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Is Clarissa Bourgeois Art? Daniel P. Gunn At the beginning of Clarissa, the social atmosphere seems dense, pregnant, thick with meaning. From the start, the heroine is entangled in her family's scheme to accumulate property through marriage and concentrate it on a single heir. Her situation is further complicated by Lovelace's distinguished family background and the mixture of deference and hostility he prompts in the Harlowes, by the ambiguous status and trajectory of her own estate, and by frequent explosions of social jealousy and resentment from everyone around her. With this much social conflict in the air, it is perhaps not surprising that critics should have concluded that the moral ideas put forward by Richardson in Clarissa are circumscribed and defined by their partisan character—in short, that they are revolutionary "bourgeois" or "Puritan" ideas, asserted against the interests of the ruling aristocracy. Although it has been persistent and influential , this "bourgeois" account of Clarissa's ideology depends on a romanticized and probably misleading view of class conflict in the eighteenth century, and it tends to disguise both the equivocations in Richardson 's position and the socially coercive force of his moral rhetoric. In this essay, I begin by questioning the claim that Clarissa's values are bourgeois; I then go on to propose a different model of Richardson's ideological position—one which can help to explain the ambiguities and contradictions in his treatment of moral issues. F> The idea that Clarissa is an expression of militant bourgeois ideology has a distinguished history. In "Clarissa Harlowe and Her Times," the seminal essay in this line, Christopher Hill argued that Richardson's aim in Clarissa was "to assert the bourgeois and Puritan conception EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 10, Number 1, October 1997 2 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION of marriage against the feudal-cavalier standards of Lovelace and the Harlowe emphasis on concentration of property." At about the same time, Dorothy Van Ghent claimed that, in Clarissa, "the aristocracy is put in its place" and that by her death, Clarissa "symbolically ... makes great her class," the "prosperous bourgeoisie," and "gives supernatural sanction to its code." Finally, in The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt found in Clarissa's virtue "an expression of the moral superiority of her class"; she is "the heroic representative of all that is free and positive in the new individualism." During the last thirty years, this general view of class and ideology in Clarissa has frequently been repeated, and it has never seriously been challenged. Terry Eagleton restates Hill's thesis at the beginning of The Rape of Clarissa, where he argues that Clarissa is "an agent ... of the English bourgeoisie's attempt to wrest a degree of ideological hegemony from the aristocracy," part of the bourgeoisie's attempt "to saturate the whole ruling ideology with its own influence."1 This kind of reading usually begins by opposing Clarissa's bourgeois moral sensibility to Lovelace's aristocratic background; the conflict between these characters is then read as a projection of political conflict between their respective classes.2 It follows that Clarissa's persistent su1 Christopher Hill, "Clarissa Harlowe and Her Times," Essays in Criticism 5 (1955), 335; Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (New York: Rinehart, 1953), pp. 55-57; Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 222; Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 4. Further references to Hill and Eagleton appear in the text. Hill follows the line of inquiry opened by H.J. Habakkuk in "English Landownership 1680-1740," Economic History Review, 1st series, 10 (1940), 2-17, and "Marriage Setüementsin the Eighteenth Century," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, 32 (1950), 15-30. For the pervasiveness of this account in criticism of Clarissa, see, for example, TC Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 239-41; Mark Kinkead-Weekes, Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist (London: Methuen, 1973), pp. 12324 ; Angus Ross, Introduction to Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or the History of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 1-14
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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