Thursday, May 8, 2008
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
In a very real sense, the Samuel Richardson Society, which will make its debut at this year's ASECS in Portland, was born out of a surprising love not of the much-taught Pamela or even the monumental Clarissa, but in fact, Sir Charles Grandison.
Grandison's admirers, of course, are in good company: Henry Austen tells us his sister Jane was fond of the novel (Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland defends it against Isabella Thorpe's distaste), as were Frances Burney and George Eliot. However, despite the many authors who trace their genealogy back to Richardson and Grandison in particular, critical attention has never been as sustained as that of its racier sister-novels.
Happily, this appears to be changing. The readings assembled here are a taste of the wealth of emerging scholarship on Grandison, and Richardson's work in general.
Nick Nace concentrates on the form of the novel and its connection to its title hero -- unlike Lovelace's continual "great and beautiful blooms of text" concealing unknowable lacks, Grandison's consistency creates a narrative problem -- how to create a suspenseful narrative that remains "open" in the presence of a fixed hero. He suggests that perhaps Grandison is the Richardson novel which most perfectly fits Johnson's dictum, "Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment." I too discuss Grandison's relationship to closure, calling for readings that draw upon the body of the book and its massive supporting apparatus to guide us toward new potential "senses of ending".
Rachel Schneider draws attention to rhetoric in the novel, focusing on Sir Charles and Sir Hargrave's verbal "duelling" and the construction of gentility through the moral deployment of language. Melinda Parker-Kolb is also interested in Sir Hargrave, suggesting that the Clementina-Harriet-Sir Charles love triangle at the heart of Grandison is, in fact, more complex (and quadrilateral) than traditionally thought, connecting this perception shift to a continuum of ethical systems in play in the novel, making a case for increased attention to Grandison as a text dealing in new symmetries. Sam Cahill intriguingly problematizes Grandison's influence as "cruel persuasion," making connections between the Poretta family's survelliance of Clementina, the Grandison family's manipulation of Charlotte, and the Harlowe's desire for conformity and obedience in Clarissa. Sir Charles's benevolent dictatorship is read as the "foundational sadism of a man who uses people’s personal attachment to him to create the world he wants" -- hot stuff, indeed.
These "blessays" (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Fry) are just the apertif to a banquet of Richardsonian work being presented at ASECS. Portland will be a playground for Richardsonians, from start to finish: on Friday, the editors of the Cambridge Grandison will speak on a roundtable in Session III, Session IV features papers on "Popular Fiction After Richardson," and more papers on Grandison will be presented in Session V. Saturday's morning session will feature a Grandison paper by Sam Cahill, and the final session will include a roundtable on Richardson, featuring Margaret Anne Doody, Jocelyn Harris, Betty A. Schellenberg, William B. Warner, and Lisa Zunshine. I do hope you will join us for what promises to be an illuminating discussion, both here and in Portland.
Samuel Richardson’s third novel and the only one to focus on a male protagonist, Sir Charles Grandison engages ideas about masculinity and honor and influenced nineteenth century writers such as Jane Austen. But despite its important place in the history of English literature it is also widely seen as a problematic work. The main criticisms focus on its hero—his unassailable virtue renders him static, pompous, and boring—the novel’s didactic quality, and the problem of its portrayal of women and power. It is this last criticism that I shall address by examining the character of Clementina, the behavior of Sir Charles and the Poretta family, and the sadism that haunts this influential novel of sentiment.
The female readers who corresponded to and about Richardson on the subject of his final novel, including Elizabeth Carter and Mary Delaney, tended to be quite enamored of Sir Charles’s Italian love interest, Clementina della Poretta, and her valiant struggle between her love for Sir Charles and her loyalty to her Catholic faith. Elizabeth Carter called her “a saint and a martyr” (March 18, 1754) and claimed that she “could be recompensed by nothing less than heaven” (December 10, 1753). Yet despite their sympathy for Clementina female readers objected to Sir Charles’s concession during the (unsuccessful) marriage negotiations with Clementina’s family to have any daughters of his union with Clementina educated as Catholics rather than as Protestants (the religion to which he insisted his sons must belong). Though Richardson defended Sir Charles’s decision, claiming, “what he offered, in so peculiar a situation, is by no means a precedent to be pleaded in common cases” (Richardson 473) the decision was, nevertheless, a precedent. Considering that Richardson had intended Sir Charles to be an exemplary hero, a man of true honor whose example others should imitate, his defense seems a bit flimsy. Delaney, indeed, considered Sir Charles’s decision, “the only blot” in his character (December 21, 1753). For Sir Charles, a daughter’s spiritual welfare can be compromised, but not a son’s.
