The History of a Young Lady?

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady balances contradictory claims on the fulcrum of its “or.” Is it the tale of the specific individual Clarissa, or is it the general history of the type, “young lady”? United in one title, sundered by the “or,” these two sides vibrate in balanced tension. Clarissa Harlowe is a notably specific individual, with particular dress preferences and scheduling habits. Yet she is also an example to other young ladies, as Anna reminds her in her very first letter, making her fate peculiarly horrifying because if Clarissa could not save herself, then who could? Clarissa’s book is both history and her-story: as this young lady is also a young lady, representative of the type and yet absolutely unique in all the world.

Clarissa’s family does not share this view of her. Instead, they imagine her as a piece of property to be disposed of for the benefit of the family. Writing her into a narrative of familial assets that could be traded for patrilineal aggrandizement, the Harlowes regard Clarissa much as they would a particularly rich orchard: it will attract a high price, if they can keep thieves from stealing its fruit. However, Clarissa’s grandfather’s bequest of the dairy-house troubles this assumption, for his will turns Clarissa into a property owner, making her into something more like a person with a stake in her nation. The Harlowes are absolutely unable to comprehend Clarissa’s status as a propertied person. They simply deny it. As her uncle Antony asks, “pray, is not this estate our estate. . . have we not all an interest in it, and a prior right, if right were to have taken place?” The bequest puts Clarissa in an intolerable bind, her gender precluding her from the political representation to which her ownership entitles her. In the eighteenth century, the “history of a young lady” cannot be synonymous with the “history of a citizen.”

The “history of a young lady” is, rather, the “history of a subject.” And instead of contract, what Clarissa can access is consent. In States of Injury, Wendy Brown argues that in liberalism, consent is the feminized version of contract. Whereas contract means the voluntary affiliation of independent, equal partners, consent marks the subordination of one party. Clarissa cannot set the terms of the arrangements made for her, only concur with them. (Anna Howe’s long reluctant journey towards consenting to marrying Hickman shows this kind of story.) Technically Clarissa can refuse, but in fact her refusal is only heard as a different concurrence: “the liberty of refusing, pretty miss, is denied you, because we are all sensible that the liberty of choosing to everyone’s dislike must follow.” In other words, consent is always yes, and therefore when a woman says no, it can only be to say yes to someone else.

Yet Clarissa gloriously, if naïvely, refuses this role of subordinate consenter to others’ plans, having something quite different in mind. “I am your sister, and not your servant,” she tells James. She knows herself as a rational being capable of inventing proposals, in which she offers contracts––as if she had a right to propose contracts!––offering to relinquish property or prospects in exchange for her freedom from Solmes. Yet none of these agreements work. As Clarissa mourns, “Would you not have thought that something might have been obtained in my favour, from an offer so reasonable, from an expedient so proper…?” What she does not realize is that the family cannot conceptualize her as a person capable of making an offer at all. Even her negation is met with incredulity: “But say; speak out; are you resolved to stand in opposition to us all in a point our hearts are set upon?”

Lovelace, too, can only imagine Clarissa as consenting to his schemes. He exclaims, “surely nobody will dispute my right to her. Whose was she living? Whose is she dead, but mine?” Clarissa’s property, here, is her own body, but the only disposition she is allowed to make of it is to surrender it to Lovelace. Just as the Harlowes cannot recognize her as an agent capable of forming contracts, Lovelace cannot see her as a person with free choice. The question for Lovelace is only how to extort Clarissa’s consent to his sexual triumph, whether through trickery or coercion, not whether she will consent. Indeed, he is so unable to comprehend refusal that a woman who refuses consent becomes, to him, merely an inanimate body.

The Harlowes are trying to develop one kind of story: patrilineal inheritance. Lovelace is trying to develop another: passionate elopement. Both require compliance with a more powerful man, a father or a suitor. Clarissa, simply, says no to both. By blocking both, Clarissa stops their stories and makes the tale her own. The novel Clarissa lives because the character Clarissa can refuse.

The fact is that “consent” has two relevant meanings. The first is Wendy Brown’s definition, submission to another. But the novel’s subtitle introduces the second. Richardson writes that this book relates misconduct “in relation to marriage”—and in marital terms, “consent” offers a much more open category. From the medieval period’s practice of requiring a mutual verbal contract, through the early modern and eighteenth-century practice of allowing partners to make the final choice (even when their parents or communities selected the suitors), to the modern view of marriage as a wholly personal decision, marriage has always required participants to attest to their own choices. In the context of marriage, then, “consent” does not mean an automatic concurrence but rather a personal decision, a question to which the answer might indeed be no.

Of course, nobody does “no” better than Clarissa. Her negations are fathomless, and fatal; readers may well think of her as Bartleby-like in refusing everything, and critics have registered her story as the tragedy of the impossibly constrained range of action for eighteenth-century women. But I want to think of her refusal in terms of what it creatively permits.

The participant’s “no” is the utterance that confirms the person’s internal agency. When Clarissa says “no,” she pushes back against the Harlowes’ and Lovelace’s dehumanization, proving herself to be a person whose opinions matter. Her proposals cannot be heard, but her refusal resounds. It forces Lovelace and the Harlowes to recognize that Clarissa has secret hidden depths, reasons and feelings that reward inquiry. The capacity to refuse establishes her as having an internal subjectivity, making her a modern kind of character.

At the same time, Clarissa’s “no” produces the plot, the narrative action. As narrative theorists from Peter Brooks to David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have written, narrative occurs when there is deviance, and that swerve must be corrected, often with the unruly agent corrected or exterminated. Had Clarissa consented to marry Solmes, or cohabit with or marry Lovelace, the story would have ended, co-opted into the socially recognized forms of fallenness or wedlock. But Clarissa’s refusals create swerves that never gets resolved, since every refusal generates more frantic plot twists and machinations and schemes. Only the final and ultimate “no”—which is also a “yes”—her consent to her last resting place, the coffin—ends this story.

The concept of consent makes Clarissa a character and produces her story. But only as long as she withholds consent, for any moment of affirmation risks wiping out her selfhood. Think, for instance, how much she suffers for the momentary mistake of agreeing to run off with Lovelace. Saying “no” is Clarissa’s only power, but it is a power that generates a kind of subjectivity that makes the novel possible. To consent “yes” is to become an inferior being, a subordinate to a man. But to deny consent? That is a form of power––a painfully, fatally limited one, but a real one. Her negative is not heard, not respected, not believed, but it generates the novel.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously wrote. The reason they don’t make history is that they get written into the conventional stories of sexual and reproductive acquiescence that, until recently, were thought to be below history’s notice. So how is it possible for a “young lady” to have a “history”? Only by refusing everyone else’s stories, and thereby writing her own, and, at the cusp of the modern novel, composing a different kind of young lady’s history altogether. Yet if Richardson is really telling us that Clarissa’s catastrophe constitutes the only way a young lady can have a history, then his negations are far deeper than hers. We may want to say no to that narrative, to produce the double negative that might creatively generate a future alternative form for a woman’s life.

Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction (forthcoming Fall 2021) and Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction (2016), as well as Novel Craft (2011) and The Forgotten Female Aesthetes (2001), editor of several collections, and author of many articles on Victorian literature in relation to care ethics, feminism, material culture, and aestheticism.

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