Printer Friendly

The institutionalization of benevolence in the eighteenth-century social welfare state: the great charity debate in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa.

The concept of charity for most people living today in common law countries is firmly tied to the structure of the modern welfare state. Governments encourage charitable donations from the public to help sustain programs strained by declining levels of public support, and the people in turn are given some relief in their own tax burden as a token of appreciation for their efforts: an effective system which accrues benefits to all parties. This modern, secular system is, however, quite a new development in the evolution of institutionalized charity and is, more or less, the product of an historic conflict between church and state for control of the substantial financial resources involved in the act of giving. From the beginning of the Middle Ages until the middle of the eighteenth century, a series of laws were enacted in England which had the cumulative effect of secularizing public welfare schemes which had traditionally been operated, and shaped, by ecclesiastical institutions. Faith proved to be a stronger donative motive than patriotism, and the immediate effect of these laws seemed to be a sharp decrease in the number and value of charitable bequests. By the middle of the eighteenth century, after the effects of the most far-reaching statute had begun to be felt, a growing number of writers began to question the value of secularization, and many of them utilized the popular genre of didactic fiction to disseminate complex attacks of government policy, which would otherwise have been largely censored to a large number of readers. In this essay, I hope to prove that the conception of the seminal mid-eighteenth century novel, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, was deeply connected to the debate of the secularization of society, and reposit his work's ubiquitous didacticism away from traditional religious interpretations and into this new, deeply political context. Like the more familiar sociopolitical novels written by the English "radicals" after the French Revolution, Richardson used his novel to analyze the viability of the institutions of the new secular state, and similarly found them inimical to the individuals they were supposed to protect. Unlike the protest novels written later in the century, however, Richardson found his solution to contemporary problems in the reincorporation in early Christian concepts of simple communism. Although Clarissa was not in itself responsive to any one piece of legislation, it is arguable that, with the The Statute of Mortmain 1736 used as counterpoint, Richardson's novel can be read as a valid--and highly entertaining--alternative social scheme to the legislative schemes which were, even nearly, three centuries ago, causing considerable harm in the name of social and economic progress.

The history of the law of charity in England, like other complex social, legal, or cultural systems, cannot of course be very simply plotted or mapped out. Most legal historians do, however, seem content to place the moment of genesis of the modern law of charity at the date of the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. This is an admittedly arbitrary date which does, if nothing else, limit any discussion of the evolution of the English law of charity to the concurrent development of the English common law. It is, however, both possible and helpful to extend this analysis to legal concepts originated or made popular under Roman law. Many of these legal constructs were nurtured during the Middle Ages in the English ecclesiastical courts, and were gradually reintroduced into the common law with the expansion of the courts of equity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with some degree of popular notoriety, so that many of Richardson's readers in the mid-eighteenth century may well have been familiar with them.

Up until the nineteenth century, the church was perhaps the most important--and certainly the largest--corporate body in English law. While the legal concept of the corporate body was not unknown in classical Roman law,(1) the establishment of Christianity as the dominant state religion in the Roman Empire by the fourth century C.E. prompted the development of a new body of law which defined in a refined form for the first time the concept of a corporate identity. A.H. Oosterhoff cites two edicts issued by Constantine in, respectively, 313 and 321 as being particularly notable for enabling, for the first time, the Christian church to hold property as a corporate entity legally, although this had been common practice for some time.(2) The development seemed to be beneficial to both parties: the state, having "downloaded" some of its moral and legal obligations to traditional recipients of the welfare state (as it existed), could save money, and the church used at least some of the property bequeathed to it to establish a diverse array of new charitable organizations. The result of these changes to corporate law, which would later see the development of the European churches as the largest property holders in their respective countries, were unforseen in the late Roman Empire. Churches were actually encouraged to increase the amount of property that they held and were prevented from divesting what they owned to individuals or other organizations.(3) It may not be an overstatement to suggest that much legislation after the English Reformation would eventually be devoted to reversing the "disastrous" cumulative effect of these two edicts.

The effect of Roman law was, as always, least directly felt in the peripheral holdings of the Empire, and it is additionally apparent that at least some temporal lapse occurred from the time of the first proclamation of any given edict to its enforcement in outlying regions. In short, it is probably not inaccurate to suggest that the legal concept of charity in Roman law, as influenced by Christianity toward the end of the fourth century, had at best a hard struggle with established patterns of charity and benevolence that had already survived the Roman cultural invasion, and was probably not fostered after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Britain and during the ensuing cultural flux. Indeed, in 1215, some seven centuries later, Gregory IX had to reinforce earlier papal decrees which encouraged bequests to charitable causes by issuing his own righteous threat that the impious testator might risk internment in unconsecrated ground and be denied the Eucharist.(4) Gareth Jones states that these papal edicts were similarly directed toward those who would feel secure in dying intestate--that is, without a will (in which charitable bequests would no doubt be included), and by this alone he provides much evidence that, by the thirteenth century, the will had become one of the primary instruments by which charitable bequests were made in England.(5) The charitable bequest in the medieval will, perhaps contrary to modern expectation, usually contained few provisions for ecclesiastical institutions and instead directed that monies be paid to those institutions which would later be codified in The Charitable Uses Act of 1601 and which still directs (and restricts) our own charitable impulses to this day. Jones states, for instance, that in the "typical" medieval will we might expect to find bequests to the poor, the "maimed and the suffering," and for the upkeep of public works such as roads and bridges, and the "repair of hospitals.(6) Jones's extensive research easily supports an argument that the nature of charity had undergone a fundamental metamorphosis by the thirteenth century so that there was a noticeable shift in giving from the ancient patterns of ecclesiastical contemplative bequests, which tended to focus on the individual and benefit a geographic locale, to larger and more collectivist causes which attempted to mitigate some of the harsher realities of the secular world. This line of reasoning may obscure the reality, however, of the church's greatly expanded governmental role in perpetuating some of the schemes of the social welfare state which had disappeared with the collapse of the Roman Empire and had yet to be replaced by domestic programs. In most cases, charitable organizations and causes effectively operated as units of a greater ecclesiastical institution, and even if the church was itself not named, it was likely understood by all donors that the church itself would be, if only indirectly, the primary beneficiary of charitable bequests.(7)

