by Sam Cahill, University of Notre Dame
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.
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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.