Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) struggles to free herself of the women who are imprisoning her, with Lovelace (Sean Bean) the POV (a scene in in Clarissa, the 1748 novel, by Richardson, from the 1991 film by David Nokes)
Dear friends and readers,
Since the New Yorker article by Adelle Waldman (for May 16th, 2016), “The Man who Made the Novel,” is presumably addressed to a wide audience, mostly made up of people who read little of 18th century novels, and have probably not read either Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, cited by Waldman), I write it here in my general blog rather than the one which focuses on Austen, the 18th century and women’s art. It’s precisely the audience such an article might hope to cavalierly misinform. Waldman (we are told) writes for “the Page-Turner” column of the New Yorker, and has written a novel. That is not encouraging as Johnson was right when he said (a phrase Waldman knows about) if you read Clarissa for the plot, you’d hang yourself. A page-turned it is only for occasional stretches of 300 pages or so. Then things slow down again to a glacial pace and you are expected to think and feel about small nuances as well as what has happened in contrast to so much that is being written and said dramatically.
To begin with, Waldman seems to know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the last 70 years of Richardson criticism, either academic or feminist or common reader style; her perspectives are drawn from a combination of the hostile burlesque text on Richardson’s Pamela by Fielding called Shamela, and some remarks by Coleridge evidencing Coleridge’s revulsion at the openly sexual point of view in Richardson’s work (sex presented in this way had disappeared by Coleridge’s era). There really are other points of view on Richardson beyond loathing and mocking him. I write though more because to treat a central text about rape which is a masterpiece and sympathetic towards the raped girl so hostilely and obtusely is to do a real disservice to attempt of women to end the acceptance of rape, of an attitude towards sex which defines it as violent aggressive genital sex, of misogyny towards women. On all three issues Richardson is among the first to defend women. He didn’t invent the novel, but he did make it possible for women to write novels about their experience of life intimately for the first time through his epistolary mode.
Very generally, Waldeman’s article resembles Adam Gopnik’s essay, “Trollope Trending,” in the New Yorker last year on Anthony Trollope around the time of his bicentennial (Trollope was born April 24, 1815). Gopnik was offering what is the common reader’s consensus view on Trollope; not one based on reading the majority of his novels, but the Barsetshire and Parliamentary (now called Palliser) novels, with a couple of famous ones still read, especially The Way We Live Now (there was even a film adaptation by Andrew Davies). Like many who have read more Trollope than this, and much of the criticism, I found Gopnik inadequate, and in a way misleading — at least insofar as he suggested Trollope is a more or less complacent writer of “novels of manners” whose purview is narrowly English. But he was not wrong, and he was not hostile. Tellingly, he resembled Waldman in a put-down and mockery of academic criticism. A colleague of mine asked me, why do these popular mainstream publications find it necessary to target better criticism? One answer is the jargon, but the other is the usual resentment, desire to tear down half-class based, of anything perceived as high-minded and difficult. Doing this makes some readers feel better.
Early on in the article Waldman does bring up to dismiss a new book on the new edition of the (for the first time) complete letters of Richardson: Louise Curran’s Samuel Richardson and the Art of Letter-Writing (p 86 in the print copy). Nothing new is learned says Curran, and it seems that nothing new has even been added to what we knew of Richardson since Anna Barbauld’s six volume edition of a part of the letters in the early 19th century since Waldman’s description of the letters reminds me of the way many have reacted to Richardson’s correspondence with Lady Bradshaigh (she flatters him and he condescends) which was the center of the old edition. Perhaps the new complete edition of the letters and this book occasioned this essay.
Samuel Richardson as painted by Joseph Highmore (as a non-univesity man who has made a success as a printer, and writer, Richardson presents himself with the visibilia of a cultivated gentleman)
But the couple of paragraphs on this study and thus announcement that we have a thorough complete edition of Richardson’s letters for the first time is but minor turn in the piece. (see my response to a comment on this.) The major thrust is a thorough put-down of Richardson and his novels, all of them. The opening is sheer snobbery. Who would expect a carpenter’s son who attended school only intermittently to have written influential novels — I won’t use the word innovative, brilliant as Waldman doesn’t credit the books with this. How surprising that that this “obscure businessman,” a man of “strait-laced morality,” “defensive,” tended to brag (I’m not making this any more dense with slurs than the text) could have written Pamela, which we are told is about “the turbulent emotional life of a teen-age girl.” She does not go on herself to enter into this world; she takes out a little time to feel sorry for Mr B, the master (the man in the novel trying to rape Pamela or get her to have sex with him without having to marry her), and then moves on to Clarissa, which it seems is full of “harrowing binds” for heroines.
