Hugo Blumenthal © 2006

‘Something is Strangely Wrong Somewhere!’ Human Nature and Cruelty in Clarissa
by Hugo Blumenthal

At a certain point Clarissa Harlowe says to ‘Captain Tomlinson’: ‘Oh sir! You have humanity! […] There are some men in the world, thank Heaven, that can be moved. Oh sir, I have met with hard-hearted men […]’ (p. 842)1 –meaning for the latter her brother James, her suitor Mr Solmes, and, more in particular, Robert Lovelace. But even about Lovelace, who she is going to experience in all his cruelty, she believes that [...] there must have been some fault in his education. His natural bias was not, I fancy, sufficiently attended to. […] If he had, his generosity would not have stopped at pride, but would have struck into humanity; [...] he would have been uniformly noble and done the good for its own sake. (p. 698) But since neither Clarissa or her creator, Samuel Richardson, seem to have been directly influenced by Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, David Hume or any other of the so-called ‘sentimental philosophers,’ her position towards Lovelace seems mainly due to the widespread ‘fantasy’ that mankind is innately human, has a natural capacity for compassion and generosity; that is, understanding for ‘fantasy,’ as R. F. Brissenden defines it, quoting Steven Marcus, […] that ‘mass of unargued, unexamined and largely unconscious assumptions’ which forms the basis of that view of the world which everybody, without perhaps being fully aware of the fact, at a particular time and in a particular society seems to share.2 Her sharing of such sentimental fantasy is so complete as to include the necessary component for making sense of the real world: the idea that man’s natural capacity for benevolent actions could become corrupted by society. Because, even if it could be said that at the beginning of the novel she doesn’t ‘know the world’ (that is, in terms of a broad experience of it), she certainly is not innocent enough as to think of the entire world as a paradise. On the contrary, she believes that she lives in a cruel world, where young women need the protection of their families, as later on of their husbands, […] to preserve us from the vultures, the hawks, the kites and the other villainous birds of prey that hover over us with a view to seize and destroy us,


Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady, ed. by Angus Ross (London: Penguin, 2004). Unless otherwise stated, all italics are the author’s, and all quotations are from this edition.

R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress, Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (London: Macmillan, 1974), p. 21.

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the first time we are caught wandering out of the eye or care of our watchful and natural guardians and protectors. (P. 480) What such a fantasy, however, seems unable to explain, and what was unthinkable for Clarissa, is that her family, as well as the men who want to marry her, could show themselves as being part of that world from which they are suppose to protect her. That is why it is so difficult for Clarissa to come to terms with the idea that there are not clear signs that could guarantee her protection, that everything seems ‘strangely mixed’, with ‘[…] one half of mankind tormenting the other, and being tormented themselves in tormenting!’ (p. 224); or, as her best friend Anna Howe metaphorically puts it, that ‘all the animals in the creation are more or less in a state of hostility with each other […] [that ] it is the nature of the beast.’ (p. 487) (see also Clarissa’s Paper III, p. 891). But, even under such strong impressions, the sentimental fantasy is maintained, practically unchallenged. Anna Howe’s metaphor for all mankind, for example, ironically enough ends up restating the fantasy of a compassionate human nature by locating cruelty ‘outside’, in the realm of the ‘beasts.’ A challenge to such a fantasy would seem possible if, for example, the reader agrees with Douglas Jefferson in seeing Clarissa’s family as ‘just ordinary mean, unattractive people, made monstrous by special circumstances.’3 In such a case, Clarissa could be read as proposing the reversal of such a fantasy (even if it is at Clarissa’s own expense, and against her hopeful resistance to it): that under normal conditions mankind behaves humanly, but that under special circumstances a ‘nature of the beast’ could reveal itself. Lovelace, however, could hardly be seen as ordinary. He is, after all, to use Robert Erickson’s words, ‘[…] Richardson’s version of a Miltonic Satan with a pagan-Ovidian background of cruelty and revenge, codified into art, directed toward the subsidiary species of woman.’4 And as such, he proves to be the most suitable ‘match’ for Clarissa, staging a conflict of definitions about what means to be ‘human’. In opposition to Clarissa, Lovelace maintains that human nature is ‘a vile corruptible rogue’ (p. 465), that the essence of being human is not a ‘gentle heart’ but corruption, jealousy, selfishness. In a word, he stresses the capacity for cruelty in mankind, and calls it human nature. By doing so, he basically tries to justify himself, as it is clear when he write this example of casuistry: If thou sayest that the provocations I have given to one of them will justify her freedoms; I answer, so they will to any other person but myself. But he that is capable of giving those provocations, and has the power to punish those who abuse him for giving them, will show his resentment; and the more vindictively, perhaps, as he has deserved the freedoms? If thou sayest it is, however, wrong to do so; I reply that it is nevertheless human nature –and wouldst not have me be a man, Jack? (p. 859)
3 4

Quoted by Brissenden, Virtue in Distress, p. 175.

