|Clarissa with Sean Bean and Saskia Wickham|
Samuel Richard’s Clarissa is one of those 18th Century novels that weigh about five pounds and intimidate even the most determined of English majors. Thus when I was at my local public library and spotted a film adaptation of the novel, I had no scruples in checking it out and making it my literary meditation for the past few days.
The story has all the typical tropes: a saintly heroine, an unscrupulous but handsome villain, and a plot that keeps one on the edge, although there is just one simple dramatic question: Will or will not Mr. Lovelace succeed in his plans of seducing or, if that does not work, raping Clarissa Harlowe?
I loved this story, because it was able to make me so angry. The behavior of everyone, including Clarissa, drove me wild. Clarissa's family is hideously cruel to her. Her relatives try to manipulate her into doing what they want (Clarissa to make a materially advantageous marriage to an odious man) by using Clarissa's impeccable morality against her, arguing she owes it to her family to obey them absolutely, sacrificing her own happiness for theirs. Clarissa, however, wisely understands that she also has a duty to herself, and that moral obedience to one's parents does not give them license to force you to do something that is repugnant to your own happiness. First in this cast of familial villains is Clarissa's brother James. What a delightful character to loathe! So sanctimonious, hypocritical, coldhearted, and yet craven and weak.
It is Mr. Lovelace, however, who is Clarissa's greatest enemy. He's a young man with absolutely no respect for women, who is known for his sexual exploits. He seeks to torment and conquer Clarissa, but it is she who ultimately torments him. Her genuine piety, her frankness, and her modesty confront Lovelace's baser, animalistic, irrational, violent, and false behavior.
Indeed, Clarissa stands out--as she was intended to do--as a model of Christian virtue. Like Susanna in the Book of Daniel, she faces a trap designed to ruin her good name. The words of Susanna could easily have been Clarissa's, "I am completely trapped. If I yield, it will be my death; if I refuse, I cannot escape your power. Yet it is better for me to fall into your power without guilt than to sin before the Lord" (Daniel 13:22-23). Indeed, to give in would be to become the very thing one resists, neither Susanna nor Clarissa would stoop so low as to forfeit their eternal souls in such a manner. In so doing, they keep the advice that Jesus gives to us when he says, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna," (Luke 12:4-5).
This movie made an excellent meditation for this week, as the readings from Romans and Luke for the daily Masses all relate to the problem of hypocrisy. Stories like Clarissa expose not only the hypocrisy of obvious villains like Lovelace, but also those that actually consider themselves to be good Christians, like the Harlowe family. The Comedy of Manners novels of Richardson, Fielding, Austen, and others do this so effectively by contrasting the public lives of the characters with their inner, secret motivations. So often, people will violate morality if they think no one is looking or will ever find out, but what we think and do in our private moments is precisely the test of our personal morality. If we only believe that all would be exposed someday, we would all tremble with shame at our double dealings. And why should we not believe it will be so, when it is written, "There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known," (Luke 12:2). Therefore, let the saintly Clarissa Harlowe be our model, and resist sin with all our might, praying God to help us.
Br. Paul Byrd, OP
(I obviously highly recommend this film and the novel it is based on.)