Adventures in Reading

Jane Austen’s Contemporaries: Samuel Richardson
September 20, 2007, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

lovelaces_kidnapping_clarissa_hi.jpg“Only, that all men are monkeys more or less, or else that you and I should have such baboons as these to choose out of, is a mortifying thing, my dear.”

While I have no proof (so far) that Austen ever read anything by Samuel Richardson let alone Clarissa, from my knowledge Austen was a particularly well read woman and I cannot see her not reading Clarissa though whether or not she would have found the book insightful or influential is something I can only guess at. Yesterday in class we finally got around to discussing how Pride & Prejudice is almost entirely composed of dialog and what description is made available quickly paints an impression of the scene but never provides any great detail. (For example, what color dress does Jane wear to the Netherfield ball?) I was sure to toss out that while Austen only selectively uses epistolary style she would certainly have been aware of the tradition, and thus far my exploration into Clarissa has proven similar to Pride & Prejudice if only through the lack of description offered.

Nearly 300 pages into the book and the only specific description I have found describes the richness of the fabric that the Harlowe family purchases to tempt Clarissa into an unwanted marriage. Otherwise the the letters read very much representing dialog that has occurred along with commentaries or entreaties for advice. How much this affected Austen I have not the slightest clue but it has been at least one parallel I have drawn from Richardson.

A co-worker asked me recently why Jane Austen was still so popular and it has been something I have been musing about since then. Of course Austen is an incredible writer and story teller in her own right, but one theme has caught my eye: marriage. Marriage is a regular theme and tension in Austen’s books (if not all of them) and while Austen may not linger on other universal themes such as war, she has found one long lasting idea that is near and dear to many. While the modern western world is in many ways drastically different than Austen’s, one point that connects us is a fear of remaining unwed. Now, I most certainly agree that there is nothing wrong with opting not to wed but I think it is safe to say that social status quo likes to see people paired off in happy (if not divorced) couples. I think particularly for women, dealing with this component in our own lives is one of numerous attractions that Austen holds.

However, something that has developed into an important theme in Clarissa that Austen shies away from or at least does not directly commit to is the trepidation of choosing a partner, of possible choosing a wrong partner, or of the negative consequences of marriage. Austen certainly toys with married life through the Bennet’s or Collins’ marriage, for example, but these are peripheral issues and tend to portray a somewhat light hearted look at awkward matches (or, that in at least Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility we have not seen even a glimmer of our newly weds lives after the weddings (certainly Wickham’s and Lydia’s married life would be an interesting commentary!)). Richardson directly cultivates the fear a woman has or should have in becoming property to her husband – a man she may really know little if anything about. While Clarissa assures her parents that she can not marry Mr. Solmes: “Had I a slighter notion of the matrimonial duty than I have, perhaps I might [marry him].” Even Clarissa has thus far spent much of the novel insisting she would prefer a life being single than being wed.

Clarissa is very much aware of the state of absolute dependency that a woman lives under, and in fact Clarissa is entirely a story looking at how authority affects and controls a young woman’s life. Her Aunt Hervey warns Clarissa that, “were you [Clarissa] to marry, you must do as your husband will have you.” While Clarissa is growingly alienated by her friends and family her dear correspondent Miss Anna Howe is dealing with her own unwelcome suitor Mr. Hickman: “He bowed to the ground, and would have taken my hand, his whip in the other. I did not like to be so companioned…” Perhaps the most explicit advice comes quite early in the story from Ms. Howe in saying of Mr. Hickman’s qualities, “in short, has qualities that mothers would be fond of in a husband for their daughters; and for which perhaps their daughters would be the happier could they judge as well for themselves, as experience possibly may teach them to judge for their future daughters.”

I will be sure to keep an eye out on the representation of married couples in Austen’s novels.

Today’s image is Lovelace’s Kidnapping of Clarissa Harlowe (1867) by Edouard Louis Dubufe. This painting immediately reminded me of two older pieces of art: The Rape of the Sabines (1581 – 83) by Giovanni de Bologna and (one of my all time favorites) The Rape of Proserpina (1621 – 22) by Bernini. In comparison Dubufe’s painting is certainly less violent or passionate but I still see distinct similarities.


One thought about Jane’s popularity above other writers of her era: Her sense of irony and humor is unsurpassed. Her observation of humankind is unmatched. Although her plots are commonplace and a bit trite, and not so different from her contemporaries, her talent for astute and biting observation are genius. She allows her characters to make fools (or heroes) of themselves through their own words. And every time we revisit her, we glean another nugget of insight. Brilliant.

Comment by Ms. Place

“is genius”

I need a grammar check.

Comment by Ms. Place

Jane mostly definitely read Richardson. One of her favourite novels, if not her favourite, was Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison.

Comment by Stephanie

Thank you so much for the heads up Stephanie!

Comment by bookchronicle

Ms. Place, do not think I have forgotten your comment but (as usual) it has given me some food for thought! This will certainly give me something to ponder while idling away my time in the stacks at work.

Comment by bookchronicle

Very interesting and I agree with a lot of what you say. However, I would argue that Austen does “give us a glimpse” of life for the newlyweds, not a detailed look at their marriage, but a few hints as to how they get on. Jane and Bingley live in perfect happiness, put upon by the Wickhams… Lydia and Wickham “move from place to place in search of cheap lodgings” and the whole bit about her affection for him lasting slightly longer than his does etc… I also think the issue of poor matches is addressed by Austen, think of Elizabeth’s horror at Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins or Louisa’s comment in “Persuasion” that they wish Charles had married Anne instead of Mary. Mary and Charles are presented as an unsuitable match, albeit not an entirely miserable one.

Also, Austen mentions Sir Charles Grandison in Northanger Abbey.

Very interesting stuff! I’m reading Clarissa now and can’t wait to make my own comparisons.

Comment by Rachel


Austen does end all of her stories with a quick (and mostly amusing) wrap up of her characters. But I suppose the glimpse I am looking for myself is asking how the female characters are defined post-marriage, further continued relationship dynamics, children, the Enlightened Neoclassical man and the (admittedly still) less Enlightened Neoclassical wife, etc.

I read once a quote where someone called the ending of P&P aesthetic, and while the person who quoted it disagreed it does provide me with food for thought. All of Austen’s books that I have reread or read for the first time recently end with brief, enjoyable, non-moralistic (usually) endings, but that are rather contrite, and makes one curious of Austen’s skills to provide a strong conclusion.

I’m not sure how many of my posts you have read, but I do not particularly think that Collins’ marriage is a “poor match.” It is not necessarily a companionate match but Charlotte (the one stellar representation of Enlightenment thought) maneuvers her own contentment. As for Persuasion, it has been some years though I will hopefully be rereading it soon.

Good luck with Clarissa as I could not finish this time around and will have to stick my Laurence Sterne. Are you reading the abridged or unabridged version?

Comment by bookchronicle

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