Clarissa and the ‘Total Revolution in Manners’

  • E. J. Clery
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


In an appendix to Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson refers to his three novels in a way that suggests he saw them as a continuous historical chronicle.1 The action of Pamela (1740), he says, takes place within thirty years of its publication, that is to say, after 1710; Clarissa (1747–48) within twenty years of its publication, therefore in the late 1720s or 1730s; and Grandison (1753–54) depicts ‘scenes of life carried down nearly to the present time’ (G III: 470). The brief remark opens up a vision of the works as a vast study of transformations in sexual politics through three generations. It also gives a new dimension to his description of the novels as ‘histories’. This is generally taken to mean ‘true to life’.2 I want to propose that they should be understood as conscious registers of recent times and more specifically as works that anticipate the genre of ‘general history’ introduced by Voltaire and Hume, with its focus on the transformation of manners.3 The novels trace the origins of the current crisis in thinking about social and economic change, responding to issues that were still in pressing need of resolution. I would argue that when Richardson decided to retain The History of a Young Lady as the subtitle to Clarissa as opposed to Aaron Hill’s apt suggestion, A Lady’s Legacy, it was because history, in the sense of recording and interpreting the past, was the essence of the work. In the title of his final novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, ‘history’ is given pride of place.


Moral Progress Female Orgasm Moral Hypocrisy Moral Reform Pretty Girl 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 3.
    See Mark Salber Phillips, Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740–1820 (Princeton, 2000) 147–70, especially 152.Google Scholar
  2. 15.
    Originally by Edward Young, who spoke of Clarissa as ‘The Whole Duty of WOMAN’ by analogy with The Whole Duty of Man (1674 and many later editions) by Richard Allestree (cit. E&K, 286). See Rita Goldberg, Sex and Enlightenment: Women in Richardson and Diderot (Cambridge, 1984) chapter 1, ‘Clarissa and the Puritan conduct books’. Cf. Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction, who identifies a dematerialization of the female body in conduct books, comparable to the one I am describing; 88, 95. While both the conduct book ideal and the Richardsonian heroine are implicated in the emergence of the two-sex model, what the conduct books appear to lack is the polemical spirit of Richardson’s works, and the explicit recognition of an alternative model.Google Scholar
  3. 17.
    See Rosemary Bechler, ‘“Triall by what is contrary”: Samuel Richardson and Christian dialectic’, in Valerie Grosvenor Myer, ed., Samuel Richardson: Passion and Prudence (London and Totowa, NJ, 1986) 93–113; and Taylor, ‘Clarissa Harlowe’, 19–38. See Taylor for further references.Google Scholar
  4. 30.
    Cf. Carol Houlihan Flynn, Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters (Princeton, 1982);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Tom Keymer, Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ and the Eighteenth-Century Reader (Cambridge, 1992) 157–76;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. James Grantham Turner, ‘Lovelace and the paradoxes of libertinism’, in Margaret Anne Doody and Peter Sabor, eds, Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays (Cambridge, 1989) 70–88, all argue for a broad conception of Lovelace’s libertinism in order to account for his disruptive effect, Richardson’s animadversions notwithstanding. My suggestion would be that Lovelace’s sceptical thinking, however wide-ranging in its implications, is always filtered through the crucial trial of the female sex.Google Scholar
  7. 31.
    Margaret Anne Doody, A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson (Oxford, 1974) 108–13.Google Scholar
  8. 41.
    Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, 4 vols (Oxford, 1929), IV, 367.Google Scholar
  9. 48.
    Eve Tavor, Scepticism, Society and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Basingstoke, 1987) 54–77. Tavor forcefully demonstrates the way sceptical theories of motivation are not only thematized in the novel, but transmuted into dramatic conflict (though one should not assume, as she seems to do, that Richardson had a detailed knowledge of Mandeville’s works). Tavor’s misreading of the one direct reference, quoted in my discussion on p. 112, is however indicative of a general problem in her interpretation. The ‘private vices’ belong to Lovelace, not Clarissa, and Tavor’s Lovelacian reading of the action pillories Clarissa for moral hypocrisy and ignores her active struggle against injustice.Google Scholar
  10. 53.
    No. 97 (19 Febrary 1751), The Rambler, ed. W.J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 6 (New Haven, 1969) IV, 153.Google Scholar
  11. 65.
    For a contrary interpretation, which sees Clarissa’s isolation as necessary penance for her initial act of rebellion, see Lois A. Chaber, ‘Christian form and anti-feminism in Clarissa’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 15:3 (2003) 507–37; 531–2. Although the heroine frequently indulges in self-blame, I believe this is to be taken as a sign of her overactive conscience, rather than confirmation of genuine guilt.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 77.
    Cf. Peggy Thompson, ‘Abuse and atonement: the passion of Clarissa Harlowe’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction 11 (1999) 255–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 82.
    Spadafora, Idea of Progress, 101; he takes the term from James West Davidson, The Logic of Millenial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, 1977) 129–41.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© E. J. Clery 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. J. Clery

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations