Samuel Richardson
Samuel Richardson; drawing by David Levine

In Livy and Ovid, Lucretia is a model and submissive wife. While other Roman matrons are idling away their evenings, she is to be found industriously spinning among her maids. The very exemplary quality of her life, not simply her beauty, inflames Tarquin. Only his threat to kill her, and then pretend he surprised her in bed with a slave, forces Lucretia to submit to rape. The next morning, she summons her husband, her father, and their friends, tells her story piteously to this all-male audience, and, despite their reassurance that she is in no way at fault, stabs herself in order to free her husband Collatine from shame—and also, as she insists, to prevent lewd women from using her as a precedent to escape punishment.

Her death sparks off a revolution. Brutus snatches the knife from her wound. Armed with this talismanic weapon, he persuades the populace to overthrow the whole house of the Tarquins, hereditary rulers of Rome, and drive them into exile. And so Lucretia becomes a heroine of chastity, is revenged on Tarquin and topples a monarchy, without ever encroaching on male prerogatives, or soiling her hands with any blood but her own.

With remarkable grace and economy, Ian Donaldson traces Lucretia (and her avenger Brutus) across two thousand years, in several literatures and through an impressive array of art forms. He assembles analogues to Lucretia’s story as diverse as Machiavelli’s Mandragola, Jonson’s Volpone, Richardson’s Clarissa, and Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Inevitably, he overlooks a few. Especially puzzling is his failure to notice The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Tourneur or Middleton, where the revenge action that overthrows an Italian dukedom is initiated by the suicide of Antonio’s chaste wife, after her rape by the duchess’s younger son. He also omits to mention Middleton’s very interesting early poem, The Ghost of Lucrece. For the most part, however, Donaldson handles his theme thoroughly. He is sensitively aware that one of the limitations of the Lucretia story is the fact that it has been created, sustained, and exploited largely by men. As he points out, “It is significant that the number of women who have chosen to treat this subject in literature and the visual arts is exceedingly small.” Lucretia is a heroine of the male, rather than the female, imagination.

Donaldson is also consistently interesting in his account of the changing (usually male) reaction to the story over time. At an early stage, a crucial and complex divergence declared itself. Although the exemplary Lucretia of the classical tradition continued to exist in men’s minds, she was soon dogged by a kind of dark familiar: the Lucretia whose suicide, as Saint Augustine feared, was really an act of spiritual pride, the product of her culpable failure to understand that worldly honor matters less than submission to divine will. Lucretia was not, of course, the only pagan to run foul of the Christian conviction that God has set his canon against self-slaughter. In the last chapter of his book, Donaldson examines a related shift of sensibility with respect to the “noble” suicide of Cato of Utica. But Lucretia’s suicide takes place in the murky context of sexual violence. Without intending to, Augustine made her vulnerable to the kind of suspicion against which rape victims have to contend to this day. Bandello and Coluccio Salutati were by no means the only writers to suggest that secret guilt drove Lucretia to take her life. May she not have found her husband boring, and Tarquin insidiously attractive? Did she discover, to her horror, that she enjoyed her rape?

Only two of the hundreds of versions of the Lucretia story to which Donaldson refers receive extended treatment: Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, and Richardson’s novel Clarissa. In both, Donaldson detects a moral clash. Shakespeare’s Lucrece has often made modern critics uneasy because of the florid and highly rhetorical nature of her grief, but Donaldson is disturbed by something different: what seems to him an unresolved conflict between pagan and Christian attitudes toward suicide, and to the relationship of body and soul. Shakespeare, he claims, “while sharing some of his contemporaries’ doubts about the way in which Lucrece chose to act, is attempting—not altogether successfully—to retell Lucrece’s story in a manner which is by and large approbatory.”

