Summary of Clarissa

Thomas Stothard's Illustration to Richardson's "Clarissa"

In this section, we summarize the plot and events of the novel Clarissa (Richardson, 1748/1985). (This may be of particular help to those unfamiliar with the novel.) In the sub-menus under this category, we further summarize our responses to the blogged letters in terms of our three key analytical terms: narrative, writing, and the self.

Volume 1 (Letters 1-44)

As this epistolary novel opens, the Harlowe family is in turmoil. Clarissa’s brother James has been wounded—lightly—in a duel with the notorious libertine Robert Lovelace. Lovelace had been paying court to the Harlowes’ older daughter, Arabella (a marriage grounded in mutual financial gain, rather than any real affection), but upon encountering the lovelier and more accomplished Clarissa, he refocuses his attentions. This has led to false rumors that “the younger sister has robbed the elder” (p. 41) (Clarissa is, at the start, indifferent to Lovelace and dubious about his reputation for immoralities), and provided James—who has nursed a violent hatred for Lovelace since their university days—an excuse to insult Lovelace persistently enough to provoke the duel. In the novel’s first letter, Clarissa’s closest friend, Anna Howe, urges her to write out the full story of the events that have led to this violence and its aftermath; in doing so, she forwards one of the novels central ideas: “your account of all things . . . will be your justification” (p. 40).

Before the duel, Clarissa had been corresponding with Lovelace about his experiences on the Grand Tour (which a ward of her uncle Hervey is about to undertake); within this correspondence, Lovelace had begun enclosing separate letters declaring his passion for her—letters she calmly ignores. Now her father forbids all such correspondence, but her mother urges her to continue it, with a view to keeping the peace between the still highly offended Lovelace and her family. James, a violent-tempered, greedy, and bitter young man, is the real power in the family. He imputes to Clarissa a warmth for Lovelace, and uses this presumed affection to persuade his father and mother to marry her off to Roger Solmes, a rich but loutish local landowner—both to forestall any possible marriage with Lovelace, and to gain a very generous settlement for the family.

But Clarissa—heretofore the most obedient of daughters—has a violent antipathy toward Solmes, and vows never to wed him. Her family—manipulated by James—has come to suspect that Clarissa rejects Solmes so decisively because she is predisposed to Lovelace (even though she promises she will remain single all her life if they cease to pursue marriage to Solmes). They insist unwaveringly upon her submission to the marriage. Her resistance remains unshakeable. And in an effort to force her will, the family treats her more and more coldly—forbidding all correspondence, even with Anna; removing her life-long and affectionate maid, Hannah; and isolating and imprisoning her with increasing strictness within the Harlowe household.

Clarissa has—despite parental strictures—secretly continued to write and receive letters from Anna. As she goes one evening to fetch such a letter from the family woodhouse, she is surprised by Lovelace himself, who declares his love for her and urges her to remove herself from her father’s house and throw herself upon the protection of him and his aristocratic family. He assures her that their marriage would forward reconciliation between himself and her own family. Because of such possibilities, and “reverence” with which he treats her, she reports to Anna that “he has a good deal raised himself in my opinion” (p. 171).

In Volume I, we also first hear Lovelace’s voice and his assertion that because he was once jilted by a woman, he has vowed revenge to all women, including Clarissa, though he also owns that he loves her.

Volume II (Letters 45-92)

Early in volume I we learn that Clarissa has been bequeathed a small estate by her loving grandfather—an occurrence that provoked much jealousy from James and Arabella. Anna now advises her to take full claim of the estate and live independent of her parents’ and her siblings’ plans, noting that Colonel Morden—a close relative and one of Clarissa’s trustees, currently residing in Florence—would support such a decision. Clarissa is loathe to take such a step, as it looks a challenge to paternal authority.

