This odd phrase, “vile encroacher,” is one of Clarissa’s favorite epithets for her antagonist, Lovelace. She uses the phrase not only to describe him to Anna Howe but also to address him directly, using it almost as a physical implement or barrier to push him away, keep him away. The encroacher: one who is gradually invading, gradually advancing, not so much stepping right over the boundary as moving the boundaries when you’re not paying attention—an inch at a time, perhaps. The encroacher: one who shows how your sense of space and your sense of others are entangled. How can they be disentangled? Are they the same thing?
Clarissa’s sense of space is, shall we say, not a happy one. These are some of the ways in which she appears to conceive and experience space. She imagines it invaded. Lovelace entering the house, armed and angry; the drawers where she keeps her letters and documents, broken into, searched (this is important enough that she stipulates in her will where she keeps her key). Or she imagines space in terms of her own exposure: the nightmarish condition of finding herself in a public place without proper covering for her head and body, of being exhibited to other men in a way she can neither control nor contradict. Or, combining both, the night when Lovelace, on the pretense of a fire, breaks into her room and sees her dressed only in her shift. Space is a condition of being invaded, exposed, of being seen. In such ways, Clarissa has plenty of it. But we might say that Clarissa has no world; once that structure is taken away from her, she cannot make another, cannot make one of her own. The closest thing is her coffin, a carapace that Clarissa has designed so that she can be moved without moving.
The novel’s social dimension, its demography, is also strange. This has to do with more than the limited number of characters, whether named or not named, speaking or not-speaking. It can be awkward for epistolary novels to represent multitudes, though this may be more the case for proper young lady correspondents, who are apparently not even supposed to notice the presence of so many bodies, much less describe them. (For Smollett’s Matthew Bramble, it’s not a problem.) In the case of Clarissa, though, it reaches deeper than the number of people. It struck me this time as approaching an unsettling and sometimes terrifying skepticism about the very existence of the world, of others outside one’s own mind. For many pages of the novel, the strongest evidence of the existence of others is a deeply internalized sense of dread or shame.
Even when you do glimpse other people—servants, both good and bad, the women in “Mrs. Sinclair’s” establishment, working-class Londoners—you wonder whether they exist independently. This is not helped by the fact that often, unfortunately, they do not actually exist as real people; they are actors hired by Lovelace to play the part of a person in the elaborate scenarios that he loves to stage, manage, direct, and produce, the scenarios that are the most painful parts to read. They are tools and puppets of Lovelace, though Lovelace himself might be largely Clarissa’s own (mental) creation. Or so Lovelace would argue. The closest thing to an authentically social scene in which others participate is Clarissa’s death. But, as Amy Hollywood describes so movingly in her essay, death transpires as an unbearably solitary and singular event, regardless of the number of people in attendance. And note that, as she dies, Clarissa is still keeping careful tabs on who is around her, nodding six times, acknowledging and pinning them down.
This feeling that Clarissa’s external social world may be an illusion stirs beneath the surface of many of our essays: in the cruel social norm of promise-keeping that, as Stuart Burrows argues, the novel still insists upon, inexplicably; in the structural inadequacy of consent explored by Talia Schaffer; in the disembodied curse whose agency Ramie Targoff examines, or Clarissa’s recourse to coded allegory in Bailey Sincox’s essay. Lauren Kopajtic shows us the surveillance that is as ceaseless as it is fruitless, while the social-media-like reverberations of false reports provide the subject of Alex Creighton’s essay. Thomas Leonard-Roy discovers the novel’s ghostly afterlife in London’s infrastructure. All of these suggest to me a world after apocalypse, echoing with what once might have been speech-acts, marked with signs of former states, of estates that have become ruins. Wendy Lee confronts this unsettling suggestion directly, making a real journey, reassuring us that meeting others—even meeting our heroes—is still possible. Her essay depicts a calm, well-lit space of encounter, framed by a giant window.
We have been reading about the outside world and looking out at it from within our own spaces for more than a year now. When I finally go back outside, what will I find? Envisioning it through Susan Howe’s extraordinary piece, I imagine a pile of dry bones and words, whisperings, perhaps bird-calls here and there.
Last summer, we came together as a reading group to create an outside for ourselves. It became apparent that we also needed to create a frame, a space, a world for Richardson’s frustrating, even enraging novel, a way to put it in its place, into any place at all. But sometimes it felt as though, if we were reading between the lines, we were doing so in the way that you might look through the slats of blinds. I was myself reading as much outside the lines as between them, trying to look somewhere else, deliberately averting my gaze. I found myself resisting the novel’s invitation to enter into Lovelace’s mind (the mind of a rapist) or even into Clarissa’s, though I have done so many times in the past, with abundant empathy. This time, I did not want to be drawn toward the center of that fierce agon of darkness and light. I kept wanting to remain stubbornly outside it even as I made my way through its pages; I wanted to resist its encroachments, stand firm, unmoved. But I did not want to actually look outside either, at a world grown not merely empty but hostile and dangerous. To read as an outsider this time meant to approach the novel with an eye turned ambivalently toward one’s inside world, airless as Clarissa’s.
In memoriam: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng. Atlanta, March 16, 2021
Yoon Sun Lee is the author of Nationalism and Irony: Burke, Scott, Carlyle (Oxford, 2004); and Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (Oxford, 2013). Her essays have appeared in PMLA, Representations, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, The Cambridge Companion to Narrative Theory, The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel, MLQ, and other journals and collections. Her forthcoming book examines how plot in the eighteenth-century realist novel develops in tandem with natural philosophy.