Clarissa’s Curse

Among the many disappointed fathers in English literature, James Harlowe and King Lear may not seem to have much in common. But when Mr. Harlowe responds to Clarissa’s flight by pronouncing a formal curse upon her, he takes a page directly from the handbook of the fictional British monarch. After first calling upon Nature to dry up Goneril’s womb, Lear turns his poisonous words directly to his daughter: “Blast and fogs upon thee/The untented woundings of a father’s curse/Pierce every sense about thee!” Mr. Harlowe is not physically there with Clarissa when he utters his treacherous curse, but his daughter Arabella promptly conveys it verbatim in her first letter to her sister. “My father,” Arabella writes (as if he were no longer Clarissa’s father as well), “imprecated on his knees a fearful curse upon you.” In the epistolary equivalent of a roar, she warns Clarissa to “[t]remble at the recital of it!” Mr. Harlowe’s curse goes beyond Lear’s in its eschatological ambition––it petitions for Clarissa’s misery not only in this world, but also in the next: “that you may meet your punishment both here and hereafter, by means of the very wretch in whom you have chosen to place your wicked confidence.”

Although communicated long-distance and second-hand, Mr. Harlowe’s words shake Clarissa to the core. As she writes to Anna Howe the next day,

Now indeed is my heart broken! It has received a blow it never will recover […]. How can it be otherwise, if a parent’s curses have the weight I always attributed to them, and have heard so many instances in confirmation of that weight!

Unlike Goneril, who seems largely unfazed by Lear’s malediction, it turns out that Clarissa has “always attributed” great power to a parent’s curses and claims to have evidence to confirm her fears. More surprisingly, nearly everyone else in Richardson’s novel seems to feel something of the same.

The idea that curses could change the course of events through their sheer utterance seems out of place in Clarissa. On the surface of things, Richardson wants us to imagine that the will of his characters drives the narrative’s unfolding, that what happens to both Clarissa and to Lovelace can best be understood in terms of the decisions each of them makes. But Mr. Harlowe’s curse upends any such easy conclusions, raising an alternative model of causality that has nothing to do with Lovelace’s machinations or Clarissa’s attempts at self-protection. Instead, it suggests a more archaic metaphysics at work in the novel in which curses, oaths, enchantments, and spells might have binding power. If we follow the trail of Mr. Harlowe’s curse, the novel becomes less settled in its eighteenth-century rationalism than we may have thought. The curse emerges as a quiet but stubborn counterplot.

Our first glimpse at the force of the counterplot arises in the aftermath of a house fire, when Lovelace takes advantage of the frightened and underdressed Clarissa—he finds her in her night clothes—by embracing her “with an ardour she never felt before.” The next day, standing outside Clarissa’s bolted door as he begs her to remember the promise she made to forgive him, Lovelace is assaulted by a series of insults—“Wretch! inhuman, barbarous, and all that is base and treacherous! Begone from my door!”—before he hears her utter these words to herself: “O the dreadful weight of a father’s curse, thus in the very letter of it.” The reminder of her father’s curse at this particular moment is for Clarissa both a horrible confirmation of her predicament and a potential source of relief. If Mr. Harlowe’s imprecation—and not Lovelace’s villainy—can explain what’s happened to Clarissa, she might seek redress in a realm outside Lovelace’s control. In a world in which divine forces can shape human events, Lovelace becomes a pawn in the greater cosmic scheme, not its chief architect.

This possibility helps to explain Clarissa’s next move in the scene, which is to turn away from the conversation with Lovelace towards a private dialogue with the divine. Looking through the keyhole, Lovelace witnesses Clarissa’s getting down “on her knees, her face, though not towards me, lifted up, as well as hands, and these folded, depreciating, I suppose, that gloomy tyrant’s curse.” Whether she was “depreciating” her father’s curse—a rather Lovelacean interpretation—or beseeching God to intervene, Clarissa moves seamlessly from curse to prayer. Prayer represents a very different kind of intervention from that which she seeks from her family and friends, and this moment marks one of the earliest hints of Clarissa’s gradual but inexorable withdrawal into the world of the spirit.

Once the first half of Mr. Harlowe’s curse seems to have hardened into a reality—“that you may meet your punishment…here”—Clarissa’s focus turns to avoiding its second half: “that you may meet your punishment both here and hereafter.” The “hereafter” is the only escape Clarissa can imagine from her circumstances, an escape that lies entirely outside the jurisdiction of the novel (Richardson is no Dante or Bunyan) and yet requires the assistance of those within it. Clarissa initially imagines Lovelace will help her get out from under the curse’s power: “All I beg of thee,” she screams at him, “is, that thou wilt remit me the future part of my father’s dreadful curse! The temporary part, base and ungrateful as thou art, thou hast completed!” Lovelace, we’re told, is simply left “speechless.” More rationally, Clarissa turns next to Mrs. Norton, whom she asks to speak with her mother “to procure me the revocation of that most dreadful part of my father’s curse, which only remains to be fulfilled.” In a subsequent letter to Mrs. Norton, Clarissa decides it might be wiser to reach her father through her sister. Mrs. Harlowe later reports that Clarissa’s “father has, at her earnest request, withdrawn the curse,” and Clarissa confirms this in her own letter to Mrs. Norton: “I have reason to be very thankful that my father has withdrawn that heavy malediction, which affected me so much—A parent’s curse, my dear Mrs. Norton! What child could die in peace under a parent’s curse?” Not surprisingly, we learn nothing about what it looked like for Clarissa’s father to undo his malediction—there were formulas for this in books of magic and witchcraft, but it seems doubtful any such volumes could be found in the library at Harlowe Place. To return to where we began, it’s tempting now to imagine Mr. Harlowe in the role of a different Shakespearean father, no longer Lear but Prospero as he breaks his staff and disavows the dark powers of his tongue.

And yet, for this Prospero at least, there will be neither atonement nor forgiveness. As Arabella cruelly reports to Clarissa, their father “withdraws the curse he laid upon you, at the first hearing of your wicked flight,” but “for the rest, he will never own you, nor forgive you; and grieves he has such a daughter in the world.” The metaphysical threat of the curse may be removed, but its psychic damage remains intact. The curse is thus simultaneously rendered more real—it’s treated as an actual thing that needs to be deactivated to prevent further harm—and less relevant: its undoing has no bearing on Clarissa’s reconciliation to her father. This undoing in the end pushes the novel more firmly towards the side of modernity. With or without the curse hanging over her, Clarissa remains where she’s been all along, a secular version of purgatory.

Ramie Targoff is Professor of English, Co-Chair of Italian Studies, and Director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis University.  She is the author of Common Prayer, John Donne, Body and Soul, and Posthumous Love (all from University of Chicago Press); Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); and the translator of Vittoria Colonna’s 1538 (Iter Press). Her latest book, Shakespeare’s Sisters, is forthcoming from Alfred K. Knopf.

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