Confined ever more narrowly within her home, Clarissa has been appealing to her family through letters. Lacking the moral right to force her to wed (as well as arguments with which to answer her own) they now refuse to read those letters. They have even arranged to have her taken to her uncle Antony’s moated-estate, and to have her married there in the estate’s chapel. She is able to delay this trip by allowing a private interview with Solmes, during which she rejects him absolutely. Knowing himself backed by all in the Harlowe family, Solmes tells her he intends to continue pressing his courtship.

Lovelace, who has a spy in the Harlowe household (Joseph Leman), knows the details of both her ill treatment and her family’s plans, and importunes her ever more strongly to escape from her family and throw herself upon his protection. Her cousin Dolly writes to alert her that she is to be married to Solmes—by force if necessary—in two days. Clarissa has promised Lovelace that she will put herself under his aunt’s protection if she is certain she cannot escape marriage with Solmes, but writes to countermand the appointment which would be her final assent to escape. But in the volume’s final letter, she writes Anna with the unexpected news: “Clarissa Harlowe is gone off with a man!” (p. 370).

Volume III (Letters 93-154)

Clarissa explains to Anna that when she met Lovelace in her garden, there were sudden alarms from the house—threats of gunfire and violence, on the discovery that Lovelace was spiriting Clarissa away. And so she flees with him. But her first letters to Anna confess to feelings of “shame” and “grief” (p. 380). And to suspicion, in hindsight, that this might all have been an elaborate trick. Lovelace’s letter to Leman reveals it to be so. Clarissa continues to regret her hasty flight, and Lovelace continues to write to his equivalent of Anna Howe—John Belford—glorying in now having Clarissa in his power, and announcing his determination to submit her reputation for virtue to a series of “trials.” If she passes such trials, he will marry her out of love and admiration; if she fails, he will console her with the offer of marriage.

Clarissa confronts Lovelace with her now-certainty that she has been tricked into running away with him; his seemingly sincere expressions of intended reform calm her fears, although his letters to Belford reveal that his reform is a ruse, and that he intends to humble her—as a Harlowe and as a woman. He presses her with proposals of marriage (but never in a context that seems possible), and of relocation to London. Anna herself argues that marriage is now the only way to redeem her reputation and secure a decent future. And now comes a devastating blow for Clarissa—the news that her father has deeply cursed her, wishing her punishment in both this world and the next.

Volume IV (Letters 155-209)

Clarissa and Lovelace have moved to London, where she is housed—unknowingly—in a private brothel, run by Mrs. Sinclair. Lovelace has arranged to live under the same roof, despite Clarissa’s protests, and has persuaded her to pass for his wife to make this arrangement look more permissible. Lovelace—against her wishes—organizes an evening in which Clarissa will meet his libertine friends. The most important outcome of this encounter is that Lovelace’s own primary confidante, John, is immediately struck by her fine nature and becomes her advocate, to Lovelace, against his machinations. Her cousin Morden writes from Italy to acquaint her as fully as possible with the nature of the typical libertine. Ever more suspicious, Clarissa resolves to escape from Lovelace; he sends her a formal marriage proposal, as a reassurance of his honorable intentions, but she refuses to act upon it at the moment.

Lovelace has now begun intercepting the correspondence between her and Anna, which sparks strong anger at them both for the ways in which they judge him, increasing his determination to possess Clarissa, even if “a little violence” is necessary (p. 673).

Volume V (Letters 210-245)

Lovelace hires a criminal acquaintance to play the role of Captain Tomlinson, who falsely presents himself as a friend of her uncle John so that he can convince Clarissa that a reconciliation with her family is being arranged—especially if she consents to marry Lovelace. This calms her fears and reconciles her to the possibility of that marriage. But his next ruse—a midnight fire which allows him to see her nearly undressed and to fondle her under the pretense of calming her fears—renews all her suspicions. Shortly thereafter, Clarissa makes her first escape, to Hampstead.