In Sir Charles Grandison families—both the Grandisons and the Porettas—infantilize girls by refusing to allow them any privacy. The Porettas furtively listen to what Clementina thinks is a one-on-one conversation with Sir Charles (2: 147) and her confessor uses “fears and invectives” to give her “terrors” (2: 170-171), not only grossly abusing a sacrament (and his own identity as an ostensibly faithful Catholic) but also Clementina’s private, inner identity, her spiritual and emotional sanctuary.
Though she loves her family, Clementina sees their manipulation. She correctly suspects, in a pivotal conversation with Sir Charles, that he has sought her out not for the pleasure of her company, but because her family has sent him to gain information. She asks him repeatedly, when he broaches the issue of her refusal of the Count of Belvedere, “I suppose you have been spoken to, to talk with me on this subject—It is a subject I don’t like … I am sure you have been spoken to—Have you not? Tell me truly? … But has not my mamma spoken to you? Tell me?” (2: 145). Subject to surveillance, and therefore to regulation, in her moments of greatest vulnerability and honesty, what avenue of freedom is open to Clementina but that of madness? As Margaret Doody points out, the novel raises “doubts about the almost totalitarian vision of social judgment at the same time that it evokes the need for communal values and responsibilities” (114). Recognizing that the individual owes something to the community is meritorious, but it has its limits: too great a threat to individual identity results in madness or death (as in Clarissa’s case). The drama of Richardson’s work owes much to this high-stakes negotiation of individual and collective desire. The degree of success in reconciling them determines whether his characters are tragic or not.
Clementina is caught between conflicting sentimental and moral demands: respond appropriately to kneeling, crying, indulgent parents to whom she owes filial obedience, or preserve the integrity of her passion for Sir Charles and her religious conviction of the Catholic Church’s authority? Her family forces her to this impasse by refusing to let her take the veil. They do not allow her, to borrow a phrase from Lois Chaber, to judge “society from above, not from within” (270). They effectively turn everything that makes her admirable against her and it is no wonder that she asks, what “a miserable being must she be, who is at variance with herself?” (2: 152). Even though Mrs. Beaumont finally persuades Clementina to admit her love for Sir Charles, urging “is not the essence of friendship communication, mingling of hearts, and emptying our very soul into that of a true friend?” (2: 165), the revelation confirms for the reader Clementina’s worst fear, that of being manipulated in a moment of vulnerability, of being probed and prodded for information when she begs not to be. Once she has divulged her secret to Mrs. Beaumont, that lady insists that they share the information with Clementina’s mother (and therefore the rest of the family) and within 24 hours has dashed off a letter to the Marchioness declaring herself to be the “mistress of the dear young Lady’s Secret” (2: 164). Mrs. Beaumont’s feeling of triumph is at least as evident as her regard for Clementina.
The reason for all this ado about Clementina’s feelings is not entirely the Poretta family’s love for her as an individual. They care about her inner state when it threatens her outer appearance. Their concern—as it was for the Harlowes in Clarissa—is to have her appear cheerful. When she has initially renounced the Protestant “heretic” Sir Charles all her family members embrace her and, as Clementina describes it, “complemented me, but only on my chearfulness, and said, I was once more their own Clementina” (2: 172). And when Clementina cannot keep up appearances and experiences her breakdown, they press Sir Charles to talk to her because the Patriarch is visiting and they “would have her be cheerful before the Patriarch … he will expect to see her” (2: 149). It is their property in their daughter and the public admiration she excites that prompts their love; they show precious little regard for her thoughts or feelings otherwise, and never for her personal boundaries.
Sir Charles Grandison, as a figure of masculine authority, seems to solve the problem of private conformity to public demands by rendering obedience pleasurable through his personal charm, generosity, and clear judgment. However, the pleasure of being obedient to a man of Sir Charles’s merit obscures but does not erase the pressure to conform. A good deal of freedom, and the merit of choosing wisely that only freedom can give, is lost by the characters in the world controlled by Sir Charles. Wendy Jones has pointed out that his and Harriet’s mutual attraction instantiates sentimental love—erotic attraction to the beloved’s virtue “in a dialectical resolution of reason and passion” (78). Yet the fact that Richardson makes Sir Charles’s merit irresistible underscores the foundational sadism of a man who uses people’s personal attachment to him to create the world he wants. Admirable and benevolent patriarch though he is, the environment he creates is one of coerced, not freely chosen, virtue. This is part of what Carol Houlihan Flynn calls “the costs of the domestic reconciliation that Richardson exacts from his female characters and readers” (134).