Not every reader will agree with Donaldson that Shakespeare’s celebration of Lucrece is disastrously undercut by the Christian terminology that recurs throughout the poem, and by Brutus’s brusque dismissal of her as he turns to political action at the end. In Lucrece, as in the Roman plays (which also adopt a consciously classical attitude toward suicide), Shakespeare writes the language of his time, continuing to employ words like “conscience,” “grace,” and “soul” despite their ineradicable Christian resonances. As for Brutus’s impatience with futile lamentation, his eagerness to get on with the job at hand, this kind of practicality is frequently visible in the concluding moments of Shakespeare’s tragedies.


With Clarissa, on the other hand, Donaldson’s doubts seem more central and searching. Certainly the problem on which he focuses—why does Clarissa sicken and die after her rape?—is one that every reader of Richardson must confront. As Donaldson points out, the Lucretia story was popular and controversial at the time Richardson was writing. Within Clarissa, Lovelace, his friend and confidant Belford, and Clarissa herself all invoke it, usually with a sense of the far greater complexity of their own predicament. Clarissa herself explicitly rejects Lucretia’s solution. The closest she comes to suicide in the commonly understood sense of the word is when Lovelace decides to rape her again while she is fully conscious, as opposed to being drugged and comatose, as she was on the first occasion.

Lovelace feels the need of this “final trial” of his “charmer” in order to be quite sure—shades of Bandello and Salutati—that she really derives no suspect pleasure from the experience. In a gesture that recalls artistic portrayals of Lucretia just before her death, Clarissa holds a penknife to her breast, and threatens to kill herself if Lovelace advances a step further. Cowed by this “tiger of a lady,” whose will and integrity have conspicuously survived the shattering of her hymen, Lovelace retreats. Shortly afterward, Clarissa escapes from the brothel in which she has been held prisoner and, eventually, falls among friends. She knows, however, that she will not live long and, although she eats and drinks, orders her affairs impeccably, and (of course) writes letters, her intimations of mortality are entirely correct.

Clarissa’s long month’s dying, her cheerfulness, piety, and composure, make her the wonder of the little circle of people who assemble about her. For Donaldson, this most exemplary of deathbeds reflects Richardson’s ultimate inability to shake off the old cultural stereotype deriving from Lucretia, despite the contradiction which it introduced into his text. After creating a woman who proudly knows herself uncontaminated by rape, who despises and refuses to marry her aristocratic persecutor, despite social pressure, who makes no attempt to conceal what has happened to her, and who sees that the law will not, and private persons should not, avenge her, Richardson weakly insisted upon her death. Once again, the woman’s inability to survive sexual violation has become the necessary proof of her chastity and nobility of mind. The irony of Donaldson’s reading is that it effectively associates the author with his character Lovelace: both of them become perverse and destructive idealists who cannot be assured that the heroine really is what she pretends to be until death places her beyond further trial and investigation. Donaldson’s is a genuine response to something in the novel, but by no means as full an explanation as he seems to think.

No matter how detailed and sensitive, any singleminded account of Richardson’s masterpiece must simplify and distort the original. This is, in part, a product of the enormous length of the work, and of the fluidity of an epistolary form—unusually complex in this case—which deprives the reader of any guidance from a narrator. A very considerable part of this novel lay outside its author’s conscious control. Indeed, in his “postscript” and in his later revisions, Richardson flounders in the toils of his own, intractable creation as much as we do. When he tried to tame the monster, tinkering with his original portrait of Lovelace in the effort to make him seem less attractive, counseling readers how they should react to a story that, Richardson claimed, was intended primarily as a “vehicle to the instruction,” he merely demonstrated how vastly the work itself had outstripped the ideas and convictions of its author and first critic. This largeness and irreducibility are part of Clarissa’s fascination. They are also a warning to those later critics who try, in their turn, to make it prove something, whether their point of view is Christian, Marxist, Freudian, or, more recently, deconstructionist and feminist.

