Clarissa Harlowe’s correspondence is founded upon an unwavering desire to preserve an established, steadfast identity, rather than allow her identity to be developmentally constructed as her writing unfolds. Even in letters to her family that reject their proposed marriage between her and Roger Solmes, she continues to assert her identity as an obedient and loving daughter, willing to submit faithfully to every reasonable duty they ask of her. Jerome Bruner (1991) described the family as “a system designed for keeping centrifugal forces from working within a group of people who have to stay together” (p. 68). Clarissa’s letters strive constantly to work exactly in this way; although she simply cannot accept Solmes as her husband, she fully endorses the patriarchal situation within which her father and brother operate, the values of family life it establishes, and her traditional place within that family. She has even relinquished to her father full control of the small estate bequeathed her by her loving grandfather, observing that he “could not bear that I should be made sole, as I may call it, and independent” (Letter 13, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 78).
Unsurprisingly, the language of Clarissa’s letters reflects the ideology within which she writes; it is “unitary” in that way defined by Bakhtin (1981), working to embody and preserve the ideology that gives rise to those terms that help establish a particular sociological stability. She would throw herself at her father’s feet as “an expression of my duty to him” (Letter 8, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 64). Her parents and uncles are constantly addressed as “dear” and “ever-honoured,” and even as their treatment of her grows ever more cruel she continues to sign herself as “ever-dutiful,” “dutiful and affectionate,” “dutiful and obliged.” She scolds Anna for her just but sharply expressed criticisms, even writing “I am very angry with you for your reflections on my relations, particularly on my father” (Letter 421.1, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 134).
As the novel winds toward her death, her centripetal actions and language continue. She writes humbly and apologetically to all of her family, for example asking no more of her father than that he lift his curse upon her and allow her to be buried in the family vault, blessing him effusively “for all the benefits I have received from your indulgence” (Letter 28, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 1371). She takes strong textual control over her life and her failing body. A letter meant as Christian allegory keeps Lovelace at a remove, assuring him that he may soon encounter her in her “father’s house” (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 1233). She composes religious meditations that express her emotions even as they instruct her soul (letters 402, 413, 418). She has her very coffin brought to her lodgings, adorning it with emblems and texts, from Job and the Psalms, of her particular choosing. Even after death, posthumous letters come to all her family and friends—even Lovelace himself—in a startling final display of self-presentation and preservation.
Over the course of every trial—whether at the hands of her family or of Lovelace—Clarissa has asserted her unwavering identity. And it may be that a striking phrase in the preamble to her will—“and as I am nobody’s” (Letter 421.1 Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 1413)—can be read as more than a sad recognition of her un-familied dying. Perhaps it can be read as a triumphant assertion as well.