically “what do we make of this silence on the distracting punctuation and spelling in Solmes’s letter?” In “a culture steeped in letter writing,” she continued, Richardson’s use of error in the letter to characterize Solmes raises questions about connections between writing and character. Rachel wondered if Clarissa’s silence wasn’t due to a sense of delicacy—would it be bad manners to point such a thing out? And, so, Clarissa’s lack of response becomes a way for Richardson to use the letter to characterize her, as well; Debra pointed out the contrast Richardson draws here between Solmes as “buffoon” and Clarissa as mannered.
In Volume III, we noticed that Clarissa and Lovelace both describe their letter writing practices as “scribbling.” In reference to Letter 105, Debra pointed out that Lovelace’s phrase, a “pair of scribbling lovers” could work as a “wonderful epigraph for the novel.” Rachel noted that not only are they both constantly writing letters, but that Clarissa and Lovelace also have similar rhetorical purposes for their writing: “for expression and correspondence, yes, but also for justification of their actions or reactions and for pleading their cases with a close friend and various family members.”
Clarissa also refers to her letter writing as “scribbling” in Letter 135 when she writes to Anna that she “would willingly, therefore, write to [Anna], if [she] might; the rather as it would be the more inspiriting to have some end in view in what [she writes]; some friend to please; besides merely seeking to gratify [her] passion for scribbling.” Several of us commented on Clarissa’s rhetorical purpose in the “scribbling” she does to Anna. Debra commented that though she must “write on,” she prefers to have a friend who is reading what she writes. Anna, her audience, gives her writing a sense of purpose and connection to someone she is missing. Keri commented that Anna is Clarissa’s “lifeline,” as she is Clarissa’s “window into the world outside her relationship with Lovelace.” Meghan added that Clarissa’s letters to Anna are the only means for her to still exercise some kind of control over her actions—actions increasingly determined by Lovelace.
We also discussed, in regard to Letter 106, how much Lovelace enjoys the aspect of performance in the letters he sends to Belford. In this letter, Lovelace complains of the presence of “confounded girls” in the church he attends, making a place where he should be able to attend with “good conscience” more of a place where “Satan [spreads] his snares for [Lovelace].” Debra saw this as a good example of Lovelace’s display of wit, and suggested Lovelace’s letters to Belford are the perfect opportunity for him to show off this skill. Steve questioned whether Lovelace ever really tells Belford his true feelings in his writing. If Lovelace uses his writing as a way to perform, how do we ever know when he is being truthful?
In Volume IV, Letter 161, Clarissa writes “for what are words but the body and dress of thought?” This question stimulated discussion about the truthfulness of writing and how well it aligns with one’s thoughts. In her comment, Megan focused on Clarissa’s attempt to understand Lovelace’s writing and the truth (or lack thereof) of his words: “[Clarissa] is trying to figure out how Lovelace’s words from his letters and his appearance now line up and form the truth of his self.” Debra then connected this point to Marta Kvande (2013), noting the connections between “body, self, words, and writing.”
Similarly, in Letter 174, we see the link between body/self/letter when Clarissa notes, “These griefs, therefore, do what I can, will sometimes burst into tears; and these mingling with my ink, will blot my paper.” Responding, Megan noted, “I think what we are seeing in this letter is Clarissa, once again, exposing her true self in her writing. This is a very melancholic letter where she really cannot see what will happen next and dreads finding out for herself. YET – she continues to find some relief in writing these letters to Anna.” To this point, Debra emphasized Clarissa’s physical body and her chastity, writing that “Clarissa’s hypervigilence about protecting the chastity (even sanctity) of her body, coupled with her unwillingness to eat and her later physical decline, suggests that, in a very significant way, Clarissa’s identity is written on her body as well as in her letters. And these places where the tears blot the letters seem very significant sites of Clarissa’s identity.” In short, Clarissa’s writing here combines with her self-discovery and identity formation in ways that only writing in manuscript form allows and similarly shows the vulnerability of the writer that results from the manuscript culture. Thus, as she writes, she alters her identity, agency, and self in notable ways.
Writing in Volume IV also deeply affects the relationship between Clarissa and Lovelace, as we see in Letter 202 when he gains possession of Clarissa’s unsent letter to Anna. In this letter (and others), Lovelace gains more power and control over Clarissa by accessing her writing. As Kendra noted in response to this letter, “The letters allow him to know what she is thinking and give him time to think of a way to respond or act accordingly to change her opinion of him and to win her over. It also shows that Clarissa has lost what little agency she had (her own thoughts) and that Lovelace is close to having all of her.” In response to Kendra’s thoughts about Clarissa’s loss of agency, Debra adds, “[Clarissa] is a kind of tabula rasa to [Lovelace]; the letters offer him some sense of who she is.” As Debra suggested here, Clarissa herself has become a blank slate on which Lovelace can write or construct his own narrative and identity.
In Volume V, Clarissa’s writing and identity is filtered through Lovelace, and more of Lovelace’s writing and his identity (or lack thereof) is revealed. Debra noted in response to Letter 222, “That [Belford] can stop being a rake and start being a decent person suggests that the rake language and identity is a kind of social mask or performance.” As Lovelace has revealed his love of performance, he may be able to stop being a rake if he is forced to grow up and be an adult, i.e. a married man. As a writer, Lovelace’s talents really shine in this volume, particularly in, Letter 214, which was written like a scene for a play. His wit also appears in Letter 234, when he asks Belford, “Yet what can be expected of an angel under twenty?” referring to Clarissa’s inability to cover her tracks in her escape from him. Meghan also pointed out Lovelace’s power in his writing by noting that he wants “her to be just cautious enough so she doesn’t fall for the traps set for her by other people, not so cautious that she doesn’t fall for [his].” So Lovelace wants Clarissa to be smart enough to escape from others but not smart enough to see through his plans and ruses. He does not see Clarissa as an equal to himself.
In Letter 231, Lovelace discovers Clarissa’s location after she has escaped him and he writes of what punishments she should receive. He also rather poignantly points out that Clarissa “never was in a state of independency; nor is it fit a woman should, of any age, or in any state of life.” In his mind, Lovelace should be the one that Clarissa relies on, whether she wants to or not. Jessica noted in her response to Letter 231, that Lovelace continually denies Clarissa’s human pain and suffering, and that he “wants her completely ‘ruined’ in the sense that she stops thinking of escape and is completely dependent on him.”
Volume V also highlights two important moments in Clarissa’s writing: 1) when she questions her feelings for Lovelace, and 2) when she escapes from him after seeing him for the villain that he is. In Letter 212, Clarissa finds that Lovelace is ill and she questions her tender feelings for him&emdash;as well as making the point that she is “afraid to look back upon what [she] has written.” Keri suggested Clarissa doesn’t want to reread her letter because she “clearly recognizes her confusion about Lovelace.” In Letter 230, Clarissa writes to Anna after her escape and exclaims “the villain reveals himself!” Meghan theorized that Clarissa may be describing Lovelace as a “devil incarnate” “because it gives her the strength she needs to leave him.” Steve also pointed out in this letter that “Richardson is deepening the dichotomies between Clarissa and Lovelace.” Throughout the novel, Lovelace is associated with terms that refer to him as a devil while Clarissa is associated with terms that refer to her as an angel or as virtuous. What becomes clear in this volume, and through the dichotomy between the two characters, is that Lovelace is not a redeemable villain and Clarissa is the mistreated and threatened heroine.
The nature of writing itself—the act, its motivations, its medium (primarily letters, but also such crucial documents as Clarissa’s will), the limitations of that medium (especially the vulnerability of letters to interference and forgery)—constitutes a major theme of Clarissa.
The textual ruptures that mark Volume VI complement the narrative ruptures that drove much of our discussion. Commenting on Letter 310, Rachel pointed out a dangerous naivete that Anna and Clarissa share: “their act of trust in the conveyance and delivery” of their letters. (Commenting on Letter 295, Rachel phrased so nicely the result of Lovelace’s interferences—that they cut Clarissa off “from any contact that he did not authorize”—so suggestive a word in the novel’s complex epistolary universe [my italics].) And the forgeries that Lovelace passes off on Clarissa and Anna—manipulating both women in order to forward his schemes—reveal another important vulnerability of letters’ textual materiality.
That materiality is also subject to the situation and state of mind of the correspondent. As Debra commented in her post on Clarissa’s “mad letters,” the delirium induced by her being drugged and raped are echoed directly in those letters’ content and their physical appearance—“even to the level of syntax and form.”
Importantly, Clarissa’s recovery depends fundamentally on her ability to wrest textual control back from Lovelace—even, in a sense, from Anna, who has been pushed to premature judgment of Clarissa by Lovelace’s forgeries. (Note how Anna actually co-opts phrases from Clarissa’s first letter after her escape [Letter 310]—to turn them back as criticism of Clarissa’s presumed behavior.)
Still, that first letter to Anna ( Letter 295) after the forgeries is an important beginning for Clarissa. As Jessica noted, Clarissa feels compelled to resume the correspondence both because “it would make her feel less lost,” and, perhaps even more importantly, help her become “less hated (by herself and others).” Keri observed that this renewed opportunity to write beyond Lovelace’s interferences “shows a freedom (to write and to piece together the story for herself) that she has not had in quite some time.” And as Steve commented in posting on “Letter 317,” this new writing helps “to allow for resignation” to her new situation.
Clarissa’s new freedoms—from imprisonment by Lovelace, to free correspondence—will flower most fully in the texts she continues writing to produce the most detailed record of her life with Lovelace and afterwards: as Rachel phrased it, “something that can be written, recorded, read, witnessed to long after she has died.” For Clarissa, healing the textual ruptures created by her madness and by Lovelace’s interferences are one crucial way in which she takes up healing herself.
