by Nicholas D. Nace, University of California, Berkeley
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.