Robert A. Erickson, ‘Clarissa and “The Womb of Fate”’, Mother Midnight, Birth, Sex, and Fate in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Defoe, Richardson, and Sterne) (New York: AMS, 1986), p. 142. For a discussion of the influence of Milton’s Satan in Lovelace, see Gillian Beer, ‘Richardson, Milton, and the Status of Evil’, The Review of English Studies, 19 (1968), 261-270.

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But he does not ignore Clarissa’s definition of humanity. On the contrary, he always keeps it in mind to use it to his own advantage, to deceive her, as when he directs Polly ‘where to weep’ to show her humanity, knowing that, for Clarissa, ‘a weeping eye indicates a gentle heart’ (p. 620). Lovelace, then, thinks himself human precisely for the same characteristics that exclude him from Clarissa’s definition of ‘humanity’; whereas what makes Clarissa human to her own eyes, makes her more than human (a goddess or an angel) for Lovelace. The tragic irony of such a situation between both characters is that it is precisely because of such differences about ‘humanity’ that Lovelace puts Clarissa on trial: he needs to see if she is definitively not a woman, if she is not ‘merely’ human –to be sure that what makes her look not only as if above all of her sex but of all mankind is not a mere mask of pride; but it is also because in such trials –with the avoidance of sympathy they seem to require– Lovelace is going to be seen even more inhuman and cruel. But to make things more complex, Lovelace also accuses Clarissa of cruelty, writing that ‘[…] if she call me ungenerous, I can call her cruel’ (p. 465), and represents himself as a victim of her, ‘[…] stabbed to the heart for [her] cruelty’ (p. 795). However, as he seems to believe that women ‘love to be called cruel,’ and confesses that ‘many a time have I complained of cruelty, even in the act of yielding, because I knew it gratified their pride’ (p. 465), it is not very clear if he really means what he says; though that does not invalidate the possibility that she could be cruel to him, or that he could truly experience her as cruel. For Laura Hinton, for example, there are certainly some instances where Clarissa could be called cruel, as when ‘[…] aggressively confronting Solmes, she exhibits little of the “fellow feeling” Hume would call the moral sentiment of sympathy.’5 And at one point Clarissa confesses to Anna Howe that ‘I had a mind to mortify a pride that I am sure deserves to be mortified’ (p. 458), meaning Lovelace’s pride. Nevertheless, we need to bear in mind that later on she assures ‘Tomlinson’ that ‘[…] I should have despised myself, had I found myself capable of affectation or tyranny to the man I intended to marry. I have always blamed the dearest friend I have in the world for a fault of this nature’ (p. 828). That means that if some of her actions could be experienced as cruel, it would be more likely against her intentions and without enjoyment. Enjoyment is an important aspect to bear in mind because, for Clarissa, ‘cruelty’ means not only making others suffer but enjoying it, what in psychological terms would by defined as ‘sadism.’ That is why, though sometimes she can recognise that she had made her parents suffer (as with her obstinate decision of not marrying Solmes, and then for making possible her abduction by Lovelace), she cannot see herself as cruel, because she couldn’t gain enjoyment from it. The lack of enjoyment is, then, what sets her apart from people like Solmes, of whom she exclaims, ‘What a cruel wretch must he be […] who can enjoy the distress he so largely contributes to!’ (p. 322); as well as Lovelace, whom is ‘[…]


Laura Hinton, ‘Clarissa through the Epistolary Key-hole’, The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy (New York: State University of New York, 1999), p. 47.

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not a generous man! –that is, indeed, a cruel man! That is capable of creating a distress to a young creature […] and then of enjoying it […] ’ (p. 589) Lovelace’s enjoinment of his cruelty is, certainly, not the product of Clarissa’s imagination. Lovelace’s sadism is evident through his repeated declarations that ‘beauty in tears is beauty heightened, and what my heart has ever delighted to see […]’ (p. 737), as well as when he confesses to Belford, ‘I am half sorry to say that I find pleasure in playing the tyrant over what I love’ (p. 789). Brissenden, however, distinguishes between sadism and cruelty in Lovelace, pointing out that [Lovelace’s] sadism does not consist so much in his cruelty as in the motives that lie behind it. His cruelty is partly an expression of frustration and impotence […] but it is also the outward expression of a radical and fundamentally reasonable hatred of that sort of hypocrisy which the smugly conventional Harlowes represent.6 A further possible difference between sadism and cruelty could also be found in Lovelace’s ‘scientific spirit’. As Ann Jessie Van Sant has pointed out, Lovelace’s trials to Clarissa resemble not only Richardson’s process of writing the novel, but the experiments on physical sensibility performed by eighteenth-century scientists, where pain was provoked, and sympathy was avoided, in order to gain some sort of knowledge.7 Lovelace’s object of desire, then, seems to alternate between Clarissa’s sufferings (sadism) and the knowledge that such sufferings could give him (‘science’); a knowledge, however, that is seen as a form of power and possession over Clarissa. But even if the enjoyment seems displaced, sublimated, Lovelace could still be called cruel because of his conscious intention of provoking pain; because intention is the other fundamental factor that defines cruelty, as can be seen in Clarissa’s hopes [t]hat, whatever shall be my destiny, that dreadful part of my father’s malediction that I may be punished by the man in whom he supposes I put my confidence may not take place! That this for Mr Lovelace’s own sake, and for the sake of human nature, may not be! –Or, if it be necessary in support of the parental authority that I should be punished by him, that it may not be by his premeditated or willful baseness; but that I may be able to acquit his intention, if not his action! (p. 566) In a word, if Lovelace proves to be intentionally deceitful and cruel, that would weigh against the possibility of trusting anybody on the grounds of a common human nature. But the hope that Lovelace would prove to be human after all is what precipitates Clarissa to her ‘doom’ (which is also –as Anna Howe points out– her ‘shining time’ (p. 655)), in a

