Category Archives: LBII

Clarissa, Narrative, Writing, and the Self

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

  • Why does Clarissa continue to write to Anna, even when there is little possibility of response?
  • How is Clarissa’s sense of an autonomous and inviolate self reflected in her writing and her need to write?
  • How does writing help Clarissa gain agency in her life?
  • How are issues of authority and authorship entangled in Clarissa’s life?

Narrative Identity–Clarissa. Keri Mathis.

Narrative identity for Clarissa at first seems to be primarily constructed through her correspondence with Anna Howe. In Volume III, however, Clarissa and Anna have an added hurdle—the fact that Anna’s mother has prohibited their exchanging of letters due to Clarissa’s unfaithfulness to her family. What is interesting in this volume, though, is that Clarissa continues to write to Anna regardless of when and if she might receive a response. And these letters do not simply document the events that have unfolded since their previous correspondence; in these letters, Clarissa continuously asks questions of Anna to receive guidance about how to proceed in her current situation with Lovelace. Furthermore, Clarissa seems to recognize that Anna will likely be unable to respond to her letters. For instance, she writes to Anna in Letter 30 of Volume III: “I may send to you, although you are forbid to write to me; may I not?—For that is not a correspondence (is it?) where letters are unanswered”. Later in the same letter, Clarissa asks, “What think you, Miss Howe?—Do you believe he can have any view in this?” Though Clarissa recognizes the lack of correspondence, she continues to write on to her friend and request her guidance.

But why? One possible answer to this question is that Clarissa needs to confirm to someone that she maintains her honor and her steadfast nature in hopes of one day regaining her reputation. In Volume III, for example, Clarissa writes of Lovelace: “I am strangely at a loss what to think of this man. He is a perfect Proteus. I can but write according to the shape he assumes at the time. Don’t think me the changeable person, I beseech you, if in one letter I contradict what I wrote in another; nay, if I seem to contradict what I said in the same letter….” Here, Clarissa writes to Anna to prove the stability of her own character by comparing to that of Lovelace’s malleable, unpredictable one. Though Clarissa recognizes that she often changes her opinion of Lovelace based on his actions in a given circumstance, she must prove to Anna that she is, nevertheless, stable and capable of maintaining a positive self identity. Her sense of self depends entirely on her ability to write to someone even if she cannot receive a response, pointing to the power of writing alone in helping Clarissa develop and maintain a healthy sense of self.

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Clarissa’s Record of Self: Writing as Communicative Power, Record of Self, and Narrative End. Rachel Gramer.

Writing as Communicative Power

In some of her last letters in the novel, Clarissa reminds us of her beginning with Lovelace. Her relationship with him, however it has progressed and regressed, began with writing. Clarissa wrote to Lovelace, in part, because she loved writing: “I love writing; and those who do are fond, you know, of occasions to use the pen” (Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 47). Thus, we see early on the power of writing to create a relationship where before none existed—and see, too, how Clarissa initially defines herself, or identifies, as a writer.

Throughout the early volumes, writing maintains its strength in letters that connect Clarissa to the world, her only form of communication as she struggles first with her family and then with Lovelace and his dastardly crew. Regardless of her acknowledgement that her first step to “ruin” began with writing, Clarissa engages intimately with writing, through writing, until the end: asking for permission to write to her relatives and Anna, reading and responding to writing with care, reaching out to her family and Lovelace’s through the complicit social agreement of letters. In these moments, the power of writing extends beyond the materiality of ink, paper, and wax seals. The communicative function of letters allows Clarissa not only to connect with those outside her immediate physical reach, but also to influence people and events in the novel.

Writing as a Record of Self

Moving forward in the novel, Clarissa continues to embrace letters as a vehicle for communication with the outside world. However, as her circumstances worsen—and she is further ensnared in Lovelace’s contrivances—she no longer writes as a young woman sharing her story with a dear friend. Instead, she must write to record her “History of a Young Lady” so that others (including Anna, Belford, her family, and us as Richardson’s readers) will know her version of the story—the events leading up to, and spiraling out of, the violence of her rape in Volume 6, and ultimately her escape from the tyranny of Robert Lovelace in death.

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Clarissa: Correspondence as Self-Preservation. Tony O’Keeffe.

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.

Clarissa and the Rock upon which her Self is Founded. Debra Journet.