In the next four centuries, three dramatic developments in the evolution of English social and legal history helped to guide the English legal concept of "charity" into its modern,(8) and final form. First, during this time period the practical outcome of the church's well-intentioned but ultimately shortsighted policy of encouraging the divestiture of private lands to the church, for charitable causes, became clear: so much land was placed into the holdings of an immortal corporation that the state was increasingly denied critical tax revenues upon which it had traditionally relied for maintenance. In addition, significant parcels of land were withheld from the market, and it is not unlikely that many thwarted investors perceived the church to subsequently have some commercial opportunities which were denied to them by the law. These jealous sentiments no doubt played a part in increasing the hostility or contemptuousness with which some elements of the church were held after the thirteenth century. The frequent appearance of the clergy in medieval French fabliaux suggest that this ideological turn had a somewhat universal appeal across Europe, but in England anticlerical sentiment seemed to manifest itself in less entertaining, though equally dramatic forms. Francis Gladstone, for instance, suggests that the popular image of the corrupt, sated church official which was a cultural icon of the period was seized upon by several important figures in the ecclesiastical reformation movement and utilized as an easily understood symbol of power to focus the discontent of large numbers of the poor onto the large ecclesiastical institutions.(9)

It has long been suggested that the English common law courts were jealous of the impact of ecclesiastical jurisprudence on the development of English charity laws in the fifteenth century and afterwards.(10) The English court too seemed to find disfavor with the church's wide charitable jurisdiction by the fifteenth century. The apparatus of the ecclesiastical system was largely regarded as ineffective and costly,(11) and the Henrician statute of 1545 was enacted, at least in part, to legally address what many saw as the church's failure to uphold its obligations to the social welfare system. If the average Englishman who did not, as Gareth Jones suggests, reflect less on the nature of his own soul become more concerned with the fate of his neighbors,(12) he was certainly encouraged (heavily) to turn his philanthropic impulses to secular charitable causes when the crown outlawed the bequests of property to the chantries. Although the colorful explanations behind Henry VIII's attempts to erode papal power in England have received more historical attention, the Henrician Statute had the greater impact on daily life, as the crown was reinvested with substantial financial resources and not insignificant pieces of realty.(13)

Finally, the increasing legal restrictions placed on the role of ecclesiastical institutions in the distribution and control of charitable bequests seemed to have a negative effect on both the pattern and frequency of gifts given. Francis Gladstone suggests that the churches may have been able to trace their concerns to a more prosaic source; he traces the decline of both inter vivos and testamentary gifts in this period to an etymological shift in the meaning of the English word "charity. Instead of encompassing a general concern with the fate of one's neighbors, Gladstone suggests that "charity" had come to refer to a term which had actively negative connotations with the singular act of alms-giving.(14) Certainly, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, there had begun a fashion among those who had much property to give to actively discourage the practice of contributing to charitable causes, as much from a disgust with the seeming "industry" of charity as from a decreasing sense of obligation to do so.

Gareth Jones is not alone in claiming the years of the "long eighteenth century(15) to mark the nadir of the charitable impulse(16) in English political and social thought. Many historians have noted the relative infrequency of charitable bequests during the eighteenth century and noted this contrast conversely to trends expressed in previous centuries. It is indeed tempting to trace the "dark age of English philanthropy"(17) from the emergence of the English Enlightenment and an intellectual society which cooly depicted the poor "wallowing in their own, self-imposed degradation"(18) but, as we have seen, this hostile climate was the end product of historical, legal, and social movements of long duration. The eighteenth century may have made fashionable a popular dislike for the idea of charity,(19) but this sentiment could be repeated, in some ways, to accurately depict the popular status of many charities in each of the four preceding centuries. The key difference in the eighteenth century was that, for the first time, such sentiments were expressed widely and among all classes, and that the emergence of popular daily papers meant that these opinions would be broadcast to an audience of unprecedented dimensions.

Although the topic of charity was a favorite one in the eighteenth century, perhaps what was the most significant legal development in the law of charity passed without much comment at all. What was to become known, inaccurately but conveniently,(20) as The Statute of Mortmain 1736, was introduced into the House of Commons on 5 March 1735 by the Master of Roils with relative fanfare in proportion to its overall significance. Like similar mortmain statutes passed in the seventeenth century, it built upon deep-seated anxieties about the power of some of the great Hanoverian ecclesiastical charities and what was perceived to be the increasing power of the church over certain areas of secular (i.e. commercial) life. The Queen Anne's Bounty, did, for instance, have a remarkable constitution which enabled it to legally receive "any" amount of property given to it by donors.(21)

The preamble to Mortmain 1736 is particularly illustrative in its articulation of the popular suspicion that the entire supporting administrative structure of charitable trusts was inherently corrupt. Its list of perceived abuses, and proposed restrictions, on the act of charitable giving encapsulates much of the anti-ecclesiastical sentiment of its drafters:

