Adventures in Reading

Austen’s Contemporaries: Samuel Richardson
September 28, 2007, 1:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“I desire my hoop may have its full circumference. All they’re good for, that I know, is to clean dirty shoes, and to keep fellows at a distance” (361).

Prior to reading Clarissa all I really knew that it was physically lengthy (with more than one million words) and many people found the actual text or writing to be long, tedious, and boring. Certain things to remember when reading literature from, well, any period prior to electricity is that there is no TiVo to turn to on long lonely nights. As I have mentioned before from Daniel Pool’s book What Jane Austen Ate & Charles Dickens Knew, even nighttime travel could be dangerous if not impossible when the moon was not full.

Evening activities would constrain individuals to what domestic chores and pleasures they could do by fire or candlelight. This would certainly include reading novels as we see in both Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility with characters reading by themselves as well as out loud to groups. A memorable passage from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759 – 69) has a humorous interjection as a serendipitous reader (not the narrator) commands that a door be shut to not interrupt the book. Ultimately I suppose what I am driving at is that many people may be dissatisfied with Clarissa and novels of similar style if you attempt to read them in bits and pieces over coffee or on the bus. Unlike much of modern fiction, which comes in nearly bullet points, Clarissa is more of a nice wine designed to be sipped and to tease your senses.

Richardson does not allow for any ambiguity when it comes to a character’s disposition and morals. He even goes so far as to include footnotes to cross reference to other letters as well as the use of an omniscient narrator that will halt any suspicions that our heroine may not be perfect or that the villain is not indeed evil. This is quite interesting compared to Austen who very much seems to enjoy a surprise moment as she unmasks (often the villain) for what he is. With both Wickham (Pride & Prejudice) and Willoughby (Sense & Sensibility) perhaps only the closest of readers would have any suspicion in regards to these men on the first reading of the novel. Both are men with designated pleasant and enjoyable characteristics and we (as well as the heroines) sympathize with them for the men’s lack of position in the world. It is only until later, roughly half way into the novel, that this mask is removed.

Richardson does not allow this construct to exist and thus no doubt can ever exist to what is wrong or right. His moral compass is embedded into the story and I dare so it is impossible to waver. Austen though embraces this doubt and it is expressed through her fallible characters. Even Austen’s villains are difficult to entirely write off as sinister. Lovelace, the villain in Clarissa, is a cold and calculating man who controls Clarissa’s family and friends like so many pawns. While her family continues to alienate and isolate her it is Lovelace’s doing that misleads and misinforms the family (though I still consider them quite silly myself). Even after Willoughby and Wickham are exposed as rakes and cads I have found it difficult to entirely dislike them and both of these villains (is that even an apt word for them?) find a punishment that juxtaposes the heroine’s happiness. That is, while Elizabeth and Marianne end up married to men they love and respect, Willoughby and Wickham are wed to women they do not even seem to like. Granted, this dubiousness of behavior does establish issues in Austen on how a reader or critic interprets right and wrong.

I have finished volume one of Clarissa. To recap briefly on the story much of the first volume comprises of imprisoning the heroine as seemingly every friend and family member is working against her. Her one outlet is her friend Anna Howe (perhaps the one character I most like) who remains faithful to Clarissa throughout the volume. By the end of the volume, Clarissa is under house arrest, is forbidden to see her family, has had her writing utensils removed (though some she managed to hide), and is faced with three options: marry Solmes, marry Lovelace, or run away with Ms. Howe. As a result of Lovelace’s nefarious plotting Clarissa is ultimately abducted by him. Granted, I am quite interested in the option of her running off with Ms. Howe and society’s interpretation of this.

Today’s image is from here and thanks to a friend for translating I have gotten this from the site: Lovelace hides in the wood pile where Clarissa drops off the letter that she’s written him. She’s surprised, starts to faint and leans against the wooden beam. The wooden structure of the building determines restraint space that Lovelace comes to invest, while the door suggests vast space from outside. Lovelace’s tense hand cutting through the door frame appears or foreshadows sexual aggression while the weakened Clarissa leans on one of the pillars. The logs in the foreground indicates the fourth wall of the scene which the spectator has to look over to view.

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