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Eighteenth Century Fiction 19.1&2 (2006) 153-180

The Rake as Military Strategist:
Clarissa and Eighteenth-Century Warfare
M. John Cardwell
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Conflict is central to the plot of Samuel Richardson's great novel Clarissa, beginning with a dispute between father and daughter over their relative powers, rights, and duties. In order to escape a distasteful forced marriage, urged by a family of recently established landowners ambitious to increase its wealth and social status, Clarissa Harlowe places herself in the protection of the aristocratic rake Robert Lovelace, who is determined to seduce her. A violent contest of wills ensues before the rake, unable to achieve his desire through consent, rapes Clarissa, who dies unreconciled to her family. Critics have explored the political, social, and moral implications of these conflicts. Terry Eagleton has interpreted the novel as an expression of eighteenth-century class and sexual struggle, in which an ascendant bourgeoisie sought accommodation with the ruling aristocracy in the wake of the political settlement of 1688. By refusing both Roger Solmes and Lovelace, Clarissa renounces the competing power systems of bourgeoisie patriarchy and aristocratic libertinism which had victimized her.1

Angus Ross, Morris Golden, and Tom Keymer have persuasively argued that there is a political dimension to Clarissa's rebellion against repressive parental authority and its usurpation by her brother James, which culminates in the tyranny of Lovelace. Her dilemma [End Page 153] is related to the seventeenth-century constitutional confrontation between king and people, which led to the overthrow of Charles I, the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and the exiled Stuarts' attempts to recover the throne. Richardson's reaction to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 is reflected in the association of the Harlowes with the Hanoverian Succession, Clarissa with the British political nation, and Lovelace with the Young Pretender striving to impose absolutist rule.2 Despite the fundamental significance of conflict in Clarissa, little detailed study has hitherto been devoted to the novel's war imagery. John Carroll, Margaret Anne Doody, and Penelope Biggs have commented on Richardson's application of military metaphors to elucidate Lovelace's portrayal as tragic hero, the psychological struggle between the protagonists, and the representation of the rake.3 A more exhaustive study is needed, however, to appreciate the depth and precision of the novel's military imagery, and how these allusions relate to its historical context.

Military conflict has been one of the most traditional literary metaphors for the struggles of lovers, and in Clarissa military metaphors characterize Lovelace's pursuit of the heroine, which he describes in the following terms: "Thou knowest the whole progress of our warfare: for a warfare it has truly been; and far, very far, from an amorous warfare too" (401). In his reflections on the moral code and behaviour of the rake, Lovelace repeatedly associates himself with the great military leaders of the past and present. His contrivances to seduce Clarissa are envisaged as a meticulously planned and executed military campaign. The metaphor of Lovelace the conqueror or warrior-prince is developed to expose the fundamentally distorted ideas that governed the rake's attitude towards women. Although traditionally acclaimed as a profound observer of morals and manners, Richardson was also deeply interested in international affairs. In applying the images of war, the novelist reveals a sound knowledge of eighteenth-century strategy and tactics, and also achieves a penetrating commentary on contemporary European conflict, [End Page 154] demonstrating in a new and original sense how representative Clarissa is of the history and spirit of its age.

Lovelace adopts many roles in Clarissa, but he is most fond of masquerading as a soldier. He establishes the headquarters for his rakish operations at an inn in the near vicinity of Harlowe Place, called his "garrison" by Anna Howe. Lovelace assumes the disguise of an army officer who has gone into hiding after probably killing a man in a duel, which neatly foreshadows his own fate (285). He imagines his letters to be a general's "despatches" reporting the progress of his...


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