Whereas Gifts or Alienations of Lands, Tenements or Hereditaments, in Mortmain, are prohibited or restrained by Magna Charta, and divers other wholsome Laws, as prejudicial to and against the common Utility; nevertheless this publick Mischief has-of late greatly increased by many Persons, to Uses called Charitable Uses, to take place after their Deaths, to the Disherison of their lawful "Heirs": For Remedy whereof be it enacted ... That from and after the twenty-fourth Day of June ... no Manors, Lands, Tenements, Rents, Advowsons, or other Hereditaments, Corporeal or Incorporeal whatsoever, nor any Sum or Sums of Money, Goods or Chattels, Stock in the Publick Funds ... shall be given granted, aliened, limited, released, transferred [in trust, unless] ... be made by Deed indented, sealed, and delivered in the Presence of two or more credible Witnesses twelve Calendar Months at least before the Death of such Donor or Grantor ...(22) [emphasis added]

Mortmain 1736 is particularly notable for its attempt to void bequests of realty (underlined passages) made with charitable intent, and certain restrictions were placed upon the disposition of personalty as well. It is interesting to note that Mortmain 1736 actually had the initial effect of expanding the concept of charity in English jurisprudence: bequests that might be construed as "charitable" under the act could often be voided by disappointed beneficiaries.

The temporal restrictions imposed on charitable bequests had the intended effect of removing the ecclesiastical charities' most generous group of donors; most gifts had traditionally come from those "languishing or dying persons who were swayed by clergy at or near the point of death to gift property to the church in the hope that a final good deed might smooth passage into the afterlife. Colleges and universities were, notably, made exempt from the strict rules of attestation after petitions had been received, and accepted, from Oxford and Cambridge.(23)

Despite its common notoriety, both Gladstone and Jones suggest that The Statute of Mortmain 1736 did not follow in the "true" tradition of earlier mortmain statutes(24) and was instead deeply reflective of social pressures unique to eighteenth-century England. For the purpose of this essay, it is not as necessary to dwell upon these interesting legal technicalities as it is to reflect that The Statute of Mortmain 1736 was the logical extension of previous mortmain statutes. Oosterhoff, through Holdsworth, suggests that three reasons predominated in the enactment of previous mortmain statutes. For the sake of convenience, if not clarity, I have condensed these arguments into two main points:

1. The unrestricted alienation of land to corporations might result in large blocs of "frozen" land, as corporations could not devise land as freely as individuals and had the potential to last forever;

2. Family members might be disinherited if preference was shown for corporations.(25)

As previously noted, the strong anticlerical movement that had gained in momentum after the English Restoration proved itself increasingly adept in convincing both lawmakers and the general public alike that the power of the church constituted a threat to the freedom of individuals in both law and society, Though the language of The Statute of Mortmain 1736 makes no specific mention of ecclesiastical charities, most scholars suggest that it was the church, rather than lay charities, that was the intended target of the 1736 legislation.(26)

Popular reactions to the enactment of the statute varied to a significant degree. It would be rather inaccurate to suggest that anything resembling a popular outcry could be heard after the bill was passed; popular dailies loyal to the ruling regime were of course silent on any issue that might have provided some embarrassment to the King or to Walpole's government, and political commentators in the main opposition paper, The Country Tradesman, were saving their most biting comments for a widely unpopular prohibition bill that had been passed over six months earlier. For members of the clergy, the Statute of Mortmain 1736 was but the most recent and dramatic indication of a growing, popular, secular sentiment that threatened the power of the church. For the landed gentry, the statute provoked much litigation as lawyers tested the scope of the new legislation.(27) In the ensuing years, both of these results would be explored in the works of novelists such as Samuel Richardson, who perceived the enactment of legislation such as The Statute of Mortmain 1736 as an important indicator that the careful balance established between ecclesiastical and secular institutions was in a state of flux, and to thus perceive the law as a tool that could be used to reform and redefine the structure of society instead of merely preserving it.

Samuel Richardson was born in 1689 and lived for seventy-two years. Like many Europeans who lived after him, his lifetime was marked by significant periods of social and technological change, and yet he lived at a time when much of England was still firmly rooted in the traditions of a culture that had been built over a period of over a thousand years. It may be, then, that Richardson was gifted with a certain prescience that was born from a cultural perspective that spanned two eras and several social classes, and manifested itself in his three major novels--Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison--and numerous other writings as an angst that many critics have perceived to represent a deeply-rooted social conservatism. Certainly, it is difficult to attribute the didacticism and ambiguous political and legal perspectives present in most of his work from family, early political influences, or acquaintances. Richardson was, if anything, careful to maintain a strictly bipartisan tone to much of his published work, and his passion for re-editing his own journal and letters has left them with what is, at times, a strangely political nature. The difficult task of constructing Richardson's political persona must therefore be limited to untangling the political influences in his formative years and, of course, examining the works themselves.

Samuel Richardson's family might well have been described as "comfortable," though diminished from earlier fortunes, in the terminology of polite society in the mid-eighteenth century. Before the sixteenth century, Richardson's ancestors had been small farmers in the area of Surrey.(28) Eaves and Kimpel remark that the Richardson family saw themselves, and were regarded by others as

moderately prosperous yeomen, with no claims to being anything more. They seem to have been of the class which was the salt of the English earth, which kept both the gentry and the mob fed and managed to feed itself at the same time.(29)

It is apparent, however, that the Richardsons were not content with the role ordained to them by British society, for each male heir sought his fortune elsewhere, and Samuel's grandfather moved his young family to London in the determination that his sons would not be tied to the land.(30) The Richardson fortune was not divided by the rules of primogeniture,(31) however, and the successive divisions of the family's resources left many members with relatively little seed money with which they could begin their lives anew in a different locale. Richardson's father was apprenticed to a joiner and enjoyed some success in his craft until he became embroiled in the struggle for English succession--on the wrong side--and was apparently forced to flee for the countryside with his young family. The event may have had an impact on Richardson's later life in two distinct themes that are illustrated in his writings: first, the danger his family faced made him aware of the potential danger of openly siding with lost (political) causes, and he was always careful to hide his true political loyalties--perhaps as a result of knowing just how such openly expressed sentiments had already harmed his family. In addition, Richardson seemed almost anxious to sever himself from his family's known political affiliations in his attempt to construct a seemingly disinterested political persona for himself. He never mentioned his early life and past and did not even tell his own daughters the name of their grandmother or the place where their own father had been born, although he never hid the fact that he had come from a "poor" family.(32)

The relative poverty of Richardson's family dictated that he would receive a "minimal" education--although the "good elementary school training" and "exposure to Latin grammar"(33) that he received would probably have placed him in education above much of the population of London. At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed for seven years--the common term--in the Stationer's Company, which specialized in printing popular almanacs and adventure fiction,(34) and ended his term in considerable debt despite having received a substantial legacy from a fellow apprentice.

Richardson later mined these unhappy years in The Apprentice's Vade Mecum (1734), which was in part expanded from a letter of advice written to a nephew who wished to pursue a career similar to Richardson's own. In a time when political treatises masqueraded as popular romance novels and every fable had political connotations, it is cult not to draw on inferences from passages which caution that apprentices have no time to call their own, and that every obligation is owed to their master; in others we read that respect for one's master, whether kind or severe, is of utmost importance.(35) Many critics have viewed this instruction, whether here or in its later manifestation in Clarissa (1747-48), as absolute evidence that Richardson advocated a continuation of the political and social status quo, but it may also be important that Richardson was a small business owner himself, and would have other interests to protect that were far removed from the political realm.

Perhaps more telling was Richardson's involvement with the loyalist True Briton newspaper. By 1721, Richardson had established himself as a publisher of some repute, but was not making much money from it. In what may have been a response to the financial failures of the politically moderate tracts that he first printed, throughout 1722 Richardson printed works by some of the most extreme opponents of the Walpole government,(36) and it should not be seen as surprising that he was by year's end named in a communication by Samuel Negus to the Secretary of State among the "high flyers," or extreme Tories.(37) In June 1723, the first issue of the True Briton appeared, and it immediately garnered a reputation for its extreme attacks on the Walpole government which resulted not the least in several lawsuits for libel and a charge of encouraging seditious sentiment against the government.(38)

Notably, Richardson's name never did appear in the colophon of the True Briton even though he certainly printed most copies of it in 1722 and 1723; a nineteenth-century literary scholar claimed that Richardson's political sympathies were in fact "very different" to those expressed in the True Briton, and that "he peremptorily refuse[d] to be concerned in such papers as he apprehended might endanger his own safety." In addition, the frequent arrests made of the known contributors of the True Briton are said to have (understandably) unnerved Richardson to the point that he dissociated himself as much as he could from the paper.(39) Perhaps frightened by his early experiences, and solvent enough to not have to rely on such dangerous literary experiments, Richardson soon moved away from printing works with a strictly political content, and by 1724 had put out editions of, among others, an abridged Gulliver's Travels and an edition of Defoe's Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain.

After 1724, Eaves and Kimpel suggest that it was more difficult to discern a distinct "Tory tinge" to the collective output of Richardson's presses.(40) Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that it is difficult to infer any political connotations from Richardson's printed editions after the mid 1720s. Richardson did not, however, altogether abandon the political arena but instead branched into a new area of business. Starting in 1733, Richardson entered into a contract with the British government to print bills, orders, and occasional reports for the House of Commons.(41) The income derived from this business soon amounted to more than he earned from the other areas of his business, and in the year ending 1747 he made the astounding sum of almost 600 pounds, although his usual annual income was closer to one-sixth of this amount.(42) Richardson's commercial venture is particularly notable in two ways. First, it is notable that Richardson's work became discernably apolitical at precisely the same time he began his contract with the government; clearly, he was not willing to jeopardize a very lucrative activity by writing and/or printing any document that was likely to be perceived as an attack on the government. Second, Richardson received a self-taught course in the law of the eighteenth century by way of the bills and statutes which he published, and most certainly read.(43) Unfortunately, lapses in the historical record have made it quite difficult to determine, with any certainty, whether or not Richardson printed The Statute of Mortmain 1736, but we know from records that he did print a large number of bills in that year(44) and that he would, in any case, almost certainly have known about it. Many authors have suggested that Richardson's utilization of legal concepts and theory in the "mature" work of his novels in the 1740s and afterwards is more comprehensive than what would be expected from his background and interests,(45) and it seems likely that Richardson's contract with the House of Commons during the period of his greatest literary output enabled him to infuse his works with a certain legal relevancy that would extend beyond the mere legal enthusiast's knowledge of the law. In the 1750s, Richardson became the statute and law-printer to the king, and managed to secure for himself a half-share interest in the exclusive right to print all books dealing with the common law.(46) It seems that Richardson's strong sense of self-interest should have helped to inhibit and/or supress his natural interest in political theory and criticism during this period, but he actually did write several interesting pieces whose possible political connotations need to be explored more thoroughly.(47)

Samuel Richardson, it has been noted, began his career as a novelist rather late in his life: he was over fifty-one by the time his breakthrough success, Pamela, was published in a serialized format in 1740-41. Notwithstanding the claims of some modern scholars that Richardson, as an author, was an artistic anachronism in a century in which literary precociousness was an expected (and desired) characteristic of every great author,(48) Richardson was able to bring a great deal of the experience he gained in his earlier political writings into his novels, and thus even his first novel, Pamela, had in it a level of literary sophistication and cultural analysis that is often absent from many first efforts. Although there is no discernible gap in Richardson's output from the time in which his most overtly "political" writings were produced, in the 1720s, to the appearance of the first volumes of Pamela in the 1740s, many scholars suggest in their approach that his work is best analysed in discrete segments, defined by relative chronology, and not in the context of his complete literary output. Terry Eagleton makes a compelling argument in The Rape of Clarissa that Richardson's experiments with the novel signal a shift in the focus of his work from the public sphere of his newspaper pulpit to the domestic and private realm of the bourgeois family.(49) It is true that the development of the novel in the eighteenth century precipitated the movement toward popular literacy, and that by the end of the century the wide popularity of the image of the "private" reader(50) had largely displaced the reading group as the accepted form of literary appreciation, but most scholars have introduced modern assumptions about literary genres into their historical research, and their conclusions about the dominant motive behind Richardson's new literary direction may be misleading. Eaves and Kimpel suggest, for instance, that Richardson's move to the novel was a natural reaction to his growing social, financial, and artistic stature within London and a reflexive response to latent fears that a return to the more "dangerous" political writings of his literary youth would destabilize his life.(51)

There seems to be little sense in claiming today that the novel was regarded by any author, let alone the reading public, as a conservative literary genre in the middle of the eighteenth century; it was instead a dangerous, unstable area of literary exploration that received much of its definition, and popularity, from its liminality. Although Richardson is often described as one of the "fathers of the novel," most of the first and best novelists were women, who utilized the deprivileged status of the novel as a safe venue for expressing otherwise forbidden intellectual opinions.

Many authors continued to utilize the novel to articulate subversive political and cultural beliefs through to the end of the eighteenth century: most of the English Jacobins turned to the novel after their other literary efforts became popular targets for political censorship in the wake of the English reaction to the French Revolution, and disguised complex political treatises in the framework of "pulp" novels which had become popular early in the century. It is no coincidence that the author most frequently invoked and/or reworked in these later works was Richardson himself, who had done much the same a half-century later.

Most critics who today still adhere to the assumption that Richardson's novels are, in relation to his other works, depoliticized, are likely to focus on his last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, and certainly Pamela, and view Clarissa as an aberration; the political and moral problems delineated in the text are viewed as peripheral effects of the novel's greath length and not a theme central to Richardson's conception of the family dynamic of the gentrified family of the mid-eighteenth century.(52) This is understandable, for from what information we have about Richardson's work habits he developed the plots of all of his novels from sensational real-life: Pamela is said to be widely adapted from a well-known master-servant affair of which Richardson was made aware in the 1730s, and Sir Charles Grandison lionized the career of a famous bandit. Indeed, of the three novels, Clarissa, the "commonplace"(53) novel about the proposed marriage of a young woman to a wealthy landowner, had the simplest plot of them all and did not even have the dangerous allure of the argument of class equality (Pamela) or an anti-hero (Sir Charles Grandison). While the inherent conventionality of the plot of Clarissa may have inhibited any fantastic impulse in its author's imagination, it did direct Richardson to produce the finest early example of realism in the English novel. As a consequence, Richardson's complex critiques of English society have a greater air of reality here than they do in his other works, and are thus less easily dismissed.

The many paradoxes within Clarissa are present from the first few pages of the novel. Richardson wrote all of his novels in the epistolary form, a technique favored by authors in the eighteenth century who wished to develop their characters as realistically as possible but who wished to avoid the use of elaborate narrative techniques or highly artificial omniscient narrators later popularized by authors in the nineteenth century. More so than any of his contemporaries, however, Richardson was fully aware of the inherent theoretical problem of the epistolary form--that the reader was transformed into voyeur by exposure to and perusal of private thoughts--and he subsequently was able to write eighteenth-century readers' own moral assumptions into the plot of his novel, at once satirizing their weak mores and sympathizing with their ensuing moral dilemmas. For all that they are private correspondences, then, the letters that constitute Clarissa are situated in a very public space.

Fittingly, the immediate action of Richardson's novel is generated by the ensuing tension that arises from the conflation and confusion of the public and domestic spheres. In the first letter of the novel, written by Clarissa's best friend Anna Howe, we are informed that Clarissa's brother engaged in a duel with a neighbor, initiating cruel gossip and speculation about the Harlowe family within the community.(54) Later we are informed by Clarissa herself that the cause of her family's trouble is in the effect of the probation of her recently-deceased grandfather's will, which has left her the primary beneficiary of a sizeable estate. In the extensive preamble to the will, we are informed that these bequests were apparently dictated by relative need, and not by favoritism; Clarissa received preferential treatment because she, unlike the rest of her male relatives, had no property of her own right and could expect none under the rules of primogeniture.(55) Notably absent in the list is any bequest for a charitable cause or purpose; as has been noted, this would have been extremely unusual in the early eighteenth century and that Richardson, with his extensive knowledge of English law, would have known this. It may not be amiss to suggest that, by the time Clarissa was published, The Statute of Mortmain 1736 would in any case have frustrated any charitable devises that Clarissa's grandfather had chosen to make.

Predictably, Clarissa's siblings become jealous of her wealth and try to divest her of the wealth that she has; domestic tension eventually forces Clarissa to give much of what she has to her father and only keep a little for herself.(56) Even this generosity fails to restore the superficial harmony extant with the Harlowe family, and her siblings become involved in a plot (supported by her parents and uncles) to have her married to a "hideous' neighbor(57) so that the family can increase its land holdings. Clarissa's consequential rebellion, rape, and death at the hands of Lovelace is now so burdened with the psychosexual analyses(58) favored by some critics that it is pointless to reinterpret the meaning of Richardson's plot beyond the point that, in her death, Clarissa's transformation from subjective individual to objective commodity is made complete; the will which Clarissa leaves at the end of the novel is left as her final word.

