Category Archives: LBIII

Lovelace, Narrative, Writing, and the Self

In this section we respond to some of the questions about Lovelace that emerged from our reading and responding. These questions include:

  • What kind of self is, or may be, at the center of Lovelace’s astonishing textual abilities and love of performance?
  • Why does Lovelace seems so driven to write?
  • How is this narrative drive related to Lovelace’s self performance?
  • How does Lovelace use rhetoric, and what is the relation of rhetoric to power?

Lovelace: Correspondence as the Carnival of the Self. Tony O’Keeffe.

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).

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Lovelace as Writer: A Character in His Own Narrative. Jessica Winck.

Both Clarissa and Lovelace claim to be driven to write, and both turn to writing as an outlet for their intellectual energy. Lovelace, though, uses writing for an additional purpose. He writes letters because he enjoys being a character in the narrative of his own making. In the stories he tells Belford, his primary audience, he constructs himself as a passionate, relentless lover. Because Lovelace goes to great lengths in his attempts to earn Clarissa’s affection, an ultimately fatal pursuit for both characters, his stories are filled with elaborate plans, confrontations, frustrations, momentary joys, and disappointments.

Since the ongoing story of his pursuit of Clarissa is prone to drastic changes in plot, Lovelace also relies on writing as a platform for re-affirming his sense of masculinity, especially in relation to women. When he frequently compares women to animals (e.g. women and birds), he reassures himself that he can objectively comprehend women and their nature. Granted, the received wisdom of the time would suggest that the nature of women is as predictable and known as other objects of study to which men have claimed knowledge. However, because Clarissa is exceptional, which Lovelace repeatedly argues, she presents several obstacles for him. He frequently suggests that other women would have submitted to his advances. In this sense, Lovelace’s letters represent his persistent attempts to comprehend Clarissa on an epistemological level.

As inquiry, letter writing demonstrates Lovelace’s methods of thinking and drawing conclusions. As part of constructing a narrative that he enjoys re-enacting for Belford, his letters provide explanations for his often bizarre methods to comprehend as well as to persuade Clarissa. Within his first several letters in the novel, Lovelace is beyond crucial questions such as, “Is what I want good for Clarissa? Should I be held responsible for the negative consequences my actions have on her life?” Being past these, he fails to consider whether his way of life is unconscionable.

Since he is irrationally determined to have Clarissa, his narratives must serve some other purpose. By reciting the events of the novel, as if he cannot help doing so, he strengthens the shield he has built to protect himself from knowing what it feels like to Clarissa and other women when they are objects of his desire. Consequently, writing is not only a method for reaffirming and protecting himself. Writing also emboldens him.

A Multiplicity of Identities: On Lovelace and Writing. Megan Faver Hartline.

Although the novel tells Clarissa’s story, Lovelace is frequently given a chance to narrate the events happening through his letters to Belford. As his part in the story grows, so do the number of his letters included in the text. Lovelace’s identity at the beginning of the story is the man who incites the events. He pursues Arabella and then Clarissa causing Anna to write to Clarissa and begin the discussion of the events happening, and his pursuit of Clarissa leads directly to her family’s decision to try and marry her to Solmes. During this time, Lovelace has very few letters in the text. It is not until plans are being made for Clarissa to leave her home and the actual departure takes place that Lovelace’s letters are included more frequently, and the reader begins to see the various identities that Lovelace constructs in his writing.

The early volumes of Clarissa paint Lovelace as a bit of an enigma. Clarissa’s brother clearly despises the man, and Clarissa isn’t a huge fan either but is more disposed to giving him a chance than anyone else in her family. She writes to Anna at one point that she feels if only he could tell his side of the story, then his actions could be better understood and less faulted by so many. Unfortunately, Clarissa is wrong. Continue reading

Lovelace’s Erosion of Narrative Power. Rachel Gramer

Writing as Obsessive Construction

Why does Lovelace write so much? This seems a key question throughout the novel. In the early volumes, his primary correspondence is with Clarissa, and he has several volumes to do some vital work: to demonstrate his prowess in writing and in reason; to present himself as a preferable choice to hideous, uncouth Solmes; and to convince Clarissa to continue their correspondence and to trust him enough to meet him in the garden, where he then absconds with her. In his own clearly insidious way, his work in the beginning of the novel is to write her into a position of obligation—knowing her well enough to know she will follow the dictates of polite manners to the extreme—so that she feels she must at least meet him again face-to-face, a moment which begins to seal her doom.