From the Simon Brett illustrations to the Folio Society unabridged text of Clarissa — certainly a harrowing bind, drugged, held down &c&c — the unhappy character is even falling out of the frame
As with her first turn, she seems to feel far more for the rapist than than take his target seriously. Clarissa in this version is very faulty — lies to herself. Then we get this old canard: she is longing for, falls in love with her “dashing admirer.” Apparently no means yes in Waldman’s universe. She is then accused of being proud. How dare she not want this man? I cannot resist asking my reader to see my paper on “Rape in Clarrisa: ‘What right have you to detain me here?'”) Sigh. Poor dear. According to Waldman, Clary becomes mortifyingly dependent on Lovelace to marry her (!). It seems “the only obstacles to their [Clarissa and Lovelace’s] happiness are the ones they create themselves.” Waldman has not paid much attention to Lovelace’s character at all.
I wondered how carefully she had read the book. Did she know the rape was an aggravated assault type? she seems indifferent to the issue. Does it not matter that a man has tried to rape you when he asks you to marry him in a culture where he will have all power over you, your money, your future choices, your pregnancies? does she know that whenever asked Clary refuses to marry Lovelace and after the rape, he’s the last person whose power she’d put herself in. Which abridgement did she skim?. There is a 500 page Signet abridgement, far far less than a quarter of the book, one which seems to me to bring out most centrally the letters between Anne Howe, Clarissa’s friend, and Clarissa. On my website you may read very readable postings on the two principals, and the centrality of the money and property and rape issue “A year of reading Clarissa in real date time”.
Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) under pressure from her male relatives over the inheritance her grandfather has left her
After Waldman has finished what she has to say about the novel, she again feels surprised, this time over Austen’s partiality to Richardson, and especially Grandison, his third book (which however Waldman knows enough to doubt as this is an attribution of her brother). She turns to Fielding is a standard of comparison — after all he showed up Pamela so well. Having just studied Tom Jones with a group of student I was really startled by the totally inadequate view of Fielding’s book which is apparently the modern consensus (perhaps taken from either of the movies): it seems Fielding presents us with “healthy sex;” his satire is “congenial” “urbane”.
Needless to say, but I’ll say it Waldman has not read Hume’s recent essay on how at long last this enlightened easy-going complacent Fielding (frat-boy) has been put to rest (scroll down). I tried myself to do justice to the complex ambivalent sexuality vis-a-vis money and many other issues in Tom Jones as well as Fielding’s troubled personality and difficult life in a series of blogs I wrote after reading the novel with a group of intelligent older adults: “After teaching Tom Jones for 10 weeks.”
A final still from the film: Clarissa’s grave — there she finds peace
Why break a butterfly on a wheel or even bother to write about this essay? To suggest that Richardson’s Clarissa has apparently become a book so rarely read by anyone outside a coterie of 18th century scholars. I did know the insightful humane and feminist scholarship of the 1980s, has been superseded with new challenges to a sympathetic reading of the heroine (I’ve heard demoalizingly anachronistic reactions to her behavior as that of a “freak”), as well as new deconstructionist, gender-oriented and “new historist” readings. For the reader of this blog, I recommend Terry Eagleton’s short Rape in Clarissa to start with; but here’s a select bibliography: for a book to read with as you go through Clarissa, you can do no better than Mark Kinkead-Weekes. There’s also an anthology of good essays by Margaret Doody and Peter Sabor with the intimidating title: Samuel Richardson: Tercentary Essays. If Trollope’s books have been available for 200 years, Richardson have been for 300.
Clarissa is thrown into a spunging-house by Lovelace’s machinations (she is said to owe her rent) and finds more quiet and safety there than she has had in a long time — and so she writes on
It hurt me to see Richardson’s Clarissa treated in this manner. It’s distressing the writer is a woman. Is she just a particularly dense and careless reader? Or is the erasure of feminism in the public media a response to entrenched attitudes which the 1980s second wave of feminism (which saw the importance of sexual liberation) scratched only the surface of? I have been thinking of daring to do Clarissa with adult readers (people who are the New Yorker audience — they did love Gopnik’s essay). For readers who don’t examine sexuality much (think about it), the two books (TJ and Clary) were always difficult, but I take heart that the 1991 film did justice to Clarissa. I must refer my reader to yet another outside source (if I tried to argue any of this material it would make an egregiously overlong blog): my paper Noke’s film adaptation, “‘How you all must have laughed. What a witty masquerade!”. Maybe I ought to be take this New Yorker article as a sign that more people need to read the book than have been doing lately, and do it next spring at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University a year from this fall.
I did ask on the 18th century listserv I’m on how people find teaching Richardson’s Clarissa in either abridged or complete form. But answer came there none.
Anne Howe (Hermione Norris) reading one of Clarissa’s letters — Anne is a favorite character for me