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Clarissa's Pregnancy and the Fate of Patriarchal PowerBrian McCrea As to the question required of me to answer, and which is allowed to be too shocking either for a mother to put to a daughter, or a sister to a sister; and which, however, you say I must answer—Oh sir!— and must I answer?—This then be my answer: "A little time, a much less time than is imagined, will afford a more satisfactory answer to my whole family, and even to my brother and sister, than I can give in words."1 And so Clarissa Harlowe responds, in a letter to her Uncle Anthony, to a question put to her by her Uncle John: "Your mother can't ask, and your sister knows not in modesty how to ask; and so / must ask you, if you have any reason to think yourself with child by this villain?—You must answer this, and answer it truly, before anything can be resolved upon about you" (p. 1192). Clarissa responds two months to the day (13 June to 13 August) after her rape by Robert Lovelace2 1 Samuel Richardson, Clarissa or The History ofa Young Lady, ed. Angus Ross (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 1 197. References are to this edition. Readers interested in Richardson's revisions of Clarissa should consult Shirley Van Matter's essays in Studies in Bibliography 26 (1973), 107-32 and 28 (1975), 119-52, as well as Florian Stuber's introduction to the photofacsimile of the third edition of Clarissa (New York: AMS Press, 1990), pp. 20-39. Stuber gives an evenhanded summary of the strengths and weaknesses of Ross's edition (pp. 1819 ). The author thanks Elizabeth Langland and Dana Peterson for their careful criticism of early versions of this essay. 2 Judith Wilt in her "He Could Go No Farther: A Modest Proposal about Lovelace and Clarissa," proposes that Lovelace is impotent and that any sexual abuse Clarissa suffers is at the hands of Mrs Sinclair and the "women below," PMLA 92 (1977), 19-32. Terry Castle concedes to Wilt EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 9, Number 2, January 1997 126 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION and less than a month before her death on 7 September. The twentyfive day interval truly is a "little time," "much less time" than her family and friends imagine. But how does Clarissa answer her uncle's question by dying, particularly since she demands in her will that "my body ... not on any account ... be opened" and that it "be put into my coffin as soon as possible"? What will time tell us about Clarissa's condition when she allows only her family a "last ... look" at her and demands that "I may not unnecessarily be exposed to the view of anybody" (p. 1413)? While we occasionally read newspaper stories about women who go to hospitals fearing an ulcer or appendicitis only to give birth to a child, in most cases pregnancy is relatively easy to detect or suspect two months or three months after conception. But Clarissa will not offer a simple "yes" or "no." Clarissa's physical condition will ever elude a definitive diagnosis; Richardson uses herpossible pregnancy, however, to raise basic questions about male potency and patrilinear succession.3 As Lovelace and the Harlowes respond to the possibility, they link the event to family matters. They also chart the decline of patriarchs, particularly of Lord M. and James Harlowe, Sr. In describing these weak men, Richardson writes with remarkable prescience, adumbrating commentary upon "patriarchy" by writers as influential as Susan Gilbert, Sandra Gubar, Terry Castle, and Nancy Armstrong.4 "that nothing in the text definitively refutes" her interpretation, but concludes, "I read Clarissa with the belief that a heterosexual rape does take place, with Lovelace as rapist, yet I am also aware that, technically speaking, this is as much a construction as is Wilt's." Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson's "Clarissa" (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 166n. As Castle locates an "ultimate unverifiability" in the case of Clarissa's rape, I find a similar "indeterminacy" in the matter of Clarissa's pregnancy. 3 In her wasting away unto death, Clarissa...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 125-148
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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