For Rachel Brownstein, Clarissa is a key text in an overall argument about how women readers use novels of a certain kind to organize their feelings about themselves and their destinies. (She also deals with all the novels of Jane Austen, and with Villette, The Egoist, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, and Mrs. Dalloway.) In her honest, unabashedly personal book, she explores the various, simplifying ways in which heroines may view themselves, often seducing the characters around them, and the female reader, into a dangerous and unexamined acquiescence. For Brownstein, Richardson’s Clarissa is “about a girl’s dying to be a heroine or, as he calls it, an exemplar to her sex.” Read correctly, the book provides readers both with a model to be imitated and with a tragic account of what happens to girls who insist upon being paragons. There are many good and perceptive passages in Brownstein’s account of the novel—as, for instance, when she points out how Clarissa’s uncharacteristic recourse to disguise in order to escape the brothel marks the beginning of her ability to translate clothes and rooms, “the enclosures that have oppressed her,” into “artifacts that express her.” Yet her view of Clarissa as a girl who is required by God the Father, in the shape of Mr. Harlowe, to be an exemplar and, as such, is incapable of happiness on earth and threatened not just by the rake, but by marriage in any form, seems false.


Here, and elsewhere in Becoming a Heroine, Dr. Brownstein seems to be led astray by her own simplified view of that romance tradition which, she believes, continued to haunt the so-called realistic novel. “The Rose of romance,” she asserts, “is beautiful and exalted and beloved, simple not complex, coherent not diffuse, perfect not faulty, finished not in process, signifying and not seeking,…passive, being perfect.” This scarcely sounds like a description of Guinevere, of Spenser’s Britomart, or indeed of the two princesses Pamela and Philoclea in Sidney’s Arcadia—both of whom, like Clarissa, have to fight hard to maintain an unviolated, integral self during their captivity in Cecropia’s castle. Arcadia was still fairly widely read during the eighteenth century. But the similarities between Clarissa and Sidney’s heroines scarcely make Clarissa a “Rose,” tragically unfitted for life as it is, able to achieve the perfection for which she yearns only by dying, and so turning herself into “an artifact, an inhabitant of another world.”

Nor does it seem right to accuse Richardson of miming “a dream of order, control and enclosure that resembles Clarissa’s” in the way he ties up the ends of his novel. Clarissa’s death is indeed a studied and exceptional thing, even by the exacting standards that the eighteenth century set in such matters. Yet Richardson takes pains to stress that, after it, life goes on as usual in its untidy, unequal way. Clarissa’s cousin Morden disobeys her explicit injunction and kills Lovelace, a man still oscillating in one of his very last letters between the extremities of grief and fury because Clarissa’s death has put it “out of my power any way in the world to be even with her.” In the specific context of this October 14 communication to Belford, Lovelace means even with her in “generosity” (he has just been reading her will and posthumous letter), but the words he chooses make it clear that he remains trapped in the same old sexual power struggle, even after the death of his antagonist. similarly, the remorse felt by Clarissa’s ghastly family does not prevent them from squabbling over her will. Her brother and sister quickly learn to use her memory as a way of attacking each other, and in the last glimpse we have of James Harlowe, he is engaged in persecuting yet another “woman of spirit”: the orphan he married because she had a claim to great estates—never, as it turns out, to be released from litigation.

Dr. Brownstein’s interest in the influence that novels have exerted over the lives and aspirations of their feminine readers sometimes prevents her from reading the texts before her as closely and sensitively as she might. She is fascinated, for instance, by what she calls the “elegant” ironies of the climactic scene in Persuasion, in which Wentworth, overcome by the conversation he overhears between Anne Elliott and Captain Harville, on the subject of the relative capacity of men and women to go on loving after all hope is gone, drops his pen. “Jane Austen,” Dr. Brownstein is quick to point out, “took up the cause of women when she took up the pen to revise those important books, novels, which, she was aware, gave women all the education most of them got.” But in taking up the pen, Jane Austen used it to make discriminations and record fine shades of feeling which Dr. Brownstein ignores in her account of this very episode. Wentworth was using his pen at the time to write a business letter, not, as Brownstein asserts, one proposing to Anne. And to believe, as she apparently does, that Anne says what she does to Harville thinking that Wentworth can catch her words is not only to give her the character of a Lucy Steele, but to disregard the narrator’s scrupulous protection of the heroine from any imputation of the kind. Brownstein is right to praise Jane Austen for the new, complex understanding which she allowed women to have of themselves, but she herself fails here to do justice to its challenge.