It is no accident that Samuel Richardson began, and ended, Clarissa with a set of wills and duels. As seen in the context of a legal continuum, the will and the duel may be said to represent contradictory, yet complementary extremes of eighteenth-century social and legal theory. In the immediate age before Blackstone's comprehensive history of English law, the will, as we have seen, was the primary instrument used by testators to shape the future of their family and community, and it was, given the absence of other written records, often the only means by which heirs could reconstruct the character of their ancestors. Conversely, the duel was an extreme response to the utter lack of legal recourse for a breach of strongly enforced moral codes or conduct, but it was, despite its illegality, widely regarded as an acceptable alternative to the widely feared chaos that was perceived to be the inevitable result of the collapse of an important mechanism of control in society.(59) In Clarissa, Richardson alternately explores the efficacy of each "system" but ultimately rejects each as unviable. In doing so he proposes a third unique system, loosely based upon a casual mix of historical English benevolence and early Christian communism, which is exemplified in his heroine.

The will can be said to be the most dominant document in Richardson's novel. Unlike most of the documents that affect the lives of the characters in the course of the novel, Richardson not only mentions, but faithfully reproduces all of the wills for his readers' own perusal. One cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that, given the absence of a comprehensive analysis of English legal theory at the time, the law must have seemed to Richardson a vast and incomprehensible set of complex rules and procedures that was wholly inimical to the society whose values it was supposed to exemplify. As illustrated from the beginning of the novel, the legal will is for Richardson a complete failure and only exacerbates extant problems both within and out of the family; jealously is created with unequal bequests, and the needs of the poor are often left to the whims of the rich. In Anna Howe's description of Clarissa's character at the end of the novel we are informed, for instance, that Clarissa was given to make a list of "her Poor," removing names from it only when they "were provided for, by death."(60) The tragedy at the end of Clarissa is that Clarissa has no legal protection from either her parents or from Lovelace, but she is nonetheless forced to rely upon the law to perpetuate her moral ideology by improving the lives of others with small bequests. In a document notable mainly for its length and painfully accurate descriptions that fired some contemporary satirists' minds, it is interesting to note that Clarissa fails to divest her property to the charitable concerns she championed during her life; most of her property reverts to her family through the operation of law, where it might well again spark a cycle of selfish destructive behavior. Richardson also treats Clarissa's will as a valid legal document that is presumably to be probated after the narrative end of the novel; it is not clear whether or not he knew of the legal requirements for writing a valid will(61) and treated the fact that Clarissa had written a document that was not legally enforceable as yet another irony of the English legal system.(62)

The symbol of the bookended wills in Clarissa is, of course, just one element of Richardson's analysis of the impact of the law on the eighteenth-century moral universe, and serves as much as a structural framework for his novel as it does a pointed and poignant commentary on the practical limitations of legal theory. Richardson's relationship with law is especially ambivalent in Clarissa, for he seems to have realized that, more so than any social code, the law often provided the glue which held disparate elements of society together and helped to provide what little justice there could be in a proto-police state. Richardson appears to have been especially sensitive to criticism that he received from friends who proofread the first drafts that the moral in Clarissa was weak and ambiguous(63)--both the heroine and the villain died in the course of the plot--and it remains a (potential) source of power in his novel much more so than in the Clarissaesque novels of the 1790s. In Eliza Fenwick's 1795 novel Secresy, which directly refers to Clarissa, the law is completely oppressive and used by gothic villains to debauch innocent young girls. In Clarissa, however, the forthright Anna Howe instructs Clarissa several times during the course of the novel to "litigate your right.... [to your estate]!"(64) and seems to expect Clarissa to fully utilize all legal means to extract herself from her mounting problems, however improbable that course of action would have been for a woman, no matter how well connected, in the middle of the eighteenth century.

If the law occupies a deprivileged position in Richardson's novel, it is essentially much more attractive as a protective scheme for the vulnerable individuals in society than is the social code of Clarissa's bourgeois life which is explored in parallel to the legal system. As stated earlier, the extreme manifestation of the eighteenth-century English social code--the duel--was a solution to perceived lacunae in the legal system that was regulated by sets of rules as complex as any developed in the English courts. Duellers were, for instance, handicapped by inferior weaponry and arbitrary barriers to the extent that, if rules were properly followed, there was usually little chance of death(65) and considerably less bloodletting than might conceivably have resulted from a round of litigation. Psychology had an impact as well: statistics suggest that it was the party alleged to be in the wrong who was most likely to be wounded in a duel.(66) Urban myth seems to have perpetuated this assumption long before modern-record keeping proved it,(67) and it is likely that this knowledge would have stopped frivolous duels, much like some legal statutes have been enacted to prevent frivolous litigation. In Clarissa, however, neither of the duels follow any of the accepted "codes," with the inevitable result of bloodletting. In addition, neither one of the duels are fought to preserve the social order: the first is begun when Clarissa's brother construes a man's behavior to be an attack on his sister's honor so that he can forward his own ambitions; in the second, which closes the narrative framework of the novel, two men fight for the honor of a dead woman (Clarissa), resulting in the death of one and a decidedly hollow moral victory for the survivor.

If Richardson did come to the ultimate conclusion that neither the law nor social code could effectively limit man's behavior within acceptable guidelines, he also did not, as many "radical" authors did in the 1790s, reject the potential power of community and seek a new solution in radical libertarianism or by exemplifying the value of individualism. Through Clarissa, Richardson sought a solution to modern problems by using ancient social welfare systems as his model.