Indeed, the young bluestocking Hester Mulso argued with Richardson against this very domestic reconciliation in Clarissa while he was starting to write Sir Charles Grandison. Rejecting Clarissa’s continued reverence for her father’s divine authority after he had cursed her in her temporal as well as eternal life, Mulso tells Richardson, “I think a father who can be capable of solemnly imprecating divine vengeance on his child, has very little title to be looked upon in this awful light” (November 10, 1750). Interestingly, the absolute filial obedience Mulso indicts in Clarissa is central to the arguments Sir Charles, Mrs. Beaumont, and the Porettas use against Clementina when she wants to withdraw from public life. And since it is the money associated with a daughter’s marriage that prompts both the Harlowes and the Porettas to abuse their child psychologically, Mulso’s implicit query is quite relevant: should a parent’s authority always be obeyed, whatever motivates that parent and however he or she behaves? Mulso voiced what Clarissa and Clementina could not or would not fully articulate.
Sir Charles is completely aware of the Porettas’ machinations; indeed, he uses similar tactics when convincing Charlotte to marry Lord G, but he uses the language of sentiment, virtue, and feeling throughout. He chides Charlotte for making light of a subject “that concerned the happiness of your future life, and, if yours, mine” (2: 86). He confirms their affective bond as brother and sister even while exposing Charlotte before the family for what he perceives as her “unprincipled” (2: 86) remarks. Condemned by her domestic community for her responses to him, Charlotte observes of her brother, “Very happy … to have such a character, that every-body must be in fault who differs from him, or offends him” (2: 87). Obedience is nominally voluntary, yet Clementina could be speaking for Charlotte as well as herself in exclaiming that she is “Oppressed by persuasion! … Cruel persuasion!” (3: 60). There is an element of sadism in applying profound emotional pressure to individuals in moments of vulnerability and it is a sadism that Sir Charles is as guilty of as the Poretta family. Richardson’s characters derive pleasure from the power registered by another’s suffering.
Sir Charles—and Richardson—desired an ordered, harmonious world of virtue and sociability. The author was, as Juliet McMaster argues, concerned with “inward and spiritual grace,” but for his readers and characters that grace must be registered in “outward and visible signs” (267). Yet to force someone to reveal him- or herself, the inner private self, violates the very virtue it seeks to celebrate. The “pursuit of a classical harmony of form and essence” (McMaster 255), of inner reality and outward manifestation, leads at best to Harriet’s embarrassment at her own frank but premature admission that she loves Sir Charles and at worst to Clementina’s madness. The disturbing question at the heart of Richardson’s project of harmony is what, if anything, remains of the individual after the private identity has been rendered a sacrifice to public consumption? Ultimately, the problem of Sir Charles Grandison and Sir Charles Grandison is not the hero’s perfect virtue or almost constant didacticism, but that the reader, like Clementina in regard to the Porettas, cannot trust the good man.
Carter, Elizabeth and Catherine Talbot. A Series of Letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot from the Year 1741 to 1770: To Which are Added Letters from Mrs. Carter to Mrs. [Elizabeth] Vesey between the Years 1767 and 1787, V. 1. London: F.C. & J. Rivington, 1808.
Chaber, Lois. “‘Sufficient to the Day’: Anxiety in Sir Charles Grandison.” In Passion and Virtue: Essays on the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Ed. David Blewett. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Delany, Mary Granville Pendarves. The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delany, Vol. 1. Ed. Sarah Chauncey Woolsey. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1879.
Doody, Margaret Anne. “Identity and Character in Sir Charles Grandison.” In Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays. Eds. Margaret Anne Doody and Peter Sabor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Flynn, Carol Houlihan. “The Pains of Compliance in Sir Charles Grandison.” In Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays. Eds. Margaret Anne Doody and Peter Sabor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Jones, Wendy. Consensual Fictions: Women, Liberalism, and the English Novel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
McMaster, Juliet. “Sir Charles Grandison: Richardson on Body and Character.” In Passion and Virtue: Essays on the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Ed. David Blewett. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Mulso, Hester. “Letters on Filial Obedience.” In Bluestocking Feminism: Writings of the Bluestocking Circle, 1738-1785. Vol 3: Catherine Talbot & Hester Chapone. Ed. Rhoda Zuk. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999.