Terry Eagleton, in The Rape of Clarissa, is also much concerned with what happens when women take up the pen, and with the difference between masculine and feminine writing. Paradoxically, although he sees Clarissa as a feminist heroine, her epistolary style strikes him as “masculine”: “admirably undishevelled,” “unified,” and “orderly.” It is Lovelace, apparently, who exploits a “feminine” idiom: “mercurial, diffuse, exuberant.” Although there is a certain amount of truth in this distinction, Eagleton allows it to blind him to other, more important differences between these two as correspondents. Almost inevitably, Clarissa writes as though (in Donne’s phrase) “more than kisses, letters mingle souls.” Vibrantly responsive to every nuance and shade of meaning in the letter she is answering, she always writes to the other person—whether Anna Howe, her old nurse Judith Norton, or the members of her family. Lovelace, on the other hand, for whom letters are a form of exhibitionism and aggression, can go on corresponding with Belford for months without registering the ways in which his friend has become psychologically estranged from him. It is difficult to see how these characteristics support either the alleged “masculinity” of her style, or the “femininity” of his.

The Rape of Clarissa is particularly unconvincing in its attempt to extend Lovelace’s feminine-masculinity and Clarissa’s masculine-femininity into the realms of Lacanian psychology. Richardson’s epistolary form allows Eagleton to have a good deal of fun with pens and penises. Lovelace, it seems, hopes through the “free play of the letter” eventually to be able to “inscribe Clarissa with his penis rather than his pen,” while letters themselves “come to signify nothing quite so much as female sexuality itself, that folded, secret place which is always open to violent intrusion.” Letters are also, however, “the fetish, as fantasmal phallus,” to be superseded in this role only by Clarissa herself, the “phallic woman,” whose reassuring lack of a penis Lovelace can ascertain only by raping her, so confirming his own shaky masculinity. All this is sprightly enough in its working out, but also drearily familiar: more tales from Dr. Lacan, or what Rachel Brownstein—in another context—describes as the “déjà lu.” (See, for instance, Lacan’s own essay on Hamlet, or his disciple André Green, in The Tragic Effect, solemnly explicating the relationship of Othello, Desdemona, and the fantasmally phallic handkerchief.) Implicit in all such readings is the idea that texts, like psychoanalytic patients, must submit to being told by their doctors that what they are demonstrably saying isn’t at all what they really mean.

Few English novelists are as adept as Richardson at suggesting the infinite depths and complexities of the human mind, and the linguistic subterfuges to which it resorts in its efforts to encompass the unspeakable. Beside those brilliant, horrifying scraps of paper that Clarissa, after her rape, inscribes, and then tears up or scratches through, with their disjointed talk of doors, keyholes, and the Lovelace who is “where you are, in a manner without opening any of them,” Eagleton’s dutifully Oedipal readings seem both mechanical and crass. Insofar as they do adhere to Richardson’s text, they distort it.

A good example of such distortion is Eagleton’s treatment of the dream in which Lovelace imagines that Clarissa, with the help of a benevolent dowager, has escaped from the brothel in which he has imprisoned her. In his fantasy, this matronly lady, after retiring to bed with Clarissa, turns first into the infamous Mother H., and then into himself. Making love to Clarissa, he brings her to bed of a son. For Eagleton,

The dream reveals Clarissa as unconscious mother-figure for Lovelace…. She bears him a son, who is at once Lovelace’s own son and Lovelace himself, so that in a common Oedipal fantasy he triumphantly becomes his own father.