Few scholars suggest that Richardson had a level of interest in religion that could be considered extraordinary in the context of eighteenth-century English life. Eaves and Kimple do in fact cite contemporary reports which accuse Richardson of having, at best, an "apathetic" attitude towards religion,(68) but it is dear from the numerous instructive texts published by Richardson after Clarissa, but meant to be read with it, that he considered Clarissa a "religious" novel and that the numerous religious inferences in it are not coincidental.(69) Scholars have long connected similarities between Clarissa and Christ, and have even construed her "martyrdom" at the hands of Lovelace to be a proto-feminist reinterpretation of the Passion.(70) It seems doubtful, however, that Richardson wished to engage Christian mythology to the extent that literal interpretations could be made of his text; he was sensitive to criticism that Clarissa undermined her given exemplary role with her rebelliousness, and he may have over-compensated her attributes in the attempt to make her morality safe from critics' attacks.(71)

Richardson has left his readers with little knowledge of which standards he might have used in constructing any of his characters, and it is therefore not known which "template" of Christ he might have used in the creation of any of his exemplary characters. It is arguable, however, that given Richardson's own sense of modern alienation he would have avoided contemporary textual interpretations of the Bible and instead chosen a historical alternative which may have become available through research unearthed by scholars during the neo-classical revival of roughly the same time period. Textual evidence in Clarissa suggests that Richardson constructed his model of Christ from a loose interpretation of Mosaic legal law and from early Christian theology, and throws in that mix a strong dose of the exemplar figure made popular in the "cautionary" books for young people made popular in the eighteenth century.

Francis Gladstone comments, for instance, that a crucial aspect of Mosaic law was the emphasis placed on social justice, exemplified by "the Jewish prophets' relentless campaigning against social, economic, and political injustice."(72) It is telling that in Richardson's Meditations, the majority of scriptures selected for "moral improvement" (chosen by Clarissa herself(73)) are from the Old Testament, and several direct readers to emulate Clarissa's good works.(74) Gladstone further suggests that this element of selflessness was incorporated into extant principles of self-impoverishment to produce the concept of agape, or morally righteous conduct. The concept of agape was not only a reaction to the absence of social welfare, but it was conceived to be a valid replacement for "corrupted" social mechanisms such as law and contrasted specifically with it:

The new covenant [of Jesus] cannot be expressed in a written code. It is a question of fundamental attitude, agape, from which the right conduct will flow without the need of rules and regulations, for "He who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law."(75)

Agape became for many a central aspect of Christian theology and, by the Middle Ages, some English theologians had translated agape into a term which directly equated God with charity and the charitable impulse.(76)

Clarissa exemplifies agape, and Anna Howe cites numerous examples of her benevolence at the end of the novel to a friend in order that he may "continue the task of her virtue:"(77)

[Clarissa] was exceedingly charitable; the only one of her family that knew the meaning of the word; and this with regard both to the souls and the bodies of those who were the well-chosen objects of her benevolence.... The aged, the blind, the lame, the widow, the orphan, the unsuccessful industrious, were particularly the objects of it.... (78)

Anna's citation of agape in the novel is especially significant because it adopts legal vocabulary and content--astute readers might note the similarity of Clarissa's charity to the state-sanctioned causes listed in the preamble The Statute of Elizabeth 1601--and appears in the text after the last legally valid document, Clarissa's will, appears in the novel. Agape is thus demonstrated to displace the law as a viable system of social welfare, and Richardson leaves the reader with a complementary "moral" will in which specific instructions are given to perpetuate the virtue already demonstrated by the Clarissa/Christ figure.

Richardson often claimed that, of all of his characters, he felt most empathic with Clarissa and often identified himself with her in letters to friends.(79) Clarissa was Richardson's last great attempt to change society's mores with a didactic novel, and although he spent his last years revising many of his works in response to his readers' comments, he remained highly defensive to criticism of Clarissa. Richardson refused to change the substantive elements of his novel despite the fact that his "moralizing" was much disliked by critics and that this element of his style was becoming, in general, increasingly unfashionable.(80) Clarissa was not at first received on continental Europe with the same level of enthusiasm to which Pamela was greeted, but it was eventually translated into several languages and came into something of a vogue, especially in France, some ten to twenty years after its initial publication. It is interesting to note that in the late 1740s, Louis XV enacted mortmain legislation that was, despite cultural differences and the stronger influence of the French clergy, similar in scope and effect to the English Statute of Mortmain 1736.(81) Whether the French mortmain statutes were, as in England, symptomatic of a general cultural malaise is a fact that is still not absolutely clear; it cannot be disputed, however, that Richardson, who was admired in France as a moral authority, became increasingly popular toward the end of the ancien regime in certain intellectual circles. Clarissa became the source of inspiration for Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise (1761) and it was invoked in important philosophical treatises published by Diderot(82) and Voltaire.(83) It is a compelling argument in itself that Clarissa's benevolence, if overlooked today as an "unappetizing" feature of Richardson's moralizing, was regarded by eighteenth-century readers as a source of inspiration as powerful and effective as what could be provided by the dominant, but increasingly oppressive, systems of law and social castes. Richardson, through Clarissa, ultimately offered readers another choice.

(1.) A.H. Oosterhoff, "The Law of Mortmain: An Historical and Comparative Review," University of Toronto Law Journal 27 (1977): 259-60.

(2.) Ibid., 260-61.

(3.) Ibid., 262. Oosterhoff states that if moveables were bequeathed to religious houses, they had to be converted to immoveables so that a constant source of income could be supplied to the poor and sick.

(4.) Gareth Jones, History of the Law of Charity 1532-1827 (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 4-5.

(5.) Ibid., 5-6.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Ibid., 3-7.

(8.) Notwithstanding the introduction of some statutory provisions in the twentieth century, the modern law of charity in many common law jurisdictions has retained much of the character of legal theory first developed in the English Middle Ages and Renaissance. Jones, History.

