Dalbey, Annotated Bibliography

Topic: Classical allusions in Richardson’s Clarissa.

Foundational Text

Doody, Margaret Anne. A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Clarendon Press, 1974. In her study of Richardson’s novels, Margaret Doody investigates Richardson’s conception of “love” as “a natural passion” fraught with social, political, and psychological implications. For Richardson, love is “a major irony” which cannot be escaped “except at the risk of making ourselves less human” (10-11). She explores the theme by tracing the sources of Richardson’s works in order to see what he has done with the material (13). Her analysis of Richardson’s sources, however, is contextualized by the fact that Richardson himself never had a formal education, which, Doody notes, reveals itself in the fact that “He never lost the defensive tone about his lack of knowledge of Latin and Greek, or even of French; in compensation, all his heroes are proficient in the classics, and his heroines in modern languages” (5-6). In her analysis of Clarissa, Richardson’s tone of defensiveness appears in the way he tempers a classical education with Christian piety. The libertines such as Belton and Lovelace, are well-versed in classical literature, but it is Clarissa’s piety–informed by Christian devotional literature of the 17th and 18th centuries–which elevates and completes her virtue. In this context, much of the classical literary references are used negatively, though there are moments when Christian piety and pagan philosophy converge, specifically in the character of Belford who, having begun the process of repenting of his libertine behavior,  functions as a mediator for the retelling of the death scenes of Belton, Clarissa, and Mrs. Sinclaire.

Supplemental Criticism

Harris, Jocelyn. “Richardson: Original or Learned Genius?” Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays, edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Peter Sabor, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 188–202.

In this chapter of the Tercentenary Essays, Harris makes the case that Richardson was much more learned and familiar with a broad range of literature that spanned from the classical era to the eighteenth century. She notes that much of the contemporary criticism surrounding Richardson’s use of various literary, philosophical, and theological sources has echoed some of Richardson’s contemporaries that he wasn’t formally educated and therefore did not have as intimate a knowledge with many of the texts he cites. To the contrary, she notes many of the works Richardson printed–including a four volume edition of Virgil’s poetry, a translation of Josephus, and various contemporary dramas and poetry. Harris argues that “Richardson’s novels depend upon ancient and modern books, not only locally but structurally” (190). In rapid succession, Harris notes the frequency with which quotations from Ovid appear in Clarissa at crucial moments of characterization and plot points. Richardson’s allusions, she argues, “are rarely casual, but call up entire works to explain and express his meaning” (202). Although Harris’ argument seems to confirm the growing consensus of scholarship regarding Richardson’s learning since Doody’s monograph, her attention to the structural significance of classical literary allusions in Clarissa help lay the groundwork for additional investigation.

Price, Fiona. “‘Inconsistent Rhapsodies’: Samuel Richardson and the Politics of Romance.” A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, edited by Corrine Saunders, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2004, pp. 269–86.

Price considers Richardson’s fiction within the context of the Romance genre and its political implications. She notes that during the 18th century, “attacks on the epistemology of romance” had become commonplace (269). Yet, Price observes that despite romance’s low status and specifically female readership, it exercised “great influence on the novel” by way of a complicated genealogy. Richardson, she argues, attempts to exploit the genre of romance while continuing to draw on “its idealism  to interrogate authority” (270). In Clarissa, Richardson accomplishes this redress of romantic idealism in the way he contrasts it with classical learning. When a classical education is “untempered by genuine Christianity” (278), it produces equally vicious characters. Although Price’s argument does not investigate the degree to which Richardson was familiar with the classical texts he cites and quotes throughout Clarissa, it fits within both Doody’s and Harris’ observations regarding Richardson’s views and familiarity with classical literature.

Rivers, Isabel. Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry. 2nd edition, Routledge, 1994, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203359952.

Rivers has written a guidebook for understanding how Renaissance poets and authors understood and utilized classical and Christian literature in their own literary works. The book is geared specifically to students who are new to the field of Renaissance literature studies and who have little or no familiarity with Latin, Greek, or the Bible. In her introduction, she highlights the fact that the “educated English poet of the period 1580 to 1670” was two things: A) a Christian, and B) a classical scholar (1). For most Renaissance poets—as well as writers extending into the eighteenth century–the classical pagan epics were read in the light of Christian teaching. When blended together, they provided a “range of sometimes complimentary, sometimes contradictory assumptions about and explanations of the physical universe, man’s relationship to God, his moral stature, and the purpose of his earthly activities” (2). Rivers’ chapter on Platonism and Neo-platonism will be especially useful in considering the platonic affinities between Clarissa’s and Socrates’s deathbed scenes, and the way in which Christian devotional literature complimented and diverged from Socrates’ discussion about how one should prepare for death and what the philosopher can expect in the afterlife.

Jokes and Social Norms

In what way does “joking”–particularly the “joking relationship” between Madame Duval and captain Mirvan–reinforce and/or challenge social conventions?

The captain’s raptures, during supper, at the success of his plan, were boundless. I spoke, afterwards, to Mrs. Mirvan, with the openness which her kindness encourages, and begged her to remonstrate with him upon the cruelty of tormenting Madame Duval so causelessly. She promised to take the first opportunity of starting the subject, but said he was, at present, so much elated that he would not listen to her with any patience. However, should he make any new efforts to molest her, I can by no means consent to be passive. Had I imagined he would have been so vilent, I would have risked his anger in her defence much sooner.