There is not a scrap of evidence in the text to support this identification. Indeed, since Lovelace himself replaces Mother H. in the bed, he seems more plausibly an “unconscious mother-figure” for Clarissa than she could be for him. Nor can the hectic vigor of Eagleton’s interpretation conceal the fact that while Lovelace changes sex within the dream, Clarissa remains stubbornly female. Here, as elsewhere, the heroine’s phallic significance seems to be not the rake’s fantasy but Dr. Eagleton’s.

The Rape of Clarissa is never dull. But it is not really about Richardson’s novel. Passages like the one just discussed, in which Eagleton addresses himself directly to the text, are rare. When they do occur, they often seem perverse or puzzling. (What, for instance, does Eagleton mean when he refers to the “double entendre” of Lovelace’s “dying words”—which are “Let this expiate”?) Eagleton has really written another in his series of books on literary theory, a companion to his Criticism and Ideology of 1976, or his Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981), using Clarissa as a pretext for the further elaboration of a critical doctrine. Like a bold and brilliant juggler, he sets out to keep a series of somewhat ill-assorted plates spinning smoothly through the air, attempting to be at once Marxist, deconstructionist, Lacanian, and feminist. Inevitably, these systems collide—there is an intermittent sound of breaking crockery, especially when Marx and Derrida meet—and yet it is impossible not to admire the bravura and energy of the performance. It is staged, however, at a considerable distance from the novel.

Readers in search of a perceptive and detailed account of Clarissa would be far better advised to turn to Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist,1 despite Eagleton’s dismissal of its “liberal humanism.” Certainly Eagleton’s account of Clarissa’s death compares badly with that of Kinkead-Weekes, although it can be said for Eagleton that he is fundamentally too moral and feminist in his sympathies to approach the position recently adopted by William Beatty Warner,2 a critic who seems to believe that everything Lovelace does to Clarissa can be excused on the grounds of a salutary intention to “deconstruct” her.

On the other hand, Eagleton’s Marxism leads him to decide, with a similar lack of encouragement from the text, that Clarissa dies because she has recognized that hers “is no society for a woman to live in.” Her death signifies “an absolute refusal of political society: sexual oppression, bourgeois patriarchy and libertine aristocracy together.” It is a revolutionary act. This is not only to refuse to explore the densely realized social and religious circumstances surrounding the death of this very eighteenth-century heroine, which Kinkead-Weekes sensitively takes into account. It is, effectively, to make Clarissa over in the image of Giraudoux’s Lucile, in Pour Lucrèce, a woman who dies (as Donaldson points out) because she has come to understand the real nastiness of society. It grossly simplifies Richardson’s novel.

No single explanation of Clarissa’s death, whether it is Terry Eagleton’s act of political protest, Rachel Brownstein’s tragic perfectionism, or Ian Donaldson’s Lucretian guarantee of inner purity, can ever be adequate. Clarissa dies of delayed shock, from grief, because she feels guilty about her initial, secret correspondence with Lovelace, because her father will not forgive her, because she was at least half in love with the man who raped her, because of the side effects of Mrs. Sinclair’s drugs, and because her unconscious has informed her body that there is no point in continuing to live. It is a little like the fall of the Roman empire: there are almost too many reasons for her dissolution. She becomes the victim of all her experiences. And here, most obviously, the heroic Lucretian paradigm which lurks in the background of the novel dissolves into something closer to the reality of rape. Richardson was able, in his book, to break through a male stereotype to an understanding of women’s actual experience. How he achieved this—whether from some strain of femininity in himself, or by way of that extraordinary coterie of female friends with whom he was accustomed to discuss his novels—remains mysterious. But it is responsible in large part for the greatness of Clarissa.

This Issue

July 21, 1983