Richardson, Samuel. Sir Charles Grandison. 1753-4. Ed. Jocelyn Harris, 3 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Epistolary novels are notoriously "open" works. The potential unending nature of a correspondence lingers around the form, which tends to create endings that center around the reunion or final alienation of the correspondents, or that most ultimate of ends, death itself. Moreover, the subjectivity of the letter-writer's point of view has been time and again discussed: much ink has been spilled on what William B. Warner called "The Pamela Media Event" -- the explosion of multimedia responses, continuations, condemnations, and retellings of the story that contains the seeds of its own critique within the pages of its text. Less has been made of the effect of epistolarity on Richardson's final novel, Sir Charles Grandison, and what Jocelyn Harris calls the "prevailing self-consciousness" of the final novel -- a description by no means meant as a compliment (130).
This is, I suspect, because unlike Richardson's other novels, Grandison does not fall into the first and most glaring trap of the epistolary form: to whit, the title subject does not tell his own story. Because the titular hero is not also the speaker (as Pamela Andrews was entirely and Clarissa Harlowe was primarily), several of the interpretive problems that arise in the prior novels are not found in the same fashion. Because we do not hear Sir Charles speak of his own virtues, the charges of a self-serving narrative are largely mitigated.
That said, Grandison is not without its own challenges. Sir Charles himself is, unlike the vacillating Pamela or self-protective Clarissa, absolutely opaque and almost superhumanly consistent. If he struggles (as Richardson claims he does, with "tendencies to pride and passion" (6.300)), it is not presented to our gaze directly. How does one hang a story around a main character who does not grow and change, particularly in a period that is dominated, as J. Paul Hunter suggests, by a "character-centric" understanding of the shape of the novel? (283)
First, one might argue that in fact Harriet Byron is the primary focus of the narrative, but even Harriet herself is a more or less exemplary character (as befits the future consort of Sir Charles Grandison). To balance this, there is also a massive cast of characters and other correspondents whose epistolary social network expands our focus far beyond Grandison and Harriet alone. As it was with Clarissa's sassy friend Anna Howe, Sir Charles's sister Charlotte and her adventures in courtship, marriage, and motherhood provide vivid forward motion during the long stretches of deadlock in the Byron-Grandison courtship.
This is quite necessary, for the "deadlock" is further complicated by Sir Charles himself, who has managed to get himself into quite a romantic pickle. As we discover in Volume Three, Sir Charles has been mired in marriage negotiations with the family of Lady Clementina Poretta since before the outset of the novel's events. It is this event -- not character development and progress -- that serves as the primary prevention of narrative closure in the novel. While this engagement makes sense as a complicating outside factor, it is nevertheless one of the more difficult plot developments to reconcile with Sir Charles' perfection. The courtship is bizarre and often critiqued, both within the text and outside it [READERS?]. In the recounting of his relationship with Clementina and the Poretta family, Sir Charles claims to have rigidly respected his role as honorary brother, tutor, and insurmountable religious differences, and indeed only thinks of marrying Clementina when her entire family begins making negotiations on her behalf. One is reminded a bit wryly of P.G. Wodehouse's self-described preux chevalier Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, who thought it only polite to acquiesce to a woman's demands when she assumes an engagement is in the offing.
Even this complication, once resolved, cannot truly end the novel. Instead, the novel continues to spin out to an ending that doesn't seem to be all that necessary. This is quite unlike Pamela, whose final letter is sent ahead of herself, to the parents she will shortly reunite with, or Clarissa, which ends with the dramatic death scene of Lovelace. To concentrate on Harriet Grandison's final letter, with its deaths, legacies, and encomium upon the hero, is hardly to find an end of the correspondence or narrative in any final sense. For all the events that are crowded into the text, they seem to be rather beyond the point. Leah Price suggests the novel is "so boring" because even that which does happen makes no "financial difference" (43).
