In one of Clarissa’s most harrowing episodes, the heroine escapes from Lovelace’s imprisonment and manages to hide in anonymity at one Mr. Smith’s in Covent Garden. During this time, she assumes a role that has become quite familiar in our own time: fact-checker. Lovelace has been making dozens of promises—that her letters have been reaching their intended audiences, that his family approves of their intended marriage, that he truly wants to marry her. When at last out of his power, Clarissa writes her friends and acquaintances, as well as Lovelace’s own relatives, asking whether any of it is true and indeed whether her letters have been reaching their intended recipients. As these various interlocutors write back their confusion and surprise, Clarissa discovers that she has been living in a Lovelacean Matrix, a counterfactual universe that begins crumbling around her. As troubling as this realization is, her reaction to Lovelace’s “deep machinations” is even more devastating. While everyone wants to know what really happened to her, she says cannot yet tell the story. “At present I have neither inclination nor words.” The idea of reliving the abuse, the gaslighting, the rape—much less of trying to make sense of it all—is too much to bear.
Clarissa’s efforts to root out the truth, and the feeling of being gutted when she gets to the bottom of it, resonate with much of what we have collectively been feeling in pandemic lockdown. As Lauren Kopajtic keenly observes in another piece in this collection, part of what links Clarissa’s experience with our own is a sense of increased surveillance—of being watched and of passively watching. Along with that sense of surveillance and monitoring, it has felt harder and harder to separate fact from fiction. Over the past twelve months, two threads have intertwined: an increased reliance upon the internet, owing to the need to stay connected to an “outside” world in which we cannot be physically present, and an explosion of misleading information, propagated over social media and part and parcel of the spirit of Trumpism. While fact-checkers have scarcely kept up with the speed at which information proliferates, we find ourselves ever more entrenched in circuits of read, scroll, refresh. Trying to stay on top of what is real feels like treading water in an ocean of information driven by unseen currents.
Misinformation takes many forms, but it operates on a principle that brought a lot of censure down upon the novel during its emergence in the early eighteenth century: believability. Today, fake news generators can get rich by creating believable content. In a memorable case from 2016, teens in Veles, Macedonia set up hundreds of websites with convincing domain names—e.g., DonaldTrumpNews.co, WorldPoliticus.com—and reposted sensationalist articles, generating tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, advances in printing and dissemination encouraged a proliferation of new print media—not just novels but newspapers, pamphlets, tracts, magazines, and engravings. Because novels emerged in tandem with news (what literary historian Lennard Davis refers to as the “news/novel matrix”) the distinction between them was not always clear and indeed many fictions were taken as fact. While the idea of fictionality—made-up yet believable works—had become familiar (if not always condoned) by Richardson’s time, novels throughout the eighteenth century were deeply invested in thinking about how information gets distributed and distorted, privileged and silenced. Richardson’s Clarissa as well as his earlier, Pamela, for instance, are not just about the content of the fictional letters that comprise them. They are also about the material conditions of exchange: how letters are sent and received (in many cases not received), who reads them, who copies them out, and how they get compiled.
As such, while the letters that make up Clarissa ostensibly belong to a sphere of private exchange, it is not a stretch to think of them as part a social mediascape. First, while letters are usually addressed to one person, they inevitably find a wider audience. This dissemination is on display in the novel’s first section. Trapped in her room, Clarissa writes letters to individual family members that are inevitably shared with everyone (even Lovelace comes to learn of their contents through a spy). Second, because of the porous boundaries between intended recipient and wider audience, these letters mobilize gossip. Every letter is subject to various, competing interpretations, and the resulting exchanges often resemble a kind of “comments” section, discursive battlegrounds wherein everyone thinks his or her pen is mightiest. Third, one gains or loses authority depending on the quality of one’s writing. In a memorable example, Clarissa receives a note from Mr. Solmes, the rich and detestable suitor preferred by Clarissa’s family. Riddled with typos and grammatical errors, this letter further undermines his already tenuous position in Clarissa’s regard. If, however, you do have authority, as Lovelace and Clarissa both do, then you have the power to shape people’s perceptions. The only way Lovelace gets Clarissa into his power in the first place is by convincing her, in a succession of secret letters, that she is out of options.
