Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Rhetoric of Politeness in Sir Charles Grandison

by Rachel Schneider, University of Texas-Austin

In Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson demands not only the possession of virtue but the command of rhetoric and language from his heroes and heroines. Throughout the novels of the eighteenth century a hero’s benevolence and refusal to duel consistently signaled his status as a gentleman, but for Richardson, a mastery of language is as necessary to the polite man as virtue itself.

As Margaret Doody notes in her work on Grandison, “the moral courage of a virtuous hero who refuses a challenge had already been represented in fiction. In Steele’s The Conscious Lovers, the sentimental hero Bevil, in refusing a challenge, eventually convinces the challenger [not to duel]” (261). Sir Charles’s refusal to duel with Sir Hargrave Pollexfen after Sir Charles saves Harriet Byron from Sir Hargrave’s attempted abduction is his first and most critical “trying Scene” in the novel, during which he demonstrates not only his manly willingness to fight, but his further Christian charity in refusing to duel.

While Sir Hargrave and Sir Charles exchange words on the subject several times, the critical meeting between the two takes place at Sir Hargrave’s home. Richardson relates the story through a transcript of the conversation written by the amanuensis, a narrative contrivance that allows Richardson to avoid having Sir Charles recount his own virtues. The transcript format makes the story visually mirror the script of plays like The Conscious Lovers and highlights not only the scene’s thematic and generic similarities with such works, but the performative qualities of the two actors within it. Sir Hargrave tries to play the part of the injured gentleman whose honor has been besmirched in order to justify his challenge to Sir Charles. Sir Charles must fulfill his role as the perfect gentleman, who shows appropriate pride by refusing to accept insults, and benevolence by refusing physical combat with Sir Hargrave.

Sir Hargrave has arranged the scene so as to confirm his power and authority. Not only is there an amanuensis spying from inside a cupboard to ensure that Sir Hargrave does not go to jail if Sir Charles provokes him, he is in his own house, surrounded by friends, armed both with his sword and his dueling pistols. He has decided to receive Sir Charles in his “withdrawing-room” (247) which leads out directly onto the gardens, an open dueling space. Sir Charles’s first words to Sir Hargrave upon entering the scene are, “I have been very free, Sir Hargrave, to invite myself to breakfast with you” (248). Sir Hargrave has set the scene, but Sir Charles rhetorically takes possession of the situation. Although “I have been very free” implies a looseness of manners that could be blamable, it also shows Sir Charles assuming agency over the meeting and its agenda.

Sir Hargrave continues the conversation by reminding Sir Charles of his reasons for the meeting, thereby consenting to the sublimation of force into language, which is a part of the project of politeness during the eighteenth century. In the “polite society” that writers such as Addison and Steele defined, physical force was excluded as not only un-Christian, but detrimental to the peaceful exchange of ideas and goods. Moving the expression of emotion from physical force to metaphorical language created a safe area for exchange and reoriented power away from the strongest to those most able in rhetoric. Invested in that redefinition himself, Richardson makes his hero demonstrate a command of language that allows him to overcome his adversaries.

Sir Charles’s language in the rest of the scene sublimates his anger at Sir Hargrave’s baseness, but still is effective in arguing against dueling. When Sir Hargrave argues that Sir Charles owes him satisfaction for attacking him on the road, Sir Charles replies:

Sir Ch. I intended not to do you any of this mischief, Sir Hargrave. I drew not my sword, to return a pass made by yours—Actually received a raking on my shoulder from a sword that was aimed at my heart. I sought nothing but to hinder you from doing that mischief to me, which I was resolved not to do to you. This, Sir Hargrave, This, gentlemen, was the state of the case; and the cause such, as no man of honour could refuse engaging in.—And now, Sir, I meet you, upon my own invitation, in your house, unattended, and alone, to shew you, that I have the same disposition as I had from the first, to avoid doing you injury: And this it is, gentlemen, that gives me a superiority to Sir Hargrave, which he may lessen, by behaving as I, in his case, would behave to him. (250)