(9.) Francis Gladstone, Charity, Law, and Social Justice (London: Bedford Square Press, 1082), 28-20.

(10.) The Tudors have been credited with expanding the courts of equity, but it was under their reign that the ecclesiastical jurisprudence became increasingly disregarded and the first seeds of conflicts between the traditional courts of common law and equity were sown. A traditional perspective of this problem is included in Warren Ault, Private Jurisdiction in England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1923), 5-8.

(11.) Jones, Charity, 4-5.

(12.) Ibid., 11-12.

(13.) Ibid., 13.

(14.) Gladstone, Charity, 31.

(15.) Adapted from the literary historic period extending roughly from the English Restoration to 1800.

(16.) Jones, Charity, 100-10.

(17.) Ibid., 105.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid., 107.

(20.) An Act to Restrain the Disposition of Lands, Whereby the Same Become Unalienable, 1736, II George, c. 36.

(21.) Jones, Charity, 109.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Ibid., 111.

(24.) Ibid., 113; and Gladstone, Charity, 40-43.

(25.) Oosterhoff, "Mortmain," 279-80.

(26.) Gladstone, Charity, 42.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 5.

(29.) Ibid., 3.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid, 4.

(32.) Ibid., 5.

(33.) Ibid., 11.

(34.) Ibid., 12.

(35.) Samuel Richardson, The Apprentice's Vade Mecum (London: 1734), 5-15.

(36.) Eaves and Kimpel, Richardson, 20.

(37.) Ibid., 21.

(38.) Ibid., 25.

(39.) Ibid., 21.

(40.) Ibid, 37.

(41.) Ibid, 56.

(42.) Ibid, 57.

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) Ibid.

(45.) Tom Keymer, Richardson's Clarissa and the Eighteenth-Century Reader (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 199-218.

(46.) Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 7-9.

(47.) The most interesting work written by Richardson during this period may well be his version of Sir Roger L'Estrange's English version of Aesop's Fables. Richardson deleted from his version many of the pro-monarchist political fables found in earlier versions, and actually re-wrote several which espoused duty and the need for social caste and order. Richardson did not leave us with any reasons which might have motivated these fascinating changes.

(48.) Eaves and Kimpel, Richardson, 87.

(49.) Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa, 7-9.

(50.) A major exception to the highly arbitrary division between the private reader and the public listener is, of course, Pamela, which when at apex of its vogue was read out to the illiterate all over England. Eaves and Kimpel, Richardson, "The Pamela Vogue," 87-153.

(51.) Ibid.

(52.) It is admitted that this is now a minority position: few scholars would characterize Clarissa as apolitical. However, even in Ian Watt's thorough treatment of Richardson's novel, the subject of external polities and legal institutions are treated as problems which are auxiliary to other themes stated more explicitly in the novel. Ian Watt, "Richardson as Novelist: Clarissa," in Samuel Richardson, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 17.

(53.) Eaves and Kimpel, Richardson, 217.

(54.) Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (London: William Heinemann, 1902), I, 1.

(55.) Ibid., I, 4; 25.

(56.) Ibid.

(57.) Ibid., I, 34.

(58.) Eagleton, Rape, 60-64.

(59.) Warren Schwartz, Keith Baxter, and David Ryan, "The Duel: Can these Gentlemen Be Acting Efficiently?" Journal of Legal Studies 13 (1984): 328-29.

(60.) Richardson, Clarissa, VIII, 77; 287.

(61.) Clarissa would have been able to bequeath some items of personality, but she was technically a minor at the time of her death, and it is unlikely that any court would have been willing to probate her will.

(62.) Richardson was not ignorant to the complex interplay between the personal/legal will, and likely wrote flaws into the legal will as a symbol of the inefficacy of Clarissa's moral example in a wholly secular and commercial world.

(63.) Samuel Richardson, Meditations Collected From the Sacred Books [in Clarissa] (New York: Garland, 1976), ii-iv.

(64.) Richardson, Clarissa, II, 5; 29.

(65.) Schwartz, Baxter, and Ryan, "The Duel," 348-50.

(66.) Ibid., 351.

(67.) Ibid.

(68.) Eaves and Kimpel, Richardson, 551.

(69.) Florian Stuber, "Clarissa: A Religious Novel," Studies in the Literary Imagination XXVIII includes an extensive analysis on the religious influences present in Clarissa, 1.

(70.) Ibid.

(71.) Richardson, Meditations, "Advertisement."

(72.) Gladstone, Charity, 20.

(73.) Richardson, Meditations, ii.

(74.) Ibid. Meditations XXVIII and XXXI are especially suggestive.

(75.) Gladstone, Charity, 26.

(76.) Ibid., 28.

(77.) Richardson, Clarissa, VIII, 77; 277.

(78.) Ibid., 287.

(79.) Eaves and Kimpel, Richardson, 256 and after.

(80.) Ibid., 598-99.

(81.) Oosterhoff, "Mortmain," 272-73.

(82.) Diderot may have helped popularize Clarissa with his widely read Eloge de Richardson, in which slavish praise was heaped both on Richardson and his novel. Diderot, Oeuvres Complets (Nendeln: Kraus Reprint, 1966), 224.

(83.) Thomas O. Beebee, Clarissa on the Continent (University Park, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania, 1990), 15.

* DAVID SHERWIN (B.A. University of Toronto; M.A., York University) is a law student at the University of Calgary. Special interests include legal history; eighteenth-century studies (romanticism); and interdisciplinary studies (law/English literature).
COPYRIGHT 2000 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sherwin, David
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:The 1984 covenant between the Republic of Italy and the Vatican: A retrospective analysis after fifteen years.
Next Article:Palestine in the Time of Jesus.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters