Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Matrimony and Morality; or, Grandisonian Near Misses

by Melinda Palmer Kolb, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

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.

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