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Eighteenth-Century Life 31.3 (2007) 1-28

Why Clarissa Must Die:
Richardson's Tragedy and Editorial Heroism
Adam Budd
University of Edinburgh

When Samuel Richardson released the final installment of Clarissa in December 1748, confirming rumors that his heroine would die, readers protested. John Rivington's sales figures show that more than one-third of those who purchased the first four volumes chose not to purchase the final three.1 An anonymous note among Richardson's unpublished letters indicates the sentimental logic of that censure: "I should read the Account of [Clarissa's] death with as much Anguish of Mind, as I should feel at the Loss of my dearest Friend. I know a great many Gentlemen that are of my Mind, and I believe your Book will sell very indifferently, unless you alter it in that Respect."2 Richardson described such threats as examples of "the infinite trouble and opposition" that greeted the final installment, asking a friend to imagine "what I have not suffered from an affectation of a delicate concern for virtue" (Carroll, 117). Lady Bradshaigh's plea for a happy ending, which blended the language of moral imperatives with her wish for a pleasing read, typified the demands of many who awaited the final volumes: "I still must hope that you will not think such a catastrophe necessary. May some good natured little sylph attend you, and change your gloomy scheme of death, to the more pleasing one of a happy and well spent life."3 When Richardson replied by telling Bradshaigh that Clarissa must die "for the [End Page 1] sake of the example to be given by it," she responded by asking him not to send the final volumes, observing that "our hearts are not much alike" (Barbauld, 4:188, 212–13).

The sentimental nature of what Thomas Keymer has called "resistance on the part of the reading public to anything other than . . . the earlier novel's happy outcome" should not have come as a surprise ("Clarissa's Death," 395). Just as Richardson had shown drafts of Pamela in advance of publication, he circulated drafts of Clarissa from 1744.4 In June 1745, Laetitia Pilkington reported what transpired when she interrupted Colley Cibber while he read an early volume:

I had related not only the catastrophe of the story, but also your truly religious and moral reason for it. . . . When I told him [Clarissa] must die, he said, "G-d d—n him, if she should, and that he should no longer believe Providence, or eternal Wisdom, or Goodness governed the World, if [such] Merit, Innocence, and Beauty were to be so destroyed."

(Barbauld 2:127–28)

With a curse too violent to be printed in full, the poet laureate's reaction to the news of Clarissa's demise illustrates an essential misreading of Richardson's motives even among friendly readers whom he trusted, one of whom he even imagined to represent Clarissa's own taste.5 Richardson claimed in both his letters and in his novel's textual apparatus that his reason for writing Clarissa lay in his belief that "religion was never so low as at present, . . . and if my work must be supposed of the novel kind, then I was willing to try if a religious novel would do good" (Barbauld, 4:187). In his postscript to the first edition (1748), Richardson described Clarissa as a "work which is designed to inculcate upon the human mind, under the guise of an Amusement, the great Lessons of Christianity, . . . to attempt something that never yet had been done."6 The innovative Clarissa would not distribute the worldly rewards in such a manner that appealed so famously to readers of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1741) and its comedic sequel, Pamela . . . In Her Exalted Condition (1742), in which Richardson sought to "satisfy" his readers, and in which he revealed his identity as the author.7 More specifically, Clarissa would not chime in with those ideas of poetic justice that defined contemporary tragic drama. Indeed, in the closing...


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