And that’s when Lovelace begins to show his obsession with writing even more—when we progress to the middle volumes and see his primary correspondence shift from Clarissa to Belford. In Volumes III, IV, and V, we can trace his growing obsession with writing as record, writing as venting, writing as distraction, writing as whatever Lovelace needs writing to be in the moment. In Volume IV, he even becomes obsessed with Clarissa’s writing, too, attempting to steal her letters and read her correspondence (see Letter 202, for example). We discussed throughout the class how difficult it was for us to attain any accurate sense of a Lovelace’s interiority in particular, yet he seems quite clear on attaining inside knowledge into Clarissa’s “interiority” in her letters. He has a spy in her house in the early volumes, reads and eventually intercepts and mimics her correspondence with Anna—because he knows it is vital to his shaping of Clarissa’s identity.

Writing as Shifting Identity

And yet I think it most fascinating that we often cannot locate Lovelace’s own identity beyond the identification of his obsession—much of which, as we also discussed, is spent in the position of the rationalizing, justifying defender of his own actions. In some ways, he seems to want to defend his position to Belford (pulling out all the rhetorical stops of trials, tests of Clarissa’s worthiness even after he rapes her, etc.)—yet he doesn’t really have to defend himself to Belford, his fellow rake, at least not until much later in the novel. Lovelace seems to have little to nothing to gain or to lose by acquiring Belford’s approval or acceptance before or immediately after the rape. And Lovelace even tells him so and plans on continuing down his initial path no matter what Belford might write in return.

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Lovelace and the Canon of Invention. Debra Journet.

I gave way to her angry struggle; but, absolutely overcome by so charming a display of innocent confusion, I caught hold of her hand as she was flying from me, and kneeling at her fee, O my angel, said I, (quite destitute of reserve, and hardly knowing the tenor of my own speech; and had a parson been there, I had certainly been a gone man,) receive the vows of your faithful Lovelace. Make him yours, and only yours, for ever. This will answer every end. Who will dare to form plots and stratagems against my wife? That you are not so is the ground of all their foolish attempts, and of their insolent hopes in Solmes’s favour.—O be mine!—I beseech you (thus on my knee I beseech you) to be mine. We shall then have all the world with us. And every body will applaud an event that every body expects.

Was the devil in me! I no more intended all this ecstatic nonsense, than I thought the same moment of flying in the air! All power is with this charming creature. It is I, not she, at this rate, that must fail in the arduous trial.

Didst thou ever before hear of a man uttering solemn things by an involuntary impulse, in defiance of premeditation, and of all his proud schemes? (Letter 138, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 492)

In this passage, addressed to Belford, Lovelace writes trying to understand what he has just done. Overcome by Clarissa’s sadness and “quite destitute of reserve,” he presses her to marry him right now. Lovelace has no idea himself how to make sense of this: “I no more intended all this ecstatic nonsense, than I thought the same moment of flying in the air!”

When Clarissa writes to question Anna, she is usually seeking her endorsement of actions. (Did I do the right thing? Don’t tell me if I didn’t. Okay tell me.) Lovelace’s question, here at least, is quite different. (How can I square these feelings with the person I am—or think I am?) It seems that Lovelace confronts a narrative of the self (a man who has genuine feelings of sympathy and love for a woman) at odds with the self he sees himself as performing (the rake, the libertine, the wit). Here Lovelace appears to break out of his typical rhetorical flourish, to ask Belford to help him understand his actions.

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Lovelace as Rhetor. Steve Cohen.

In Letter 191, Lovelace writes to Belford that his “principal design is but to bring virtue to a trial, that, if virtue, it need not be afraid of,” indicating that he will again test Clarissa’s virtue—ostensibly for the sake of testing her virtue (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 608). This little snippet stuck with me because I can’t decide whether or not Lovelace believes it himself.

Certainly, he’s performing “Lovelace the rake” for Belford but, just as certainly, he’s aware that he desires Clarissa. Even he can’t possibly believe that her success in rebuffing his advances will make him happy. But here’s where it gets weird—I’m not sure that, on some level, he doesn’t believe himself when he’s writing to Belford. We have had a great deal of discussion about Lovelace’s ability to pick and choose which “Lovelace” is the most advantageous for him to perform in any given situation. I wonder if, especially in moments like this, he isn’t performing a particular Lovelace for himself. With all those identities to choose from, things have to get confusing every once in a while. I’m quite sure that at certain points in the novel, not even Lovelace knows anything about Lovelace except that he is a master of rhetoric.

In this way, he confirms some of Plato’s deepest fears about rhetoric in the hands of the sophists. Sophistic rhetoric, for Plato, is dangerous, just as one might argue Lovelace is dangerous; there isn’t anything underneath. The fear is that, lacking a system of ethics, rhetoricians wield a powerfully deceptive tool (Lovelace in a nutshell—am I wrong?). This tool is so powerful that it might allow a rhetorician a frightening degree of control over otherwise perfectly independent, rational, capable citizens. Sound familiar? There’s a way here, I think, that Lovelace comes to represent rhetoric itself, and represent it in a not-quite-flattering light.

