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Reading Clarissa: Month 3


March was a busy month for reading Clarissa. We started with Letter 12, from Anna to Clarissa, on 2nd March and finished yesterday with Letter 72 also from Anna. That adds up to over 200 pages in my edition.

One aspect of the novel’s structure became more noticeable; the sequence of letters as we read them is not strictly chronological. We get to read them as they are bundled up and passed between correspondents. The number of writers and recipients of letter that we are privilege to has widened too, mostly due to Clarissa reaching out to more members of her family.

Anna’s insistence that Clarissa does have some feelings for Lovelace doesn’t change during the March letters. Letter 12 is affectionately mocking in scorning Clarissa’s ability to simply decide that’s she is not in love with Lovelace: ‘But let me congratulate you, however, on your being the first of our sex that ever I heard of who has been able to turn that lion, Love, at her own pleasure, into a lap-dog.’ That did make a chuckle; Anna has a wicked turn of phrase about her. She’s also an excellent gatherer of information; although later her tendency to jump to conclusions becomes evident. In this long letter she relates some gossip she has picked up about Lovelace’s character – he’s a man of pleasure, determined in his wants, and one that sleeps little but writes much. I rather like the sound of him!
Lovelace writing much (aka gratuitous Sean Bean picture)
Letter 13 is very interesting for the insight we get into Clarissa’s siblings motives for forcing the match between her and Solmes. More discussion of their jealousy of her inheritance and James’ misogyny contrasts with examples Clarissa has of Lovelace’s good character. But, she has no throbs nor glows for the man, none at all. James is repellent as usual. If in any doubt then this to Bella about Clarissa surely seals the deal: ‘This little siren is in a fair way to out-uncle as well as out-grandfather us both!’

Many of the March letters regard the imminent marriage between Clarissa and Solmes. Her whole family are itching to get the match done and so wedding clothes and the like are procured. Clarissa’s mother as well as uncles and aunt all wade in the try to persuade Clarissa to do her duty. She is never likely to reconcile to the ‘odious Solmes’, the ‘bent and broad-shouldered creature’ she watches ‘squatting in [the chair] with his ugly weight’. (Letter 16) I’m not sure I’d describe Clarissa as sweet after that outburst. There really is no choice offered to Clarissa though, and for every entreaty she makes she is rebuffed further and treated more harshly.

Clarissa’s position is increasingly entrenched too. She would ‘rather be buried alive’ than be traded for land, which is basically what marrying Solmes means to her. (Letter 17) Letter 18 describes a very emotional meeting between Clarissa and her mother, who herself is torn between her daughter and her husband. She too is in a no-win situation.

Letter 19 talks again about Clarissa’s inheritance. Anna is firmly of the opinion that Clarissa should regain control of what’s hers. Clarissa will not do this, even though her obedience and desire to be seen as obedient have left her vulnerable to her family’s dictates. The next letter makes this even clearer as Clarissa is threatened with the loss of her estate if she doesn’t comply. Her choices are marry Solmes or be renounced and lose everything. She’s then insulted by the attempt to buy her compliance with some pretty things; women are easily bought with material goods, no? In Letter 21 Clarissa tries a bold and ill-fated strategy to demonstrate her antipathy to Solmes. It does not end well.

Through it all Clarissa carries on her subterfuge, writing to Anna and Lovelace. Curiosity alone prompts her to wonder what his relations think about a match between the pair. (Letter 26) A sarcastic font would be handy here, I think Clarissa is deep-down rather thrilled by Lovelace in all his badness.

Anna’s forceful character comes through ever clearer. I like her gumption and willingness to be something more than the ever-obedient simpering paragon of sensibility. She’s rude about everyone, argues with her mother, and suggests Clarissa and her would be far happier living together without any men. (Letter 27)

Letter 31 is a revelation. We get to hear from Lovelace direct, and he is in love. He’s quoting poetry and hatching schemes. How sincere he is remains to be seen. We also get to hear what Clarissa’s uncles think about it all. On the whole they offer sympathy whilst toeing the party line; they are on her side as long as she does what she is told. Her uncle Anthony has the cheek to say ‘The devil’s in your sex!’ The trouble all that reading and writing brings for girls is another gem of his, along with the advice to obey your brother because he’s older and a man, and just think yourself into obedience. Excellent advice all round there Uncle Ant. (Letter 32:4)

Other highlights from March’s letters include Clarissa’s direct appeal to Solmes to withdraw his suit, which falls on utterly deaf ears. Lovelace is already considering abduction if Clarissa is forced into the marriage, and Clarissa actually starts to think about too by the end of the month. It’s not surprising, as she’s kept confined, with the threat of being carted off to her uncle’s isolated house complete with private chapel. Although, Clarissa isn’t kept so closely confined that she cannot meet with Lovelace outside. Yes, that’s right, she sees and talks to him in person. Well, he did behave most respectfully. (Letter 36)

Lovelace also visits Anna to enlist her support, but she thinks he is a man of violent passions. (Letter 49) Other than this titbit the letters have a tendency to retread the same ground for a while as Clarissa tries to persuade her family to relent and they bombard her with entreaties to obedience. Letter 55 did make me note that Clarissa finds fault with absolutely everyone. Anna is the one here who is advised to keep her faults in check. I’m not sure I’d like Clarissa as my friend; Anna’s sharp tongue might well be preferable to constant conduct advice. Anna does tell Clarissa straight that it’s her very nature that causes her problems, although she does mean her excessive goodness. (Letter 56)

Solmes is reported as having said he’s not worried if Clarissa brings some fear into the marriage, as that looks well in a wife. Playing the braggart perhaps or just a clot? Either way, I wouldn’t have him. Clarissa agrees to meet with him to avoid being sent to her uncle’s for another fortnight. She also agrees to meet with Lovelace again, but changes her mind about this. Probably wise, as his passions are definitely all aflame. The last letters of the month see Anna tell Clarissa what a horror he is before quickly changing her mind when new evidence comes to light.

Roll on April.

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