And indeed, my dear, I know not how to forbear writing. I have now no other employment or diversion. And I must write on, although I were not to send it to any body. You have often heard me own the advantages I have found from writing down every thing of moment that befalls me; and of all I think, and of all I do, that may be of future use to me; for, besides that this helps to form one to a style, and opens and expands the ductile mind, every one will find that many a good thought evaporates in thinking; many a good resolution goes off, driven out of memory perhaps by some other not so good. But when I set down what I will do, or what I have done, on this or that occasion; the resolution or action is before me either to be adhered to, withdrawn, or amended; and I have entered into compact with myself, as I may say; having given it under my own hand to improve, rather than to go backward, as I live longer. I would willingly, therefore, write to you, if I might; the rather as it would be the more inspiriting to have some end in view in what to write; some friend to please; besides merely seeking to gratify my passion for scribbling. (Letter 135, Richardson, 1748/1985, p. 483)

Clarissa is often described as understanding her self as autonomous and seeing writing as a way of revealing what is already present in her mind. There is, for her, an unbroken connection between what is in the mind and what is in the writing hand. And indeed, this is the epistemological and spiritual rock upon which Clarissa’s identity is founded. However, even a writer who believes so explicitly in language as a clear window to what is already known can be brought up short when experience exceeds what the self thought was already established. In the passage quoted above, we see how some of these complexities work out.

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Establishing Identity and Agency through Writing, Not Action. Megan Faver Hartline.

Many authors of this webtext (including myself) have frequently commented on Clarissa’s agency or lack thereof. It is not particularly surprising that a woman in the 18th century would display so little independence in a novel, but I still find it at least a bit odd that the main character of this 1500-page novel is given so little agency, regardless of her sex. Clarissa’s wishes for herself are largely ignored. By the end of Volume III, Clarissa has tried to remain single rather than marrying anyone, but she has been denied this choice by her family. She has asked both Lovelace and Solmes to stop pursuing her, but both have continued on. She has attempted to break ties with Lovelace multiple times via letter and face-to-face conversation, but he has continued to the point of tricking her into leaving her family home with him. Her choices are taken away from her again and again. She does not get to make any of the crucial decisions of her story.

However, she is able to choose the words to write her story. I wonder if perhaps the existence of these 1500 pages is Clarissa’s real agency. Although she writes fewer letters later in the novel, she still writes her own story. She may not have been able to make decisive choices concerning her actions, but she is the writer of her story, and that means something. This agency through the written word increases throughout the novel. Though at the beginning she tries to write her way to having a choice in her life by convincing her parents to let her remain single, it is not until the end, when she is facing her death that she is able to write her way to choices that she wants made. Clarissa chooses how she will die and what will become of herself and her belongings after her death, and she does so through a series of letters.

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Authority and Authorship. Steve Cohen.

“Let me now repeat my former advice—If you are not married by this time, be sure delay not the ceremony. Since things are as they are, I wish it were thought that you were privately married before you went away. If these men plead AUTHORITY to our pain, when we are theirs—Why should we not, in such a case as this, make some good out of the hated word, for our reputation, when we are induced to violate a more natural one?”

I lifted this from the “Clarissa Harlowe and Anna Howe” section, because it’s been rattling around in my brain. In the comments after this post, several (Megan and Keri in particular) observe that, while Anna tends to write about the “bigger picture” in the novel, Clarissa tends to take events one at a time and respond to them accordingly. While Clarissa is capable of being very persuasive in some individual cases, she doesn’t seem to respond in effective ways to the whole of her story—what Kenneth Gergen and Mary Gergen (1983) might call the “macro” narrative of her life.

It seems to me that the idea of AUTHORITY is central to the novel, and that it is bound up in the idea of authorship—so when Anna talks about men pleading authority she’s talking (at least in part) about the textual exchanges between Clarissa and her father, brother, uncles, and Lovelace. It is in these textual exchanges that Clarissa attempts to consolidate power over her own life. The evidence we get of her failure to do so is also textual; her brother writes her a letter saying she has to marry Solmes whether she likes it or not. She doesn’t see her father; her only exchanges with him are letters, and she doesn’t see Lovelace either (until the beginning of the 3rd volume). In other words, authority is exercised in the novel primarily through written words: it’s through Clarissa’s authorship of her letters that she works toward an authorship of her life.

