Clarissa: the first twenty-five letters.

Alright, I’m finally fulfilling the promise made in this post to bore entertain you with my commentary on the biggest novel of the 18th century.

A lot happens, sort of, in the first twenty-five letters, almost all of them written by Clarissa to Anna Howe, though she occasionally encloses letters she wrote to various family members, and their responses.

Clarissa is the youngest of three, with an elder sister (Arabella) and an even elder brother (James, junior); their father (obviously also James), is the middle of three brothers, John being the elder and Antony the younger. Clarissa’s uncles, though, never married, and have no children, and so form, with James, the family’s board of trustees, with James Jr. as the CEO who’s going to do big things.

That’s an anachronistic but fairly accurate description: the entire family is concerned with the accumulation and consolidation of land, and James Jr.’s elevation to the peerage. The family is upwardly aspirant, and mercenarily so — all of them, that is, with the (possible) exception of Clarissa, which is the source of the conflict.

Clarissa has, as one might expect, this being that sort of novel, two suitors: Lovelace and Solmes. Lovelace is wealthier, and charming and generous, but also a libertine, which is the family’s reason for disapproving of him (his brief courting and rejection of Arabella prior to pursuing Clarissa doesn’t help, either, nor does the fact that he wounded her brother when provoked by him into a duel). Clarissa doesn’t care for him, either, but her family’s dislike of him is so vocal, and so excessive, that she feels compelled to defend him, for the sake of justice — and both she and Anna remark that her family is in danger of driving her into his arms by the force of their hatred.

Solmes, the family’s choice is, at least in Clarissa’s eyes, absolutely distasteful, and she refuses to marry him; this defiance drives her father to intractability, Clarissa is confined to her room and forbidden to correspond with anyone (though, this being a novel composed entirely of letters, she finds a way around this immediately), and she and the family enter an epistolary Mexican standoff.

Part of Clarissa’s problem is that her grandfather left her a small estate — the “dairy house” — not particularly large, but large enough for her to live on, independently, as a feme sole. One of the enclosures we get is the part of the grandfather’s will where he explains this bequeathment: all of his sons have plenty of money, only one of them has children, his two eldest grandchildren will be well provided for (indeed, as the novel opens, James Jr. has inherited an estate from his godmother), and Clarissa is his favorite.

The family — and especially James Jr. — are hacked off not only because Clarissa has some measure of independence (which she gives up, naming her father steward or some such thing), but also because they are hell-bent on consolidating the family’s holdings, and hope that, in marrying Clarissa off to Solmes, they can recover the dairy house. There are other hoped-for benefits as well, but I’m not quite sure I understand them.

One final thing to mention: Clarissa is engaged in a correspondence with Lovelace. At first, before the opening of hostilities, the letters were to the family, care of Clarissa, and were about travel — these are unimportant. After the “rencounter” between James Jr. and Lovelace, Clarissa maintains the correspondence in order to pacify Lovelace, because she’s worried — rightly so, I think — that he might murder all her relations if he felt there were no chance of his acquiring her.

These letters are primarily interesting because of their absence. We know about them because Clarissa tells Anna about them, and even paraphrases a few, but we never get to read any of them. I’m not yet sure what to make of this, but it seems important. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.


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