Anna writes a crucial letter to inform Clarissa of the truth about Mrs. Sinclair’s lodging, and the false nature of Captain Tomlinson. But Lovelace intercepts this letter, and forges a replacement. He easily tracks her down to her Hampstead lodging and convinces Clarissa’s acquaintances there that he is a loving and ill-treated husband. Lovelace promises that his important relatives—his aunt Lady Betty Lawrance and cousin Charlotte Montague—will visit London to wait upon her, and that he will obtain a marriage license as proof of his good intentions. But Clarissa is waiting for a letter from Anna, with advice on how to proceed farther, and will not commit to any course of action until it has arrived.

Volume VI (Letters 246-318)

Lovelace intercepts Anna’s warning letter, and as Clarissa awaits it, he arranges for two whores from his past to pose as Lady Betty and Charlotte, and to visit Clarissa and urge her toward forgiveness of and marriage to Lovelace. With their help, he tricks her into returning to Sinclair’s brothel, where, with the help of the brothel’s women, he drugs and rapes her. During the week after the rape, Clarissa alternates between stupefaction and a form of manic liveliness, during which she writes the 10 papers that constitute her disordered “mad letters.” They are followed by a wandering, but sometimes coherent and accusatory, letter to Lovelace, begging to be sent to a madhouse.

Lovelace receives word that his uncle, Lord M, has fallen ill and desires his attendance. Reluctant to leave Clarissa alone—fearing how the whores might treat her in his absence, and fearing her attempt to escape—he uses the whores to terrify Clarissa into obedience, and to extract a promise that she will await his return. But she appears before them all with new strength, and frightens them with her own threat to bring the law down upon them. Lovelace does go to attend Lord M, and while there writes Clarissa 4 letters which she refuses to respond to.

For the second time, Clarissa escapes Sinclair’s clutches. Finding lodging in Covent Garden, she writes the true Lady Betty and her uncle John’s housemaid, discovering the wide extent of Lovelace’s deceits. She resumes her interrupted correspondence with Anna, unfolding to her the details of her treatment by Lovelace, his deceptions, and the culminating rape. Anna urges her toward immediate prosecution of Lovelace and the inhabitants of Sinclair’s house, but she is reluctant to have her story become public, telling Anna, in the volume’s final letter, that she is “quite sick of life” (p. 1020).

Volume VII (Letters 319-402)

Clarissa now lodges with the Smiths, glove makers and sellers. On a walk to church she is arrested, unbeknownst to Lovelace, on the false claim of owing one-hundred fifty pounds to Mrs. Sinclair for board and lodging—a plot furthered by Mrs. Sinclair to keep her prisoner in a bailiff’s house until Lovelace returns for her. Alerted to Mrs. Sinclair’s actions, Lovelace urges an outraged Belford to force Sinclair to withdraw the complaint and return Clarissa to the Smiths. This event badly damages Clarissa’s health, but gradually gains her trust and befriends her, arranging for her care by a competent apothecary and doctor.

Anna and her mother inform the Harlowes of Clarissa’s ill health, but they are unmoved, and steadfastly reject reconciliation. Lovelace attends a ball at which he knows he will encounter Anna, and forces her into an interview to obtain the answer to one question: is there any possibility of his own reconciliation with Clarissa? Anna is certain no such possibility exists.

Belford keeps Lovelace well-informed of the state of Clarissa’s health but, like her family, Lovelace discounts the seriousness of her case, even hoping that her symptoms are the result of pregnancy, and determined to visit her in person, against her wishes and Belford’s strong objections. He tries a final letter of appeal to Clarissa, expressing regret and promising reform; a short reply from her asserts her implacable rejection of any further contact, though she does offer him her forgiveness. And as her health weakens, she undertakes a new form of writing—religious meditations upon her state of body, mind, and soul. The volume ends with one of them, grounded in the Book of Job.

Volume VIII (Letters 403-474)

Clarissa writes her father, seeking only the lifting of his curse and the gift of a final blessing. Colonel Morden has finally returned to England. Before he can make his way to Covent Garden, Lovelace, in pursuit of Clarissa, makes two unsuccessful visits to the Smiths (Belford has warned her away), where his aggressiveness and intrusiveness terrorize the occupants.

