Nothing in Richardson’s (1748) novel is more powerful and complex than Clarissa’s antagonist, Robert Lovelace. Or does he finally seize, by the power of his language and his presence, a role as the novel’s conflictual parallel protagonist—a full-bodied character born out of Richardson’s own complex consciousness, created and judged by that same consciousness, and inevitably escaping it?
Our early picture of Lovelace (before we encounter his own powerful and complicating language) seems simple—almost stereotypical. He is a known libertine, but an unusually attractive one—a scholar, a wit, a generous landowner, a brave and skilled swordsman, yet too disciplined to waste his resources on drink or gambling. But as we discover upon encountering his first letter to his closest friend, John Belford, he is unusually and most importantly, a writer—self-conscious, remarkably fluent, gifted, playful, seductive, driven—the moral opposite and creative challenge to the remarkably fluent, self-conscious, gifted but not playful or seductive Clarissa.
The letter is a tour-de-force. At the start, he announces his ability write “that, indeed, I can do; and as well without a subject as with one. And what follows shall be a proof of it” (Letter 142, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 142). And that proof is vivid and witty indictments of Clarissa’s family, and their treatment of her; high praise for her extraordinary gifts, mixed with gentle mockery of her too-strict virtue; extravagant expressions of surprised love; apt quotations from Dryden, Otway, Cowley, and Shakespeare about all these subjects; the admission that his conflicted double desires—revenge upon the hated Harlowes, love for Clarissa—provide him “such a field for stratagem and contrivance, which thou knowest to be the delight of my heart” (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 147).
With Lovelace, we enter—in the 18th century—Bakhtin’s (1981) world of heteroglossia, in which every language is unmasked as…a mask. Lovelace writes—and lives—out of an ideology that values performance over all else. He has wooed Clarissa by letters, of course, but also by surprising her in the garden of her house, where he enacts all the verbal and gestural behaviors of the sincere lover (begging her patience on bended knee, making extravagant professions of love, kissing her hand, consoling her on her family’s harsh treatment [Letter 36]). The family alarm that convinces her to flee with him—complete with shouted warnings and calls for a pistol—is another carefully crafted performance, contrived with the help of his spy Joseph Leman (Letters 94-95). Once he has lodged her at Sinclair’s private brothel, the performances continue: making himself deliberately ill by consuming ipecac in order to win her tender concern (Letter 211); hiring a criminal compatriot to play “Captain Tomlinson,” who is offered to Clarissa as a friend of her Uncle John, who has come to help her toward reconciliation with her family (Letter 214); staging a night-time fire to alarm Clarissa into his arms while she is in a state of near undress (Letter 225); even hiring two higher class whores to impersonate his aristocratic aunt and cousin, who will then intervene to persuade her toward marriage (Letter 255).