Clarissa and Louisa

Karl Miller

  • Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson and Angus Ross
    Viking, 1533 pp, £19.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 670 80829 6
  • Memoire of Frances, Lady Douglas by Lady Louisa Stuart, edited by Jill Rubenstein
    Scottish Academic Press, 106 pp, £9.50, August 1985, ISBN 0 7073 0358 3

One of these books is very long and the other is very short. Each in its own way is a wonderful piece of work. They stand at opposite ends of the century that runs from the 1740s to the 1840s, but they may be thought to bear each other out, in ways which affect an understanding of the family life of that time, and of its incorporation in the literature of Romanticism – that part of it, in particular, which is premised on conceptions of the divided or multiple self and can be referred to as the literature of romantic duality. One of the books is fiction – of a kind, however, which is often investigated for its affinity to fact; while the other records the facts and feelings and constructions of the biographer of a friend. The first is the more than a million words of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, whose first edition has been issued by Penguin in the guise of a slab of gold bullion. The second is by an admirer of Richardson’s novels, two generations later – Lady Louisa Stuart, whose Memoire of Frances Scott, Lady Douglas as she became, has been redeemed from the archives of the Border nobility, with the blessing of a former prime minister, Lord Home. The memoir appears to have been written at some point in the 1820s, and is addressed to Frances’s daughter in order to acquaint her with certain passages in her mother’s early experience of an anxious family life. Frances died in 1817, the year before Scott’s novel Heart of Midlothian delivered its spectacle of an invincible female will. Louisa Stuart fancied that her friend Scott might have modelled his exemplary Jeanie Deans on her friend Frances. She seems to have been wrong: but it is never wrong to look for fact in fiction, and for fiction in fact.

The letters that compose Clarissa tell the story of an intelligent and beautiful girl who refuses a rich suitor and falls out with her ambitious and hideous family, the Harlowes. She is tricked into running away from her ‘friends’, as she calls them, by the rake Lovelace. This man gloats over the items of her dress on the day of her involuntary escape, items which indicate, what with the sharpness in the air, that she had not intended to be gone with him, for all that she had been drawn in that direction. He gloats over her ruffles, her mob-cap with its sky-blue ribbon, her apron of flowered lawn, her blue-satin braided shoes.

Her morning gown was a pale primrose-coloured paduasoy: the cuffs and robings curiously embroidered by the fingers of this ever charming Arachne in a running pattern of violets and their leaves; the light in the flowers silver; gold in the leaves. A pair of diamond snaps in her ears. A white handkerchief, wrought by the same inimitable fingers, concealed – Oh Belford! what still more inimitable beauties did it not conceal! – And I saw, all the way we rode, the bounding heart; by its throbbing motions I saw it! dancing beneath the charming umbrage.

Lovelace spirits this Primavera, or perhaps this Venus, to a London brothel, where he eventually drugs and rapes her. We had been brought to feel that she might have come to love him, in attempting to reform him, while Lovelace has acted from motives both of love and revenge – a teasing conspiratorial revenge which has intended harm to her, to the Harlowes, and to women. She is now in danger of the fate tersely ascribed to a girl in Louisa Stuart’s memoir: ‘She lost her character, married obscurely, and ceased to be talked of.’ Clarissa had been willing to be talked of as an old maid, which is how Louisa Stuart was to talk of herself. After the rape it is open to her to marry her attacker: but she refuses this orthodox course, to which she is encouraged by those around her, and chooses to die. She is a marriageable, marketable, impeccable Venus who has turned into a nun. She sleeps beside the coffin on which she has taken to writing her letters, and joyously awaits her heavenly reward.

These are some of the events and some of the emotions of Clarissa: a long story has been cut short, but it is a long story which has practically no digressions. Richardson’s reader Louisa Stuart would not have felt at sea in pondering such vicissitudes. She was the daughter of Lord Bute, another North British prime minister, whose retreat to Luton Hoo, in the sourness of political defeat, helped to embitter her youth. Her choice of a husband was cancelled by her father, and the friends she made outside the family circle were dearer to her than those friends who were her siblings. She had a gift for friendship, and for literature, which lasted for almost a century – she was born in 1757, ten years after the publication of the first two volumes of Clarissa. And those who have come to know her from a study of Scott’s life and works will not be startled by the quality of her memoir. Scott himself thought her the best literary critic he knew, thought she had genius, and a ‘perfect tact’. The memoir is critical of the romantic in a customary 18th-century fashion – a fashion that can be found in Scott. ‘Most people addicted to romancing are their own heroes.’ But it isn’t fanciful to suggest that she was to approach the door through which Scott was to pass, and which led to the invention and experience of a romantic literature, and that the vicissitudes of her life were such as to incite this approach. Nor is it fanciful to claim that her memoir is admirable in its sensitive astuteness. It is a work which is not discountenanced by the portrait of an afflicted and virtuous female, and of an adulterous aristocracy, which is conveyed in the celebrated novel by an earlier lady of quality, Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves.

