Promises, Promises

“Promises Made, Promises Kept.” So ran President Trump’s campaign slogan before the pandemic underlined, as if it needed underlining, the utter emptiness of his promises. For Trump, famously, everything is transactional. He makes promises in order to get what he wants, with no intention of keeping them–indeed no real understanding of why he should. For a sense of the threat such an attitude represents, we might turn to David Hume, who famously argued in A Treatise of Human Nature that the keeping of promises is necessary to maintaining “the climate of trust” essential to the workings of society. The pandemic seemed to mark the final disappearance of this climate, with too many people placing too little trust in science and too much trust in Trump himself. This was the right time, then, to read a novel about the betrayal of trust—Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, published less than a decade after Hume’s Treatise and featuring a villain whose promises are as empty as Trump’s own, and whose treatment of women is every bit as hateful and manipulative.

Yet notwithstanding the world of lies in which he entraps Clarissa, Lovelace appears to believe himself trustworthy, brazenly declaring that “No man ever reproached me for breach of word.” Perhaps this is no more than the equivalent of Trump calling himself “the most honest man in America.” But what if Lovelace were simply speaking the truth? “A strange liberty gentlemen of free principles take,” Clarissa’s cousin Colonel Morden observes near the end of Richardson’s novel, “who at the same time that they would resent unto death the imputation of being capable of telling an untruth to a man, will not scruple to break through the most solemn oaths and promises to a woman.” One of the things Clarissa has to teach us, I came to realize over the course of the long summer of 2020, is that Hume’s climate of trust only ever applied to the group best placed to abuse it: white men.

The obviousness of Lovelace’s hypocrisy can blind us to a far more disturbing discrepancy between Lovelace’s situation and Clarissa’s, a discrepancy all the more shocking when we remember that Richardson’s heroine is held up, not least by the novel itself, as a pattern of virtue. One of the most ironic barbs Lovelace slings at poor Clarissa is “promise-breaker.” He is referring to the appointment with him that Clarissa tries to break, the appointment that ends with her being tricked into fleeing with him, thereby delivering her into Lovelace’s power. But in a sense, she has already delivered herself to him simply by the act of promising. “Did she think,” Lovelace writes to his accomplice John Belford, that “I would not keep her to her promise; that I would not hold her to it, when I had got her in so deeply?”

In promising, Hume observes, we “bind ourselves to the performance of any action.” Only the promisee has the power to release us, which is why Kant characterized the recipient of a promise as having “taken possession” of the person doing the promising. The promise Clarissa makes to Lovelace hands her future over to him, despite the fact that she is not, thanks to her position as woman, in a position to promise. The moral philosopher Annette Baier observes that until very recently, the right of women “to promise anything of significance was contracted into the right to make one vow of fixed and non-negotiable content, the marriage vow, and even that was often made under duress. … They were the traded, not the traders, and any participation they had in the promising game was mere play.” Clarissa is herself painfully aware of this, referring at one point to “the Old Law” by which “the vows of a single woman, and of a wife, if the father of the one, or the husband of the other, disallow of them.” Clarissa thus describes a vicious double-bind in which Richardson’s heroine has no right to make promises, yet she can still be held to them.

Promising is the paradigmatic example of what J. L. Austin defined as the speech-act, a form of words in which saying is the equivalent of doing. To say “I run” is not to perform the act of running—sadly enough for those of us with dodgy knees—but to say “I promise” is, provided certain conditions have been met, to perform the act of promising. The first of these conditions is that no one else can do my promising for me. “If I say ‘I promise,’” Austin writes, “I don’t say I say I promise, I promise … whereas if I say ‘he promises’, I do (only) say he says he promises … only he can say he promises. I describe his promising, but I do my own promising.” In Richardson’s novel, however, Clarissa does have her promising done for her. Her promises are only “happy,” in Austin’s distinct terminology, if the person to whom she is promising decides to regard her words as a promise. As a result, she has no power to shape the world with her own words.

Yet despite the fact that Clarissa exists beyond the borders of Hume’s climate of trust, Richardson’s heroine has no option but to rely upon it. Although she has every reason to doubt Lovelace, Clarissa writes to her friend Anna Howe that “The ardour with which he vows and promises, I think the heart only can dictate. How else can one guess at a man’s heart?” Clarissa must believe in Lovelace’s promises because she has no choice, since she has no other means of determining what he is feeling and thinking. What she cannot know is that Lovelace regards the act of promising as an affront to his honor: “To vow fidelity is to show, that there is reason, in my own opinion, for doubt of it.” Lovelace’s self-regard prevents him from recognizing the very possibility of being in anyone’s debt. The obligation incurred in promising, as he sees it, is to no one but himself, since in giving his word, “I have entered into compact with myself.” The erasure of Clarissa, the recipient of so many of Lovelace’s promises, is absolute. Yet Lovelace’s sentiment merely exposes the logic of a world in which truth is a matter not of matching words to reality, but of words to persons. Clarissa writes letter after letter; she observes, judges, reasons, proposes, avows, pleads, begs. And no one listens. Even her death fails to deliver her from the hell of broken, refused, warped, and abused promises in which she spends the novel. Receiving news of his cousin’s death, her protector Colonel Morden “look[ed] upon himself on that account to be freed from his promises made to the dying lady.”

Clarissa did at least end with one promise kept: the promise I made to myself that, having taken on such a massive novel, I would finish it. Or perhaps the promise was not in fact to myself, whatever Lovelace may think, but to the reading group which made it possible to imagine coming to the end of this vast, astonishing, horrifying novel. I found a certain freedom in being required (being bound, if you like) to read a novel that I was not teaching, from a period I know far too little about, by a writer I have rarely considered. What I most enjoyed, I think, was sharing the duration of reading. I would read Clarissa in sustained bursts every two weeks just before each meeting, determined not to be the bad student, anxious to share my sense of outrage, bewilderment, and admiration for a novel that exposes so completely a terrifying moral landscape that, as the events of the past year have clearly showed, is still the one in which so many are condemned to live. Perhaps now that we have a President whose memoir is titled Promises to Keep, we might begin to leave this landscape behind. Time will tell. But if nothing else, the experience of reading Clarissa in company with so many thoughtful engaged readers left me with a sense of solidarity and intellectual companionship at a time when loneliness and loss have darkened so many lives. And that, perhaps, is the promise that drew us all to reading in the first place.

Stuart Burrows is Associate Professor of English at Brown University. He is the author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography (Georgia, 2008) as well as a number of essays in edited collections and journals on writers ranging from W. G. Sebald to Jane Austen. Professor Burrows is currently completing a book on Henry James titled The Promise of Fiction.

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