Clarissa in the Streets

A few summers ago, I was rambling through Hackney, near Regent’s Canal, and found myself surrounded by streets named after Richardson and his characters: Samuel Street, Richardson Close, Pamela Street, Clarissa Street, Lovelace Street. I took some pictures and sent them to a friend. One of us remarked on the creepiness of Lovelace Street. Rereading Clarissa last summer, locked down in the apartment I had rarely left since March, I remembered walking through those streets in London. I wondered about who had named the streets and why. What do those streets say about Clarissa’s realism, its precise rendering of mid-eighteenth-century London (a devout urban reader of Clarissa in 1748 could surely walk to King Street, Covent Garden, and imagine the very house in which Clarissa herself dies)? What do these streets say about how Richardson, a lifelong Londoner, depicts his city as a place of deceit and violence yet also one of refuge, charity, and independence? At least the urban planners didn’t name it “Lovelace Lane.” When I started reading about the history of those streets, though, I realized that their story is also the story of the housing estate they surround and intersect, and the people who have lived in that estate.

photo of Clarissa Street
(image courtesy of the author)
Photograph of Lovelace Street
(image courtesy of the author)

The Richardson streets surround what was once Haggerston Estate: a neo-Georgian public housing development built between the late 1930s and 1940s by order of the London County Council to clear the slums that crowded the area. Each block of the estate was named after Richardson and his characters. Clarissa Street has been there since the late 1880s, but the other Richardson street names were part of the LCC’s efforts to regulate and rename London streets in the late 1930s. Some have suggested that the names were meant to imbue the estate residents with the virtue and piety embodied by Richardson’s heroines, a sort of wishful mapping of Richardson’s didacticism onto the land. What of Lovelace Street, then?

The estate built to clear a slum, bestowed with the virtue of Pamela and Clarissa, would itself be steadily demolished after decades of neglect. Demolition began in 2010. Samuel House, the last block standing, was demolished in October 2014. The new buildings and houses have new names: City Mill, Union Mill, Spinner House, Cashmere House. Lace House, an eerie remnant of Clarissa.

The period of limbo between 2010 and 2014 was documented by the artist Andrea Luka Zimmerman, a resident of Samuel House, in her film Estate, a Reverie. It is a film haunted by Haggerston’s eighteenth-century past, a film that reckons with the LCC’s use of Richardson and his characters. Scenes of sheep and goats wandering through the estate among bales of hay recall eighteenth-century Hackney, before its urbanization, when it was farmland. The film ends with two women in eighteenth-century costume dueling atop the newly built City Mill.

An Actual Survey of the Parish of St. Leonard, in Shoreditch, Middlesex, taken in the Year 1746. British Library. (image courtesy of the author)
Screenshot from Estate, A Reverie (2015), directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman. Fugitive Images. (image courtesy of the author)

Like Clarissa, Zimmerman’s film is preoccupied with the meanings and repercussions of “estate.” The film’s leitmotif is residents of Samuel House spray painting the word on the walls and bricked up windows and doors of Haggerston. The estate is the building, and the estate is the property of the dead. It is the “preference” given Clarissa in her grandfather’s will that fuels her family’s resentment and furious command that she marry Solmes. In this novel that relentlessly degrades its heroine, it is the estate that leads to Clarissa’s homelessness. As she dies, Clarissa carefully settles her own estate, including provisions for the “set of honest indigent people whom I used to call my poor” (Sept. 16, L507). Richardson gives us her will in full.

If the LCC chose the names of the Haggerston streets and buildings as moral lessons, then Zimmerman’s Estate, a Reverie allows us to hear from the supposed recipients of those lessons. One scene shows the residents of Samuel House doing a group reading of Clarissa. Steve, who lived in Samuel House for thirty years, reads from Lovelace’s deranged letter to Belford after Clarissa’s death, when he demands possession of her heart “this very night.” “Ay, that was a bit crap,” Steve says in the film. (Lovelace himself later agrees, telling Belford he remembers little of what he wrote in that “odd letter.”) Near the end of the film, we see Steve, dressed in gold brocade, atop a hearse pulled by a donkey—the Samuel House funeral procession.

Many members of our reading group would agree with Steve’s assessment of Lovelace and his letters. It’s easy to hate Lovelace (Richardson would say that we should hate him), but other readers have hated Clarissa instead. Harriet Martineau, reading the novel in 1843 and sounding much like Clarissa’s spiteful brother and sister, found the heroine “odious,” with her “rash actions suiting so ill with her passionless, reasoning, self-possessed character.” Clarissa is unquestionably a didactic novel, but that doesn’t mean its lessons are obvious and easily absorbed. What is this didactic novel, in which remarkably few characters actually learn a lesson, trying to teach its readers? If Clarissa is a model of “filial duty,” what does her abuse at the hands of her family say about being a dutiful daughter? If Clarissa is the reader’s model of virtue and piety, what of readers like Martineau, sickened by the heroine’s probity? Virtue is easily resented as haughtiness. The enormous popularity of sermons, conduct books, and other didactic literature in the eighteenth century suggests that people enjoyed being taught lessons (or at least reading about people being taught lessons), but Clarissa stands as a testament to the enormous demands didactic novels can make on readers. It’s also a testament to all the ways didacticism can be misinterpreted, especially in a 1500-page epistolary novel with over twenty correspondents. One revealing example: in her mock conduct book, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753), Jane Collier cites James Harlowe as a model father.

During the group reading at Samuel House in Zimmerman’s film, someone else makes an extraordinary comment on Richardson’s didacticism: “Richardson basically says that in a book, if somebody who has a catastrophe or disaster happen to them deserves it, then we must not pity them. We’re wrong to pity them. It’s an injustice to be moved by it.” This is the unwavering, ruthless, even brutal side of Richardson—the Richardson that must punish Mrs. Sinclair to her slow, grotesque death (and condemn the women who work in her brothel to syphilis and death, too), the Richardson that must kill Clarissa and Lovelace both. The man’s remark aligns with what Paula Backscheider writes in her review of Tom Keymer’s Richardson’s Clarissa and the Eighteenth-Century Reader, the major work on the novel’s didacticism. “The defining act of the English novel,” writes Backscheider, “is to make the reader judge and face the implications of judgment.”

It is not clear what sort of moral lesson the Council members who named the houses and streets around Haggerston had in mind, but I wonder how much they were motivated by the brutal strain of Richardson’s didacticism. Are the street and house names a judgment of the estate residents? When that Samuel House resident defined Clarissa as pitiless, was he thinking of Clarissa on its own terms, or the Clarissa of the LCC? What seems clear is that the street names have more to say about the moral fantasies of the urban planners than they do about any resident of Haggerston, or the novel itself. I wonder whether any group of people who read Clarissa together, whether at Samuel House or on Zoom, could finish the novel with a shared sense of moral clarity. Does the experience of reading Clarissa not suggest how realism, what Richardson calls the “air of probability” created by writing that is “very circumstantial and minute,” resists any easy moral instruction?

I began this essay last December, still in my apartment. Now I’ve come home to Canada after the death of my father. I’ve come home to take care of my father’s estate, but it feels strange to spell that word out. (I understand now why Zimmerman always ends the shot before the word is fully spray painted.) Sometimes I wish I could read Clarissa right now with the LCC’s zeal for instruction. Sometimes I wish its lessons were easier to learn, as easily followed as a street. But mostly I wish to read Clarissa again, in a community, so we can all be bewildered together.

Thomas Leonard-Roy is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard. He studies and teaches eighteenth-century British literature and the history of feeling. His article on Samuel Johnson was just published in The Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

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