In this speech Sir Charles argues that Sir Hargrave cannot challenge him as Sir Hargrave offended first by attacking Sir Charles when he intervened to protect Miss Byron. He indicates his Christian intentions to avoid injuring Sir Hargrave as proof of his superiority over Sir Hargrave, using the language of charity (he wants to “avoid doing [Sir Hargrave] injury”) to argue against the logic of dueling. The comments of Sir Hargrave’s friends mirror the appropriate response to the speech for the reader:

Mr. Bag. By G— this is nobly said.
Mr. Jor. I own, Sir Hargrave, that I would sooner veil to such a Man as this than to a King on this throne. (250)

Sir Charles not only insists upon his superiority over Sir Hargrave to the man himself, but does so in language that convinces the unbiased viewers in the scene of his superiority and goodness.

Sir Charles’s rhetoric wins over the other rakes, but does not succeed in calming or convincing Sir Hargrave. The crucial moment in the scene occurs when Sir Hargrave and Sir Charles go outside, and the amanuensis comes out of the closet to watch what happens. His description of their confrontation becomes the only way the readers know the story. Richardson’s silencing of dialogue may seem to indicate his inability to think of the rhetoric that would convince an angry enemy not to fight, but artfully reduces the scene to pantomime, where Sir Charles is seen to be talking, Sir Hargrave insists on Sir Charles drawing his sword, and then

Sir Charles then calmly stepping towards him, put down Sir Hargrave’s sword with his hand, and put his left-arm under Sir Hargrave’s sword-arm. Sir Hargrave lifted up the other arm passionately: But Sir Charles, who was on his guard, immediately laid hold of the other arm, and seemed to say something mildly to him; and letting go of his left-hand, led him towards the house; his drawn sword still in his hand. Sir Hargrave seemed to expostulate, and to resist being led, tho’ but faintly, and as a man overcome with Sir Charles’s behavior. […] D—n me, said Sir Hargrave, as he enter’d the room, this man, this Sir Charles, is the devil—He has made a mere infant of me. (253)

The excessive detail in this description confuses the reader’s knowledge of how the confrontation transpires, and only returns to clarity in its result. However, Richardson’s excess of detail leaves no doubt of Sir Hargrave’s complete defeat. Despite holding a drawn sword, Sir Hargrave is unable to act physically or linguistically against Sir Charles. He can neither raise his hand nor expostulate against him. Sir Charles does not need to do more to stop Sir Hargrave than to grasp his arm in a friendly manner. Sir Charles’s rhetoric critically reduces Sir Hargrave to “a mere infant” (253), representing his total submission in a society that values polite conversation. Sir Hargrave tries to insist that Sir Charles must stand his friend with Miss Byron, but his words are ineffectual. Sir Charles has enough power to openly deny and ignore him, holding a separate conversation with the converted rakes. The pantomime prevents the reader from focusing on the specific language employed and reinforces the allegory that rhetoric (Sir Charles) overpowers mere physical violence (Sir Hargrave) in polite society. By refusing to have the confrontation depend on any specific argument or language from Sir Charles (which the reader would have effective to be convincing), Richardson has the freedom to turn the moment into allegory that makes the point more broadly.

Within Richardson’s novels as a whole, the control of rhetoric and language is a crucial factor in the constitution of gentility. Not only does Sir Charles masterfully employ language to convince others to follow his moral principles, within Clarissa both Clarissa and Lovelace command language effectively for their own purposes. Mr. Soames is mocked by Clarissa for being “very illiterate,” but Lovelace seduces Clarissa to his purposes through his artful letters. The crucial difference between Lovelace and Sir Charles is that Lovelace’s rhetoric is not guided by the moral principles that Sir Charles so clearly embodies within Grandison. Within the novel, Sir Charles Grandison lives out Richard Steele’s assertion that “to convince is much more than to conquer.”

Works Cited
Doody, Margaret. A Natural Passion: A Study of the novels of Samuel Richardson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Richardson, Samuel. The History of Sir Charles Grandison. Ed. Jocelyn Harris. Vol. I. New York: Oxford UP, 1972. Dunedin: Otago UP, 2001.

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