We hear from Clarissa very little in Volume VII, and most discussions of her writing (such as in Letter 333) stem from how she finds herself too tired or too ill to write. Clarissa’s difficulty in writing, a practice she loves over all others, shows the way her body is deteriorating. If Clarissa, who previously partook in subterfuge in order to hold onto writing utensils and wrote almost unceasingly, is choosing not to write, something is seriously wrong with her.
Lovelace and his writing continue throughout this volume. One of the early letters in the volume (Letter 323) shows his mastery of language and power as a rhetor, but his later letters are more troubling, particularly Letter 335. In Letter 323, Lovelace crafts one of his dramatic (play-like) letters. In this one, he is put on trial by his family members, and as Rachel wrote, “he is a master manipulator here, engaging in the drama and pulling out all his rhetorical moves as needed.” Tony also noted “his determination to speak over people (interrupting, making his voice louder, not permitting any interruption to his own speech)” and authorial decision to “present the scene as a comedy.” We see Lovelace in full command of both his speaking and writing voice in this scene.
However, it is not long until Lovelace seems to grow more confused, as his writing in Letter 335 reflects. In this letter, Lovelace responds to a series of letters from Belford that end in uncertainty, a cliffhanger if you will. Lovelace’s response is to call Belford names, threaten him, and demand to know what happens next. He says that his pain in not knowing what happens is worse than any form of torture or pain that anyone else has ever felt. Jessica wondered if this letter is reflective of “what [James Grantham] Turner and [Terry] Eagleton have said about Lovelace’s writing practices and the positions he occupies as being ‘feminine.’” Tony pointed to how the letter deftly handles metaphor and argued, “writing remains [Lovelace’s] most important area of libertine creativity—and that he can manage it so well demonstrates, I think, that his suffering is one more mask to parade.” Unlike the first letter discussed here, this one presents a much more unstable Lovelace who is pleading with Belford for news and threatening him if he fails to deliver. We see how Lovelace’s writing changes drastically throughout this volume. He presents different sides of himself when faced with different situations. We see him confident and collected when discussing being put to “trial” by his family, but wanting to know more about what is happening to Clarissa leaves him ranting and raving to Belford for more information.
In Volume VIII, Clarissa’s body grows weaker and she gradually loses the ability to write by hand. Her letters taper off, which led us to think more about Clarissa’s physical attachment to writing. Several of us noticed how the act of writing—whether and how much it happens—depends on other forces at the end of Clarissa’s life, particularly physical ability. In response to Letter 405, Megan commented that we see Clarissa’s “writerly self break down as her body does.” Because writing is central to Clarissa’s identity, we recognized that she stops only because she is physically unable to write. Tony added to this sentiment by suggesting the power of “theological/eschatological realities” on Clarissa’s ability to write. We realized how central the act of writing is to Clarissa’s identity, but by Volume VIII understood that she has weakened. Writing is replaced by other means for narrating the end of her life.
We pointed out another aspect of Clarissa’s diminishing letters. As an author, Richardson signals the end of Clarissa’s life by privileging the stories that people tell about Clarissa. Later, we learn that Clarissa has actually written her will as well as several letters to families and friends. This surprise reflects her now silent but relentless pursuit of autonomy, which is manifested primarily in writing.
Although there was not really much about writing (that wasn’t moreso about narrative) in Volume IX, there was an important mention in Letter 486, about Clarissa’s writing. According to Belford, “there never was a woman so young, who wrote so much, and with such celerity. Her thoughts keeping pace, as I have seen, with her pen, she hardly ever stopped or hesitated; and very seldom blotted out, or altered. It was a natural talent she was mistress of…” We have seen this throughout the novel, and Debra suggested that it may have stemmed from “her own sense that her writing is a record of (rather than a construction of) her thoughts and ‘self.’” She also further noted that this lack of distance between the self and writing is similar to Lovelace’s relationship with the act of writing: “Neither of them seems to have any sense of distance between thinking and writing.”
Therefore, it was no surprise that, when we read Clarissa’s will in Letter 507, we saw the document of her will as an expression or representation of Clarissa’s agency (which, as Kendra noted, we had discussed many times before); her will says all the things that she needed to say in death (even if she couldn’t say those things in life). Meghan noted that Clarissa included a clause of rebuke for Lovelace if he demanded to see her body, seeming to use her will as a form of communicating her disdain and shame at his actions, and Keri suggested that her will was yet another place where Clarissa attempted to “write” her story, to have control over it: “Clarissa’s offering of the letters to Anna helps her to fulfill one of her wishes that she mentioned so early in the novel—that Anna know her ‘whole mind.’” Now that Anna possesses her own copy of all the letters written between Anna and Clarissa, and between Clarissa and the other parties mentioned above, Anna can have a fuller, more complete understanding of Clarissa’s mind and her story as a whole.