The Public Discussion
A major concern of Clarissa is the mutual duties which parent and child have toward each other concerning the child's marriage. Richardson focuses the reader's attention on this topic with the subtitle, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending The Most Important Concerns of Private Life, and particularly shewing, The Distresses that may attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage. Traditionally parents were regarded as having the authority to arrange a child's marriage, and the child was expected to accept their decision. Such a view follows naturally from the idea of the father as God's proxy in the family, a concept you are familiar with from your reading of Robinson Crusoe,.
By the eighteenth century, the traditional view of parental authority was slowly changing, in part because the basis of marriage was in the process of changing from property, social position, and wealth to love, companionship, and personal happiness. The basis for and the extent of parental authority were widely debated, both by ministers and laymen.
The conservative Richard Allestree upheld the extreme position that parental authority in arranging a child's marriage was absolute:
of all the acts of disobedience, that of marrying against the consent of the parent is one of the highest. Children are so much the goods, the possessions of their parents, that they cannot, without a kind of theft, give away themselves without the allowance of those that have a right in them... it belongs to children to perform duty, not only to the kind and virtuous, but even to the harshest and wickedest parent (The Whole Duty of Man, 1751).
Initially, Patrick Delany asserted an absolute parental authority over the child:
But there is one instance, wherein obedience to parents is of more importance to children than any other in life, and yet where they too often fail to pay it; and that is in the article of marriage: for, as long as children continue a part of their parent's family (which must bee till they think fit to dispose otherwise of them,) they are absolutely in their parent's power, and have no more right to dispose of themselves than they have to dispose of the parents' fortune, or inheritance, or any of their goods (Fifteen Sermons upon Social Duties).
Without acknowledging any contradiction in his stance, Delany went on to qualify parental authority.
Prudent parents well know, that such accomplishments as either arise from, or tend to establish true worth, can alone render any pair happy in an union that must last for life. This, I say, all prudent parents very well know; and therefore are best fitted to make a right choice for their children; but still with this caution, that they do not offer violence to their inclinations, by forcing them to marry against their will. For the rest, it were infinitely better that perverse children should actually die in the disappointment of their inclinations, than that they should make both themselves, and their parents, for ever miserable, by an unfortunate and undutiful marriage.
In this passage, Delany assumes that parents have the child's best interests at heart. (Society functions on such assumptions or fictions, e.g., organized religions assume that ministers and priests are trustworthy and our legal system assumes that lawyers are honest.) Delany limited parental authority: "prudent" parents knew to chose a partner not repugnant to the child. He did not explain what happened when a parent was imprudent or when a tyrannical parent offered "violence" to the child's "inclinations." Richardson certainly knew Delany's work, for he was printing Fifteen Sermons at the same time (1744) that he was writing Clarissa.
Bishop William Fleetwood
Bishop William Fleetwood expressed a more liberal and compassionate view:
Children have a great duty, but they are not tied like Slaves in all cases and with bonds that will last forever; but when they do not obey, they must do it with reluctance; and it must be in cases of great and lasting moment and concern, and such, as when represented to fair and equal, wise and understanding People, they may find themselves both pitied for their Trials, and approv'd for their Resolution (The Relative Duties of Parents and Children, Husbands and Wives, Masters and Servants, 1705).
He suggested two factors which might justify the child's disobedience: the spirit in which the child resisted the parental will and the judgment of reasonable, well-informed people (public opinion).
A question for you to consider: does Fleetwood's interpretation have any application to Clarissa?
Fanny Burney's Experience
The possibility of a parent imposing an unwanted suitor was a frightening and present issue for many children. Late in the century, Fanny Burney, a devoted daughter, worried in her diary about an unwanted suitor: "To unite myself for life to a man who is not infnitely dear to me is what I can never, never consent to, unless, indeed, I was strongly urged by a father." When her father does urge her to think carefully before refusing a suitor, she enters in her diary, she "was terrified to death. I felt the impossibility of resisting not merely my father's persuasion, but even his advice" and goes on to refer to Clarissa.. Despite these feelings, she finds the determination reject the suitor.
Richardson on Duty
Writing to a friend, Richardson expressed a general opinion on the performance of duty; you may decide whether it is applies to Clarissa.
The want of duty on one part justifies not the non-performance of it on the other, where there is a reciprocal duty., There can be no merit, strictly speaking, in performing a duty; but the performance of it on one side, when it is not performed on the other, gives something so like merit, that I am ready almost to worship the good mind that can do it.
|Day 15 (M, Oct. 28)
||Richardson, Clarissa, pp. xix-86
Overview of Richardson and Clarissa
Political Readings of Clarissa
|Day 16 (W, Oct. 30)
||Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 86-172
|Day 17 (M, Nov. 4)
||Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 172-288
|Day 18 (W, Nov. 6)
||Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 288-360
Flight and Rape
|Day 19 (M, Nov. 11)
||Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 360-433
The End: Clarissa
|Day 20 (W, Nov. 13)
||Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 434-516
Second paper due