Moreover, Richardson's books, especially Grandison, do not physically end with the final letter. As Janet Altman notes in her work on the epistolary form, epistolary novels cannot be understood apart from the massive frames that so often accompany them (163), and this is particularly true of Richardson, who she singles out as presenting a complete text, with an authoritative reading of the work, establishing his editorial presence as the ultimate authority (165, note 16). It is vital to look at books as physical objects, particularly in the case of Richardson, as the apparatus was as much in his control as the rest of the narrative, and he tirelessly exercised creative control on his texts towards his own ends (as discussed by Stephanie Fysh).
Finding the end of the novel is, from a purely material perspective, surprisingly challenging. While readers of Pamela and Clarissa had only a handful of additional pages to contend with (Pamela's first edition features a six-page conclusion, Clarissa's, seventeen), the readers of Sir Charles Grandison have never had the luxury of encounting the novel's narrative divorced from a massive chunk of supplementary material. Because of the threat of a pirated Irish edition, Richardson felt forced not only to defend the legitimacy of his own edition in the separately-published The case of Samuel Richardson, of London, printer; with regard to the invasion of his property in The history of Sir Charles Grandison, before publication, by certain booksellers in Dublin, but also within the text itself, in an "Address to the Public" with its own epistolary evidence (see Price 37).
Succeeding editions would be no less dense with "back matter," nor is this material easy to ignore -- in the second edition, 133 pages of the final 438-page volume -- a solid third of the volume -- are devoted to the concluding apparatus: an index, concluding note by the editor, an index of similies and allusions, an additional letter, as well as the Address to the Public. Thus, 30% of the concluding volume was taken up with material that can be understood as "supplemental" to the main text. To dismiss this substantial chunk of "the end" as merely incidental would be to mistake not only Richardson's purpose, but the physical reading experience of the text. How could a reader adequately anticipate the end of the novel with such an expansion of pages still awaiting them even when they'd reached the end of the correspondence?
Thus, it seems clear to me, at least at my current phase of thinking (stay tuned), that Richardson's final novel exemplifies, perhaps more than its sisters, Johnson's dictat to read Richardson's works for something other than plot. Moreover, I find that to be a rather liberating way of understanding this weird and experimental text. Rereading, meditation -- the work we know Richardson himself performed and found meaningful -- is most strongly encouraged in this novel, which not only includes massive end matter (as his two other novels would expand to include), but also makes ending with the final letter more a spur to reenter the text than to a sense of closure.
Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1982.
Erickson, Robert A. "Written in the Heart: Clarissa and Scripture" Passion and virtue : essays on the novels of Samuel Richardson. David Blewett, Ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Fysh, Stephanie. The Work(s) of Samuel Richardson. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.
Harris, Jocelyn. Samuel Richardson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989
Hunter, J. Paul. "Serious Reflections on Farther Adventures: Resistances to Closure in Eighteenth-Century English Novels," in Augustan Subjects: Essays in Honor of Martin C. Battestin, ed. Albert J. Rivero. Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1997.
Price, Leah. Anthology and the Rise of the Novel : From Richardson to George Eliot. Cambridge [England] ; Cambridge UP, 2000.
Richardson, Samuel. The history of Sir Charles Grandison. In a series of letters published from the originals, by the editor of Pamela and Clarissa. In six volumes. ... [The second edition] London, -1754. 6 vols. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale Group. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO
Schellenberg, Betty A. The conversational circle : rereading the English novel, 1740-1775. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996
Warner, William Beatty. Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Considering The History of Sir Charles Grandison in its own right and not as a pendant to Richardson’s first two novels is an exciting venture. There is still so much to explore from so many angles. Despite there being relatively large tracts of uncharted territory, there are some entrenched traditions in the critical reputation of Grandison which are due for revaluation. In this essay I will consider a certain harmony of structure and context in the novel of the Richardsonian “Good Man.” To do so I shall have to fly in the face of synoptic accounts of Grandison by arguing that the infamous love triangle at its heart—Sir Charles Grandison, Harriet Byron, and Clementina della Porretta—is, in fact, not a triangle. A simple shift in perspective should suffice to make my point.
A three-point constellation pits Anglican Harriet against Catholic Clementina for the heart of the virtuous hero. Or, conversely, the hero’s heart is torn between the two pious, virtuous women. Whether active or passive, the three-way tearing of hearts is indeed a significant narrative event, but it is an incomplete structural formation; it does not adequately capture the significance of the larger picture of this very large novel. The formation is completed by introducing Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, the leading libertine in Grandison, as a fourth into the set. His addition realigns the figure, creating a mise en relief of thematic symmetry in the novel’s conceptual structure.
In terms of simple plot structure, there is a change of partners—though by no means is it an exchange. Two initial pairs of would-be marriage partners are made up entirely independently of each other. Sir Hargrave and Harriet form the first pair of the novel. Everything about this match would have been wrong. We are left in no doubt that a marriage or a concubinage brought about by the machinations of a libertine, Richardson’s standard threatening situation for virtuous heroines, would have been disastrous. Sir Charles and Clementina form the second, though it predates the first as we learn retrospectively with teary-eyed Harriet in the library at Colnebrooke. Although it lacks the high theatrics of masquerade, abduction and rescue, an interconfessional marriage would have been less than ideal in many eighteenth-century ways which Sir Charles discusses point by point with the Porretta family in the fifth volume.
The characterization and narrative treatment of these two pairs are quite different. There is a significant parallel, however, which lies in the fact that in both pairs one partner holds the other captive—in the first by brute force and in the second by the force of courtesy and even love. (And both captors are mad in their own ways—a subject for another essay.)
For the perfect marriage to take place, then, there must be a change of partners. Accordingly, the hero and the heroine extricate one another from the almost-marriages. Sir Charles romantically swashbuckles Harriet out of Sir Hargrave’s clutches. Harriet finally snaps the bonds constraining Sir Charles by marrying him, exactly as Clementina, his heart’s captor, had stipulated some worthy Englishwoman must—whether we find this stipulation psychologically convincing is quite beside the point. It is the near miss in both cases that sets up a clear contrast.
Herein lies the crux of my argument: the juxtaposition as seen in the minimal plot structure outlined above is aligned with the conceptual structure of the novel. In other words, the pious and, above all, virtuous protestant heroine and hero escape intimate, life-long association with free-thinking or libertinism and Roman Catholicism. This ‘conceptual structure,’ as I call it, in turn corresponds to the mid-eighteenth-century intellectual context; specifically it resonates with the discourses on human conduct and toleration. In eighteenth-century protestant rhetoric, free-thinking and “popery” were manifestations of the extremes of irreligion and superstition, respectively.
Various controversies touching on morality and the source of it helped to keep eighteenth-century presses rolling. The theoretical discourse of the moral philosophers (Hume, Smith, et al.) and the practical ethics of the conduct books are not, however, the whole story. Proponents of Christian ethics—some more, some less “traditional”—were vocal participants in the eighteenth-century discourse on human behavior. Since the seventeenth century, polemic targets of churchmen, dissenters of all stripes and lay philosophers such as Locke—when not shooting at each other—had been freethinking on the one hand, and Roman Catholicism on the other. The perceived atheism of the former was said to make morality impossible, and the perceived doctrinal corruption (indulgences, dispensations etc.) of the latter was thought to hinder the true Good Life with enthusiasm and superstition.
The correspondence of this conceptual structure of Grandison to the spectrum of moral theories of the day comes into focus when we grant the libertine, laughable as this particular one is, a place parallel to the sympathetic Catholic in the constellation of near-miss marriages at the center of the novel’s action. It lends moral gravity to Sir Charles’ choice of bride. It is not enough simply to reduce the perfect hero’s trial to period-piece questions of divided love, of punctilio, of stubborn allegiance to the religion of his country; it is all that, but it is also more. Richardson himself was no theoretician, but considerations of morality on a somewhat abstract level are built into the very structure of his third novel.
Indeed, given the centrality of the Grandison-Byron wedding—as central as the rape in Clarissa and a moral inversion of it—the two avoided marriages and the less-than-ideal moral options they imply are only one step removed from that center. Situated along a continuum of religious ethics, the three marriage possibilities set the thematic heart of Grandison in the context of a discourse on morality which extends beyond the pales of consciously secular moral philosophy and conduct-book prescription.
The shift in perspective argued for in this essay may not lend the GOOD MAN'S virtue-in-prosperity any new narrative sparkle. It is hoped, however, that it makes a case for the possibility of critical appreciation both of narrative technique and of the cultural significance of Richardson’s last novel. As only one of many ways to consider Grandison as Grandison and not as a failed Clarissa, the harmony of structure and context suggests that there are paths yet to explore between this novel and the history of eighteenth-century thought and culture and especially religion.
Could it be that the enduring unpopularity of Sir Charles Grandison is the result of Richardson finally having done everything right? Has the book, like its hero, come to be seen as the “faultless monster” Richardson feared he might create? Even the moralist in Richardson would consider it an indisputable fact of human nature that we naturally find vice more interesting than virtue. But this congenital shortsightedness does not alone explain our preference for reading the letters of “a man void of principle” (Lovelace) over “a truly good man” (Grandison). Sir Charles may indeed be a “modern Anglican knight of sensibility,” but his errands are not particularly lively ones. His character comes to be revealed if not determined by duels that never happen. And Richardson does his plot no great service when in the first couple pages he repeatedly proclaims his hero’s exemplary status, manifest in his “acting uniformly well” in accordance with his “one steady Principle.” With only the materials of “philanthropy and humanity” at his disposal, Grandison proves himself to be a consistently decent and magnanimous negotiator—“uniform” and “steady”—but must align himself against the perversities of doubt, anxiety, and excitement that produce what we still call “suspense.” If Grandison is not as successful at holding our interest as Richardson’s earlier “man void of principle,” the reason could be formal instead of moral. Perhaps it isn’t the vice we’re missing in the depiction of Grandison, but the void.
Grandison’s preface explicitly contrasts Lovelace and Grandison, and even in these first pages we can begin to see an important discursive difference in how Richardson sought to illustrate these two characters. Lovelace is constituted by indefinition. Not only is he a man without a complete set of morals and rules, but Richardson suggests that he doesn’t have a single one. Accordingly, Lovelace conceals himself (often from himself) by creating great and beautiful blooms of text that distract us from, while alerting us to, the absence beneath. Grandison, on the other hand, is a product of positive definition. He is consistently and predictably “good.” The outside world can change, but he ultimately stays the same. He exerts by the example of his own uprightness a kind of moral order on his surroundings. Because he cannot be willfully “artful,” the story that bears his name must take its “variety”—and, I would say, its interest—from the views of other people, which Richardson’s final novel offers in unprecedented numbers. Being a paragon of masculine virtue, Grandison must refuse the strategies of a Lovelacean “plotter” or “designer,” a fact that might make us begin to question whether a compelling and suspenseful narrative might not require a bit of Lovelacean mystery and manipulation. The seductiveness of vice made so engaging by Lovelace’s “misuse of wit and youth, rank and fortune” was the great moral problem in Clarissa, but it was what kept readers repulsed just enough to keep them turning pages with interest.
Richardson of course knew this. And further knew that in order to meet the requirements of a successful narrative he himself was the one who must resort to double-dealing, who must in a sense become a Lovelace. “I have, designedly, play’d the Rogue with my Readers,” Richardson divulges in a letter to Lady Bradshaigh, “intending to make them think now one way, now another, of the very same Characters. . . . My Hero only, I hoped, you would always think of in one Way” (Selected Letters, 248). One of the great virtues of Clarissa was the instability of its characters, or at least the potential for readers to examine each new letter without arriving at anything resembling certainty. Certainty, decisiveness and determination always prove to be the enemies of suspense, and they are all hallmarks of Grandison’s behavior. As Leah Price reminds us, “Clarissa takes its name from the author of a will, Grandison from an executor” (Price 44). The difference has consequences not only for locating authority and power in the novels, but also for the different ways that the processes of writing and reading are dramatized by the novels. In short, Clarissa encodes and Grandison decodes. The division of labor between testator and executor, writer and reader, helps to elaborate an important stylistic difference between the novels that bears directly on their respective techniques of generating narrative interest. The single most straightforward and telling contrast between Lovelace and Grandison occurs when each distills his philosophy of communication into gnomic advice: In order to become an intriguing figure to women, Lovelace advises Belford to “Be implicit” (Clarissa, 3rd ed. III.321–2); Grandison’s letter to Dr. Bartlett recommends, with matching gnomic precision, that all men should “Be explicit” (Grandison, I.450). Implication is the shadowy obverse of, and necessary precursor to, explication. As a narrative procedure, implication operates by withholding some essential knowledge, a process that, among other things, generates suspense in the abeyance of forthrightness and revelation.
Long before Clarissa’s textual instability was displayed under the mirrored disco ball of 1970s deconstruction, Sarah Fielding’s fictitious critical colloquy, Remarks on Clarissa (1749), demonstrated the dramatic potential of the interpretative instability Richardson calculatedly achieved. Grandison appeals to us in much the same way as Fielding’s Remarks: without any gaps to imaginatively fill, we sort through various interpretations of something static (Sir Charles’s virtue) instead of establishing our own. At its most compelling, Grandison seems to preempt outside criticism by anticipating or incorporating these voices into its text; the interpretative elements fostered by Clarissa are in Grandison part of the narrative. Sir Charles is the focus of endless speculation and interpretation, much of it designed to heighten the mystery of a man whose ethics require him, more often than not, to choose silence when any uncertainty or curiosity might produce the uncontrollable dynamism of “suspense” in speaking. If his self-evident goodness can legitimately be described as “restless” and “active” (II.38), it is the explication by others—the novel’s women, and Harriot in particular—that makes it appear so. The narrative strategies of a successful story, the same little essential incompletenesses that enable explication, are in a way unavailable to Grandison, arising as they do from surprise, indirection and fancy—all things associated in Grandison with the “pretty playfulness” of the female mind and its consequent “overflowings” (I.178).
Richardson knew this too. So it’s no surprise for us to see him admit (again to Bradshaigh) that “a good woman is my favourite character,” particularly since for him a woman’s “softness of heart, gentleness of manners, tears, beauty will allow pathetic scenes” (Selected Letters, 180). While these qualities are not exactly to be considered “faults” by themselves, they do in the hierarchical world of Grandison mark an incompleteness that is both feminine and explicitly linked to narrative interest. Charlotte’s exuberant linguistic “excursiveness” nominates her narration as the text’s counterpoint to the masculine narration that dominates, complete with the “little foibles” that Richardson found so compelling in the “tender minds” of women. Described by Selby as “roundabouts,” “circumambages” and “circum-roundabouts,” Charlotte’s pert expatiations are compelling precisely because they are constructed around a lack. Her discourse is perhaps wayward and nonlinear, but just as it makes nothing its subject, it has the generative capacity to “make subjects out of nothing” (III.261), to proceed with uncertainty until a theme coalesces that will make sense of everything. Charlotte’s writing, then, is not unlike Lovelace’s or Richardson’s own, relying as it does on the importance of uncertainty and indefinition in creating suspense.
Richardson himself claimed to have written Clarissa without a scripted plan—or, as he wished to say, with an indecisive “No-Plan”—but in Grandison it seems that the technique was wholeheartedly embraced, often allowing his earliest readers to catch up with him completely. When Richardson ended one letter of his final novel, he “hardly knew what his next would be,” which kept him alive to possibility, but also allowed him, in consultation with his mostly female focus group of test readers, to write the final volumes Grandison as an all-anticipating, self-explicating study of exhaustively instantiated and still unimpeachable male flawlessness. Grandison is, after all, a novel for which a compelling case can be made—as Lisa Zunshine demonstrates in the MLA Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Samuel Richardson—that its first 465 pages, supplemented with a synopsis of its remaining 1135, can form an independently teachable unit in a course on the eighteenth-century novel, with only a loss of “richness” and the forfeiting of “a more satisfying sense of closure” (Zunshine 184). This eminently reasonable approach to teaching Grandison heightens the book’s suspense, if in an artificial way, by locating its appeal outside of plot-based teleology (where students are accustomed to finding it) and within the workings of a critical imagination that scours texts for implicit faults, flaws, fissures, and gaps. By maintaining in Grandison’s parts II and III an unfilled void as a repository of expectation and ideation, we can begin to understand Lovelace’s attitude toward plot, where “preparation and expectation,” the alpha and omega of libertine encroaching, are preferred to “fruition.” After all, if Grandison can be enjoyed without narrative closure, perhaps it becomes the paragon of Richardsonian plotlesness, a novel that suddenly makes Lovelace’s rhetorical question seem less absurd: “But in a play, does not the principal entertainment lie in the first four acts! Is not all in a manner over when you come to the fifth!” (574).
Price, Leah. The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady. 1747–8. Ed. Angus Ross. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
-----. Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady. 3rd ed. 8 vols. London, 1751.
-----. The History of Sir Charles Grandison. 1754. 3 vols. Ed. Jocelyn Harris. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
-----. Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson. Ed. John Carroll. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.
Zunshine, Lisa. “Teaching Sir Charles Grandison instead of Pamela to Undergraduates.” Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Ed. Lisa Zunshine and Jocelyn Harris. New York: MLA, 2006.