If, as I suggested in my post about Clarissa, narrative and writing and authority in the novel comes in the form of authorship of written words, whoever is the best writer (or rhetor) has the most power. And, worryingly, the only identity that Lovelace espouses with any stability throughout is that of an accomplished rhetor.

Lovelace’s Need for Attention and Confirmation of His Identity. Kendra Sheehan.

In his enactment of the relation between writing and identity, Lovelace differs from Clarissa, because Lovelace is already very sure of who he is. Nevertheless, Lovelace still needs someone to verify and give him attention—someone to confirm that he is indeed very clever. There are also moments when Lovelace is not necessarily as sure of himself as he pretends because, at least once in every letter to Belford, he notes the effects that Clarissa has on him and questions his own motives. He even admonishes Belford for complimenting and commending Clarissa by asking Belford if he is “able to say half the things in her praise, that [Lovelace has] said, and [is] continually saying or writing” (Letter 191, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 608).

Lovelace writes to solidify who he thinks he is, and he thinks rather highly of himself. While Belford does not always respond to Lovelace’s letters, Lovelace writes numerous letters anyway and seems to be looking for some confirmation from Belford. His questions and oft repeated phrases to Belford also suggest that if he can put it into writing it will be true. Lovelace has also mastered body language and can even change his physical performance to manipulate others. These textual and physical metamorphoses suggest that Lovelace is so used to changing his identity and mannerisms that he does not know how to act authentically. Even when Lovelace tries to write a libertine self, he still depends on previous definitions of libertinism and borrows vocabulary from literary predecessors to assert his originality and methods (Turner, 1989, p. 75).

In Letter 191, Lovelace reminds Belford that he only would know nothing of his contrivances, “had I not communicated them to thee” (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 609). He has to write his actions and thoughts down in order for someone else to legitimize and congratulate him on his cleverness, or at least acknowledge it. For instance, his plans to test Clarissa’s virtue suggest that he not only thinks that it is his place to test her, but also that he is the only one to test the virtue of all women.

A final interesting thing about Lovelace’s writing is that later letters are more emotional than his early composed and confident ones. Once he imprisons Clarissa, his letters change as he becomes first impressed with her and then later an emotional wreck after she leaves him and then dies. Nevertheless, he can claim that “‘tis impossible that Miss Harlowe should have ever suffered as thou hast made me suffer, and as I now suffer!” (Letter 335, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 1069). Everything in Lovelace’s life is about him, even when someone else is suffering.

Lovelace’s Malleable Identity. Keri Mathis.

Writing as Truth

In Volume IV, we begin to see Lovelace’s identity become clearer through his responses to John Belford. Belford (finally) responds to Lovelace’s letters and indicates his resistance to Lovelace’s schemes, and this resistance from an audience shapes Lovelace’s rhetoric in a way that also reflects his identity as malleable and difficult to pin down. At the beginning of Letter 191, Lovelace reiterates the purpose behind his plan, which is to simply test the virtue of his beloved Clarissa:

When I have opened my view to thee so amply as I have done in my former letters; and have told thee, that my principal design is but to bring virtue to a trial, that, if virtue, it need not be afraid of; and that the reward of it will be marriage (that is to say, if, after I have carried my point, I cannot prevail upon her to live with me the life of honour; for that thou knowest is the wish of my heart); I am amazed at the repetition of thy wambling nonsense.

(Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 608).

In this statement, Lovelace indicates his disgust with Belford’s questioning of his intentions with Clarissa; in fact, in his response here, he suggests that his intentions are a fact that cannot be disproven and need no further discussion. To illustrate this point further, he calls Belford’s reference to his true intention “nonsense” because Belford should know “the wish of [Lovelace's] heart” (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 608). Lovelace’s commitment to his intention to only put Clarissa’s virtue under rigorous trial certainly indicates something about Lovelace’s identity. After reviewing this selection again, I am not convinced that Lovelace even sees the need for justification for his actions; instead, he simply wants to redirect the blame to Belford for being so “nonsensical.” Similarly, in this response to Belford, Lovelace asks Belford to revisit some of his previous letters and look for all of the instances in which he praises Clarissa: “Art thou able to say half the things in her praise, that I have said, and am continually saying or writing?” (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 608). What interests me here is the fact that Lovelace assumes that because he wrote praises of Clarissa in these letters that Belford should know that these are true utterances—they are not to be questioned.

Writing in Excess

In addition, writing for Lovelace is also a very compulsive task that enables him to release the emotions he feels as he contrives these elaborate schemes against Clarissa and allows him to fully express his desire to control and essentially own her body and her mind. We have discussed in class on numerous occasions his compulsion to write in excess because his desire to write can seemingly never be satisfied—it is as if writing for him is an addiction.

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