Volume II, Letter 2, page 265

Final Clarissa Reflection: Crowned Serpents

Whether Clarissa’s development as a character is an extension of a Chaucerian Griselda theme (Bassil), or a Christ figure (Thompson), by the end of the novel, Clarissa is a more virtuous person than her early reputation might suggest. Similarly, Lovelace is a more depraved libertine than readers may have initially guessed. As characters, they have crystallized to such a degree that it’s no longer possible to mistake their moral standing and stark contrast with one another. Richardson’s narrative trajectory takes the shape of a circle growing in detail and perspective, while maintaining a consistency of characterization that heightens distinctions even as it amplifies conventional models of virtue and vice.

Clarissa’s life reaches a pinnacle of virtue by the end of the story. She is like Griselda in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale who undergoes an inordinate amount of suffering due to the testing of a jealous lover. Clarissa’s victimization at the hands of Lovelace exhibits a degree of incredibility only paralleled by the sanctity of her final hours. She begins quoting scripture verses–particularly from Job and Psalms. She speaks prophetically about her family and friends. She distributes all of her capital and possessions among her friends and family. And she forgives her persecutors, including Lovelace. Death, she argues, has been her greatest teacher:

“Believe me, my good friends, [death] does what nothing else can do; it teaches me, by strengthening in me the force of the divinest example, to forgive the injuries I have received; and shuts out the remembrance of past evils from my soul” (1306).

Her words echo the words of Christ from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). And although her suffering does not ultimately save Lovelace, it does have the effect of reforming at least one libertine rake: Sir John Belford.

By contrast, in his duel with Colonel Morden, Lovelace’s final moments resound with the overtones of a stage actor. He demonstrates that even his death, despite the failure of his sexual exploitation of Clarissa, is part of a larger plan. He wants to die on his own terms with all of the glory and drama of a tragic hero. If he had taken Belford’s advice, Lovelace could have avoided the duel with Morden. When he realizes he is mortally wounded, he delivers his final line: “Let this expiate!” But he is not expiated. Despite Clarissa’s virtuous triumph, Lovelace remains unrepentant and unreformed. Echoing his own personal affinities with Milton’s Satan, he has deemed it better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. He has merely finished the pattern of his licentious life, dying for nothing and no one.

The engraving of a crowned serpent with its tail in its mouth on Clarissa’s coffin provides a succinct summary of the novel’s plot and theme. As Angus Ross notes in the introduction to Clarissa, the crowned serpent is both a symbol of eternity and of the novel’s own circular plot: it begins and ends with a duel (Ross 25). The circularity of the serpent, however, also indicates the pattern of character development for both Lovelace and Clarissa–they end they’re lives as they were introduced. Neither is reformed by the other’s demands, entreaties, or influence. Instead, Richardson foregrounds the heights and depths of their moral characters with increasing vivacity as they both prepare to meet an early death.

Works Cited

Bassil, Veronica, and Samuel Richardson, editors. “The Faces of Griselda: Chaucer, Prior, and Richardson.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 26, no. 2, 1984, pp. 157–82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40754751.

Ross, Angus. “Introduction.” Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady, Penguin Books, 1985.

Thompson, Peggy. “Abuse and Atonement: The Passion of Clarissa Harlowe.” Passion and Virtue: Essays on the Novel of Samuel Richardson, edited by David Blewett, University of Toronto, 2001, pp. 152–69.

Annotated Bib: The Griselda Theme and Feminine Virtue

Bassil, Veronica. “The Faces of Griselda: Chaucer, Prior, and Richardson.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 26, no. 2, 1984, pp. 157–82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40754751.
Bassil traces a thematic development of the “Griselda Theme” from Chaucer to Matthew Prior and finally to Richardson. Bassil sees Prior’s poem “Henry and Emma” (1709) as a “missing link” in the development of the “Griselda theme” between Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale (1393-1400) and Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1759). Traditionally, the Griselda narrative recounts the “rigorous testing which a virtuous maiden undergoes at the hands of a harsh and deceitful husband or suitor” (157). Each subsequent phase of the Griselda theme more deeply explores the psychological and sexual aspects of the story. Richardson’s Clarissa represents the fullest treatment of this phase, not only as a more detailed psychological account of the virtuous maiden and the wicked suitor, but as a more poignant and extreme depiction of feminine virtue. Bassil specifically notes that Richardson’s insistence not to end the story with a marriage indicates his refusal to trivialize Clarissa’s suffering. In order for her virtue to be pure, she must retain her chastity as well. Contrary to Chaucer’s and Prior’s versions, Clarissa does not conclude with by restoring her to her suitor but with her posthumous restoration to her family.

Thompson, Peggy. “Abuse and Atonement: The Passion of Clarissa Harlowe.” Passion and Virtue: Essays on the Novel of Samuel Richardson, edited by David Blewett, University of Toronto, 2001, pp. 152–69.
Thompson begins by summarizing the critical history surrounding the narrative of relentless suffering in Richardson’s portrayal of Clarissa–specifically its scientific, Sadean, iconographic, and biblical contexts. Her essay, however, focuses on Clarissa as a “Christ-figure,” the inspiration for which can be traced to some of the more popular sermons preached during the eighteenth-century. Clarissa’s Christ-like passion can be interpreted within three different theological categories of atonement: Christus Victor, Substitutionary Atonement, and the Pietist Movement. All three categories have roots in early church and medieval theology. As “Christus Victor,” Thompson notes several places in the text where many of the characters–including Lovelace–recognize that her suffering and death are ultimately triumphant; as “substitution,” Clarissa offers herself as an appeasement to her father’s demands, who Thompson argues is comparable to Anselm’s depiction of God; and as a “Pietist,” Thompson observes the ways in which characters such as Lovelace recognize their own salvation by means of Clarissa’s Christ-like example. Thompson concludes that the analogy between Clarissa and Christ ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, it is the kind of theme Richardson himself had at the forefront of his mind given the popularity of some of the eighteenth-century sermons and his own religious commitments.