“Nothing of Body:” Our Clarissa Quarantine

A young woman of eighteen, an over-achiever, her parents’ youngest child and not-so-secret favorite, returns home from an extended visit with her best friend and finds that her standing in her family has altered. Since childhood she has been praised and caressed as a model daughter, a paragon of propriety and dutifulness. Now she is accused of harboring romantic feelings for a man whom her family detests. Now she discovers, sucker punched, that eighteen years as a good girl count for nothing. You indeed have behaved well up to this time, her mother tells the young woman, but you have “had no trials till now,” no test of your filial obedience and love that deserves to be called a test.

Seeking to force the young woman’s marriage with a rich man whom she loathes, the family subjects her to a series of ever-stricter lockdown orders. There are to be no more “visitings . . . till further order.” On February 24th, miming in a letter to her friend the passive voice her family members use to present themselves as a united front, the young woman reports that it “has been signified” to her that it would “be acceptable” if she did not “think of going to church next Sunday.” By early March, the number of people even inside of the house with whom she is permitted to consort is reduced. She is prohibited from coming into the presence of her parents and uncles. She is consigned to the “management” of her malicious older siblings.

For most of its 530 letters, Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady, Samuel Richardson’s brilliant, disquieting epistolary fiction from 1748-1749, remains a novel of lockdown. Its heroine careens from one state of confinement to another. Clarissa Harlowe flees her father’s house in April, but the escape is also represented as a kind of abduction, brought about only through the agency of the unsuitable man. He presents himself as a protector yet wastes no time reminding her how much she is in his power. Clarissa escapes Robert Lovelace’s trap in early June, only to be retaken. He rapes her, she escapes again, and then in July she is arrested for debt. The novel is ruthless––and sublime. Both effects are captured by the haunting prose poem Susan Howe contributes to this Rambling cluster, which stitches together language from Richardson’s novel and Charles Dickens’s later fiction of lock-up, Little Dorrit, a collection of “Prison Sentences.”

In May 2020, as some of our colleagues and friends chose to distract themselves from the news by participating in a well-publicized reading group dedicated to War and Peace, Yoon Sun Lee, Alexander Creighton, and I made a different choice. Contrarians, we three decided that Clarissa was the long, immersive novel for the moment. No ballroom scenes here, no battlefield episodes with casts of thousands. Clarissa’s four main characters spend almost all their time locked up in small rooms writing long letters, thereby producing the text that the novel’s readers read. This formal dimension of the novel itself helped convince us––and the readers we set about converting to its cause––that Clarissa was the go-to text for lockdown life. Our worlds too had contracted in spring 2020.

And, in the best-case scenario we could imagine, summer promised only tedium: more hours of waiting it out, doom-scrolling, gazing out the same window at the same patch of sky, all this punctuated by those anxious sessions in which we would peer into our laptop screens to discern the faces of the loved ones from whom we had been separated. In Richardson’s massive masterpiece, we believed, we might discover a mirror image of quarantine existence, but sublimely transfigured.

Thus my initial blog post for the book group that we three went on to found––a group ultimately numbering about forty members, located in multiple time zones and academic disciplines, who gathered over Zoom from June to September:

At a moment when it’s feeling as though our lives have been put on pause, there is also something all the more compelling (and perturbing) about the ways in which for Clarissa, letter-writing is increasingly framed as what you do instead of living, not just a supplement to experience but the thing itself. . . . Letter 12 spells out the antithetical relationship between action and writing about action when we’re told by Clarissa’s friend Anna Howe that Lovelace compares himself to Julius Caesar on the grounds that the latter also “performed great actions by day and wrote them down at night.” Where Anna’s letter goes next is especially fascinating: she declares that “epistolary correspondencies” make sense for home-bound women, even though their sedentary lives don’t give them much to write about, but that it is strange that a man, with his freedom of movement and opportunities for social interaction, should write at all. Well, we’re all epistolary heroines now.

As some of our fellow Clarissa readers attest elsewhere in this issue, there are other dimensions of the novel that now feel almost uncannily topical. We in the twenty-first century continue to inhabit this eighteenth-century novel’s “terrifying moral landscape,” as Stuart Burrows proposes. Thomas Leonard-Roy’s essay on a housing estate in the London borough of Hackney that, in a rather creepy tribute to the novelist’s powers of moral reform, named its landmarks after Richardson and his characters, suggests how literal that sharing of a landscape can be. The novel’s representations of the menaces to female choice and autonomy are as urgent as ever, as Talia Schaffer and Bailey Sincox demonstrate. Alexander Creighton and Lauren Kopajtic outline how the novel’s epistemological dramas speak to our current moment of misinformation and mistrust. Resisting first her brother’s will to domination, then Lovelace’s, Clarissa often insists that, as an Englishwoman, she belongs to “a country of liberty.” These assertions jumped off the page as we read last summer, while protests against police violence, anti-Black racism, and the prison-industrial complex gathered force. Clarissa’s chronicle of a life cut short, family reconciliation left too late, and the mourning of those left behind became newly resonant then too––though, as Amy Hollywood notes, Covid victims in their last hours are often denied the consolation, which even Richardson’s dying heroine obtains, of being soothed by another person’s uncovered hand.

But when, a year after the June 2020 launch of “Clarissa, in Lockdown, Together,” I reflect on the novel (doing so while still writing on the same old laptop and still scanning the horizon through the same old window), I find I am still most fascinated by what it does with its letters.

Setting in place their new disciplinary regime, the Harlowes immediately prohibit their erring daughter from writing to “any one out of the house.” But for the novel to continue, Clarissa must persist in her efforts to get her written voice heard and her letters received. With Anna, whose letters of friendship and counsel become for Clarissa a lifeline, she contrives a hiding place for their correspondence: on the edge of the family estate is a storehouse for firewood, where some boards in the wall that faces the lane have rotted away and a narrow opening has been created. The letters she exchanges with Lovelace in the first part of the novel (which Richardson, the novel’s “editor,” does not share with us, though Clarissa often quotes passages in her letters to Anna) are deposited under the loose bricks in Harlowe Place’s garden wall. These homely, make-shift mailboxes seemed full of pathos to me in my most recent rereading of Clarissa. Maybe this was because the laptops on which so many of us now depend—for going online in order to do our jobs, teach our students, write our books, take our leisure, and keep our friends—seem similarly inadequate and flimsy when gauged against the enormity of the expectations we need to invest in them. It can feel lately as though sociality is hanging by a thread.

Sad to say, our Clarissa group wrapped up its reading just as, in the United States, the post office came under existential threat—the very institution that (by fostering the desire for literacy, by promising that, with the proper civic infrastructure, human connections might survive separations) helped underwrite the eighteenth-century popularity of the novel in letters in the first place.

Letters connect one correspondent to another, and yet they are generally written in solitude by people who have withdrawn from the physical presence of others to do their writing. Absence is epistolarity’s catalyst. In their letter-writing, Richardson’s characters recognize an opportunity to park their bodies in one place while their minds go to another place and find out other company. Immediately following the elopement/abduction from Harlowe Place, Lovelace and Clarissa are together, physically proximate to each other in lodgings at St Albans but also separate, Clarissa writing to Anna about Lovelace, Lovelace writing to his confidant, John Belford, about Clarissa. Lovelace describes them like this in his letter: “Never was there such a pair of scribbling lovers as we––yet perhaps whom it so much concerns to keep from each other what each writes.” Are letters valuable for bridging the distance that separates us from others or valuable for putting up the barriers that allow us to keep our distance from other others? With social relations migrating this past year from in-person settings onto the screens of our laptops and phones, the ethical perplexities that inform Richardson’s representation of the letters from which his novel is made arrest me in new ways.

I proceeded therefore⁠—That I loved familiar-letter-writing, as I had more than once told her, above all the species of writing: it was writing from the heart, (without the fetters prescribed by method or study), as the very word cor-respondence implied. Not the heart only; the soul was in it. Nothing of body, when friend writes to friend; the mind impelling sovereignly the vassal-fingers.

Lovelace makes this paean to letter-writing in a passage that Richardson added to the novel’s third edition. He’s reporting here, in a May 26 letter to Belford, on a recent conversation in which he attempted to sweet-talk Clarissa––a conversation in which he reminded her that he and she have their love of letter-writing in common and that they both appreciate the letter form for its sincerity, its evasion of “method” and “study.”  But Clarissa must needs have heard the menace, the will to power, and the repulsion directed against the body (that “vassal” impelled by the sovereign mind), that is also part of his tribute to this communicational form.

Deidre Lynch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of English Literature at Harvard University. Her most recent books are Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015; finalist for the Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism and for the Oscar Kenshur Prize in Eighteenth-Century Studies) and The Unfinished Book: Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature (coedited with Alexandra Gillespie, 2021). With Yoon Sun Lee, she convenes the Novel Theory seminar at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center.

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