Lovelace himself falls ill, and while recovering receives a letter from Clarissa announcing that she is setting out for her “father’s house,” assured of a “thorough reconciliation” (p. 1233), and that she hopes to see him there. This letter is designed to keep Lovelace from her for a time, but is also a truthful Christian allegory about the state of her soul and her declining health.

Belford reports on the horrifying and fearful death of their libertine companion, Belton, (hoping again to example Lovelace into reform), and when returned to London reports that Clarissa continues to decline—her doctor gives her a fortnight to 3 weeks to live. She has learned that Colonel Morden intends to visit Lovelace, and worries about the violence that might follow such a meeting. Lovelace writes to Belford of the testy but finally promising meeting with Morden—they part “with great civility” (p. 1379). Morden himself writes to Clarissa, hoping to condole her about the possibility of reconciliation, even as her coffin arrives at her lodging (shocking Belford and her current companions); it is ornamented and textualized by Clarissa herself.

Anna’s mother is ill, and so she is delayed in visiting Clarissa. But she can inform her of Colonel Morden’s anger at all of the Harlowes. As Clarissa weakens, her hand grows ever more unsteady in her letters to Anna. Her doctor writes to her brother James, telling him that she cannot live a week; and she sends her adieu to Anna through the hand of Mrs. Lovick, being too weak to write herself. Colonel Morden arrives, to attend her on her deathbed.

Volume IX (Letters 475-537)

Morden informs the family that Clarissa will soon be dead, and soon after this letter Belford informs Lovelace that she has died. In his next letter, he provides details of the actual death scene.

Useless letters now arrive from Mrs. Norton, from Arabella, from her uncle John; her family’s letters console her on her illness, but still blame her as well, vindicating their own judgment. Clarissa has left behind a set of final letters, to family and friends, as Morden writes to notify her father of her final request: that she be allowed burial in the family vault. Lovelace writes to Belford, at the start of his own “mad” week, wanting to have Clarissa’s body opened so that he can remove her heart and keep it with him as a sacred object. (He later writes to Belford to tell him that he has no memory of writing such a letter.)

Morden reports to Belford the sad arrival of Clarissa’s hearse at the Harlowe household, and the laying out of her corpse within the house. He writes as well of Anna’s viewing of Clarissa’s body, and of her tragic farewell to her dearest friend. Her parents are incapable of either viewing the body or attending the funeral service. Morden reads Clarissa’s will to the family, and even now encounters greedy objections from James and Arabella (prompting him to punish James in his own will).

Given Morden’s own violent emotions at Clarissa’s death, Belford writes to Lord M, asking that he urge Lovelace to go abroad as soon as possible. Lovelace receives Clarissa’s posthumous letter to him—both her final brief against his behaviors and her sincere hope that he can reform and save his own soul. Recovered from the madness of grief, Lovelace writes the earnestly reforming Belford, announcing his intention to go abroad. But a dangerous complication is created by a letter to Lovelace from Joseph Leman, his one-time informer within the Harlowe family, telling him that Morden has been making threats of vengeance.

Now abroad, Lovelace writes to Morden to ask if he has been publicly threatening retribution—but also to express a strong desire to avoid the confrontation Clarissa wished to avert. But Morden, clearly intent upon that confrontation, writes Lovelace to insist upon the duel. In his next to last letter to Belford, Lovelace expresses the depth of his regret at his treatment of Clarissa, allowing himself this one time to call her—as she should have been—Clarissa Lovelace. In his final letter to Belford, he expresses his intention—counting on his skill as sword duelist—to wound Morden enough to end the duel without killing him.

Four days later, Belford receives a letter from Lovelace’s second, F. J. de la Tour, telling him of Lovelace’s fatal wounding at Morden’s hand, and his painful dying. His last words, addressed to Clarissa: LET THIS EXPIATE!