Since this is the case, and since Clarissa is such a gifted writer, it seems surprising that she fails so completely. Anna, in the section of the letter that I pasted here, exhorts Clarissa to exercise some authority over her reputation, which Clarissa has acknowledged she values more than her life. But I’m not sure that’s at all possible in the world of the novel. The story Clarissa writes about herself in the early parts of the novel is that she is too dutiful a daughter to marry Lovelace against her parents’ wishes, and so she is reluctant to marry him to save her own reputation. But the story Clarissa writes about herself is up against not only the stories that everybody she knows is telling about her (which is that she ran away from home to be with Lovelace) but also her own “negative valuation” (Gergen and Gergen, 1983, QA: Page) of the act of running away with Lovelace. It seems the narratives her family writes about her—“perverse girl” “ungrateful” “stubborn”—are the stories that carry the most weight—even to the point that she allows them to challenge the story she tells about herself. At first, reading through this first volume of the novel was frustrating for me because I couldn’t see why Clarissa wouldn’t just marry Lovelace and have been done with it—not the most desirable of situations, certainly, but better than being the girl who ran off with the rake. But as I read further, I began to understand that Clarissa is really kind of paralyzed in a worse way than when she was imprisoned in the house. Midway through the novel, she is torn between two narratives of herself. Is she a wise girl, a paragon of virtue, an “example of her sex,” or is she the girl who fell for the trap a vile rake set for her? I don’t think she knows. And I don’t think she knows how to be both at the same time.

Clarissa as Writer: Self-Making, Authorization, and Compulsion. Jessica Winck.

For Clarissa, the relationship between writing and identity is a constitutive one. By writing, she documents, preserves, and gives voice to a self that goes unrecognized in her family. Her writing reflects the circumstances and events that shape her, so writing reflects her identity; but she also constructs a version of herself that can make sense of her life. As a result, this self is resistant to outside forces that put constraints on her life (e.g., the pressure to marry). Writing strengthens Clarissa’s sense of self and reaffirms her life goals, and it is a method for re-animating events and feeling out their boundaries and nuances. Clarissa relives experiences in writing while constructing new reactions and responses to the people who have a stake in the choices she makes: Anna, her family, and Lovelace.

Clarissa’s letter writing also serves as a method for documenting events and even authorizing legal actions, such as making Belford the executor of her will. She writes so that this constructed, resilient self is proven to have existed. Signing her full name at the end of each letter, beyond being a convention of letter writing, certifies the existence of this self. We understand this more fully toward the end of Clarissa’s life when she entrusts Anna and Belford with maintaining a collection of her letters. The collection will come to represent her story to those outside the letters’ original trail of correspondence.

Writing is also a compulsion for Clarissa. She writes because she has to. She says she has “no other employment” and would write even if she did not intend to communicate. Writing is compulsory because it is a way for her to process, on her own, the events of her life. Writing enables her to decompress after an encounter with Lovelace or an argument with her family, which suggests that the practice of writing is therapeutic, a necessary practice for persevering through difficult situations. In the midst of multiple constraints, writing is Clarissa’s method for acting in concert with her deepest motives.

Emotional Writing and Expression of the Self in Clarissa. Kendra Sheehan.

The relationship between writing and identity in Clarissa suggests that writing involves a great deal of intellectual internalization and that the self fluctuates depending on what one is internalizing or experiencing. In the beginning of the novel, Clarissa is stable with little to no worries. Her letters are perfectly written with appropriate grammar and established beginnings and endings, and her spirits seem positive. When she becomes confined to her room, though, the writing is occasionally erratic, but still, for the most part, formal and appropriate. She even remarks on how her writing reflects her physical state—reminding us of Marta Kvande’s (2013) claim that 18th century writers saw letters as a direct manifestation of the body that cannot be faked (p. 245). When Clarissa is confined yet again, this time by Lovelace, her distress becomes even more evident in her writing, particularly in her recurrent use of parenthetical remarks about what she or others say or do.

Despite her questioning of herself and despite the control others exert over her, writing has given Clarissa a voice when she has been physically removed from a space where she may speak and when others refuse to listen to her. Her words are her only source of comfort. Clarissa is able to express her emotions and thoughts by writing to Anna or even to herself and thus keep semblance of self. By writing, Clarissa can record her thoughts and experiences and thus move forward and form a self that can become stronger when her harrowing experiences are over.

In short, writing is like a form of meditation for Clarissa. It allows her to internalize and then purge what she sees as faults in herself, ridding herself of negative experiences, and allowing her to regain some sense of the confident identity she once had before Lovelace entered into her life. Clarissa is writing into being not the identity of a faultless young woman in dire circumstances, but a young woman trying to survive and correct all the wrongs she is suffering from.