6 7

Virtue in Distress, pp. 135-136.

Eighteenth-century sensibility and the novel: The senses in social context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 68-69, 258. For other similarities between Lovelace and Richardson, see Robert A. Erickson, Mother Midnight (New York: AMS, 1986), pp. 122-125.

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process of disillusion about herself and the whole world; stripping her of beliefs that until then had sustained her life.8 Ironically enough, it is in the process of her destruction that Lovelace would prove to be human according to Clarissa’s own notions (even if she cannot acknowledge it): first, fighting against his sincere love for Clarissa (though he didn’t know to what point it was sincere) in order to test her and humble her as part of his revenge against her family; and, later on, consolidating his ‘humanity’ in the recognition of his unconditional love for her, a love then tragically rooted in guilt and remorse (those other very human feelings) for what he did to her. In that sense, Clarissa, instead of challenging the sentimental fantasy of human nature, seems to reinstate it, showing that men and women can be cruel but that some human feelings (such as sympathy, compassion, remorse, etc.) still lay at the core of the ‘cruellest of men.’ Nevertheless, by pronouncing that cruelty could be more strongly felt when it is carried out by those we could love (who are the most suitable to deceive us, and to keep us suffering in the hope of their kindness), and by showing how much cruelty can be accomplished before their humanity could expose itself, the novel also warns against the limits of the beliefs in such a sentimental fantasy.

Hugo Blumenthal London, 2006

Bibliography Beer, Gillian, ‘Richardson, Milton, and the Status of Evil’, The Review of English Studies, 19 (1968), 261-270 Brissenden, R. F., Virtue in Distress, Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (London: Macmillan, 1974) Doody, Margaret Anne, A natural passion. A study of the novels of Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974) Eagleton, Terry, The Rape of Clarissa, Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982) Erickson, Robert A., ‘Clarissa and “The Womb of Fate”’, Mother Midnight, Birth, Sex, and Fate in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Defoe, Richardson, and Sterne) (New York: AMS, 1986), pp. 103-192

Virtue in Distress, p. 181.

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Erickson, Robert A., ‘The Written Heart: Clarissa, Lovelace and Scripture’, The Language of the Heart, 1600-1750 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 185-228 Hannaford, Richard Gordon, Samuel Richardson: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Studies (New York: Garland, 1980) Harvey, A. D., Sex in Georgian England (London: Phoenix, 1994) Hinton, Laura, ‘Clarissa through the Epistolary Key-hole’, The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy (New York: State University of New York, 1999), pp. 35-74 McKee, Patricia, ‘Unmastered Exchanges in Richardson and Freud’, boundary 2, 12 (1984), 171-196 McKillop, Alan Dugald, ‘Clarissa’, in Samuel Richardson: Printer and Novelist (USA: The Shoe String Press, 1960), pp. 107-158 Mullan, John, ‘The Sentimental Novel’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002), pp. 236-254 Richardson, Samuel, Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady, ed. by Angus Ross (London: Penguin, 2004) Richetti, John J., ‘From passion to suffering: Richardson and the transformation of amatory fiction’, The English Novel in History 1700-1780 (London: Routledge, 1999) Starr, George, ‘‘Only a Boy’: Notes on Sentimental Novels’, in The English Novel, vol. II, Smollet to Austen, ed. by Richard Kroll (London: Longman, 1998), pp. 29-54 Traugott, Jhon, ‘Richardson’s Clarissa: An Essay to Find the Reader’, in English Literature in the Age of Disguise, ed. by Maximilian Novak (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 157-208 Traugott, John, ‘Molesting “Clarissa”’, Novel, 15 (1982), 163-170 Van Sant, Ann Jessie, Eighteenth-century sensibility and the novel: The senses in social context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) Van Sant, Ann Jessie, ‘Revelation of the heart through entrapment and trial: Clarissa’s story, Lovelace’s plot’, in The English Novel, vol. II, Smollet to Austen, ed. by Richard Kroll (London: Longman, 1998), pp.

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Warner, William Beatty, ‘Reading Rape: Marxist-Feminist Figurations of the Literal’, Diacritics, 13, 4 (1983), 12-32 Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985)