Louisa Stuart’s memoir turns her friend Frances into a Clarissa-like victim and paragon – no one on earth like her. The theme of the persecuted maiden is treated – the theme which Richardson did much to transmit to the literature of Romanticism. Frances suffered the misfortune of incurring the enmity of her mother Lady Dalkeith, later Lady Greenwich, one of the unruly Campbell connection and a ‘wicked witch’, according to Louisa Stuart, herself a relative of the witch on her father’s side. There are commentators who have detected as implausible, in Richardson’s novel, not so much its postal dimension, the ‘ready scribbling’ which exceeds the call of duty and isn’t always fully compatible with decency – not that so much as the harshness of the Harlowes towards their paragon. But it would be a mistake to make light of the plausibility for the novel’s first readers, or for any readers, of this harshness. Lady Dalkeith was as harsh as any Harlowe. This passage depicts her in her ordinary abrasiveness, going about town: she ‘sallied every morning at the earliest visiting hour, entered the first house she found open, and there, in a voice rivalling the horn, published all the matches intrigues and divorces she had heard of; predicted as many more; descanted on the shameful behaviour of the women and the scandalous profligacy of the men; wondered what the world would come to – then bawled a little on public events, made war or peace; and, having emptied her whole budget, packed it afresh to carry it to another door, and another, and another, until dinner-time called her home. The rounds of the newspaper were not a bit more regular or certain.’ And Horace Walpole christened her the Morning Post, after a Private Eye of the time.

She took as her second husband the rogue politician Charles Townshend, who seems to have married her for money and influence, and to have gone in fear of her female will. According to J. Steven Watson’s Preface – one of two excellent introductory pieces, the other being by the editor of the volume – Townshend’s customs duties led to the loss of America, and his death in 1767 concluded a train of dazzling Parliamentary feats and turns. ‘Those volatile salts are evaporated,’ ran one of the tributes. Watson calls attention to the statement, in the biography of the politician by Namier and John Brooke, that Townshend needed his wit to shield a poverty of heart. This might be held to be like Lovelace, and in each case the wit is very brilliant. Each is a paragon in this respect. And Townshend was also known for his easy success with women. In 1767, Frances, the 17-year-old stepdaughter of this ‘young drunken epileptic’, in Watson’s words, witnessed the sudden end of a relationship with him which may have had the makings of a dangerous intimacy but may equally have rested on Townshend’s desire to shield her from her mother’s aversion. There is no evidence in the memoir of any poverty of heart on his part. Nevertheless, for reasons that seem to have included the threat of a dangerous liaison, she had been forced, before that, into a ‘flight’ from her family: this is a word that is used of what Clarissa did, and Watson applies it to what Frances did. She later managed a happy marriage to Archibald, Lord Douglas, the claimant in the notorious legal imbroglio, to which Louisa Stuart awards only twelve words. Her words do not ventilate the suspicion that Douglas may have acceded to the ‘gay world’ of aristocratic England, with its impostors and hangers-on, as a French gypsy child smuggled in to secure a succession: as a changeling, no less.

Each of the texts is the work of a fine feeler, and Richardson’s was to set patterns of sentiment for later times. And yet he was also superbly plain-spoken, and shrewd. So was Louisa Stuart, who seldom yields at all culpably to the cant of fine feeling, and that only when the merits and miseries of her heroine are at issue. Of Townshend’s fondness for his stepchildren she observes: ‘the very desire of playing amiable (as it is called) might insensibly lead him to imbibe true affection.’ This is somewhat damaging to Townshend, but does not make him out to be empty: a poor heart does not so imbibe. Elsewhere, as both Louisa Stuart and Jane Austen cause us to be aware, playing amiable was an attribute of the tyrannical male.

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