Despite (or perhaps because of) how she finds herself at the nexus of various competing authorities, Clarissa has a lot to teach us about how we might address the overabundance and unreliability of information in our own time. For one, she uses the social mediascape as insurance. When she escapes from Lovelace’s clutches, writing to various interlocutors is a way not only of confirming her reality but also of ensuring that she gets heard (and that these trusted individuals know her true whereabouts). She also keeps a copy of all her correspondence—both the letters she receives and copies of the letters she has written—so that what happened and who said what cannot be rewritten. This insurance proves crucial toward the end of the novel when she entrusts John Belford, Lovelace’s friend turned ally of Clarissa, with her complete correspondence in the hope that he will set the record straight. Clarissa the novel, with its many voices and its many messy contradictions, becomes the true story that could not have been told in any other way.
More than just using letters as insurance, though, Clarissa learns how to recognize Lovelace’s believable falsehoods—albeit by suffering through them. In one particularly chilling episode, her first successful escape, Lovelace reels her back into his power by embedding her within a web of fake narratives. First, he rallies several of his accomplices who have already roleplayed as honest mediators and whom Clarissa trusts. Once they have informed Lovelace of where, exactly, she is living, he dresses up in costume in order to get as close to her as possible (she is not fooled). Finally, he convinces the keepers of Clarissa’s apartment that she is in the wrong, having gotten cold feet about marriage. Lovelace’s peculiar species of misinformation involves trapping her in a network of believable lies, casting his friends as actors in his sadistic drama, and winning over any third-party witnesses. Yet pulling out all the stops comes at a heavy price, for not only does Clarissa absolutely distrust him after this, but his entire arsenal of plots is laid bare.
The feeling of being embedded in fake narratives is all too familiar today—never more so than when the Trump administration was in power. While Trump lacks the intelligence and charm to be a Lovelace, he was and still is a weirdly good writer in the sense that he twins a distinctive style with various misinformation strategies (and this on Twitter, which, until he was recently banned, provided him with an ideal misinformation incubator, operating as it does by sacrificing precision for brevity):
“Distribution of both vaccines is going very smoothly. Amazing how many people are being vaccinated, record numbers. Our Country, and indeed the World, will soon see the great miracle of what the Trump Administration has accomplished. They said it couldn’t be done!!!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2020
What makes misinformation so insidious is that its spreaders develop distinctive, beguiling styles that dovetail with a sense of believability. It is not just about the bald lies—the nonexistent “record numbers,” the undefined “They,” and the fact that said “They” were actually right (by December 30, two million Americans were vaccinated of the twenty million that the administration had promised). Trump also incorporates a certain rhetorical verve. Starting with the phrase “Distribution of both vaccines” makes him sound smart. The lack of “It’s” at the start of sentence two and the comma splice show his familiarity with Twitter’s informality. And constructions like “Our country, and indeed the World,” have a tang of modesty to cover up what is actually a dishonest brag.
While the roll-out of the long-awaited vaccines curbs COVID-19 infection rates, the culture of misinformation that blossomed over the past four years (and especially during lockdown) will be harder to combat. Yet Clarissa is a reminder of how important it is to get to the bottom of narratives that do not add up. If you are willing to push through to the end, the novel makes you into a Belford of sorts, empowered to locate the truth even when that means experiencing, alongside Clarissa, the devastation of her world coming apart. As Kopajtic astutely asks, “Can we imagine, instead of the passive, disengaged observer—the observational form that Richardson presents in the novel and foists on his reader—an active, engaged, understanding observer?” By making the reader an empathetic participant in Clarissa’s search for truth, Richardson teaches you how to be an active and engaged observer—provided you are willing to dive into the sea of (mis)information and follow its currents through to the end.
A Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Harvard University, Alex Creighton (he/they) writes about how music and novels teach us—as they taught eighteenth-century readers and listeners—about time. He writes about and teaches classes on eighteenth-century literature, gender and sexuality, and the evolution of identity categories.